Remembering the Paris Commune: What it Was and Why We Should Care

Women defending the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1871-- illustration. Public domain
A commemorative late 19th-century illustration shows women defending barricades in north Paris during the Paris Commune of 1871/Public domain

When most people talk about the French Revolution, they’re in fact referencing the first one, which began in 1789. The famous revolt marked by the storming of the Bastille, the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the “Reign of Terror” that saw thousands of people, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, publicly guillotined on the Place de la Concorde.

But the events beginning in 1789 represent just one of several revolutions and major popular revolts in France– each tumultuous and imperfect steps on its path towards becoming a stable Republic.

“La République”, however solid and stable it may appear to be today, is a political system that was hard-won, emerging in (bloody) fits and starts. France has had five– count ’em– five– Republics since the first one was declared in 1792, interrupted and challenged by restoration monarchies, imperial regimes and occupations. It was arguably only in 1945, following World War II and the establishment of the Fourth Republic, that France finally settled into the “habit” of representative democracy.

Place de la Republique
Place de la République, Paris. Image: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

One major public insurrection (or, some would argue, failed revolution) that is both poorly understood outside of France and obscured by cliché and caricature is the one known as the Commune de Paris (Paris Commune).

The brief but significant period of popular revolt began in March 1871 and ended on May 28th of the same year when armed forces brutally suppressed it– executing thousands of supporters and arresting thousands more. Many others were sent into exile.

In 2021, France is marking the 150th anniversary of the Commune, with a large program of live and virtual commemorative events in Paris to celebrate what some say are its positive legacies– including fights for unionizing and employment rights, expanding civil rights to women and other oppressed groups, and the separation of church and state.

Commemorative poster celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune/Virgile Bellaiche
Promotional image for the podcast Echos de la Commune, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune/Illustration by Virgile Bellaiche

But what exactly was the Paris Commune about? Why does it deserve to be remembered? And why is its meaning and legacy fiercely disputed in France to this day? Keep reading for a brief look at a period that, however fleeting, changed the course of French– and possibly world– history.

(Just a caveat: what follows is far from exhaustive. It’s meant as an introduction for those unfamiliar with the Commune. If you’re looking for more discussion of the period and its significance, see this excellent piece from 2014 at The New Yorker. For more on the economic contexts and consequences of the conflict, see this piece.)

The Roots of Revolt

A historic illustration shows the 1870 Siege of Paris by the Prussian armies following the end of the Franco-Prussian War/Anonymous/Public domain image
A historic illustration shows the 1870-1871 Siege of Paris by the Prussian armies following the end of the Franco-Prussian War/Anonymous/Public domain image

The roots of the Paris Commune lie partly in the Franco-Prussian War, a conflict started by the Emperor Napoleon III (Louis-Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) in 1870 in a bid to reassert France’s dominant position in Europe. But France lost the war, Paris was besieged by Bismarck’s Prussian army for over four months, and Louis-Napoleon was exiled. The Second Empire collapsed, and France was temporarily occupied by Prussia (which reclaimed the northeastern regions of Alsace and Lorraine and annexed them to Germany).

In 1871, Prussians forces had retreated, but France remained in serious debt to the victors. Severe famine and rising costs of living fomented unrest among France’s working classes, especially in industrial cities including Paris, Lyon, and Marseille. Increasingly, in these new urban and industrial centers, majorities favored an anti-monarchist brand of Republicanism or social democracy.

{Related: Bastille Day Once Celebrated Constitutional Monarchy, & Other Weird Facts}

But in France’s traditional rural areas, smaller cities and towns, Catholic conservatism and royalist loyalties tended to prevail. In February 1871, legislative elections were held, and the results favored conservatives and royalists.

Under the staunchly conservative politician Adolphe Thiers heading the National Assembly from Versailles, France’s Third Republic was declared, initially considered to be provisional. [Side note: It would in fact stay in place (under changing guises) until 1940 and the invasion of France by Nazi German forces].

{Related: A Pretty Parisian Building–With a Dark History of Nazi Collaboration}

While the new government led by Thiers was in principle democratic, French Republicans and progressives who favored reducing the influence of the church and permanently abolishing non-democratic rule feared that royalists within the ranks of the new Assembly might restore the monarchy. The fact that Thiers governed from Versailles, the former home of Kings and created by the absolutist monarch Louis XVI, did not likely assuage those fears.

The new government, in turn, feared the restive Republican working classes in Paris and other cities– some of whom had served in the militia known as the National Guard during the Prussian siege of Paris just months earlier.

{Related: Following the Traces of the American Revolution in Paris}

The Industrial Revolution had created new classes of urban workers who toiled in dangerous factories and poor conditions, and they had periodically staged revolts in the decades prior to the Commune. Some advocated for violent revolutionary revolt, or anarchy.

Major skirmishes between the government and revolutionary insurrectionists first broke out on March 18, 1871, when Thiers moved to dismantle the National Guard, and ordered the removal of its cannons stationed in now-Belleville and Montmartre to defend Paris.

