[Classics] The Civil War in France

4. Paris Workers’ Revolution & Thiers’ Reactionary Massacres

Armed Paris was the only serious obstacle in the way of the counter-revolutionary conspiracy. Paris was, therefore, to be disarmed.

On this point, the Bordeaux Assembly [National Assembly] was sincerity itself. If the roaring rant of its Rurals had not been audible enough, the surrender of Paris by Thiers to the tender mercies of the triumvirate of Vinoy the Decembriseur, Valentin the Bonapartist gendarme, and Aurelles de Paladine the Jesuit general, would have cut off even the last subterfuge of doubt.

But while insultingly exhibiting the true purpose of the disarmament of Paris, the conspirators asked her to lay down her arms on a pretext which was the most glaring, the most barefaced of lies. The artillery of the Paris National Guard, said Thiers, belonged to the state, and to the state it must be returned. The fact was this: From the very day of the capitulation, by which Bismarck’s prisoners had signed the surrender of France, but reserved to themselves a numerous bodyguard for the express purpose of cowing Paris, Paris stood on the watch. The National Guard reorganized themselves and entrusted their supreme control to a Central Committee elected by their whole body, save some fragments of the old Bonapartist formations. On the eve of the entrance of the Prussians into Paris, the Central Committee took measures for the removal to Montmartre, Belleville, and La Villette, of the cannon and mitrailleuses treacherously abandoned by the capitulards in and about the very quarters the Prussians were to occupy. That artillery had been furnished by the subscriptions of the National Guard. As their private property, it was officially recognized in the capitulation of January 28, and on that very title exempted from the general surrender, into the hands of the conqueror, or arms belonging to the government. And Thiers was so utterly destitute of even the flimsiest pretext for initiating the war against Paris, that he had to resort to the flagrant lie of the artillery of the National Guard being state property!

The seizure of her artillery was evidently but to serve as the preliminary to the general disarmament of Paris, and, therefore, of the Revolution of September 4. But that revolution had become the legal status of France. The republic, its work, was recognized by the conqueror in the terms of the capitulation. After the capitulation, it was acknowledged by all foreign powers, and in its name, the National Assembly had been summoned. The Paris working men’s revolution of September 4 was the only legal title of the National Assembly seated at Bordeaux, and of its executive. Without it, the National Assembly would at once have to give way to the Corps Legislatif elected in 1869 by universal suffrage under French, not under Prussian, rule, and forcibly dispersed by the arm of the revolution. Thiers and his ticket-of-leave men would have had to capitulate for safe conducts signed by Louis Bonaparte, to save them from a voyage to Cayenne[A]. The National Assembly, with its power of attorney to settle the terms of peace with Prussia, was but an incident of that revolution, the true embodiment of which was still armed Paris, which had initiated it, undergone for it a five-months’ siege, with its horrors of famine, and made her prolonged resistance, despite Trochu’s plan, the basis of an obstinate war of defence in the provinces. And Paris was now either to lay down her arms at the insulting behest of the rebellious slaveholders of Bordeaux, and acknowledge that her Revolution of September 4 meant nothing but a simple transfer of power from Louis Bonaparte to his royal rivals; or she had to stand forward as the self-sacrificing champion of France, whose salvation from ruin and whose regeneration were impossible without the revolutionary overthrow of the political and social conditions that had engendered the Second Empire, and under its fostering care, matured into utter rottenness. Paris, emaciated by a five-months’ famine, did not hesitate one moment. She heroically resolved to run all the hazards of a resistance against French conspirators, even with Prussian cannon frowning upon her from her own forts. Still, in its abhorrence of the civil war into which Paris was to be goaded, the Central Committee continued to persist in a merely defensive attitude, despite the provocations of the Assembly, the usurpations of the Executive, and the menacing concentration of troops in and around Paris.

