History of the Paris Commune of 1871

1. The Prussians enter Paris

Neither the head of the executive power, nor the National Assembly, supporting and strengthening one another, did anything to provoke the Paris insurrection. (Dufaure’s speech against amnesty, session of 18th May, 1876.)

The invasion brought back the Chambre introuvable of 1816 [ultra-right wing parliament under the Bourbon restoration in 1816]. After having dreamt of a regenerated France soaring towards the light, to feel oneself hurled back half a century, under the yoke of the Jesuits of the Congregation, of the brutal rurals! There were men who lost heart. Many spoke of expatriating themselves. The thoughtless said, ‘The Chamber will only last a day, since it has no mandate but to decide on peace and war.’ Those, however, who had watched the progress of the conspiracy and the leading part taken in it by the clergy, knew beforehand that these men would not allow France to escape their clutches before they crushed her.

Men just escaped from famine-stricken but ardent Paris found in the Bordeaux Assembly the Coblentz of the first emigration, but this time invested with the power to glut rancours that had been accumulating for forty years. Clericals and Conservatives were for the first time allowed, without the interference of either emperor or king, to trample to their hearts’ content on atheistic, revolutionary Paris, which had so often shaken off their yoke and baffled their schemes. At the first sitting their choler burst out. At the farther end of the hall, sitting alone on his bench, shunned by all, an old man rose and asked to address the Assembly. Under his cloak glared a red shirt. It was Garibaldi. At the call of his name, he wished to answer, to say in a few words that he resigned the mandate with which Paris had honoured him. His voice drowned in howls. He remained standing, raising his hand, but the insults redoubled. The chastisement, however, was at hand. ‘Rural majority! disgrace of France!’ cried from the gallery, a young vibrating voice, that of Gaston Crémieux, of Marseilles. The deputies rose threatening. Hundreds of ‘Bravos’ answered from the galleries, overwhelming the rurals. After the sitting the crowd cheered Garibaldi and hooted his insulters. The National Guard presented arms, despite the rage of M. Thiers, who under the peristyle railed at the commanding officer. The next day the people returned, forming lines in front of the theatre, and forced the reactionary deputies to undergo their republican cheers. But they knew their strength, and from the beginning of the sittings opened their attack. One of the rurals, pointing to the representatives of Paris, cried, ‘They are stained with the blood of civil war!’ And when one of these representatives cried, Vive la République! the majority hooted him, saying, ‘You are only a fraction of the country.’ On the next day the Chamber was surrounded by troops, who kept off the republicans.

At the same time the Conservative papers united in their hissings against Paris, denying even her sufferings. The National Guard, they said, had fled before the Prussians; its only exploits had been the 31st October and 22nd January. These calumnies fructified in the provinces, long since prepared to receive them. Such was their ignorance of the siege, that they had named some of them several times – Trochu, Ducrot, Ferry, Pelletan, Garnier-Pages, Emmanuel Arago – to whom Paris had refused a single vote.

It was the duty of the Parisian representatives to clear up this darkness, to recount the siege, to denounce the men responsible for the failure of the defence, to explain the significance of the Parisian vote, to unfurl the flag of republican France against the clerico-monarchical coalition. They remained silent, contenting themselves with puerile party meetings, from which Delescluze turned away as heartbroken as from the Assembly of the Paris mayors. Our Epimenides of 1848 answered with stereotyped humanitarian phrases the clashing of arms of the enemy, who all the while affirmed his programme: to patch up a peace, to bury the Republic, and for that purpose to checkmate Paris. Thiers was named chief of the executive power with general acclamation, and chose for his Ministers Jules Favre, Jules Simon, Picard and Leflô, who might still pass muster with the provincial republicans.

These elections, these menaces, these insults to Garibaldi, to the Paris representatives; Thiers, the incarnation of the Parliamentary monarchy, as first magistrate of the Republic – blow after blow was struck at Paris, a feverish, hardly revictualled Paris, hungering still more for liberty than bread. This then was the reward for five months of suffering and endurance. These provinces, which Paris had invoked in vain during the whole siege, dared now to brand her with cowardice, to throw her back from Bismark to Chambord. Well, then, Paris was resolved to defend herself even against France. The new, imminent danger, the hard experience of the siege, had exalted her energy and endowed the great town with one collective soul.

