The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune (1870-71) by Alistair Horne makes a perfect companion to Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War (see my review of the latter). Both were published in the early 1960s and so are themselves historical artifacts, belonging to an old-fashioned school of history, more interested in good storytelling, drama and character than their modern, more professional equivalents.

And Alistair takes over where Michael left off: Michael goes into great and enlightening detail about every military encounter of the war with useful maps of every battle – and ends with the signing of peace; Alistair recaps the same military events, but from the point of view of the embattled government in Paris, going into much greater detail of the Prussian siege with numerous eyewitness accounts and continuing the story into the blood-curdling details of the Commune and civil war.

The background Alistair sets the scene with a luxurious description of the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1867, taken as the high point of the reign of the Emperor Louis-Napoleon. But the Emperor’s regime was crumbling, faced with radical criticism from inside and the failure of foreign adventures abroad. The Emperor was increasingly unwell and under the influence of his unbending Spanish wife.

The pretext Thus, when an opportunity presented itself out of the blue in July 1870 to assert France’s power – the ‘insulting’ episode of the Hohenzollern candidature and the Ems telegram – Napoleon seized it to declare war on Prussia. Europe was incredulous: over a matter of trivial protocol one of the most shambolic regimes in Europe went marching to war against one of the most efficient and well-organised nations the world had ever seen.

The Siege of Paris After crushing one of France’s two armies at Sedan (and capturing the sick and depressed Emperor) and bottling the other one up in the fortress city of Metz, the Prussian armies encircled Paris and began the siege on 19 September 1870. 130 punishing days later, after all hope had been lost, all the food eaten, and all the French armies raised in the provinces to help Paris had been comprehensively defeated, the city authorities finally capitulated on January 28 1871. On February 26 a preliminary peace treaty was signed. The Prussian army was allowed to march through the defeated and humiliated city between 1st and 3rd of March. Then they left – or more accurately, withdrew their forces to the east of Paris while beginning the deployment of troops back to the Fatherland. And now the real trouble began…

The Third Republic Louis-Napoleon’s regime had collapsed as soon as news of his defeat and capture at Sedan had reached Paris, back in early September. The Empress and Court had fled abroad; the Second Empire was over. Within days a new republican regime declared itself – France’s Third Republic – and nominated a new President, General Louis Trochu. This pessimistic man – Alistair calls him the Hamlet of the siege – organised several futile attempts to break out before resigning himself to the inevitable defeat.

Once the peace was signed and the siege ended, Trochu resigned and elections led to the formation of a new republican government, led by veteran statesman Adolphe Thiers. But before the 1 March Prussian march-through – on February 26th to be exact – some of the mutinous National Guards seized cannons from around the city and wheeled them to the working class stronghold of Montmartre, an act of military disobedience and political rebellion.

The National Guard The peace treaty had left Paris with just one division of the regular French army. But during the siege the authorities, in their unwisdom, had created a National Guard, arming an estimated 400,000 men. These untrained, poorly led, frequently drunk working men had shown consistent cowardice in the handful of sorties against the Prussians they had attempted during the siege. If they didn’t like an order, they disobeyed it. If they didn’t like a commander, they voted in a new one. If they really didn’t like a commander, they shot him. Now they were to show themselves masters of shooting other Frenchmen…

Thiers, realising he couldn’t afford to leave radicals in possession of so much artillery, sent detachments of regular Army troops to seize the canon. But this attempt broke down, regular army units went over to the Reds and two generals were seized by the mob and executed. An inflamed mob marched on the Hotel de Ville and Thiers and his cabinet were forced to flee out the back door and high tail it to Versailles. In their absence, out of the power conflicts between various red groups and leaders, a Commune of Paris was constituted.

Interpreting It’s at this point that contemporary and later interpretations begin to vary, and quite widely. For those on the political left – including Karl Marx who supported the Commune, sent agents of his Communist International  to help it and wrote a definitive pamphlet about it – the Commune represented the first genuine effort in human history to establish a communist proletarian regime – and was a good thing. To conservatives, the Communards – as they became known – were drunken terrorists. For a historian like Richard Cobb (who writes the preface to the Penguin edition of this book) the Commune was yet another example of Paris’s arrogant and dictatorial attitude to the rest of France.

