The Paris Commune of 1871 was a short-lived revolutionary government established in the city of Paris after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Despite lasting only two months, the Paris Commune introduced many concepts now considered commonplace in modern democracies, including women’s rights, worker’s rights and the separation of church and state. The uprising came to an end when troops from the Third Republic reclaimed power following a vicious week of fighting that left at least 10,000 Parisians dead and much of the city destroyed.
Roots of the Paris Commune
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Prince Otto von Bismarck sought to unify all German states under the control of his native state, Prussia. But the Second Empire of France, ruled by Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), declared war against Prussia to resist their ambitions.
In the months of war that followed, France’s army was consistently routed by the larger and better-prepared German troops. At the Battle of Sedan in September 1870, Napoleon III was captured by German troops, and his wife, Empress Eugénie, fled Paris. Soon, Paris was under a lengthy siege lasting into the winter months, and the French minister of war was forced to escape the surrounded city in a hot-air balloon.
After the French admitted defeat and Napoleon’s Second Empire collapsed, the final 1871 armistice between Germany and France gave billions of francs to Germany, plus the formerly French territories of Alsace and Lorraine, in a humiliating defeat for France.
Resentment over the punitive terms of the armistice roiled France, nowhere more than in Paris, whose starving citizens suffered so miserably during the wintry German siege that the animals in the Paris zoo were eaten, and some Parisians were reduced to eating cats, dogs and rats to survive.
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The Third Republic
Following the collapse of France’s Second Empire, the remaining government officials established the Third Republic, formed a new legislative National Assembly and elected Adolphe Thiers, age 74, as leader. Because the government was more conservative than the citizens of Paris would tolerate, and because Paris was still dealing with the effects of the Prussian siege, the former royal palace at Versailles—about 12 miles west of Paris—was chosen as the government’s headquarters.
None of these new developments sat well with Parisians: The Third Republic had many hallmarks of the former monarchy and was supported by the Catholic Church, military leaders and France’s more-conservative rural population. Many Parisians feared the Versailles-based government—which had initiated the disastrous war with Prussia—would be a republic in name only and would soon reestablish the monarchy.
While Paris—at the time, a city of some 2 million residents—was under siege, the city was defended not by the French army, but the local National Guard, often called the fédéré, which had almost 400,000 members. When Thiers abolished the fédéré, depriving many families of their main source of income, it sparked a furious rebellion that spread throughout the now-radicalized National Guard and across Paris.
The Cannons of Montmartre
By the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Paris had hundreds of bronze cannons scattered across the city. The National Guard, now firmly opposed to the Third Republic and their military leaders ensconced at Versailles, moved many of the cannons to the working-class neighborhoods of Montmartre, Belleville and Buttes-Chaumont and out of the reach of government troops from Versailles (the Versaillais).
On the morning of March 18, 1871, Versaillais troops arrived at Montmartre to seize the cannons, but they were confronted by National Guardsmen and angry citizens intent on keeping the cannons. As the day continued and tensions ran high, many Versaillais soldiers switched sides and refused to fire on the crowds of citizens and guardsmen in defiance of orders from their leader, General Claude Lecomte.
By the afternoon, Lecomte and another Versaillais general, Jacques Clément-Thomas, had been captured by Versaillais deserters and the National Guard—both generals were soon beaten and shot to death. In response, Thiers ordered all remaining government officials and loyal army troops to immediately decamp to Versailles, where a counterattack was to be planned.
Paris Commune Established
Now that the government of the Third Republic had departed the city, the National Guard and sympathetic citizens of Paris wasted no time in setting up a local government and preparing for an expected battle against troops from Versailles. Within days, the city was militarized, with crude barricades made of cobblestones and other debris blocking roads.
City leaders also held elections to establish a new government for Paris, named after the Paris Commune that governed Paris for six years during the French Revolution. Though the newly elected Paris Commune began working on March 28 in the Hôtel de Ville, the Communards were riddled with internal divisions, and vociferous differences of opinion were commonplace.
Nonetheless, the Paris Commune of 1871 succeeded in establishing many basic rights that are now considered commonplace in modern democracies, such as child labor laws, laborers’ rights, the separation of church and state, no religious teaching in public schools and pensions to the families of National Guardsmen killed in service.
But the leaders of the Paris Commune were not entirely benevolent—their ways of dealing with political opponents could be barbaric. Many of the Communards’ rivals or opponents, especially within the Catholic Church, were imprisoned under the flimsiest of pretexts, and killed without a trial.
Women played an active part in the Paris Commune, including fighting against the Versaillais and caring for wounded soldiers. Some women reportedly acted as pétroleuses, arsonists paid for throwing flammable petrol into opposition houses and other buildings.
There were also a number of feminist initiatives proposed to the Paris Commune, including equal wages for women, legalization of sex workers, the right to divorce and professional education for women. These proposals had limited success, however, since women were denied the right to vote, and there were no women in leadership positions in the Paris Commune.
Many participants in the Paris Commune had a decidedly destructive nature, and anything that smacked of monarchy rule was considered a target. Foremost among these was the Vendôme Column, a towering monument erected to honor Napoleon Bonaparte.
