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The Paris Commune

The war had engendered the fighting lusts of men, and no sooner had the German troops marched out of Paris than it was seized by the Communists. After victoriously marching through France, Paris was invested, and the German headquarters established at Versailles. Count Moltke superintended the siege, which lasted from 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871. However, almost no damage was done to the city. Paris at one time formed a huge intrenched camp, protected strongly by nature and art, and even as late as the siege of Sebastopol-that is, when the range of heavy cannon was between 2,000 and 3,000 yards-it probably was all but impregnable. Notwithstanding, too, the altered conditions of the power of fortresses of late years, it might even in 1870 have defied a foe, had a real army of 200,000 men been present on the scene to prevent an investment and to make a proper use of the unrivalled position. But the interior line of the heights round the city was alone fortified; the exterior line, not taken into account when the range of guns was comparatively short, had not been occupied by a single fort; and, as the result, the place had become more or less vulnerable and exposed to attack in the existing circumstances of modern war.

The siege of Paris is, in many respects, without a parallel in modern history; to find anything like it we must go back to the siege of Carthage and the fall of Jerusalem; and it stands out as one of the strangest incidents in that epic of change-the fortunes of France. It is not only that, in that passage of arms, the energies of a fierce national defence were condensed, as it were, into a narrow focus; that the unexampled spectacle was then seen of a vast, brilliant, and luxurious capital cut off suddenly from the world outside, and making itself, through months of suffering, the chief rampart of the invaded State; and that Europe, which deemed that the city of pleasure, of turbulence, and of Jacobin anarchy would at once succumb to a resolute foe, found its calculations completely baffled.

After the German army had raised the siege of Paris, it made, on 01 March 1871, a formal entry into the city, took a nominal occupation, and then made a hasty exit. The rabble of Paris soon became utterly lawless. The government being at Versailles, certain members of the mob declared a Commune, and thus proclaimed themselves the champions of the municipal independence of not only Paris but France. In cold blood the armed rabble brutally murdered two able men, General Lecomte and General Clement Thomas, and proceeded to carry out the most dreadful outrages. The middle classes and the friends of order abstained from taking part in the election of a municipal council, which assumed the name of the Commune. A committee of the National Guard, affecting to derive its authority from military election, and a self-elected Committee of Public Safety divided the functions of government with the municipality. Similar revolutionary attempts at Lyons and Versailles were defeated, and it soon became evident that the cause of the Parisian insurgents was hopeless; but their leaders vigorously repressed all opposition within the city, and the notorious adventurer Cluseret, having been appointed minister of war, organized a formidable system of defence.

Thiers, who was at Versailles with thegovernment, had with sound judgment abstained from premature operations against Paris until a competent forcecould be formed of released prisoners of war returning from Germany. Early in April Marshal MacMahon1 retook the bridge of Neuilly; but the chief of the government was anxious to spare, if possible, the effusion of blood, and the final advance on Paris was still delayed for several weeks.

When the regular troops were deprived of their arms the National Guard had been allowed to retain theirs. This guard, composed for the most part of the working-class, paid no heed to the commands of their leader, des Paladines, though famous for his strict discipline. On March 18th Thiers and his colleagues were compelled to abandon Paris to the Commune. Government was carried on, at first by the Central Committee, which controlled the National Guard, afterwards by a "General Council" elected on March 26th. In the south and center there were other risings of the Reds, but none of these showed permanent vitality, and the efforts of the Versailles Government were concentrated on the reduction of Paris.

It is impossible to ascertain with accuracy the various motives and doctrines which animated the different parties to the insurrection. The rank and file of the mutinous National Guards were perhaps chiefly influenced by the fear of losing the daily pay on which they had subsisted in unaccustomed idleness and comparative comfort during the siege. Many of the insurgents, who had learnt from the teaching of Louis Blanc, of Victor Hugo, and of other popular writers, to deify Robespierre and his murderous associates, hoped to take their part in a mimic Reign of Terror; and the great mass of the workmen was deeply imbued with the Communist theory and with bitter hostility to the middle classes. A few dreamers may have accepted in earnest the absurd pretext of municipal independence, but of all revolutionary movements which have disorganized France the Paris insurrection was the most anarchical.

Of the chief criminals the greater number either perished in the final struggle or contrived to effect their escape. The necessity of defence had, fortunately, occupied the attention of the leaders, and prevented them, during their short possession of power, from exemplifying their doctrines in practice; but at an early period of the struggle they gave an earnest of their modes of action by seizing the Archbishop of Paris, the president of the Court of Cassation, and a large number of priests and respectable laymen, as hostages for the security of themselves and their accomplices. When the chance of resistance was at an end the doctrines of the Commune and the passions of the rabble were at last relieved from temporary restraint.

In May 1871, when the Council and the Central Committee had fallen into disputes, the Versailles troops attacked. After a week of street fighting and reprisals the barricades were carried and order restored with rigor. While the government troops were entering Paris the insurgents avenged themselves by burning the Palace of the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville, and other buildings of less historical and architectural value. The Louvre, with its inestimable treasures, was with difficulty saved; but even the incendiary fires were for a moment forgotten in the contemplation of a more atrocious crime. Monseigneur Darboy, Archbishop of Paris (a prelate of blameless character and tolerant disposition), the Cure of the Madeleine, the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of France, and between fifty and sirty of their helpless companions, were murdered in cold blood by order of the Commune.

On the 26th of May, the very day on which the great crime was committed, the army of Versailles occupied the whole of Paris. M. Thiers was soon afterwards appointed " President of the French Republic," and the Commune was finally crushed.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:12 ZULU