by midtowng | 10/30/2008 05:11:00 PM
A virus broke out in Paris in 1871, and within days most of the city was infected. The French government considered the disease to be so serious that anyone found to be infected was immediately executed.

However, this virus wasn't biological. The virus came in the form of an idea.
That idea had a name: La Commune.





You can't tell the story of the Paris Commune in isolation. The history of The Commune is inseparably connected to the Revolutionary Commune, which is inseparable from medieval France.

Commune Origins

When most people think of a commune they probably think of free love and hippies. The origins of the commune are anything but.

The first communes were formed in Europe in response to the viking invasions. At the heart of the commune was a sworn allegiance of mutual defense. Forming a community government was a natural, but secondary feature.
Nevertheless, forming a commune is a revolutionary act. It's a challenge to any claim of sovereignty from the upper class. A good example of this was the small town of Laon in 1112.

The nobles of Laon had preyed on the peasants for decades, but it was the arrival of Bishop Gaudry that forced the issue. He was a violent and unsavory man that soon earned the antipathy of the community.
While the bishop was out of town in 1109 the peasants bribed the local clergy and knights, as well as the King of France, to grant them a communal charter. When the bishop returned he was furious.

In 1112 the bribe money had been spent and the Bishop longed for this previously unfettered power over the serfs. So he invited the King to Laon under the pretext of celebrating the Holy Week, where he bribed the King. The charter was annulled and the King ordered the magistrates of the commune to cease their functions.
The outrage was so palatable that the King left the very next day, missing much of the Holy Week celebrations. As long as the commune existed the peasants weren't serfs. As long as the commune existed they were free.

"Pooh! I die by the hands of such fellows!"
- Bishop Gaudry, two days before his death

On the fourth day of Easter a mob of hundreds suddenly appeared. Armed with pikes, axes, clubs, and swords, they rushed the bishop's palace where a group of knights had agreed to protect him. The first three knights to appear were quickly killed and the rest lost their heart.
The bishop dressed himself as a servant and hid in the church cellar. It didn't save him. The mob then set the bishop's palace on fire and the flames jumped to the cathedral, both of which burnt down.


rebuilt cathedral in Laon

The following day the people realized what they had done, and that the King's punishment would be severe. The people of Laon went into hiding. When news of the ghost town reached neighboring areas, peasant from all over flocked to Laon to loot it.
Sure enough the King's army did march on Laon and all the residents that took part in the killing of the bishop were executed. No mercy was shown.

On the bright side, Laon got its commune back two decades later and kept it, off and on, for two centuries.

The Second Revolution

By the summer of 1792 the French Revolution was in crisis.
The storming of the Bastille in 1789 had managed to secure a constitutional monarchy for the people similar to Britain's form of government. But it wasn't a republic, and thus the people weren't satisfied. Many feudal laws still remained in place.
To make matters worse, powerful forces, both internal and external, were conspiring to tear down the parliamentary system and bring back the feudal state. The events were approaching a climax and everyone knew it.

On July 25, 1792, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, commander of the Austrian and Prussian armies about to invade France, issued the Brunswick Manifesto. It was basically a threat that if anyone harmed the royal family then the whole of France would suffer. The manifesto was written by the large number of French noble emigres in the Prussian army. To the people of Paris it was evidence that Louis XVI was collaborating with the invading armies (proof of which was later discovered).
Instead of intimidating the French public, it sealed the King's fate.

The fear was a counter-revolution and the face of that fear was Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette. In 1790 Layfayette was the Hero of the Revolution, but his star began to fade on July 15, 1791, when a troop of National Guard under his command shot into a mostly unarmed crowd on the Champ de Mars that were protesting the restoration of the King, killing 50.
By June 28, 1792, he was arguing in front of the Legislative Assembly for an outright ban of political clubs, especially the Jacobins. In a private meeting with the King he offered to march his army on Paris. Rumors of a coup d'etat began leaking out to the public.

Meanwhile, the working class sections of Paris were active. After the storming of the Bastille the people of Paris formed a Commune. It was mostly for administrative duties, but it was directly connected to the revolutionary spirit of the community. After the Brunswick Manifesto, the political clubs of Paris decided that the time had come to take the offensive.
Members of the Commune spoke against Lafayette and for a dethronement of the King before the Assembly on August 3, but their petition was rejected. The decision was made for an insurrection by the Paris Commune on August 10.