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Called a “a monument of barbarism,” the movement to destroy the tower was started by artist Gustave Courbet, an elected member of the Paris Commune governing council. By May 16, the column was reduced to rubble before an enthusiastic crowd. Another target was the Paris residence of Adolphe Thiers, leader of the Third Republic. His home was looted and destroyed by an angry mob.
Paris Under Attack
In April 1871, fearing an impending attack, the leaders of the Paris Commune decided to mount an offensive against the Versaillais. After a couple of failed efforts, their attacks on the palace at Versailles were called off.
Thus emboldened, the Versaillais troops, led by Marshal Patrice Maurice de MacMahon, mounted an attack on the city of Paris, first entering through the unguarded city wall at Point du Jour. By May 22, more than 50,000 troops had moved into the city as far as the Champs Elysées, and the Paris Commune issued a call to arms.
But the city as a whole was unprepared for a massive invasion: Many street barricades were unmanned, and even the fortified hilltop at Montmartre had no stores of ammunition. Communard leaders, now fearful of any enemy, established a Committee of Public Safety, modeled after the notorious committee that carried out the most barbaric cruelties during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in 1793-94.
By May 23, the third day of what became known as Semaine Sanglante or “Bloody Week,” Third Republic Versaillais troops had overrun most of Paris, and the slaughter of Communards began in earnest.
As mayhem and terror swept through Paris, shooting and killing of Communards, government soldiers, Catholic clergy and ordinary citizens occurred day and night, often without any real cause, and the streets of Paris were littered with corpses. In one horrific example, more than 300 suspected Communards were massacred inside the Church of Saint-Marie-Madeleine by Versaillais troops.
In retaliation, the National Guard responded by looting and burning government buildings citywide. The Tuileries Palace, opulent home of French monarchs since Henry IV in 1594, the Palais d'Orsay, the Richelieu library of the Louvre and dozens of other landmark buildings were burned to the ground by National Guardsmen.
Indeed, burning buildings were a common sight during Bloody Week, when the skies above Paris were black with smoke. One diarist wrote on May 24: “The night has been dreadful, with reciprocal fury. Shells, shrapnel, cannonade, musketry, all kept on bursting in a frightful concert. The sky itself is red, the flashes of the massacre have set it on fire.”
The Hôtel de Ville, seat of the Paris Commune government, was torched by Communards when they eventually came to realize theirs was a lost cause. The Palais de Justice was also reduced to a smoldering ruin. Both fires destroyed centuries of public records and other irreplaceable historic documents.
Members of the Catholic clergy were often targeted during Bloody Week: Even the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy, was executed on May 24 by the Communards’ Committee of Public Safety, along with three priests and several other people.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery
In one of the most dramatic final episodes of Bloody Week, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery was occupied by hundreds of Communards. But after Versaillais troops used a cannon to blast open the cemetery gates on May 27, they stormed the cemetery and fought a pitched battle against Communards among the gravestones.
As evening fell, the revolutionaries finally succumbed, were lined up against the cemetery wall and shot by a firing squad.
After a hasty trial, prisoners from the nearby Mazas prison were also taken to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, lined up against the same cemetery wall—now infamous as the Mur des Fédérés or the Communards’ Wall—and shot. Roughly 150 people in total were executed and buried in a mass grave at the foot of the wall as Bloody Week ended.
Aftermath of the Paris Commune
Large sections of Paris were reduced to rubble after the madness and devastation of Bloody Week, which finally ended on May 28, when government forces took control of the city. More than 43,000 Parisians were arrested and held in camps; about half were soon released.
Some leaders of the Paris Commune were able to escape France to live abroad; others were exiled to the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and a handful were executed for their role in the uprising. Eventually, many participants in the Paris Commune were granted amnesty.
For generations, researchers have tried to estimate the number of people killed in the Paris Commune, as well as its role in political history. At least 10,000 people were killed—most of those during Bloody Week—and as many as 20,000 deaths may have occurred, according to varying estimates.
Historians, politicians and French citizens continue to debate the significance, and the destructive violence, of the Paris Commune. Vladimir Lenin was favorably impressed by the revolutionary passions of the Communards; other leaders, including Mao Tse-Tung of China, were likewise inspired by the Paris Commune.
The event continues to spark debate: In May 2021—the 150th anniversary of the end of the Paris Commune—a “Martyrs' March” honoring the Catholic clergy killed during Bloody Week was attacked by an angry mob of anti-fascists. One marcher was hospitalized with injuries, and the march was ended early.
Many of the buildings destroyed or partially burned during the downfall of the Paris Commune were eventually rebuilt. All that remained of the Hôtel de Ville was its elegantly arched exterior shell, but it was rebuilt and once again serves as the city hall of Paris.
The ruined Palais d’Orsay is now reconstructed as the Musée d’Orsay, a popular destination for art lovers. Atop Montmartre, the white domes of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur gleam where the Communards’ cannons once stood. And the toppled ornate column was replaced in the Place Vendôme, where a statue of Napoleon once again looks across Paris.
READ MORE: Communism Timeline
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The Paris Commune - from the archive, 1871. The Guardian.
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The Fires of Paris. The New Yorker.
Paris: a procession in memory of the Catholic martyrs of the Commune attacked by antifa. Le Figaro.