E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

XVI. The Hostages

That there was never, throughout all history, an execution more completely justified than that of the hostages by the despairing adherents of the Commune must be apparent to every unbiassed mind. This the purveyors of public sentiment cooked-up at the cheapest rate knew perfectly well, but their master, bourgeois class-interest, demanded, as we have seen, that they and all true bourgeois should pretend to regard this simple and, judged by their own standard, even grossly inadequate, act of judicial retribution as an unspeakable atrocity. Hinc illae lachrymae! As for the argument that the hostages in their personal capacity were technically innocent, the bourgeois should have bethought himself of this when the practice of seizing hostages for the good behaviour of the enemy was revived by the German military authorities during the war. The idea of innocent French citizens being killed for the misdeeds of those who wore the national uniform, never evoked any special protest, that I am aware of, from the sensitive middle-class conscience or from that of its press. For the rest, I altogether fail to see where the injustice comes in, when, in a state of way, the official representatives of the enemy are regarded and treated as identified with the policy and acts of the party they represent. That is surely a logical consequence of the position held by them. That this was the view ostensibly taken by the German military authorities, the pious King of Prussia, afterwards Emperor William, at their head, and tacitly acquiesced in by the middle-class conscience throughout the world, bars criticism of the hostage incident on grounds of principle. Most of the hostages, e.g., Darboy the Archbishop, Bonjean, the judge of the Court of Cessation, Decker, the high financier, and the gendarmes, were fair “representatives” of the “enemy,” of church, state, police and capitalism in their most aggressive forms. However, this point is not worth discussing. Those who howled loudest knew that the action of the Commune was justified, but as with the wolf and the lamb, the typical bourgeois is bound by his traditions and class interests to make out the Commune and all connected with it as having been in the wrong, and he will continue to do so, despite all facts and arguments to the contrary. After all, the best advice to give the authorities of the modern State is “kill not that ye be not killed.” The, in this respect, criminally fatuous Commune allowed the Versaillese a free butcher’s bill of thousands of its supporters. It was only when, not content with this, they ran it up to tens of thousands, that some of the Commune’s adherents were wicked enough to attempt, as they hoped, to check the slaughter by a reprisal consisting of a few tens. The middle class apparently thinks that its own governing bodies ought to have the uninterrupted enjoyment of an unlimited, and exclusive, monopoly of killing, as regards its opponents. This demand is surely a little bit strong, even for a dominant class.

The facts, however, tend to show not merely that the Versaillese were absolutely indifferent to the fate of these precious hostages, respecting whose death the “civilised world” (read, dominant class-interest) raised so hideous a caterwauling, but that some of them rather wished such a consummation than otherwise. Thus Barthelemy St. Hilaire, Thiers’ secretary, when their danger was pointed out to him, cynically replied, “We can do nothing! So much the worse for them!”

Thiers deliberately rejected an offer to exchange five of the hostages, including the sainted archbishop, for the single person of Blanqui! This was refused, partly, perhaps, at the instigation of the Ultramontane Catholics, who were strong in the Assembly, and to whom Darboy, who was a Gallican, i.e , who favoured an independent attitude of the French clergy towards the papal pretensions, was by no means a persona grata. By his death they would kill two birds with one stone; get a Christian martyr on the cheap, and probably obtain for one of their own men the wealthy diocese of Paris. The negotiation was conducted on the side of the hostages by a fellow named Lagarde, the Vicar General of Darboy. This perjured poltroon and worthless wretch, after having given his parole d’honneur, swearing by all he professed to hold sacred that he would return “even though it were to be shot,” when he found the negotiations fall through, caring only for his own safety, resolved to leave his colleagues to their fate. He refused to come back. Darboy himself, when apprised of the resolution of his Vicar-General, refused to believe it. “It is impossible,” said he, “M. Lagarde has sworn to me himself that he would return without fail.” The prayers and entreaties of the old prelate were of no avail; Lagarde persisted in his refusal. That at the very last the Versaillese thought the execution of the hostages would be advantageous as a stalking-horse to cover their bloodthirsty designs, and hence purposely refrained from rescue, is strongly evidenced by the fact that, although masters of nearly all the approaches to the prison of La Roquette for twelve hours before the execution took place, they made no attempt to penetrate into the building.

The Versaillese vengeance, as already stated, lasted, uninterruptedly, till the end of the year. Ferré, abused, bespattered, and calumniated by the press-lackeys of capitalism, died on the 28th of November like a Communist, an Atheist, and a hero. Rossel, beslavered by the same press-lackeys, who recognised in him one of themselves, a hopeful middle-class young man on the make, was shot together with him, after having first betrayed and then calumniated the Commune in the hope of favour from high quarters. He died like a bourgeois, a Christian, and a poltroon. But though the constant stream of judicial murders slacked off at the end of 1871, it must not be supposed that they ceased. There were several “executions” on the plain of Satory during the year 1872, the last three persons shot for participation in the Commune having met their deaths so late as the 22nd of January, 1873. All these unhappy victims perished after a farcical trial on “evidence” which would be laughed out of any English court, in most cases convicted of participation in events which they had no more to do with than the readers of this history. The statements of suborned witnesses, every calumny, however absurd on the face of it, was eagerly accepted and gloated over by the courts-martial and the press. Not content with murder, the vile French bourgeoisie had the dastardly meanness in more than one case to blacken their victims’ character with foul insinuations which they did not even pretend to prove. A board of assassins was established composed of the greatest reactionists in the Chamber called the “Commission of Pardons” whose function it was to confirm the sentences of the courts-martial. These murders, be it remembered, were not done in the heat of combat or even immediately after the victory, but were carried on continuously for more than six months, and sporadically for a year longer. And the same people who applauded or, at least acquiesced in these horrors without protest, pretend to stand aghast at the depravity of a Vaillant or a Caserio!


Last updated on 12.3.2004