Already, towards the end of January, some republicans, and also some bourgeois intriguers in search of a mandate, had tried to group the National Guards with a view to the elections. A large meeting, presided over by Courty, a merchant of the third arrondissement, had been held in the Cirque. They had there drawn up a list, decided to meet again to deliberate in case of double electoral returns, and had named a committee charged to convoke all the companies regularly. This second meeting was held on the 15th in the Vauxhall, Douané Street. But who then thought of the elections? One single thought prevailed: the union of all Parisian forces against the triumphant rurals. The National Guard represented all the manhood of Paris. The clear, simple, essentially French idea of confederating the battalions had long been in every mind. It was received with acclamation and resolved that the confederate battalions should be grouped round a Central Committee.

A commission during the same sitting was charged to elaborate the statutes. Each arrondissement represented – eighteen out of twenty – named a commissar. Who were these men? The agitators, the revolutionaries of La Corderie, the Socialists? No; there was not a known name amongst them. All those elected were men of the middle classes, shopkeepers, employees, strangers to the coteries, till now for the most part strangers even to politics.[64] Courty, the president, was known only since the meeting at the Cirque. From the first day the idea of the federation appeared what it was – universal, not sectarian, and therefore powerful. The next day, Clément-Thomas declared to the Government that he could no longer be answerable for the National Guard, and sent in his resignation. He was provisionally replaced by Vinoy.

On the 24th, in the Vauxhall, before 2,000 delegates and guards, the commission read the statutes it had drawn up, and pressed the delegates to proceed immediately to the election of the Central Committee. The Assembly was tempestuous, disquiet, little inclined for calm deliberations. Each of the last eight days had brought with it more insulting menaces from Bordeaux. They were going, it was said, to disarm the battalions, suppress the thirty sous, the only resource of the working men, and exact at once the arrears of rent and overdue commercial bills. Besides, the armistice, prolonged for a week, was to expire on the 26th, and the papers announced that the Prussians would enter Paris on the 27th. For a week this nightmare had weighed on all the patriots. The meeting, too, proceeded at once to consider these burning questions. Varlin proposed: The National Guard only recognizes the leaders elected by itself. Another: The National Guard protests through the Central Committee against any attempt at disarmament, and declares that in case of need it will offer armed resistance. Both propositions were voted unanimously. And now, was Paris to submit to the entry of the Prussians, to let them parade her boulevards? It could not even be discussed. The whole assembly, springing up over-excited, raised one cry of war. Some warnings of prudence are disdained. Yes, they would oppose their arms to the entry of the Prussians. The proposition would be submitted by the delegates to their respective companies. And adjourning to the 3rd March, the meeting broke up its sitting and marched en masse to the Bastille, carrying along with it a great number of soldiers and mobiles.

Since the morning, Paris, fearing the loss of her liberty, had gathered round her revolutionary column, as she had before crowded round the statue of Strasbourg when trembling for France. The battalions marched past, headed by drums and flags, covering the rails and pedestal with crowns of immortelles. From time to time a delegate ascended the plinth, and from this tribune of bronze harangued the people, who answered with cries of Vive la République! Suddenly a red flag was carried through the crowd into the monument, reappearing soon after at the balustrade. A formidable cry saluted it, followed by a long silence. A man, climbing the cupola, had the daring to go and fix it in the hand of the statue of Liberty surmounting the column. Thus, amidst the frantic cheering of the people, for the first time since 1848, the flag of equality overshadowed this spot, redder than its flag by the blood of a thousand martyrs.

The following day the pilgrimages were continued, not only by National Guards, but by the soldiers and mobiles. The army gave way to the inspiration of Paris. The mobiles arrived preceded by their quartermasters carrying large black crowns; the trumpeters, posted at each corner of the pedestal, saluted them, and the crowd cheered them to the echo. Women dressed in black suspended a tricolour flag bearing the inscription, ‘The republican women to the martyrs.’ When the pedestal was covered, the crowns and flowers soon wound themselves entirely round the bust, encircling it from top to bottom with yellow and black flowers, red and tricolour oriflammes, symbols of mourning for the past and hope in the future.

On the 26th the demonstrations became innumerable and irritated. A police agent, surprised taking down the names of the battalions, was seized and thrown into the Seine. Twenty-five battalions marched past, sombre, a prey to a terrible anguish. The armistice was about to expire and the Journal Officiel did not speak of a prorogation. The journals announced the entry of the German army by the Champs-Elysées for the next day. The Government was sending the troops to the left bank of the Seine and clearing out the Palace de l’Industrie. They forgot only the cannons of the National Guards accumulated at the Place Wagram and at Passy. Already the carelessness of the capitulationists had delivered 12,000 more muskets to the Prussians than were stipulated for.[65] Who could tell if the latter would not stretch out their hands to these fine pieces, cast with the flesh and blood of the Parisians, marked with the numbers of the battalions?[66] Spontaneously all Paris rose. The bourgeois battalions of Passy, in accord with the municipality,[67] set the example, drawing the pieces of the Ranelagh to the Parc Monceaux.[68] Other battalions came to fetch their cannon in the Park Wagram, wheeling them by the Rues St. Honoré and Rivoli to the Place des Vosges, under the protection of the Bastdle.

