A Quick History of the Paris Commune Revolution


 

If you know anything about the history of France, you know that the country is no stranger to revolutions. There were several throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the most famous being, of course, the French Revolution of 1789. Some of France’s revolutions would even go on to inspire other countries to do the same.

One lesser-known revolution that took place in 19th century France is the Paris Commune Revolution of 1871 when a revolutionary government took control of Paris for two months. If you want to know more about this historical event, read on!

It all started with the Franco-Prussian War

In 1870, France was at war with Prussia, which is a kingdom that no longer exists. It was controlled by Germany, and in September 1870, Prussia captured the Emperor of France at the time, Napoleon III.

Paris was protected by the French National Guard, but the Prussians were able to enter the city by force regardless. Interestingly enough, the National Guard was known for their brutal tactics and force, but the Prussians were able to get past them anyway.

By January 1871, the Prussians had complete control over Paris. Adolphe Thiers, the de facto leader of France since Napoleon was captured, signed a peace treaty with Prussia in order to get Paris back. The agreement stated that Thiers would call off the French Army, but wouldn’t touch the National Guard. Remember, these were pretty violent soldiers with a harsh approach to protecting their country.

The National Guard takes control

Paris Commune

Cannons stationed by the National Guard at the top of Montmartre – WikiCommons

Thier’s peace treaty with Prussia may have ended the fighting, but it also meant that Paris was still technically under Prussia’s control. Prussian soldiers roamed the streets and higher-ups in the Prussian army were making important decisions that would affect the French.

The Natural Guard had had enough. In March 1871, a group of especially revolutionary guards banded together to form what was known as the Paris Commune. The Commune wanted to take back Paris and drive the Prussians out of their city for good.

Everything shifted when in on March 18, the French army attempted to remove several of the National Guard’s cannons which were located throughout the city. The Paris Commune took matters into their own hands with violence. Two National Guard soldiers attacked and killed two French army generals as a way of saying that they didn’t want to live under a government that was wrapped around Prussia’s finger.

This led to an all-out battle in Paris. The fighting was centered mostly around the areas of Belleville, Buttes-Chaumont, and Montmartre. The National Guard began capturing important members of the French army to hold for hostage (or worse). Ultimately, the Paris Commune took control of the city. They were now the ones in charge.

The Paris Commune governs for just a few months

Commune

The celebration of the election of the Commune, 28 March 1871 – WikiCommons

The Commune had its first meeting on March 28 with high spirits. There was excitement in the air as people suggested tasks that needed to be done and changes that needed to be made. The new government created a long list of things that they wanted to accomplish with the new government. A few of their goals included:

  • Separation of church and state
  • Abolishment of child labor and night labor for some industries
  • No more fines set on workers by their employers
  • The creation of a new calendar

Women were also very much involved in the Commune, which was rare for the time. That said, they still couldn’t vote or serve in the government. But, several feminist initiatives emerged during the Commune, including a women’s group called L’Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés (Women’s Union to Defend Paris and Care for the Wounded in English). The group called for equal treatment of women as well as more employment opportunities outside the home. They also called for equal pay.

While the Paris Commune certainly had a lot of good ideas, Thiers and the rest of the French government (who were hiding out safely at Versailles) wanted to take them out and reclaim Paris. At the end of March 1871, they began to plan their revenge and return to Paris.

The Bloody Week and the end of the Commune

Commune

Barricades during the Paris Commune, near the Place de la Concorde by Metropolitan Museum of Art – WikiCommons

The French Army continued to inch closer and closer to Paris by April. The National Guard had set up barricades and other forms of protection around the perimeter of Paris but the army kept pushing forward.

By the end of May, the French Army had successfully invaded Paris from the west. On May 21, neighborhoods like Auteuil and Passy in the 16th arrondissement had been overtaken. On May 22, the first battles in the street began. The Commune issued a call to arms and unfortunately did not receive a very enthusiastic response.

On May 23, the northern village of Montmartre was the center of the fighting, as both sides struggled to take control of the hill. In the center of the city, the National Guard set fire to the Tuileries Palace, the former home of the kings and queens of France.

Commune

A street in Paris in May 1871, by Maximilien Luce – WikiCommons

The next day, May 24, the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) was set on fire. The French Army also began executing members of the Paris Commune. On May 25, a man named Louis Charles Delescluze, a leader of the Commune, was executed as well. On May 26, more people were executed, and the Army took control of the Place de la Bastille.

The “Bloody Week,” as it would become known as, ended on May 27-28. At this point, the National Guard still had the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery under control. 200 guardsmen were left to defend the Commune against the French Army. All of the guardsmen were then killed by members of the army. The Paris Commune lived from March 18-May 28, 1871.

Conclusion

The story of the Paris Commune has a very violent ending, but it’s an important piece of French history. I hope that you learned something new and that you now understand this part of Paris’ rich story!

If you want to learn more about Parisian history and you’re in the city, hop on one of our walking tours! Click here to learn more and make a booking.

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