by midtowng | 1/02/2009 05:20:00 PM
"To Arms! Citizens, to arms! It is a choice now, as you know, between conquering or falling into the merciless hands of the reactionaries and clericals of Versasilles, or those scoundrels who deliberately delivered up France to the Prussians and are making us pay the ransom of their treachery! If you wish that the generous blood which has flowed like water these last six weeks be not infertile, if you wish to live in a free and egalitarian France, if you wish to spare your children your sufferings and your miseries, you will rise as one man and, before your fearsome resistance, the enemy, who flatters himself he will again submit you to his yoke, will win no more than the shame of the useless crimes with which he has befouled himself for the pasts two months."
- Paris Commune bulletin, May 21, 1871

This is part four of a five part series. You can find part 1, part 2, and part 3 at the links.

February 24, 1871, was the 23rd Anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, and so the people of Paris came out to celebrate. But it wasn't a celebration that representatives of the government were welcome to attend. In fact, there was a very nasty undertone to it. Any police discovered in the area were seized by National Guardsmen and disarmed.
One police spy named Vicenzini was discovered writing down battalion numbers. With the cry of mouchard, the crowd seized him, beat him senseless, tied him up, and then threw him into the Seine to his death.

Paris Prepares

The national elections that were held on February 8 were a disaster. Not because they didn't go smoothly, but because of the results. The provinces, cut off from Paris for months and unaware of the suffering there, voted for peace. Because the republicans supported the war against Prussia that meant the voters in the provinces turned to the alternative - the monarchists.
Things got worse from there.

The very conservative government showed absolutely no sympathy to Paris at all. The news laws included:

1) The moratorium on goods deposited at the state-run pawnshops was lifted. Things like mattresses and the scissors of starving seamstresses were about to be put up for sale. The tools of tradesmen were about to be lost.

2) The moratorium on back-rent during the siege was lifted. Landlords could demand it immediately in full, with interest due. This was unnecessarily cruel and heartless. The economy of Paris during the siege had simply stopped. No one had any money except for the wealthy. What's more, this didn't just effect the working poor. It also immediately bankrupted the small businessmen of Paris, thus forcing the petit-bourgeois to sympathize with the socialists.

As part of the Armistice agreement, the Prussian army was to be allowed a parade through Paris on March 1. The mood of the public was so ugly that the National Guard's duty during this time was to separate the public from the Germans.
Just a few days before the Prussians entered the city the National Guard, along with the public, had moved its cannons from the Place Wagram to various parks in working class neighborhoods such as Belleville and Montmartre. These cannons had been purchased by public subscription and had National Guard battalion numbers engraved on them. The reason for moving them was to prevent the cannons from falling into the hands of the Prussians.

This was the start of an insurrection. Over the next two weeks several police barracks and arms depots were overrun by mobs, and all the arms and ammunition were seized. Meanwhile, as part of the armistice agreement, the government had to release and disarm 200,000 troops, where there was little hope of them finding employment. 80,000 mobiles were let go, the last group set fire to their barracks as they left.
The government realizing that they were losing control of the city, tried to seize the cannons on both March 11 and March 13. Each time the local National Guard, and the crowd, prevented it. The government would try again.

Workers Revolution

Thiers arrived in Paris on March 15. He was not prepared to mollify Paris opinion. As he put it "the government will understand that the hour for action has at last restore order." The attempt to seize the cannons on Saturday, March 18, was a full-scale military adventure. Police would supplement several battalions of troops and arrest leaders of the National Guard. It would all be done at 3 a.m.
A National Guard sentry on duty, Turpin, was shot and killed as he tried to raise the alarm. A few guardsmen got away, but the plan appeared to succeed at first. The army had seized the guns at Montmartre.
But there was a problem...a shortage of horses to haul them away. Most of the horses in Paris had been eaten during the siege. So the army stood there and waited as the neighborhood woke up around them. The soldiers, who had no rations with them, accepted milk and bread that the local women offered them.

The horses were finally arriving by late morning, but by then National Guard units were also arriving, and the troops were surrounded by a huge crowd - mostly women. Two Guard officers approached the troops and offered to parley, and the troops raised the butts of their rifles in the air. General Claude Martin Lecomte, realizing that the situation was getting out of his control, rode his horse to the head of his troops and repeatedly ordered them to fire into the crowd. Women from the crowd thrust themselves in between the soldiers shouting "Will you fire on us? On your brothers? Our husbands? Our children?"
Lecomte's order to massacre civilians was met with stony silence. The crowd surged forward to embrace the troops. The officers were pulled off of their horses and seized. Lecomte was taken to a house used as a headquarters and held there by National Guard soldiers. He was later joined by General Thomas, a veteran of the June 1848 repression.
A large, angry crowd had gathered outside the house, and late in the afternoon they rushed the building, pushing aside the guardsmen there, and murdered Lecomte and Thomas.

