by midtowng | 1/19/2009 12:01:00 PM
"Workers, do not be deceived: this is the final struggle, that of parasitism against labour, exploitation against production. If you are fed up of vegetating in ignorance and of wallowing in misery; if you want your children to be men getting the profit of their own labour, and not a sort of animal trained for the workshop of the battlefield, sweating themselves to make the fortunes of an exploiter or spilling their blood for a despot; if you no longer want your daughters, whom you cannot bring up and look after as you would like, to become objects of pleasure for the arms of that aristocrat, money; if you want an end to poverty forcing men to join the police and women the ranks of prostitution; finally workers, if you want the reign of justice, be intelligent and arise!"
- Paris Commune bulletin, April 5, 1871

This is the sixth and final part of the series. You can find part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 at the links.


The Commune responded that if the "bandits of Versailles" continued "to butcher or shoot our prisoners" that they would reply by shooting triple that number of hostages. But it was mostly an empty threat. Unlike Versailles, they simply didn't have that ruthless element in them.

The Jacobin members of the Commune revived the Law of Suspects from the 1792 Revolution, and a small number of hostages were rounded up. Leading this effort was Rigault, a disciple of Hebert with a hatred of the clergy.
When one of the arrested Jesuits answered Rigault's formal question as to the profession with the reply, "Servant of God," Rigault continued by asking him, "Where does your master live?" "Everywhere," was the Jesuit's answer. Rigault then dictated to his secretary: "Write down, X, calling himself the servant of one called God, a vagrant."

Rigault also happened to have saved the young life of painter Auguste Renoir. The still unknown Renoir was arrested as a suspected Versailles spy and was being marched to prison when he was spotted by Rigault.
Several years earlier Rigault was on the run from the government and just happened to have met Renoir painting in the forest at Fontainbleau. Renoir hid him from the authorities for several weeks. Now Rigault had the opportunity to return the favor. He gave Renoir a safe conduct pass and helped him leave Paris.

Rigault would be killed at the barricades during the final week. His body was left in the gutter for two days.

The Commune had already been attempting to use hostages to achieve an end. Louis Auguste Blanqui had been elected President of the Commune almost immediately upon its creation. However, Blanqui had been arrested by the Versailles government on March 17 - the day before the worker's uprising in Paris.
The Commune first offered Georges Darboy, the archbishop of Paris, in exchange for Blanqui. Then they offered every single hostage they had for Blanqui. Thiers turned them down flat. Attempts by the Commune to find out where Blanqui was being kept took too long.

In the end the Commune took a total of 74 hostages, most of them clergy. Only six of them were ordered to be shot, all during the final Bloody Week.

Vive Socialism

Where the Paris Commune set itself apart was its progressive legislation. Examples included:

* the right of women to vote

* the right of workers to take over and run a factory or store as a worker's co-operative if deserted by the owner (this was not nationalization). The owner would receive compensation

* the right to a secular education

* the separation of church and state

* granting pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guardsmen killed in battle

* abolition of some night work

* abolition of fines at work

* a 10-hour workday

* reforming the system of food distribution to the poor

Much of this legislation was far ahead of its time, although only part of it could be implemented in the short time the Commune existed.

One thing that should be stressed is that the Commune was not communism. One of the Commune members, Francois Jourde, referred to its policies as "practical socialism". He should have known - he was the Finance Delegate.

"I was poor when I entered the Ministry and so was I when I left."
- Francoise Jourde, at his trial

One good example of this was the Commune's policy towards the Central Bank of France. The Commune's hostages in no way influenced Theirs' attitude. But if the Commune had seized the over 1 Billion francs worth of bullion and securities in its vaults the story of the Commune would have ended much differently. Yet the idea of seizing such a valuable stash never seemed to have entered the minds of the Commune leaders.
The Commune was moral to a fault.

Much talk and effort was put into creating a secular public school system. The leaders of the Commune were very aware that a republic could only exist with educated citizens. In 1870 about a third of the children in Paris received no education at all, and another third received little. The creation of a system of free compulsory public education was well under way when the Commune was crushed.
It should be no surprise that this system of secular public education was one of the first things the aristocrats dismantled after defeating the Commune.

Outside of Paris the official propaganda was that the city had been taken over by crazed, bloodthirsty radicals. Because Versailles had established a siege of Paris (with Prussia's help), the Commune was unable to defend itself from the charges against it. Here's an example of how the Commune was portrayed.

In reality, life in Paris during the Commune was somewhat safer than before the war, despite the lack of a government police force on the streets.
While there was much talk about the "heroes of '93", there was no effort to bring back "the Terror". In fact, one of the most notable public events during the Commune was the public burning of a guillotine taken from a local prison.
The other public event that was probably the most remembered was the destruction of the Vendome column. The Vendome column was created by Napoleon I after his victory at Austerlitz, and made from the hundreds of brass cannons captured there. The Commune objected to very things it represented - militarism and imperialism.

This picture was later used by Versailles to identify Communards for execution.