Horne relates the events in a clear and compelling fashion. If he has a line or interpretation, it’s that the uprising and then the chaotic administration of the Commune reflected a mood of hysterical frustration resulting from Paris’s siege and humiliating defeat. Most of the National Guardsmen had never got the opportunity to fight the Prussians but were armed to the teeth. And so they took out their pent-up aggression on their own political masters. On his interpretation, the entire sorry sequence of events with all its political rhetoric, is simply a psychotic episode, an example of the madness of crowds. And he has compelling eyewitness accounts which support this theory, showing how the blood lust was initially whipped up before spreading out of the control of any one political leader or faction.

Gotterdammerung While the newly formed Commune found its feet, issued reams of irrelevant proclamations and argued among itself about what to do next, Thiers mustered all the forces of the regular French Army and commenced a second siege of Paris. (The poor inhabitants had to endure two sieges in less than 6 months.) Just like the Prussians, Thiers eventually resorted to bombarding the capital, doing more damage than the Prussians ever did and with equally as little effect. Finally – on May 21 – the Versailles forces broke through one of the gates in the Paris wall and there began two weeks of house-to-house fighting more reminiscent of Stalingrad than the home of the Folies Bergeres (which had been established just the year before, in 1869).

The killing Now it was under direct attack, the Commune began in a chaotic fashion to execute some of the hostages it held. This immediately sparked outrage among the bourgeoisie and objective observers, but quickly paled into insignificance next to the horrific reprisals carried out by the conquering Versailles forces. Like the army of some African dictatorship the French Army – egged on by the Prussians – turned out to have a real flare for lining hundreds, then thousands of their own countrymen, women and children up against the nearest wall and executing them. Eye witnesses testify to a policy of bloodthirsty massacring. During what became known as the semaine sanglante some 25,000 Parisians were killed! In one week! By their fellow Frenchmen! An order of magnitude greater than the 2,500 or so executed during the 15 months of the notorious Terror of the Great Revolution of 1794. As the avenging French Army swept east into the working class bastions of Belleville the massacring reached Pol Pot or Nazi heights.

The burning And the fires. The fires started by the attackers’ artillery were soon eclipsed by a deliberate scorched earth policy espoused by some of the Commune’s leaders. Women were seen everywhere throwing packets of petroleum into houses to burn them – and acquired the name of petrolleuses. Lunatic Commune leaders deliberately set fire to the Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries Palace and innumerable other buildings. A huge pyre was built inside Notre Dame which was only saved at the last minute because hundreds of Commune injured were sheltering in a hospital next door. The Louvre was only saved by a change of prevailing wind. The French, the French themselves, tried to burn Paris to the ground.

The bitter end Eventually, even the most reactionary newspapers and commentators called for an end to the bloodshed. Eventually the last barricades in the working class Belleville neighbourhood were stormed and the last resisters shot on the spot. Although criminal trials were to continue for years, the fighting ended on the evening of May 28, and a sudden rainstorm, after weeks of drought, did more to douse the flames than the characteristically shambolic Paris fire brigade ever could.

Repercussions

  • France ceased to be top dog: from the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to Napoleon – for some 150 years – France’s army had been feared – and had regularly wreaked havoc – throughout Europe. Now the nations of Europe looked nervously to the newly unified Germany as the emerging European superpower.
  • And yet the conflict between the old superpower and the new one hadn’t really been settled. Although the peace held for 43 years (not bad, all things considered), contemporaries felt the tension; things hadn’t been resolved; France’s injured pride smouldered; German High Command lived in permanent fear of an attack and made plans for a pre-emptive strike, plans they were to put into effect in August 1914…
  • Within France the tensions unleashed during the Commune dogged national politics for at least a century. Communist and Socialist forces remained strong throughout the Second Republic, and were to play a key role in dividing and emasculating France in the lead up to WWII. Even les evenements of 1968 looked back to the Commune for inspiration (and were just as fatuously unsuccessful).
  • And Russia. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was born a few months before the Franco-Prussian War began. He wrote and thought extensively about the Commune – the largest-scale attempt by proletarian Red forces to overthrow a government and create a new society which had occurred in world history. And he drew two key conclusions: the Commune failed due to lack of a unified leadership – and because of its failure to act immediately and with overwhelming force to quell its enemies. These were mistakes he and Trotsky were not to make 46 years later.

The biggest legacy of the Commune was to inspire the strategy of the Bolsheviks who – in the context of another Franco-Prussian War (the ‘Great’ War) – carried through the first successful communist revolution anywhere, who acted with a strong centralised leadership and with overwhelming and unrelenting force (aka Terror) against all their opponents.

French military deaths squads - rubbish at fighting Germans, excellent at executing their unarmed compatriots

French military deaths squads – rubbish at fighting Germans, excellent at executing their unarmed compatriots


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