The Reds' Last Stand

photo: rue des 5 diamants, butte aux cailles

Saturday morning the the Rue des Cinq Diamants.

On the Butte-aux-Cailles

Paris:- Saturday, 22. June 2002:- When I told my landlord last week that I had a date to see an apartment for rent on the Butte-aux-Cailles, he said its barricades were the last to hold-out during the Paris Commune in 1871.

He said this in the way that some Parisians have, with pride in Paris' revolutionary past. Almost as if, if he wasn't locked into this place in the 14th that he is asking me to leave, he would love to move over there and be proud to be close to its history.

All I can say is I have picked a very beautiful day to go a look at an apartment for rent. The sky has an almost glassy look to its blueness, the sun is like a laser and the shadows are inky. The garbagemen sweeping up last night's Fête de la Musique debris look like carnival figures, in Paris' green and yellow, 'for Brazil.'

The man showing me the apartment says he thinks the building dates to about, maybe, 1880. When he shows me its storage space, which is not underground, it smells like it is underground. Somewhere below there are the limestone shafts, the quarries, and they're probably not far down.

When we've seen what there is to see, we part. There will be other prospective tenants around to look at the apartment too. He says he will chose the 'winner' and let me know.

This might be my new neighborhood, so I wander up the street and into the café Chez Gladinesphoto: interior, cafe chez gladines to spy out the land a bit. The weather certainly makes it seem attractive. The café is village-like. The whole street is village-like. But if this is where the Commune has its last stand, then it has this story:

The right position in Chez Gladines gives views of everybody passing.

Louis-Napoléon started out life in 1801 as Napoléon Bonapartes' nephew. In his youth he had written a tract titled, 'The Extinction of Poverty' and had been a 'carbonaro' and small-time revolutionary in central Italy in 1831.

Unable to get re-elected President of France because it was forbidden by the constitution, he became Emperor instead via a coup d'etat during the night of 1-2. December in 1851. Parisians, who were a bit worn out by the events of 1848, put up little resistance and only two or three hundred were massacred on Thursday, 4. December under the adroit leadership of Saint-Arnauld.

Beyond Paris, the countryside had embraced the social ideas of republicanism, and artists joined lumberjacks and innkeepers and even day-laborers to protest. These 'Reds,' 'bandits' and 'assassins' found out the hard way about prison and deportation. In Paris, 84 deputies were expelled from the legislature, and elsewhere, 32 departments were put under martial law.

Asked to vote in favor of the coup d'etat at the end of 1852, the 'no thanks' votes were numbered as 650,000 and there were 1.5 million abstentions. This plebiscite created the title 'Emperor' and the name of Napoléon III.

According to tradition, France has had some glorious moments, but it doesn't have much success with 'great' wars - so Napoléon III luckedphoto: affichage illegal out in Mexico and the Crimea, has mild successes with other minor wars and then finally flopped in France itself - in 1870 - when he ran up against Otto von Bismarck, who was astute, more forceful and without a single scruple.

The 'Affichage Illegal' poster is probably illegal too.

In the 20 years between the two dates of 1851 and 1870, the Industrial Revolution happened in France. Non-violent strikes were permitted by law in 1864, as were cooperatives and moderate unions. This resulted in the foundation of the International Workingmen's Association, which was behind violent strikes in 1869 and 1870.

At about the same time, Napoléon III 'assisted' Bismarck in consolidating Germany under Prussian domination while excluding Austrian influence, in return for - well, Bismarck had no scruples so France did not 'get' Luxembourg or 'two or three' cities.

In 1870, in another sleazy deal concerning Spain, a polite but negative response from Kaiser Wilhelm was 'manipulated' into what Napoléon III considered to be an insult to France, and the Empress, soldiers, deputies and the French press agreed with enthusiasm.

So the Emperor declared war on Prussia on Tuesday,19. July 1870 and lost everything within six weeks. His outnumbered and out-gunned armies surrendered and he was captured and eventually sent to England and exile, where he died three years later.

Parisians did not care for this at all. They forced the dissolution of the legislature and then moved on to the Hôtel de Ville, where a new republic was declared on Sunday, 4. September. A provisional government was formed to continue the war.

Starting from total defeat as it were, the new government contacted Bismarck, who immediately demanded Alsace-Lorraine. Instead of meekly giving up what the Prussians had already captured, the Parisians decided to fight on, but by Monday, 19. September the city was besieged.