National Guard members defend cannons stationed in Montmartre on 18 March 1871/Historic illustration/Public domain
National Guard members defend cannons stationed in Montmartre on 18 March 1871/Historic illustration/Public domain

Thousands took up arms in the streets to defend the cannons. Many soldiers sent to suppress the uprising defected and joined the insurrection. Two Generals were killed in the conflict. Barricades began appearing in the narrow streets, or Faubourgs, of Paris’ working-class neighborhoods on the right bank.

After government military forces retreated from Paris to Versailles, National Guard members moved to rapidly take over the city. In late March, the revolutionary Republicans won municipal elections in Paris and declared a “Commune” government, to be led by workers and ordinary citizens.

Elsewhere in France, including in Marseille and in Lyon, workers revolting against what they saw as inhumane conditions and standards of living declared their own, short-lived Communes. All but Paris’, however, were quashed almost immediately.

The Communards Take Paris: Factions & Ideals

  "Communards" and members of the Guard National behind a barricade in the Voltaire area during the Paris Commune, 1871
“Communards” and members of the Guard National behind a barricade in the Voltaire area during the Paris Commune, 1871/Anonymous/Public domain

The Paris Commune’s fleeting government was itself composed of several competing factions, including Jacobins (who followed in the footsteps of the 1793 Revolutionary club of the same name), Blanquistes (socialists who favored violent revolt), and Proudhonists, who promoted a utopian vision that involved establishing a network of Communes across France.

Despite their differences, the Communards devised a revolutionary program that in many ways recalled the ideals of the Jacobins in 1793, while adding more contemporary concerns to the table. They called for strictly curbing the influence and power of the church, a new Revolutionary calendar that would no longer include religious holidays and references, the creation of a 10-hour workday, caps on rents and salaries, the abolition of child labor, and expanded rights for women, among other measures.

The movement included several prominent women, such as Louise Michel, who advocated for radical revolutionary action and rejected parliamentary reform. Others, such as the writer André Léo, joined a Communard Women’s Union and advocated for equal wages, the right for women to divorce, and other issues.

{Related: Remembering Olympe de Gouges, France’s First Revolutionary Feminist}

An Unprecedented Movement

Michel Cordillot, an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Paris 8-Vincennes Saint Denis and Editor of a book entitled La Commune de Paris 1871. Les acteurs, l’événement, les lieux (The Paris Commune 1871: The Participants, The Events, The Places), said in an e-mail interview that the Commune period is most significant for having led to the permanent end of monarchy in France.

“One can convincingly argue that the Commune saved the [French] Republic, in the sense that it barred the return of the monarchist past…by making the ruling classes understand that the [choice] wasn’t one between the Republic or the monarchy, but instead between the Republic or political instability…”

In the longer term, Cordillot says, the Commune marked a time when French public opinion began to turn irrevocably in favor of Republicanism. It was an extraordinary period, he notes, in that its leadership included numerous members of the working classes, who would address issues that had been the subject of popular revolt during the Second French Republic.

Finally, a new world seemed to be taking shape, Cordillot observes: one that radically broke with the old one and responded to the hopes and demands of working-class people in earlier decades.

Of course, the Commune would not last long. After roughly five weeks, Thiers’ armies had regrouped, and descended from Versailles on Paris to crush the resurrection. They did so handily.

Suppression & Executions: The “Bloody Week” and the Paris Commune

Mur des Federés, Père-Lachaise, Paris, massacre of the Communards in 1871
An illustration depicting the 1871 massacre of communards at the Mur des Fedérés, where a memorial and plaque now stands in Paris at Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. Public domain

On May 21, 1871, the week now referred to by historians as the “Semaine sanglante” (Bloody Week) began, with the Versailles army directed by Thiers returning to Paris and systematically crushing the Commune forces.

Some 60,000 soldiers descended on the city to confront the Communard and National Guard forces, who were disadvantaged by a cobbled, neighborhood-based organization and by Haussmann’s recent transformation of Paris: one whose wide boulevards made (by design) revolutionary tactics such as barricades far less effective than they had been in past revolts.

In response to the attacks, Communards set fire to swathes of the city, destroying important monuments and sites including Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), the Tuileries Palace (which was never rebuilt), as well as several other government buildings. While some have placed in doubt the precise authors of these acts, few historians would argue that that the arson was not committed by National Guard members.

A photograph showing the ruins of the Tuileries Palace after it was burned to the ground during the Paris Commune, 1871

In the days that followed, bloody battles were fought in the streets of Paris, as the Versaillais army attacked and captured Communard strongholds throughout the city. Supporters attempted in vain to defend the districts behind barricades.

Versaillais soldiers summarily executed many Commune supporters, and in turn Communards took hostages from the opposing side and executed some of them, including several Catholic priests and the Archbishop of Paris. According to some accounts, over 60 hostages were executed by firing squad by the National Guard. Hundreds of Versaillais soldiers are also thought to have perished in the battles.