The Second Siege

Ever since the defeat of the Grande Sortie on April 4, the Commune had hid behind the forts and walls of Paris. The most important fort of all was Fort Issy.
From Fort Issy the Commune dominated all the best approaches to Paris, and so for a full month the forces of Versailles bombarded the fort, while the cannons of Fort Issy, commanded by Louis Rossel, the Minister of War, kept them off of Paris.

Louis Rossel

Rossel was one of only two competent and experienced military officers, but he was handicapped by the lack of clear leadership and military structure in the Commune. The National Guard was controlled at a local level only, so it was never clear how many men would turn out and obey an order. Rossel was also in constant conflict with his mortal enemy, Felix Pyat, called "the evil genius of the Commune" by fellow Commune member Benoit Malon.
Pyat would escape Paris.

Felix Pyat

The only other notable military commander was Jaroslav Dombrowski, who for nearly two weeks fought the forces of Versailles to a standstill in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly.

By the first week of May the Commune had to abandon the nearly destroyed Neuilly neighborhood. On May 4 the redoubt at Moulin-Saquet fell to Versailles.
On May 9 Fort Issy, which had been almost completely leveled in the unrelenting bombardment, was finally abandoned to Versailles. There were now few Commune forces outside of the wall of Paris. Rossel resigned as Minister the same day. Dombrowski would be killed in the Bloody Week. Rossel would escape but be captured and executed.
Charles Delescluze was appointed the Minister of War the following day.

Louis Charles Delescluze

This meant that Versailles was free to bombard Paris at will, which it did. One of the ironies of the Second Siege was how the Versailles politicians who so enthusiastically bombarded the civilian neighborhoods of Paris were outraged when the Prussians did the same thing just a few months earlier during the First Siege.

La Semaine Sanglante

On Sunday, May 21, around 2 p.m., a Versailles officer saw a white handkerchief being waved on the wall near the Point-du-Jour gate. One M. Ducatel, a civil servant, who was later richly rewarded by Versailles for betraying the Commune, noticed that there were no National Guard troops in the area.
Ever since Fort Issy was abandoned the morale of the disorganized National Guard was dropping to the point of fatalism. The Guardsmen were returning to their neighborhoods of the popular sectors to prepare for their last stands at the barricades. Point-du-Jour was in a bourgeois sector and thus had few troops loyal to the Commune.
Before the night was over 60,000 Versailles troops had entered Paris. The final days of the Paris Commune were here.

Despite the inevitability of Versailles entering Paris, surprisingly few preparations had been made. By Monday morning the entire western third of Paris had been occupied by Versailles with almost no fighting. 1,500 National Guard had surrendered and multiple cannon batteries had been taken.
Then resistance stiffened. Around 600 barricades were erected in all. Most were just 5 feet high or so, and made out of cobblestones, metal grills, trees, and equipped with a cannon and a red flag. But some were enormous obstacles, 18 feet high, packed with earth, and layered. Women, children, and the elderly all helped in the defenses.

Like the June Days Revolt, coordination by the defenders was spotty at best. Most of the National Guard wanted to die defending their own homes. The only exception was in the areas around the Hotel de Ville and the Tuileries.
In Montmarte, 85 cannons and 20 machine-guns lay scattered around and dirty from where they were left after the March 18 revolt that started the events. The heights were practically abandoned, and thus were taken by Versailles with only a modest fight.
Prussian forces opened up their lines to Versailles troops so that they could enter Paris via Porte Saint-Ouen. The Prussian troops closed their lines afterward based on an agreement with Thiers not to let any communards escape.

As the Versailles advance ground to a bloody slog, so the atrocities escalated. 18 communards captured in the rue de Bac were executed at their barricades. 42 men, three women, and four children was shot in front of the wall where Lecomte and Clement had been killed two months earlier.
But this was just the start of Versailles' bloodlust. For the rest of the week batches of communard prisoners were brought there for a quick court martial, and an equally quick execution. Bareheaded, they were made to kneel down before the wall until their turn came.

It was around this time that some buildings were set on fire by Versailles incendiary shells. The communards responded by burning buildings threatening barricades by sheltering snipers.
By the time the barricades at the Place de la Concorde had been taken on the 24th, the entire rue de Rivoli was a sheet of flames. The Hotel de Ville fire was so strong that it couldn't be put out. the final 30 defenders were taken prisoner and shot. One old woman put her fingers to her nose as the firing squad leveled their rifles and worked them 'after the manner of the defiant of all ages.'

"This people, heroes in the face of the foreigner, must therefore by called assassins, criminals, wretches, because they died for the Universal Republic, because in defense of their beliefs, their concience, their idea, they preferred, in their fierce enthusiasm, to bury themselves in the ruins of Paris rather than abandon it to the coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than any foreigner."
- Lissagaray

The Ministry of Finance, the Tuileries, and Louvre Library, the Hotel de Ville, the Legion of Honor, the Prefecture of Police, the Gobelins gallery, the La Villette docks, and many, many more buildings were gutted. Whole blocks were destroyed in the Bastille area.
Some of the fires were started by Versailles cannons. Most were started by communards simply as a means of defense.

