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Charles Morris

The Prussian War and the Paris Commune

There have been two critical periods in the story of France in which history was made at a rate of rapidity rarely equaled in the history of the world. The first of these was the era of the Revolution and the Napoleonic régime, which has no parallel among human events in the rapidity and momentous gravity of its changes. The second was the period from August, 1870, to the summer of 1871, less than a year in length, yet crowded with important events to an unprecedented degree.

Within that year was fought a great war between France and Germany, in which the military power of France, in an incredibly brief period, was utterly overthrown, and that nation left at the mercy of its opponent. Within the same period the second empire of France came to a sudden and disastrous end, and a republic, the third in French history, was built upon its ruins. Simultaneously a new and powerful empire was founded, that of Germany, the palace at Versailles being the scene of this highly important change in the political conditions of Europe. During this period also a political revolution took place in Italy, in consequence of the French war, and Paris sustained two sieges; the first by the German army; the second and most bitter by the French themselves, fighting against a mob of fanatical revolutionists and ending in a frightful saturnalia of murder, ruin and revenge.

Has there ever been a year in the world's history more crowded with momentous events? Within that year the political status of France, Germany, and Italy was transformed, the late emperor of France suddenly found himself a throneless fugitive, and the people of Paris passed through an experience unparalleled in the diversified history of that ancient city. Of all the sieges to which Paris has been subjected, far the strangest was that in which the scum of the city, miscalled the commune, fought with tiger-like ferocity against the forces of the newly-formed republic, filled with the revengeful and murderous spirit which had inspired the masses in the first revolution.

It is the story of this tragic interlude which we propose here to tell, premising with a brief résumé of the events which led up to it.

Louis Napoleon, posing as Emperor Napoleon III. of France, a position which he had been enabled to gain through the glamour of the name of his famous uncle, was infected throughout his reign with the desire to emulate the deeds of the great Napoleon. He hoped to shine as one of the military stars of Europe, and was encouraged by the success of the war which he fomented in Italy. His second effort in this direction was the invasion of Mexico and the attempt to establish an empire, under his tutelage, upon American soil. In this he ran counter to the Monroe Doctrine and the power of the United States and was forced to retire with his feathers scorched and his prestige sadly diminished.

But what he probably proposed to make the great military triumph of his reign came in 1870, when, on a flimsy pretence, a misunderstanding which called only for diplomatic adjustment, he suddenly declared war against Germany and rashly put his armies into the field to cope with that powerful rival. Never had there been a more unwise or suicidal proceeding. In shameful ignorance of the real condition of the army, which he was made to believe was "five times ready," "ready to the last gaiter button," he marshaled against the thoroughly prepared military power of Germany an army ill-organized, ill-supplied, without proper reserves, and led by commanders of appalling incapacity. Maps and plans were bad; strategy was an unknown quantity; no study had been made of the use of the railway in war; almost everything except courage was lacking, and courage without leadership was hopeless against the thoroughly drilled and supplied German army and the science of Yon Moltke, the great German strategist.

Had it been the first Napoleon, he would have made himself sure personally as to "the last gaiter button" and all other details, but with sublime self-satisfaction and inane blindness the Second Napoleon put himself at the head of this unready army, inspired apparently with the "on to Berlin" confidence of the cheering Parisian mob.

He was to be awakened suddenly and painfully from his dream of victory and military fame. The first collision of the two armies took place on August 2. On September 2, just one month later, the derelict emperor was a prisoner of war in the hands of the King of Prussia, together with his army of more than 80,000 men. He had proved an utter failure as a commander, a mere encumbrance, without a plan of campaign, a conception of leadership, or an idea of strategic movements. Recognizing, when too late, his incapacity, he had resigned the general command to Marshal Bazaine, who withdrew with a large army into Metz, and subsequently, in a northward movement for Bazaine's relief, he found himself surrounded at Sedan by an irresistible force and was obliged to surrender to save his army from impending annihilation.

Such was the first act in this lugubrious drama. Two days later, on September 4, France was proclaimed a republic. Before the end of October Bazaine surrendered Metz to the Germans and his great army of 180,000 men was lost to France. The military force of France was vanishing with alarming rapidity. Another event of the period, of interest in this connection, was the loss of the temporal power of the pope, above alluded to. The papacy had been defended by Napoleon III. against the Italian revolutionists, and the withdrawal of the French force from Rome left that city open to the army of Victor Emmanuel. It was occupied in September and became the capital of the new kingdom of Italy. In December another important event took place, the King of Prussia being proclaimed at Versailles the head of a new empire of Germany, which embraced all the German states except Austria.