Storming of the Tuileries

On the night of August 9, generally unknown members of the Paris Commune took possession of the Hôtel de Ville. The moderate members of the Paris Commune were kicked out and a new Insurrectional Commune was set up.
At 7 a.m. the following morning, 18,000 members of the Paris Commune marched on the Tuileries. The King immediately fled to the Assembly for refuge. The National Guard, seeing the King flee, either quit their posts or openly took sides with the Commune. All that was left to defend the Tuileries were 950 members of the Swiss Guards.
No one is certain who fired first, but the results were predetermined. About 600 of the Swiss Guards were killed during the bloody assault. Dozens more were killed afterwards. Several hundred Parisians also died that day.


King Louis's last days

The leaders of the Commune then marched on the Assembly. The mostly bourgeois Assembly pleaded for restraint, but the mob had no intention of showing it. They grabbed the King and Queen and imprison them in the Temple (under the dubious reason of "their own safety"), where they would remain the rest of their short lives. The Assembly was effectively dissolved after calling for a new Constitutional Convention.
Lafayette, when hearing what had happened, ordered his army to march on Paris, but they flat refused. Instead he traveled east with his ministers and surrendered to the Prussian Army just as it was invading France.
The Paris Commune was now the most powerful political force in France.

It took another six weeks before the National Convention was formed to replace the Assembly. During that time the Paris Commune exercised unrestricted authority.
They were very busy.

The September Massacres and The Terror

The Commune obtained an indefinite power of arrest, and used that round up thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution. These included clergy, aristocrats and nobles that hadn't already fled the country, any royalist that could be found, and other suspected political enemies.
The political chaos combined with the approaching armies created a climate of fear and paranoia in Paris.

On September 1st the Commune organized a general mobilization. Tens of thousands of untrained and underequipped, but patriotic and eager men, were to be sent to the front. But before they could leave Paris bad news arrived - the fortress at Verdun fell almost without a fight.
In the climate of paranoia, the aristocratic generals at the front were suspected of cooperating with the enemy. It was the trigger for the first of several horrific episodes.
"A party at the instigation of some one or other declared they would not quit Paris, as long as the prisons were filled with Traitors (for they called those so, that were confined in the different Prisons and Churches), who might in the absence of such a number of Citizens rise and not only effect the release of His Majesty, but make an entire counterrevolution."



No one at the Commune, or anywhere else, gave the order for the massacre. It was a spontaneous decision by a murderous mob of thousands. Simply put, it was humanity at its worst.
Most of the murders were preceded by what the assassins considered a 'trial', better known as 'mob courts'. The supposed judges in these courts were the actual killers themselves. The sight of them was atrocious; their arms were covered in blood, they wore butchers' aprons, and they had swords at their sides. Most of the judges were either drunk or half asleep (Hibbert; 172)
In two days the killing was mostly over. 1,400 prisoners had been butchered.

September 20, 1792, was an important day for two reasons.
One reason was the French victory at the Battle of Valmy. Until this battle the Prussian and Austrian armies had been completely unchecked. The French army, suddenly flush with raw recruits, finally showed some backbone.
The other reason was the new National Convention. The very next day the Convention abolished royalty in France and declared a Republic.

From this point on, the Commune no longer had undisputed power in France, but it did still exercise considerable power behind the scenes. The Commune was behind the huge levee en mass in August of 1793 that turned the tide of war. They were behind the execution of Louis XVI.

They also exerted influence in the Convention. When Jacques Hébert was arrested for using inflammatory rhetoric against the conservatives, it was the Commune who marched down to the Convention and forced them to release him.
Much to the Commune's shame, it was on June 2, 1793, that Commune members helped arrest 32 deputies of the Convention on charges of counter-revolutionary activities. This began the Reign of Terror. The invading armies, the royalist revolt in Vendee, the famines, and the runaway inflation, all combined to reinforce the power of the extremists.


Maximillien Robespierre

The Commune tragically remained joined at the hip to Robespierre during his rise and eventual fall.
The arrest of Robespierre occurred at the Hotel de Ville, his last bastion of support. On the day he was executed so were several leaders of the Commune.

The of fall of the Jacobins and Robespierre ended the Commune's power. The White Terror that followed finished off the Commune. Within months the Commune had been outlawed, and so ended the revolutionary era of France's history.

This is the end of Part 1 of La Commune series.

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