Léon Gambetta flew to Tours to organize a new army of 600,000 men - almost overnight - to 'save' Paris, but Marechal Achille Bazine preferred surrendering near Metz in the east, so this freed additional Prussian troops for the siege of Paris - and the whole thing was over by January 1871, with Bismarck making himself comfy in the throne room at Versailles.

At this point, it was decided to hold a vote - elections are always popular in France - about surrendering everything. With republicans voting to continue the war, the royalists voted against it, in a majority. This 'peace' would cost France a lot.

It also resulted in the union of Germany, with Wilhelm being crowned as Kaiser of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on Wednesday, 18. January 1871. This was the Prussians' 'revenge' for the past adventures of Louis XIV and Napoléon. Curiously, this defeat also opened the door to Italian unification. The French garrison was recalled from its guard duties of the Papal states, and Italy's king was able to set up housekeeping in Rome.

In this state of foreign occupation in France, Paris had not surrendered its defensive cannons. The ideas of democracy, socialism, unionism, anarchism, libertarianism and revolution were alive and well in the city - especially after the more prosperous inhabitants of the city had fled, allowed to leave by the helpful Prussians.

Adolphe Thiers, head of the national government, had negotiated the details of the peace with Prussia. Next on his agenda was raising money to pay off the Prussians, and for this he needed the manufacturing and commercial conglomerate of Paris.

Thiers picked an early Saturday morning in March of 1871 to try and seize the Paris' National Guard's cannons, and thus set off the revolution known as the Paris Commune.

Government troops quickly found themselves outnumbered by Paris' own National Guard. On Montmartre the troops hesitated to fire on its residents, and ended up arresting their own commander, who was shot a little later. Elsewhere in the city, troops ignored their officers and Thiers had to retreat.

Evacuating the Versailles' government troops out of Paris did not go smoothly - with 20,000 left behind. One group of 1500 soldiers with no orders at all sat out the coming events.

That night the National Guard occupied the Hôtel de Ville and all other public buildings in the capital. This was spontaneous and nobody knew who was in charge. Some of the revolutionary committees were all for marching on Versailles, while others were against it.

The National Guard's Central Committee decided it should legalize itself, by holding talks with the city's mayors, with the intent of holding elections so that somebody else wouldphoto: graffiti be in charge. Others in the city felt that events were running away from them. The Central Committee had to be persuaded to stay in office until the elections were held.

More 'affichage illegal' - as a reminder that modern life is made up of folding green.

These took place a week later and 227,000 votes were cast. Since many of the bourgeois had fled, and with a proportional voting system favoring the heavily populated working-class quarters, the left won handily. The 15 to 20 republican moderates who were also elected soon resigned.

The party candidate lists of the Vigilance committees in the working-class districts, losers in earlier elections, were now the pro-Communard winners. The vote for the Communards was a defensive vote against Thiers and the monarchist-dominated National Assembly at Versailles. It was also a vote against the Prussians.

In the bright spring sunshine morning on Tuesday, 28. March 1871, the Commune was formally installed at the Hôtel de Ville. Wearing red, their names were read out before the assembled Parisians and the National Guards. They were lined up on the steps, under a canopy, beneath a bust of the République. Higher yet, a red flag flew from the pole it had been attached to 10 days earlier. Cannons saluted the Paris Commune.

The 81 members were a mixed, but mostly young, group. The Commune's head of police, Raoul Rigault, was 25. Some had been middle-class, some were journalists. There were three doctors, three teachers, three lawyers, one vet, one architect, and 11 who had been shop workers.

About 35 of the total were manual workers - craftsmen, metal-workers, bookbinders, masons and carpenters. Some of these were the 40 who were also active in the labor movement and most of them had joined the International.

Hardly any of them trusted politicians, or political power - they were inclined to be anarchists. At first, meetings of the Commune were held in secret, but then they were held in public. It wad hard to find a hall big enough for the meetings. Members were supposed to report back to those who had elected them.

The Commune passed reform, rather than revolutionary, legislation. Many issues had been under debate in working-class circles for 30 years. Unemployment was problem and one idea proposed the takeover of idle shops and factories. Education was another priority - the National Guards were called upon to evict priests and nuns from half the schools that were Catholic, and replace them with Republicans. Attempts were made to set up schools for girls, and day nurseries were proposed for installation near factories.