Scene from the Franco-Prussian War.

Events of great moment, as may be seen, were occurring with startling rapidity. Before the surrender of Bazaine the advance of the German army had appeared before Paris and on September 19 the siege of that city began. Soon it was so closely invested that food could not enter and the only way out was by balloon. The German bombardment did little damage to the great city, which was defended obstinately. But the Germans had a powerful ally within, where the grisly demon of famine threatened the defenders.

Meanwhile Gambetta, the most ardent patriot left to France, was seeking with nervous energy to raise fresh armies in the south; Garibaldi, his sword free from duty in Italy, had come to the aid of France; all patriots were called to the ranks and a struggle of some importance took place. But all this practically ceased on the 28th of January, 1871, when an armistice brought the hopeless resistance of Paris to an end. Almost at once the war died out on all sides, the Germans occupied all the forts around Paris, and France lay at the mercy of Germany, after a struggle of six months' duration.

The first siege of Paris had terminated; a second and more desperately contested one was at hand. On March 13 the German army around Paris, which had been given the triumph of a march into the conquered city, set out on its return home and the authorities of the new republic prepared to take possession of their freed capital.

They were to find the task one of unlooked-for difficulty. On March 18 the revolutionary element of the city rose en masse, organized under the name of the Commune, took possession of Paris, and prepared to defend it to the death against the leaders of the new-formed government, whom they contemned as aristocrats.

The story of the Commune is a shameful and terrible one. Beginning in a fraternization of the National Guard with the mob, its advent was sealed with murder. In a contest on the 18th for the possession of some cannon General Lecomte ordered his men to fire on the insurgents. They refused. A gentleman standing in a crowd of angry men on the street corner said: "General Lecomte is right." He was immediately seized and quickly recognised as General Clément Thomas, a brave officer who had done gallant service during the siege. This sufficed him nothing with the mob. He and General Lecomte were at once dragged away to prison. At 4 o'clock that same day they were brought out by a party of the insurgent National Guards, and after a mock trial were taken to a walled enclosure and shot down in cold blood. They were the first victims of the mob, which had early begun to burn its bridges behind it.

On the following day the leaders of the outbreak met at the Hôtel-de-Ville. They all belonged to the International, a secret society formed for the abolition of property, religion, rulers, government, and the upper classes, and the reduction of the community to a state of anarchy or something resembling it. They called upon the citizens to meet in their sections and elect a commune—the new form of government advocated by the Anarchists, in which destruction of all existing institutions was to precede reconstruction from the bottom upwards.

Events now moved rapidly. A delegation from the few men of note left in Paris proceeded to Versailles, where the government of the republic was in session, and demanded that special municipal rights should be given to the people of Paris. The refusal of this request precipitated the insurrection. The furious people at once elected a revolutionary government, choosing the most extreme of the revolutionists, who organized what was called the Council of the Commune. This consisted of eighty members, of varied nationality, seventy of them never having been heard of in Paris before. They had risen from the bottom of the deep sea of anarchy to assume control.

On the 3rd of April the civil war broke out—Paris against Versailles, the army under the Assembly of the republic against the National Guard in sympathy with the Commune. The Germans, who still held two of the forts in the vicinity of Paris, looked grimly on at the tragedy about to be played upon the stage which their hands had erected.

The war began with murder. Dr. Pasquier, a distinguished surgeon, bearing a flag of truce, met two National Guards on the bridge of Courbevoie, near Neuilly, where the body of Napoleon had been brought ashore thirty years before. After a brief debate one of the soldiers ended the colloquy by blowing out the doctor's brains. As soon as General Vinoy, in command of the army of order, heard of this murderous act he ordered the guns of Fort Varélien to be turned upon the city.

On the following morning five columns of the troops of the Commune marched out to take the fort, lured by the confident impression that the soldiers under Vinoy would fraternize with them. They were mistaken. The guns of Fort Varélien hurled death-dealing missiles into their columns and they were quickly in full retreat. Flourens, a scientist of fame who had joined their ranks, fell dead. Duval, one of their generals, was captured and was quickly shot as a traitor. The other leaders were at once sent to prison by the angry Council on their return and the Commune ordered that Paris should be filled with barricades.