A pattern had emerged. Each time a barricade fell the defenders were put up against a wall and shot. 30 communards were thrown into a ditch before the Saint-Florentin barricade. 300 were shot after defenders fled into the Madeleine church. When the Versailles troops captured the seminary at Saint-Sulpice, which had been turned into a hospital by the Commune, they proceeded to execute all the medical staff and patients, leaving behind 80 corpses.
Piles of corpses were left everywhere by the Versailles troops - in the fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens, in the Cluny Theatre, in the rue de la Huchette, on a cart in the rue des Ecoles.
Delescluze, 62 years old and his health broken by long stints in prison, calmly walked out to the barricade at the Place du Chateau dEau, using his cane to do so. His climbed to the top of the barricade and was promptly killed by three bullets. Three people were killed while trying to reclaim his body.

"May God punish me for not having killed more [Versailles troops]. I had two sons at Issy; they were both killed. And two at Neuilly. My husband died at this barricade - and now do what you want with me."
- Female communard shortly before being executed

The crowds of Paris were driven insane by these massacres, and so looked for revenge. Their only available targets were the hostages. Without orders these mobs descended on the defenseless prisoners and slaughtered 70 of them.

The fighting now was confined to Belleville. Ideas were floated for the Commune to surrender in order to stop the bloodshed, but were dismissed. The reputation of the Commune would be that it went down fighting.
One of the last battlegrounds was at the Pere-Lachaise cemetery. 200 National Guard fought to the death in the graveyard. Those not killed outright were lined up and executed. The executions continued here for several days afterward.
Around noon the following day the last cannon was shot and the last barricade was taken.

The Commune was no more.


The battle may have been over, but the killing wasn't. Thiers may have given strict orders to the troops to obey the rules of war, but he never lifted a finger to enforce those orders.

"Today, clemency equals lunacy. What is a republican? A savage beast. We must track down those who are hiding, like wild animals. Without pity, without anger, simply with steadfastness of an honest man doing his duty."
- the Figaro, May 1871

To put it simply, Paris was sacked by the French army. Special martial courts were set up and the prisoners were divided into two group - one group to be shot, the other group to be sent to a Versailles prison. No one was set free.
Anyone who was in Paris was suspect. Anyone denounced was likely to be arrested and shot. Wearing a pair of army boots, having a watch, or simply having blackened hands was reason enough to be executed. One chimney sweeper was shot for having dirty hands.

Marquis de Gallifet, a Versailles officer was in charge of conducting the prisoners to Versailles. He was known for having prisoners shot for being wounded, being old, or being ugly. One time he had 111 prisoners executed for having white hair.

"I am Gallifet. You may think me cruel, but I am far more cruel than you think."

Gallifet's war crimes didn't stop his political career. He became Minister of War in 1899.

Prisoners were killed because they were too exhausted to walk any further. Sometimes they were killed by being dragged behind the cavalry horses. Once reaching Versailles they were pelted with mud and stones thrown at them from the bourgeois crowds, hitting them with canes and parasols.

Around this time stories began being told of arms sticking out of the ground from the shallow graves, indicating that some were buried alive. The swarming of flies made the city appear to have been struck by the plague.
The crematoria couldn't keep up with the supply of bodies and corpses began to burnt in open air pits.

There are no exact number of deaths. The number of Parisians killed were somewhere around 25,000, compared to 877 Versailles battle deaths and 6,454 wounded.
This was far more than were killed during The Terror of 1793-94, or the White Terror that followed, or even more than died in any one battle during the Franco-Prussian war.

Somewhere between 39,000 and 50,000 had been arrested and were imprisoned in the most appalling conditions. Elegant crowds would come and inspect them while they grovelled for biscuits thrown at them.
26 court martials were set up. Most of the prisoners had no lawyers to defend them. Only 23 were actually executed by the court martials.
20,000 were released after months in prison without ever being accused of a crime. 10,000 were condemned. 1,169 were sent to a fortified prison. 3,417 were deported, mostly to New Caledonia.
3,300 escaped and lived in exile, condemned to death if they ever returned to France.

In the July 1871 election, there were 40,000 fewer voters. An acute labor shortage hit Paris, especially in manual labor, because so many workers had been either killed or imprisoned.
In 1872 new laws were passed to outlaw all organizing by leftist parties, including labor unions. The International was outlawed and representatives were rounded up.
Paris remained under martial law until 1876. In 1880 a general amnesty was passed for any communards still alive.


Vladimir Lenin was a scholar of the Paris Commune. At his funeral, his body was wrapped in the remains of a red and white flag preserved from the Commune.
More importantly, Lenin learned the lesson from the event that a worker's uprising must be quick and ruthless. The ruling class would show no mercy if it was to regain control.

In August 1878, while New Caledonia was still full of exiled communards, the native Kanak tribe revolted against the ruling French authority. 1,000 natives were killed in the failed revolt.

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