Thiers opened the civil war by sending Vinoy, at the head of a multitude of sergents-de-ville, and some regiments of the line, upon a nocturnal expedition against Montmartre, there to seize, by surprise, the artillery of the National Guard. It is well known how this attempt broke down before the resistance of the National Guard and the fraternization of the line with the people. Aurelles de Paldine had printed beforehand his bulletin of victory, and Thiers held ready the placards announcing his measures of coup d’etat. Now these had to be replaced by Thiers’ appeals, imparting his magnanimous resolve to leave the National Guard in the possession of their arms, with which, he said, he felt sure they would rally round the government against the rebels. Out of 300,000 National guards, only 300 responded to this summons to rally around little Thiers against themselves. The glorious working men’s Revolution of March 18 took undisputed sway of Paris. The Central Committee was its provisional government. Europe seemed, for a moment, to doubt whether its recent sensational performances of state and war had any reality in them, or whether they were the dreams of a long bygone past.

From March 18 to the entrance of the Versailles troops into Paris, the proletarian revolution remained so free from the acts of violence in which the revolutions – and still more the counter-revolutions – of the “better classes” abound, that no facts were left to its opponents to cry out about, but the executions of Generals Lecomte and Clement Thomas, and the affair of the Place Vendome.

One of the Bonapartist officers engaged in the nocturnal attempt against Montmartre, General Lecomte, had four times ordered the 81st line regiment to fire at an unarmed gathering in the Place Pigalle, and on their refusal fiercely insulted them. Instead of shooting women and children, his own men shot him. The inveterate habits acquired by the soldiery under the training of the enemies of the working class are, of course, not likely to change the very moment these soldiers change sides. The same men executed Clement Thomas.

“General” Clement Thomas, a malcontent ex-quartermaster-sergeant, had, in the latter times of Louis Philippe’s reign, enlisted at the office of the republican newspaper Le National, there to serve in the double capacity of responsible man-of-straw (gerant responsable) and of duelling bully to that very combative journal. After the February Revolution, the men of the National having got into power, they metamorphosed this old quarter-master-sergeant into a general on the eve of the butchery of June – of which he, like Jules Favre, was one of the sinister plotters, and became one of the most dastardly executioners. Then he and his generalship disappeared for a long time, to again rise to the surface on November 1, 1870. The day before, the Government of National Defence, caught at the Hotel de Ville, had solemnly pledged their parole to Blanqui, Flourens, and other representatives of the working class, to abdicate their usurped power into the hands of a commune to be freely elected by Paris.[B] Instead of keeping their word, they let loose on Paris the Bretons of Trochu, who now replaced the Corsicans of Bonaparte.[C] General Tamisier alone, refusing to sully his name by such a breach of faith, resigned the commandership-in-chief of the National Guard, and in his place Clement Thomas for once became again a general. During the whole of his tenure of command, he made war, not upon the Prussians, but upon the Paris National Guard. He prevented their general armament, pitted the bourgeois battalions against the working men’s battalions, weeded out officers hostile to Trochu’s “plan,” and disbanded, under the stigma of cowardice, the very same proletarian battalions whose heroism has now astonished their most inveterate enemies. Clement Thomas felt quite proud of having reconquered his June pre-eminence as the personal enemy of the working class of Paris. Only a few days before March 18, he laid before the War Minister, Leflo, a plan of his own for “finishing off la fine fleur [the cream] of the Paris canaille.” After Vinoy’s rout, he must needs appear upon the scene of action in the quality of an amateur spy. The Central Committee and the Paris working men were as much responsible for the killing of Clement Thomas and Lecomte as the Princess of Wales for the fate of the people crushed to death on the day of her entrance into London.