Though the Commune had imprisoned the unsuccessful generals, they were infuriated at the execution of General Duval and sought in the dignitaries of the church the most exalted hostages they could find against such summary acts. On the night of the 6th Monseigneur Darboy, Archbishop of Paris, his chaplain, and eight other priests were arrested. The curé of the Madeleine and his vicar had before been seized. Other priests were later taken into custody and the prison at Mazas was well filled with these so-called hostages. The fury of the leaders of the revolt led them to other excesses against religion, the churches being closed, the arms cut from the crosses, and red flags hung in their stead.

The outrages were not confined to the church. In the words of a resident of Paris: "The motto of the Commune soon became fraternity of that sort which means arrest of each other." Before the Council was two weeks old many of its leading members had found their way to prison. Dissensions had broken out in its midst, and the stronger victimized the weaker.

By April 7 a personage calling himself General Cluseret had, as some one expressed it, "swallowed up the Commune." He called himself an American, and had been in the Union service in the American civil war, but no one knew where he was born. He had served in the Chasseurs d'Afrique and in the Papal Zouaves, and after the fall of the Commune escaped from Paris and became a general of the Fenians, nearly capturing Chester Castle in their service.

This man became absolute dictator over the revolted city, with its two million of inhabitants; yet after three weeks of this dictatorial rule his star declined and he found himself in prison at Mazas, to which he had sent so many others.

Leaving these details for the present, we must return to the war, which was soon in full blast. The assault of April 4 repulsed, the guns of Fort Varélien were opened upon the city and the second bombardment of Paris in that memorable year began. The guns of its friends were more destructive than those of its foes, the forts taking part in the bombardment being much nearer the centre of the city. Their shells damaged the Arch of Triumph, which the Prussians had spared; they fell alike on homes, public buildings and churches; alike on men, women and children, friend and foe.

Under order of General Cluseret, the dictator of the Commune, every man was ordered to take part in the defence of the city. His neighbors were required to see that he did so and to arrest him if he showed a disposition to decline. For the seventy-three days that the power of the Commune lasted Paris was a veritable pandemonium, the fighting, the arrests, the bombardment keeping the excitement at an intense pitch. The people deserted the streets, which were silent and empty, except for the soldiers of the Commune—a disorderly crew in motley uniforms—the movement of ammunition wagons, and the other scenes incident to a state of war. But the usual swarming life of Paris had vanished. There was no movement, scarcely any sound. The shop-windows were shut, many of them boarded up, red flags hanging from a few, but as a rule the very buildings seemed dead.

This is the story told by one observer, but another—perhaps at a different period of the bombardment—speaks of well-dressed people "loitering in the boulevards as if nothing were going on. The cafés, indeed, were ordered to close their doors at midnight, but behind closed shutters went on gambling, drinking and debauchery. After spending a riotous night, fast men and women considered it a joke to drive out to the Arch of Triumph and see how the fight was going on."

On the 9th of April the army of Versailles began to make active assaults upon the forts held by the soldiers of the Commune, and with such effect that confusion and dismay quickly pervaded its councils. As the struggle went on the fury and spirit of retaliation of the insurgents increased. New hostages were arrested, the palace of the archbishop was pillaged, and in the first week of May the destruction of the house of M. Thiers, the president of the republic, was decreed. It was a beautiful mansion, filled with objects of art and valuable documents used by him in writing his historical works. Some of these were removed, but most of them were consumed by the flames. On the 12th of May the Commune, now inspired by the spirit of destruction, ordered the levelling of the famous column in the Place Vendôme, describing it as a symbol of brute force and false glory.

This famous column, one hundred and thirty-five feet high, formed on the model of Trajan's column at Rome, had been erected by Napoleon I., cast from cannon taken from his foes, and surmounted by a statue of Napoleon in his imperial robes. On May 16 this proud work of art fell, being pulled down with a tremendous crash by the aid of ropes fastened to its upper part. It is pleasant to be able to state that this fine work of art has been restored. Its attempted destruction filled the army of Versailles with a spirit of revenge, which led them, on their entering Paris a few days later, to deal with the insurrectionists with brutal and merciless energy. They had other and abundant cause for this feeling, as the reader will perceive in the recital of the later deeds of the desperate Commune.

By the date now reached the army of order was rapidly gaining ground. The fort of Vauves was taken; that of Mont Rouge was dismantled; breaches were opened in the barricades, and by the 20th of May the army was in the streets and fighting its way onward against a desperate defence. The carnage was frightful; Dambrowski, a Pole and the only able general of the Commune, was killed; prisoners on both sides were shot down without mercy; there were barricades in almost every street and these were hotly defended, the courage of despair in their defenders making the progress of the besieging army a slow and bloody one.