The burning of a guillotine and the demolition of the Vendôme column were hugely popular ceremonies. Otherwise, for a time, there was a festive air in the city.

None of this was well-regarded by the other government in Versailles. Outside of France, the Commune's proposals and actions were regarded with horror. Bismarck threatened the French with the might of the Prussian army if Thiers did not stamp out the red menace.

Thiers' troops began the attack on Paris on Sunday, 2. April. The Commune stood its ground, its barricades held, until Sunday, 21. May. The bloody street battles continued for a week. Baron Haussmann's beautiful boulevards showed their purpose, as the government troops moved into Paris in two columns, and easily outflanked barricades. Western Paris had fallen by the following day.

Barricades not built in the preceding months were thrown up hurriedly. One in the Rue de Rivoli became five metres high by several deep. In all, on Sunday, 160 were erected. There was one of mattresses in the Rue de Beaubourg. Others were merely turned-over buses and taxis.

The Prussians let Versailles' troops move between their siege positions and Paris, so the government troops could force other entries. The Communards torched buildings that provided look-outs for snipers - such as the Tuileries Palace. Smoke from the many fires could be seen in far-off Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

The big barricade on Rivoli fell on Wednesday. Its 30 surviving defenders were shot on the spot. The Hôtel de Ville was set on fire on Wednesday too, to cover the retreat of its defenders. The police prefecture and Palais de Justice buildings were set alight.

Each time a barricade fell, its defenders were shot. Three hundred who sought sanctuary in the Madeleine church, were taken out and shot. Government troops took all the medical staff and the wounded out of a field hospital near Saint-Sulpice and shot 80 of them. The battle in the Quartier Latin lasted two days.

In the Père-Lachaise cemetery, 200 National Guards had failed to erect proper defenses. Versailles' troopsphoto: commune association shop blew down the gates and hand-to-hand fighting raged in the cemetery. Those not killed in the battle were lined up against the 'Federalist's Wall' and shot. Others were brought in and shot here too.

The window ofthe 'Friends of the Commune' shop.

The defense of Paris by the Commune was finished on Sunday, 28. May. The shooting continued. Anybody suspected of being even a little 'pink' was shot. Scores were settled and more Parisians were shot.

More civilians died in Paris in the last week of May 1871 than soldiers did in the war with the Prussians. More died during the Commune than in the Revolutionary 'terror.' Estimates put the Parisian death toll at 30,000. Versailles' troops lost 900 killed.

Another 50,000 were arrested and many were deported to France's colonies, or died on the way to them or in prisons. Some got away to live in exile in other countries. Paris remained under martial law for five years afterwards. The International was outlawed. Nine years later, in 1880, when the Socialists were back in power, an amnesty was declared.

The only thing I haven't been able to find out are the details about the final battle of the barricades on the Butte-aux-Cailles. But just up the block from Chez Gladines, I find a shop whose owner is closing its grill.

This is the headquarters of 'Les Amis de la Commune de Paris,' which is a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping the memory of it alive and the facts about it straight. The shop's window is full of books, pamphlets and sports a very red flag.

brochure: les amis de la commune de paris 1871The shop's keeper rolls up the grill again and pops inside to get me a copy of the association's brochure. When the Communards began returning from exile, they started the association in 1882. Basically, the Commune lives on 131 years later and its aims haven't changed.

Les Amis de la Commune de Paris
46. Rue des Cinq Diamants
75013 Paris, France
Métro: Corvisart or Place d'Italie
Tel.: 01 45 81 60 54 - Fax.: 01 45 81 47 91
Open Tuesday and Friday, from 15:00 to 19:00

Reading:- Metropole Paris reader Sally Dilgart - by total coincidence! - has been reading about the Paris Commune. She recommends 'The Fall of Paris, The Siege and The Commune' by Alistair Horne, which was published by Macmillan in 1965 and reprinted in 1967 by the Reprint Society, London. Possibly easier to find is 'Paris Babylon' by Rupert Christiansen, published by Penguin, ISBN 0 14 01.2980.

Note:- the Parisian 'National Guard,' also called Federalists, were the opponents of the troops commanded by the government led by Thiers in Versailles. The National Guards' initial purpose was to defend Paris from an invasion by the Prussian army, and this is why they were equipped with cannons.

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