“Bloody Week” culminated on May 27th-28th, when a stronghold of nearly 150 National Guard officers camped inside Père-Lachaise cemetery were attacked, brought against a wall of the cemetery, and massacred by gunfire. Today, the memorial site is referred to as the Mur des Fédérés (Communards’ Wall).

On May 28th, the remaining Commune strongholds surrendered. Thousands were arrested, and many were executed later in summary trials by military tribunals. Thousands of Commune leaders and participants were exiled from France.

In total, historians estimate that the battles resulted in the death of between 17,000 to 20,000 Communards and 750 Versaillais troops.

The Aftermath: A Disputed Legacy

Monument to the Victims of Revolutions in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, using stones of the wall where a major massacre was perpetrated during the Paris Commune of 1871/Pol/Creative Commons

The legacy of the Paris Commune is a complex (and often bitterly debated) one. In the decades that followed the events, it inspired socialist and communist revolts that borrowed the name in Moscow (1905), Budapest (1919), Petrograd (1917) and Shanghai (both 1927 and 1967).

These came, of course, after Karl Marx widely praised the Commune and upheld it as a revolutionary model in his 1871 book The Civil War in France, and Vladimir Lenin was also a noted admirer. Today, many left-leaning political movements around the world point to the Commune as having laid the groundwork for progressivist policies and ideals such as combating income and gender inequality and expanding workers’ rights.

But for others, particularly political conservatives, the Commune and its National Guard were the authors of inexcusable violence and chaos– forming little more than an illegal militia fueled by demagogic populism, intolerance, and disrespect for tradition.

In France, these opposing perspectives have tensely coexisted for centuries. And people on different sides of the political aisle often still hold seemingly irreconcilable perspectives around how to represent and memorialize the events of the Commune.

For the historian Michel Cordillot, the period is the subject of so much heated debate in France because “it symbolizes the ultimate, climactic form of confrontation between right and left, one that has stuctured French political life since 1789, practically”.

He notes that even today, the Commune leaves almost no one indifferent, pointing to animated debates that have erupted among municipal officials in Paris during the planning of commemorative events for the 150th anniversary of the conflict.

Nevertheless, he says, almost everyone can agree that the conflict helped spur a paradigm shift around the class system in France:

“Alongside the horrific visions of the Bloody Week and the capital in flames, the image that remains the most firmly attached to the Commune– one that some see as positive, others as repulsive– is one of a moment that triggered a new awareness: long-term power gains among the representatives of the working classes were no longer unthinkable.”

Cordillot also notes that, despite profound disagreements around whether the project and tactics of the Commune were commendable or deplorable, many of its proposed policies appear surprisingly modern– and some have since been accepted into the political mainstream.

Among the ideas that have become taken for granted in France on both sides of the political aisle, he says, some of the most important are “the separation of church and state…the secularizing of schools, the [mandate for] equal salaries between men and women teachers, the recognition of partnerships outside of marriage and children born outside of marriage”, among others.

In short? If you take away the arson and the hostages, the massacres and the barricades, the major legacy of the Commune is (if you are to follow Cordillot’s line of reasoning) to have seeded several policies and ideas that the vast majority of French voters no longer consider up for debate.

Memorial sites in Paris

Four places in Paris stand today as important memorial sites: the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre, which was built starting in 1873 on the site of the cannon park where two Versaillais army generals, Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and Claude Lecompte– were shot and killed by National Guard troops.

Sacré Coeur Basilica, an iconic sight on the Parisian skyline.
Sacré Coeur Basilica in Montmartre was in part erected as “penance” for lives lost during the Commune de Paris.

The Basilica, commissioned in 1873, was subsequently viewed by many anti-Communards as a sort of expiation for the violent actions of the Commune. However, contrary to widely circulating myths, this symbolic function was never explicitly stated by the Assembly.

Its construction did, however, reinstate the importance of the Catholic Church in public and political life, particularly since it was commissioned directly by the National Assembly.

On nearby Rue Haxo, you can also visit a church called Notre-Dame-des-Otages (Our Lady of the Hostages) whose plaque commemorates the site where 50 hostages, including several priests and police officers, were shot by a National Guard firing squad during the “Bloody Week” in May 1871.

As mentioned earlier, the other major memorial site, at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, commemorates the 147 Communards who were summarily executed against a wall there, now known as the Mur des Fédérés. A plaque stands at the site, reading “Aux Morts de la Commune” (To the Dead of the Commune), inaugurated in 1908.

 Historic postcard from 1908 shows the commemorative plaque at the Communards' Wall, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Historic postcard from 1908 shows the commemorative plaque at the Communards’ Wall, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Every year in May, memorial commemorations to the victims of the massacre are held at the Communards’ Wall.

Finally, a lesser-known plaque behind Paris City Hall marks a mass grave where supporters of the Commune were shot by the Versaillais army. Their remains were subsequently exhumed and reburied in cemeteries around the city.

Whatever your own perspectives on the period and its events, visiting these sites and remembering the Commune as a pivotal moment in French and Parisian history is one way to better understand the present.

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