The rest of the story is all blood and horror. The desperate leaders of the Commune determined that, if they must perish, Paris should be their funeral pyre. On the night of May 24 the city became a scene of incendiary rage. The Hôtel-de-Ville was in flames; the Palace of the Tuileries was burning like a great furnace; the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Ministry of War, the Treasury were lurid volcanoes of flames; on all sides the torch had been applied.

Not only these great public buildings, but many private houses were consigned to the flames. All the sewers beneath Paris had been strewn with torpedoes, bombs, and inflammable materials, connected with electric wires, and the catacombs in the eastern quarter of the city were similarly prepared. It was the intention of the desperate revolutionists to blow up the city, but fortunately, before their preparations were completed, the army of order was in control and sappers and miners were sent underground to cut the electric wires leading to these mines of death-dealing explosives.

But the capture of the city came too late to save the lives of many of the "hostages" whom the Commune had sent to prison. Not content with burning the architectural monuments of the city, as the last effort of baffled rage they condemned these innocent victims of their wrath to death. On Wednesday, May 24, the venerable archbishop and five others of the imprisoned priests were taken from their cells and shot to death. On Thursday fifty more, priests and others, were similarly slaughtered.

A large number of captives remained shut up in the prison of La Roquette, around which, on Saturday the 27th, a yelling crowd gathered, thirsting for their lives. They, knowing that their rescuers were fighting within the city, determined to defend themselves and convert the prison into a fortress. Poiret, one of the warders, horrified by what had already been done, was the leader in the resolution, in which he was joined by the Abbé Lamazan, who called out:

"Don't let us be shot, my friends; let us defend ourselves. Trust in God; he is on our side."

The sergents de ville, captives in the story below, had made the same resolution. They had no arms, but they barricaded the doors and resolved to defend themselves from the murderous throng outside, howling for their blood. Two guns and a mortar had been brought by the mob to fire on the prison and the moment was critical.

Suddenly there came a lull in the uproar. Something had taken place. In a few minutes more the crowd broke up and dispersed, dragging away the guns they had brought. Word had reached them that the Council had fled from its headquarters to Belleville and a sudden panic seized the mob. Yet that night they returned, howling and cursing, while a barricade near by was still held by the insurgents. But with the early dawn this was abandoned, the mob melted away, and soon after a batallion of rescuers marched up and took possession of the prison. The captives were saved. Their resistance, seemingly so desperate, had proved successful. That day, Sunday, May 28, ended the rule of the Commune. The Versailles troops, who had been fighting their way steadily from street to street since the 21st, completed their work, the whole great city was in their hands, and the rule of the Commune was over.

The Commune had left devastation behind it. On every side were smoldering ruins, including the great municipal buildings, the law courts, and other public edifices, two theatres, eight whole streets, and innumerable private houses, while the dead bodies of its victims lay where they had been shot down. The soldiers, infuriated by the ruin which they beheld on all sides, were savage in their revenge. Every man seized whose hands were black with powder was instantly shot, many innocent persons perishing, since numbers had been forced to the barricades. The story of what took place during those bloody days of retribution is too long to tell, and it must suffice to sum it up in the frightful death roll of fourteen thousand persons—six thousand of them killed in open fight, eight thousand executed in bitter revenge.

The executions over, the prisons were filled to bursting. Count Orsi tells us that six hundred men were locked up in the wine cellars of Versailles, forty-five feet underground. He himself, falsely seized through the malice of an enemy, spent ten days in this horrible place amid the scum of the insurgents. As for the members of the Council of the Commune, some escaped, some were executed, others were transported to New Caledonia, a lonely isle in the far Pacific—from which they were subsequently freed when the hot blood of that year of revengeful retribution cooled down.

Thus ends the remarkable story of that year of war, insurrection, and devastation, the whole due to the overweening ambition of one man, Louis Napoleon, who wished to shine as a great conqueror. The destiny of France lay in his hand alone. He blindly decided upon war. The result was the humiliation of France, the death of thousands of her sons, the overthrow of her government, the frightful saturnalia of the rule of the Commune, and the loss to France of two of her provinces, those of Alsace and Lorraine, and a war indemnity of one thousand million dollars. Such terrors march in the train of blind and unrestrained ambition.

The end.