During the day the troop sent by Vinoy to the Bastille had fraternized with the people. In the evening, the rappel, the tocsin, the trumpets had thrown thousands of armed men into the streets, who came to mass themselves at the Bastille, the Château d’Eau, and the Rue de Rivoli. The prison of St. Pélagie was forced and Brunel set free. At two o’clock in the morning, forty thousand men remounted the Champs-Elysées, and the Avenue de la Grande Armée, silent, in good order, to encounter the Prussians. They waited till daybreak. On their return, the battalions of Montmartre seized all the cannon they found on their way, and took them to the mairie of the eighteenth arrondissement and to the Boulevard Omano.

To this feverish but chivalrous outburst Vinoy could only oppose an order of the day stigmatizing it. And this Government that insulted Paris, asked her to immolate herself for France! A proclamation posted up on the morning of the 27th announced the prolongation of the armistice, and for the 1st of March the occupation of the Champs-Elysées by 30,000 Germans.

At two o’clock the commission charged to draw up the statutes for a Central Committee held a sitting at the mairie of the third arrondissement. Some of its members since the evening before, considering themselves invested with powers by the situation, had tried to organize a permanent sub-committee in this mairie; but not being numerous enough, they had adjourned until the next day and consulted the chiefs of the battalions. The sitting, presided over by Captain Bergeret, was stormy. The delegates of the battalion of Montmartre, who had established a committee of their own in the Rue des Rosiers, would speak only of fighting, showed their mandats impératifs, and recalled the resolution of the Vauxhall. It was almost unanimously resolved to take up arms against the Prussians. The mayor, Bonvalet, rather uneasy at having such guests, had the mairie surrounded, and, half by persuasion, half by force, succeeded in getting rid of them.

During the whole day the faubourgs had armed and seized the munitions; the rampart pieces were remounted on their carriages; the mobiles, forgetting that they were prisoners of war, went to retake their arms. In the evening one crowd inveigled the marines of La Pepinière Barracks and led them to the Bastille to fraternize with the people.

A catastrophe was inevitable but for the courage of a few men who dared to oppose this dangerous current. All the societies that met at the Place de la Corderie, the Central Committee of the twenty arrondissements, the International, and the Federation, looked with reserve upon this Central Committee, composed of unknown men, who had never taken part in the revolutionary campaigns. On leaving the mairie of the third arrondissement, some delegates of battalions who belonged to the sections of the International came to the Corderie to tell of the sitting and the desperate resolution come to. Every exertion was made to pacify them, and speakers were sent to the Vauxhall, where a large meeting was being held; they succeeded in making themselves heard. Many other citizens made great efforts to recall the people to reason. The next morning, the 28th. the three groups of the Corderie published a manifesto conjuring the working men to beware. ‘Every attack,’ said they, ‘would serve to expose the people to the blows of the enemies of the Revolution, who would drown all social demands in a sea of blood.’ Pressed on all sides, the Central Committee was obliged to yield, as it announced in a proclamation signed by twenty-nine names. ‘Every aggression would result in the immediate overthrow of the Republic. Barricades will be established all round the quarters to be occupied by the enemy, so he will parade in a camp shut out from our town.’ This was the first official appearance of the Central Committee. The twenty-nine unknown men[69] capable of thus pacifying the National Guard were applauded even by the bourgeoisie, who did not seem to wonder at their power.

The Prussians entered Paris on the 1st March. This Paris which the people had taken possession of was no longer the Paris of the nobles and the great bourgeoisie of 1815. Black flags hung from the houses, but the deserted streets, the closed shops, the dried-up fountains, the veiled statues of the Place de la Concorde, the gas not lighted at night, still more pregnantly announced a town in its agony. Prostitutes who ventured into the quarters of the enemy were publicly whipped. A café in the Champs-Elysées which had opened its doors to the victors was ransacked. There was but one grand seigneur in the Faubourg St. Germain to offer his house to the Prussians.