The massacre of unarmed citizens in Place Vendome is a myth which M. Thiers and the Rurals persistently ignored in the Assembly, entrusting its propagation exclusively to the servants’ hall of European journalism. “The men of order,” the reactionists of Paris, trembled at the victory of March 18. To them, it was the signal of popular retribution at last arriving. The ghosts of the victims assassinated at their hands from the days of June 1848, down to January 22, 1871,[D] arose before their faces. Their panic was their only punishment. Even the sergents-de-ville, instead of being disarmed and locked up, as ought to have been done, had the gates of Paris flung open wide for their safe retreat to Versailles. The men of order were left not only unharmed, but allowed to rally and quietly seize more than one stronghold in the very centre of Paris. This indulgence of the Central Committee – this magnanimity of the armed working men – so strangely at variance with the habits of the “Party of Order,” the latter misinterpreted as mere symptoms of conscious weakness. Hence their silly plan to try, under the cloak of an unarmed demonstration, what Vinoy had failed to perform with his cannon and mitrailleuses. On March 22, a riotous mob of swells started from the quarters of luxury, all the petits creves in their ranks, and at their head the notorious familiars of the empire – the Heeckeren, Coetlogon, Henri de Pene, etc. Under the cowardly pretence of a pacific demonstration, this rabble, secretly armed with the weapons of the bravo [i.e. hired assassin], fell into marching order, ill-treated and disarmed the detached patrols and sentries of the National Guard they met with on their progress, and, on debouching from the Rue de la Paix, with the cry of “Down with the Central Committee! Down with the assassins! The National Assembly forever!” attempted to break through the line drawn up there, and thus to carry by surprise the headquarters of the National Guard in the Place Vendome. In reply to their pistol-shots, the regular sommations (the French equivalent of the English Riot Act)[E] were made, and, proving ineffective, fire was commanded by the general [Bergeret] of the National Guard. One volley dispersed into wild flight the silly coxcombs, who expected that the mere exhibition of their “respectability” would have the same effect upon the Revolution of Paris as Joshua’s trumpets upon the walls of Jericho. The runaways left behind them two National Guards killed, nine severely wounded (among them a member of the Central Committee [Maljournal]), and the whole scene of their exploit strewn with revolvers, daggers, and sword-canes, in evidence of the “unarmed” character of their “pacific” demonstration. When, on June 13, 1849, the National Guard made a really pacific demonstration in protest against the felonious assault of French troops upon Rome, Changarnier, then general of the Party of Order, was acclaimed by the National Assembly, and especially by M. Thiers, as the savior of society, for having launched his troops from all sides upon these unarmed men, to shoot and sabre them down, and to trample them under their horses’ feet. Paris, then was placed under a state of siege. Dufaure hurried through the Assembly new laws of repression. New arrests, new proscriptions – a new reign of terror set in. But the lower orders manage these things otherwise. The Central Committee of 1871 simply ignored the heroes of the “pacific demonstration"; so much so, that only two days later, they were enabled to muster under Admiral Saisset, for that armed demonstration, crowned by the famous stampede to Versailles. In their reluctance to continue the civil war opened by Thiers’ burglarious attempt on Montmartre, the Central Committee made themselves, this time, guilty of a decisive mistake in not at once marching upon Versailles, then completely helpless, and thus putting an end to the conspiracies of Thiers and his Rurals. Instead of this, the Party of Order was again allowed to try its strength at the ballot box, on March 26, the day of the election of the Commune. Then, in the mairies of Paris, they exchanged bland words of conciliation with their too generous conquerors, muttering in their hearts solemn vows to exterminate them in due time.

Now, look at the reverse of the medal. Thiers opened his second campaign against Paris in the beginning of April. The first batch of Parisian prisoners brought into Versailles was subjected to revolting atrocities, while Ernest Picard, with his hands in his trousers’ pockets, strolled about jeering them, and while Mesdames Thiers and Favre, in the midst of their ladies of honor (?) applauded, from the balcony, the outrages of the Versailles mob. The captured soldiers of the line were massacred in cold blood; our brave friend, General Duval, the iron-founder, was shot without any form of trial. Galifet, the kept man of his wife, so notorious for her shameless exhibitions at the orgies of the Second Empire, boasted in a proclamation of having commanded the murder of a small troop of National Guards, with their captain and lieutenant, surprised and disarmed by his Chasseurs. Vinoy, the runaway, was appointed by Thiers, Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, for his general order to shoot down every soldier of the line taken in the ranks of the Federals. Desmaret, the Gendarme, was decorated for the treacherous butcher-like chopping in pieces of the high-souled and chivalrous Flourens, who had saved the heads of the Government of Defence on October 31, 1870.[F] “The encouraging particulars” of his assassination were triumphantly expatiated upon by Thiers in the National Assembly. With the elated vanity of a parliamentary Tom Thumb permitted to play the part of a Tamerlane, he denied the rebels the right of neutrality for ambulances. Nothing more horrid than that monkey allowed for a time to give full fling to his tigerish instincts, as foreseen by Voltaire.[Candide, Ch. 22](See news articles)

