E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

XIII. The “Commune or Death”

THE horror of these nights cannot be described. glare of a hundred conflagations reflected in pools of blood; corpses and human remains wherever the eye lighted; the half of Paris, one vast, hideous, dreamlike hell, against the reality of which Dente’s imagination seems feeble! Such a scene of horror was barely known to history before; the proscriptions of Sylla, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Sicilian Vespers, St. Bartholomew, the sacking of Magdeburg – all pale before this blood orgy of the propertied class of France, which had the approval, tacit or avowed, of the same class throughout the world – a class that, while it could day witness unmoved the indiscriminate torture and butchery of countless hecatombs of human beings whom it imagined were hostile to its class interests – could, nevertheless, with a refinement of cynicism, pretend to snivel and caterwaul over a single archbishop!

One corpse lay that night of Tuesday-Wednesday in the Hotel de Ville on a bed of blue satin, a solitary taper at its head, before which the hurry and scurry of the headquarters was stilled; before which all involuntarily bowed their heads. It was the body of Dombrowski, who had been mortally wounded during the afternoon. Towards morning the corpse was transferred to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. As it passed the barricades all Federals presented arms. At the July column a halt was made, and hundreds of National Guards crowded round to get a last sight of their devoted commander. Thus did this valiant soldier of the people pass into history.

The Tuilleries were blazing all this night, as also the “Legion of Honour,” the “Council of State,” and other public buildings. From early morning of the Wednesday desperate battles were fought at the Palais Royal, the Bank, the Bourse, and the Church of St. Eustache. At 9 o’clock a.m., while a few member of the Commune, who had assembled at the Hotel de Ville, were discussing the situation and contemplating the abandonment of the Municipal Palace, flames shot forth from the roof – how and by whom kindled nobody knew. In an hour the whole place was one vast furnace. The Hotel de Ville destroyed, everything was now transferred to the Mairie of the 11th Arrondissement. This day (Wednesday, the 24th), the official journal of the Commune appeared for the last time.

All surviving semblance of organisation, discipline, or plan was thenceforward practically at an end. Frenzied despair, panic, and anarchy reigned supreme. What remained of the defence was now further hampered and obstructed by the sham-equality craze so congenial to ignorant minds of an anarchist turn. Officers going with important messages which brooked not a moment’s delay were seized and compelled to carry hods for barricades, with the words, “There are no more epaulettes to-day,” and “Why shouldn’t you help to make barricades as well as we?” and the like foolery. To argue that such a thing as “division of functions” was necessary to the success of any social undertaking would, of course, have been useless. So one more nail was hammered into the coffin of the Parisian defence. The shooting of spies, real and supposed, occurred now and then; for at last the good-natured and long-suffering Paris workman had been driven mad with rage and suspicion as the accounts poured in of the fiendish orgy of blood which for four whole days had been carried on in the occupied quarters with the applause of the miscreants at Versailles, who, through their spokesman Thiers, dared to say of this horde of cowardly assassins, “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in a manner to inspire the highest esteem” (!). In order to give a plausible colour to the inclusion of women in the massacres, the myth of the Pétroleuses was now invented. Relationship to a National Guard, a mere expression of horror, a tear shed for a friend, was an excuse for instant butchery. The murderers, officers and men, developed a collective blood-lust which seems almost incredible, and before which the possibly mythical figure of the notorious Whitechapel murderer dwindles into insignificance. To compare these wretches with any members of the animal kingdom, let alone with human savages, would be more than unjust to the beast or the savage. They were incarnations of the criminal instinct in civilised man. At last, what was left of the National Guards of Paris, who for well nigh two months past lead been turning the other cheek to the smiter, pulled themselves together. They bethought them of the three hundred hostages, taken as a guarantee that the laws of war should be observed but not a hair of whose heads had been touched, notwithstanding that prisoners had been murdered without intermission at Versailles during the whole time, and that now, to crown all, for four days every quarter of Paris occupied by the Versailles army had been converted into a shambles, with its thousands of victims – men, women, and children – whose mutilated corpses lay heaped up pell-mell in the streets. These three hundred hostages were under lock and key at the prison of La Roquette, whither they had been removed the previous day from Mazas. As a last resort Théophile Ferré, the head of the Public Security Department, decided to try and stem the tide of butchery by a reprisal. But did he follow the example of the assassins of “order” and command the whole three hundred hostages to be shot out of hand? Certainly not! He selected only six of the most prominent of the bulwarks of “order.” These he indicated to be led out and executed. When the question arose as to who should form a platoon, dozens crowded round, each with a dear relation or friend to avenge-one a father, another a brother, a third a wife. Finally, a firing party of thirty was selected. The six hostages, the Archbishop Darboy, Bonjean, the presiding judge of the Court of Appeal, Daguerry, curé of the Madeleine, and three Jesuits were led out into the Quadrangle. That distinguished father-in god, “Monseigneur” Darboy, rather collapsed under the weight of the crown of martyrdom (as presumably he regarded it) about to be bestowed upon him. He did not show any special eagerness to enter the heavenly kingdom. Bonjean, the High Court judge, fainted and had to be carried out. Before giving the order to fire Ferré pointed out to them that it was not the Commune which was responsible for their deaths, but their friends of Versailles, who were deliberately playing the part of fiends.

Meanwhile the conflagrations increased wholesale. Theatres and churches were alike involved. One whole bank of the Seine showed up like a wall of flame. But the quarters where the red flag was displayed became fewer and fewer. Everywhere was the tricolour. Immediately a barricade was taken the tricolour was hoisted. The defence was now mainly in the hands of Wroblewski, who did his utmost to piece together the shattered fragments, but, of course, in vain. A Versaillese officer was caught spying round the Bastille and was shot, an event announced by the arch-villain Thiers at Versailles with brazen impudence as “without respect to the laws of war.” On Friday evening, the 26th, at sunset, poor Delescluze, half dead with illness and fatigue, seeing all was hopeless, walked out of the Mairie of the 11th Arrondissement with his scarf round his waist and a cane in his hand, and mounted the barricade at the Chateau d’Eau, only a moment afterwards to fall under the hail of bullets directed against it. He could not survive another defeat, he had said a few hours before, referring to the June days of ’48. Thus this noble old Revolutionist died, in death, as in life, true to his faith. Delescluze perhaps never quite intellectually grasped the meaning of modern Socialism. But his true instincts throughout his disinterested public career more than made up for any lack of intellectual clearness. Let us hope that one day the Place du Chateau d’Eau, where he died, may bear his statue – the day when Paris is one of the centres of a Socialist Europe.


Last updated on 12.3.2004