Paris was still wincing under this affront, when a new avalanche of insults poured down upon her from Bordeaux. Not only had the Assembly not found a word or act to help her in this painful crisis, but its papers, the Journal Officiel at their head, were indignant that she should have thought of defending herself against the Prussians. A proposition was being signed in the bureaux to fix the seat of the Assembly outside of Paris. The projected law on overdue bills and house-rents opened the prospect of numberless failures. Peace had been accepted, hurriedly voted like an ordinary business. Alsace, the greater part of Lorraine, 1,600,000 Frenchmen tom from their fatherland, five milliards to pay, the forts to the east of Paris to be-occupied till the payment of the first 500,000,000 francs, and the departments of the East till the entire payment; this was what Trochu, Favre, and the coalition cost us, the price for which Bismarck permitted us the Chambre introuvable. And to console Paris for so much disgrace, M. Thiers appointed as General of the National Guard the incapable and brutal commander of the first army of the Loire, D’Aurelles de Paladines. Two senators, Vinoy and D’Aurelles, two Bonapartists, at the head of Republican Paris – this was too much. All Paris had the presentiment of a coup-d’éitat.[70]

That evening there were large groups gathered in the boulevards. The National Guards, refusing to acknowledge D’Aurelles as their commander, proposed the appointment of Garibaldi. On the 3rd two hundred battalions sent their delegates to Vauxhall. Matters began with the reading of the statutes. The preamble declared the Republic ‘the only Government by law and justice superior to universal suffrage, which is its offspring.’ ‘The delegates,’ said Article 6, ‘must prevent every attempt whose object would be the overthrow of the Republic.’ The Central Committee was composed of three delegates for each arrondissement, elected by the companies, battalions, legions and of the chefs-de-légion.[71] While awaiting the regular election, the meeting there and then named a provisional executive committee. Varlin, Pindy, Jacques Durand, and some other Socialists of the Corderie formed part of it, an understanding having been come to between the Central Committee, or rather the commission which had drawn up the statutes, and the three groups of the Corderie. Varlin carried a unanimous vote on the immediate re-election of the officers of the National Guard. Another motion was put: ‘That the department of the Seine constitute itself an independent republic in case of the Assembly attempting to decapitalize Paris,’ – a motion unsound in its conception, faultily drawn up, which seemed to isolate Paris from the rest of France – an anti-revolutionist, anti-Parisian idea, cruelly exploited against the Commune. Who then was to feed Paris if not the provinces? Who was to save our peasants if not Paris? But Paris had been confined to solitary life for six months; she alone to the last moment had declared for the continuation of the struggle at any price, alone affirmed the Republic by a vote. Her abandonment, the vote of the provinces, the rural majority, made so many men ready to die for the universal republic, fancy that the Republic might be shut up within Paris.


[64] 3rd arrondissement. A. Genotal; 4th, Alavoine; 5th, Manet; 6th, V. Frontier; 7th, Badois; 8th, Morterol; 9th, Mayer; 10th, Arnold; 11th Piconel; 12th, Audoynaud; 13th, Soncial; 14th, Dacosta; 15th, Masson; 16th, Pé; 17th, Weber; 18th, Trouillet; 19th, Lagarde; 20th, A. Bonit. Courty remained president, Ramel secretary.

[65] Vinoy, L’Armistice et la Commune, p. 128.

[66] The reactionaries have said that this fear was feigned; that the cannon were safe from the Prussians. This is so false that the general staff itself feared a surprise. See Mortemart, chef d’état-major, Enquête sur le 4 Septembre, Vol. II, p. 344.

[67] Enquête sur le 18 Mars, Colonel Lavigne, Vol. II, p. 467.

[68] ‘The first cannon were taken, carried away, on the news of the entry of the Prussians. And these, gentlemen, believe me, were carried off by citizens devoted to order, the National Guards of Passy and Auteuil, and taken where? From the Ranelagh.’ Jules Ferry, Enquête sur le 18 Mars, Vol. II, p. 63.

[69] A. Alavoine, A. Bouit, Frontier, Boursier, David, Buisson, Harond, Gritz, Tessier, Ramel, Badois, Arnold, Piconel, Audoynaud, Masson, Weber, Lagarde, J. Laroque, J. Bergeret, Pouchain, Lavalette, Fleury, MaIjournal, Couteau, Cadaze, Gastaud, Dutil, Matté, Mutin. Ten only of those elected on the 15th figure in this document. Various delegations, abstentions, and irregular adhesions had given nearly twenty new names.

[70] Roger du Nord, the chief of D’Aurelles’ staff, heard it said in all the fractions of the National Guard, ‘Why place a man of such energy at the head of the National Guard if not to make a coup d’état?’ Enquête sur le 18 Mars, Vol. II.

[71] The National Guards of each of the twenty arrondissements were formed into a separate legion.

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