After the decree of the Commune of April 7, ordering reprisals and declaring it to be the duty “to protect Paris against the cannibal exploits of the Versailles banditti, and to demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” [G] Thiers did not stop the barbarous treatment of prisoners, moreover, insulting them in his bulletins as follows: “Never have more degraded countenances of a degraded democracy met the afflicted gazes of honest men” – honest, like Thiers himself and his ministerial ticket-of-leave men. Still, the shooting of prisoners was suspended for a time. Hardly, however, had Thiers and his Decembrist generals [of the December 2, 1851 coup by Louis Bonaparte] become aware that the Communal decree of reprisals was but an empty threat, that even their gendarme spies caught in Paris under the disguise of National Guards, that even sergents-de-ville, taken with incendiary shells upon them, were spared – when the wholesale shooting of prisoners was resumed and carried on uninterruptedly to the end. Houses to which National Guards had fled were surrounded by gendarmes, inundated with petroleum (which here occurs for the first time in this war), and then set fire to, the charred corpses being afterwards brought out by the ambulance of the Press at the Ternes. Four National Guards having surrendered to a troop of mounted Chasseurs at Belle Epine, on April 25, were afterwards shot down, one after another, by the captain, a worthy man of Gallifet’s. One of his four victims, left for dead, Scheffer, crawled back to the Parisian outposts, and deposed to this fact before a commission of the Commune. When Tolain interpellated the War Minister upon the report of this commission, the Rurals drowned his voice and forbade Leflo to answer. It would be an insult to their “glorious” army to speak of its deeds. The flippant tone in which Thiers’ bulletin announced the bayoneting of the Federals, surprised asleep at Moulin Saquet, and the wholesale fusillades at Clamart shocked the nerves even of the not over-sensitive London Times. But it would be ludicrous today to attempt recounting the merely preliminary atrocities committed by the bombarders of Paris and the fomenters of a slaveholders’ rebellion protected by foreign invasion. Amidst all these horrors, Thiers, forgetful of his parliamentary laments on the terrible responsibility weighing down his dwarfish shoulders, boasts in his bulletins that l’Assemblee siege paisiblement (the Assembly continues meeting in peace), and proves by his constant carousals, now with Decembrist generals, now with German princes, that his digestion is not troubled in the least, not even by the ghosts of Lecomte and Clement Thomas.


[A] A town in French Guiana (Northern South America), penal settlement and place of exile.

[B] On October 31, 1870, upon the receipt of news that the Government of National Defense had decided to start negotiations with the Prussians, the Paris workers and revolutionary sections of the National Guard rose up in revolt. They seized the town hall and set up their revolutionary government – the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Blanqui. Under pressure from the workers the Government of National Defense promised to resign and schedule national elections to the Commune for November 1. The government then, with the aid of some loyal battalions of the National Guard, seized the town hall by force of arms and re-established its domination.

[C] Bretons – Breton Mobile Guard which Trochu used as gendarmes to put down the revolutionary movement in Paris.
Corsicans – constituted a considerable part of the gendarmes corps during the Second Empire.

[D] On January 22, 1871, the Paris proletariat and the National Guards held a revolutionary demonstration initiated by the Blanquists. They demanded the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a Commune. By order of the Government of National Defense, the Breton Mobile Guard, which was defending the town hall, opened fire on the demonstrators. After massacring the workers, the government began preparations to surrender Paris to the Germans.

[E] Sommations (a preliminary demand to disburse) – under the laws of most bourgeois states, this demand is repeated three times, following which the armed police are entitled to resort to force. The Riot Act was introduced in England in 1715. It prohibited “rebel gatherings” of more than 12 people in a group, giving the authorities the right to use force if the crowd did not disperse within an hour after the reading out of the sommations three times.

[F] On October 31, Flourens prevented the members of the Government of National Defense from being shot, as had been demanded by one of the insurrectionists.

[G] A reference to the decree on hostages adopted by the Commune on April 5, 1871. (Marx gives the date of its publication in the English press.) Under this decree, all persons found guilty of being in contact with Versailles were declared hostages. By this decree the Commune sought to prevent Communards from being shot by the Versaillists.

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