At the same time throughout the city, barricades were springing up everywhere. Every effort to seize the cannons had failed. The government's attempts at rousing the "good" bourgeois battalions had also failed, as they were more sympathetic to the insurgents now.
At 3 p.m. three battalions of National Guard appeared before the Hotel de Ville in a demonstration. Thiers panicked and ordered an evacuation of Paris. He fled to Versailles along with several other members of the cabinet through a secret exit in the building.
The guardsmen were oblivious that the building was empty, as they had made no attempt to entering. It wasn't until several hours later that they politely knocked on the door of the building to find only a caretaker inside.

A New Day

"The proletarians of the capital, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling class, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking the direction of public affairs into their own hands...The disasters and public calamities which its political incapability and moral and intellectual decrepitude have plunged France into should rather prove to it that its time is over, and it has accomplished the task imposed on it in '89, and that it should, if not give up its place to the workers, at least let them have their turn at social emancipation."
- Journal Officiel

The government's retreat to Versailles was chaotic. The troops were insubordinate and had low morale. Some regiments openly declared they were ready to join the rebellion. So hasty was the withdrawal that some regiments were left behind and later surrendered to the National Guard.
On the other side, the revolutionaries were slow to realize their opportunities because they had come so easily. Only the Blanquists knew what to do - march on Versailles.

"Oh, if those devoted men [of the Central Committee] had had much less respect for legality, the Commune could have been nominated in a truly revolutionary fashion on the road to Versailles."
- Louise Michel

But Blanquists were a small minority. The majority of the revolutionary leaders were Proudhonists, and they were concerned with making their revolution look legal. That required an election of the Commune first.
There was a legitimate military reason not to march on Versailles - the Prussian forces still camped on the edge of Paris. Indeed, Bismark sent a letter to Thiers in the coming days expressing an offer to help Versailles against Paris, and thus crush the republican movement before it reached Germany. There is little doubt that the Prussian wouldn't act if Versailles suffered another defeat.
But the real reason that the Central Committee of the National Guard, which was the acting government of Paris until the Commune was elected, didn't march on Versailles was the naive belief that civil war could still be avoided, and that Versailles simply wouldn't bombard Paris.

In the coming days Paris prepared for the Commune election, and began negotiating with Versailles.
On March 23, the Mayors of the Paris arrondissements arrived in Versailles to petition the Assembly. Pandemonium broke out on the conservative wing and the session was temporarily suspended. Eventually the Assembly agreed to municipal and National Guard elections in Paris. The following day the Assembly voted to grant a one month suspension on back-rent and a suspension on the sale of objects from the state pawn shops.

These small gestures, if done in February, could have saved many lives. They now appeared to be nothing but a sign of weakness (which is what it was). This was reinforced by Thiers assurances that France "does not intend to declare war on Paris."
In reality these gestures were nothing more than an attempt to buy time.

On March 22, the local republicans seized the Hotel de Ville in Lyon and declared a Communal Commission. The red flag was unfurled and five municipal councillors were nominated.
However, the popular battalions of the National Guard failed to turn out. The conservative battalions did, and soon the commune members started slipping out the back door. The Lyon Commune collapsed virtually without a shot on March 24.
There were also commune movements in Saint-Etienne, Narbonne, and Le Creusot, all happening that week. All collapsed within a few days after troops were called in.

The only serious commune outside of Paris was in Marseille. When the prefect called out the National Guard to demonstrate against popular agitation, the National Guard arrested him and they formed a Communal Commission on March 23.
Like elsewhere in the southern France, the liberal bourgeoisie withdrew its support and the movement stalled. No measures were taken for the defense of the city and many of the workers returned to work. The town could probably have been retaken without violence, but that wasn't Thiers' method.
On April 4, Thiers sent troops to Marseille. After a few hours of street fighting the city had been retaken with a few dozen casualties. Afterward there were hundreds of arrests and a few executions. Marseille was kept under military rule until 1876.

Back in Paris several hundred bourgeois from the wealthy districts demonstrated at the Place Vendome on March 22, with signs that read "Long live the Assembly."
The following day a larger demonstration was planned at the Hotel de Ville. It was meant as a test of the National Guard's resolve. When the demonstrators began pushing and shoving against a line of National Guard, someone fired a shot. In a tragic recreation of the January 22nd demonstration, the National Guard shot into the crowd, killing between 12 and 14. One National Guardsman was also killed.
While there were no immediate repercussions from this massacre, it did forever drive a wedge between the sympathetic petit-bourgeois and the working class of the Commune. It also served as juicy propaganda for Versailles.

On March 26 Paris voted. There were 227,000 votes cast. The results were an overwhelming swing to the left. In the wealthy Louvre, Bourse, and Passy districts about 20 moderate Republicans were elected to the Commune. 14 immediately resigned. The working-class districts went overwhelmingly socialist.

"I am voting for the reddest of the reds, but, in God's name, if I knew of something more radical than the red flag I would choose that instead."
- working-class voter from 20th arrondissement

On Tuesday, March 28, the members of the newly elected Paris Commune lined up on the steps of the Hotel de Ville. A red flag fly high above the building in the brilliant afternoon sun. The drums rolled, the "Marseillaise" was sung, and cannons fired a salute.
The commune had become a reality.

This is the end of part four.

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