E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

II. Prologue

The shoddy splendour and the all-penetrating corruption of the second French Empire had been overtaken by their Nemesis. After the defeat at Sedan came the Revolution of the 4th of September which gave the Empire its parting kick, and established, provisionally at least, the Republic. The Germans were soon in full march upon Paris, and the incapable and (from the point of view of its mandate) treacherous “Government of National Defence” just established, was organising, Trochu at its head, the resistance. The members of the Government did not believe in the possibility of defending the capital, and wanted to capitulate, while the working classes, and a large proportion of the smaller middle-classes, were mad for war to the knife. It is difficult as to this point to feel much sympathy with either side. For my own part I am utterly unable to appreciate the enthusiasm of M. Lissagaray for the stupid chauvinistic frenzy of the general population of Paris in wishing to sacrifice untold thousands of lives in a more than doubtful attempt to drive back “les Prussiens” for the sake of rehabilitating the tarnished military glory of “la patrie”; while on the other hand nothing can excuse Trochu and his consorts, the bourgeois political notabilities, for accepting a definite mandate, and then not only not doing their best for success, but distinctly riding for a fall.

On the 20th of September Paris was invested and the four months’ siege began. The popular excitement within the city during the whole time was intense. The population resolutely declined to believe in the possibility of the city being taken, and at every reverse threatening demonstrations against the impotent Provisional Government were made. Twice a revolution was on the point of being accomplished – on the 31st of October, 1870, and on the 22nd of January, 1871. Of course, resistance to the foreign enemy was what was uppermost in all minds, and the demands of the Parisian masses for the establishment of a Commune were largely based on reminiscences of the wonders effected in this connection by the first Paris Commune in 1792-3. On the 31st of October the Hotel de Ville, the seat of the Government, was invaded by an angry crowd, some demanding a committee of public safety, some the revolutionary Commune. The National Guards, disgusted, refused to come to the Governmental assistance. The members of the Government were made prisoners, and Flourens and Blanqui, the two well-known popular leaders, for a few hours got the upper hand. But it was impossible to effect anything. Anarchical confusion and a babel of tongues reigned throughout the municipal headquarters. Finally, towards evening the reactionists succeeded it, stirring up some battalions of the National Guard to release and reinstate the members of the Government. They used the names of Flourens and Blanqui as a bogey to scare the timid and the middle-class. Thus the day ended in a fiasco from a revolutionary point of view. The resuscitated Government was compelled, however, to proclaim an amnesty to all who had played a part in the proceedings, but subsequently, in violation of all pledges, Blanqui was arrested, and, after the siege, put on his trial for the share he had taken, and Flourens was arrested and imprisoned within a few days. The result of the first of October was to strengthen the hands of the Government of National Defence, which, following the example of the deposed Emperor, demanded and obtained a plebiscite of Parisians in its favour. Hence the old useless sorties continued as before.

Christmas came and the New Year, but the defence got no forwarder. At last, on the 20th of January, Trochu summoned the mayors of the twenty arrondissements of the city, and declared all further holding out impossible. The chauvinist Parisians were struck dumb with indignation at the idea of surrender, but the nest day the mayors were again summoned and informed that the General Staff had decided not to make another sortie, and, in sort, that it was absolutely essential to open negotiations with the enemy at once. On the night of the 21st the Government, after a heated and lengthy discussion of the situation, replaced Trochu by another General, Vinoy. Early the next morning found Flourens at liberty, his prison having been stormed by a friendly battalion of “Nationals.” Meanwhile the authorities were taking every precaution against the threatened proletarian insurrection. But by midday of the 2nd the call-drum was heating in the Batignolles district and elsewhere, and early in the afternoon the Hotel de Ville was surrounded by hostile National Guards and an angry crowd demanding the Commune. The Hotel de Ville was defended by gardes mobiles, who were replied to by “Nationals,” and a fusillade lasting three-quarters of an hour ensued, involving over thirty killed, after which a body of gendarmes appeared, and the insurgents retreated and dispersed, leaving about a dozen prisoners in the hands of the authorities. A few days later the city was formally surrendered, the terms having been signed, and on the 29th of the month the German flag was hoisted on the forts.

The elections which were now held for the purpose of ratifying the terms of peace were carefully manipulated by the reactionary elements throughout the provinces – although Paris remained stoutly Republican – and showed an enormous clerical and monarchical majority. This so-called “National Assembly,” not content with fulfilling its mandate of settling the terms of peace, at once set about openly scheming for the overthrow of the Republic. The so-called pact of Bordeaux established a concordat between the two rival royalist factions under the leadership of the old Orleanist Minister, Adolphe Thiers, who was immediately constituted chief of the Executive by the Assembly.

The next thing to do was to deal with the armed populace, the workmen and small middle class, in the shape of the various bodies of National Guards throughout the country, above all the most numerous, most determined, and owing to its position, most influential of them, the National Guard of Paris. In stipulating the surrender of Paris, Jules Favre, acting for the Government of National Defence, had arranged for the retention of their arms by the Paris Nationals. This was not done out of any affection for the citizen soldiers, but because the Government well knew that any attempt to disarm this proletarian army would be met by a resistance they had no adequate means of dealing with, and which would not improbably have upset them and all their schemes, especially the terms of surrender, which were regarded by all classes as already humiliating enough. But as soon as the conditions of peace were definitely settled the hostility of the new assembly to Republican Paris became marked, and the intention of crushing all revolutionary elements, first and foremost the National Guard, was openly shown. The people organised on their side. The city, from the beginning of February to the 18th of March, was, as it were, sullenly standing at bay against the Assembly and the Government, which did not as yet dare its great coup – the disarmament.


Last updated on 12.3.2004