The uprising that Victor Hugo so vividly commemorated and romanticized in “Les Misérables” was in fact a small affair, overshadowed by other eruptions that shook the City of Light during the 19th century.
The last of these, the Commune uprising of 1871, was by far the bloodiest and the most dramatic.
Yet despite the deaths of thousands of Communards and their supporters, this bloodbath has slipped into the shadows of history.
John Merriman, professor of history at Yale University, impressively rescues this revolution from obscurity in “Massacre,” his devastating account of the Commune uprising.
Merriman, whose many books include the classic “A History of Modern Europe” and the more recent “The Dynamite Club,” featuring turn-of-the-century French anarchists, provides the reader with welcome context, from the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War to the miseries of everyday life for Parisian workers.
By the time the Commune uprising broke out, Paris and Parisians had suffered enormously, and those who suffered the most were, as always, the poor.
Igniting the insurrection was France’s humiliating defeat by Germany in the war, during which Bismarck’s army captured Napoleon III and subjected Paris to a brutal winter siege.
The new French republic, established after the overthrow of Napoleon III’s imperial government, staggered on as food became scarce, fuel became scarcer, and many starved or froze.
After many months, the French capitulated, agreeing to peace terms that included a crushing indemnity and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Using the occasion to humiliate the French further, Bismarck proclaimed the German empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and marched his troops in victory down the Champs-Elysees.
For those who had suffered for so long in the attempt to outlast the Germans, this was unacceptable. In March 1871, the belligerently patriotic workers of Paris rose up in revolt.
In the face of this opposition, the French government, under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers, beat a hasty retreat to Versailles, while the workers established their own government, the highly contentious but socially conscious Paris Commune.
Trouble erupted first in the workers’ stronghold of Montmartre, where government troops (called the Versaillais by Merriman, who leans very much in favor of the rebels) seized a large number of cannons from citizens who had subsidized them through public subscription and dragged them to the top of the Butte of Montmartre, where they were determined to keep them.
During the ensuing confrontation, a mob captured two generals and shot them. From this moment, a bloodbath became inevitable, although as Merriman shows, the Communards were not responsible for the full horror.
Thiers carefully planned an invasion of Paris, past forts and through thick walls that, several decades earlier, he had been responsible for building. The troops of Versailles probed and prodded until finally, in May, they found their opening and poured into Paris.
Outnumbered and disorganized, the Communards fought fiercely but were driven from the center of town to its outskirts — to Montmartre, Belleville and all those impoverished communities in the 11th, 18th, 19th and 20th districts. Here, in home territory, they put up a fierce fight but were overwhelmed — and massacred.
Merriman provides shattering descriptions, mostly drawn from first-person accounts of the mass killings and atrocities committed by the Versaillais. Women, children, ordinary people looking for food or dragged from their beds — huge numbers, Communards and non-Communards alike, were summarily shot or bayonetted, many of them disfigured beyond recognition.
Merriman suggests that the humiliation French soldiers had experienced at German hands helped to fuel the Versaillais’ terrible vengeance, which they took out on the most vulnerable citizens of Paris. He also notes that fear played a large role among those Parisians who helped the Versaillais, especially as exaggerated rumors circulated about Communard killing and destruction.
Paris, after all, was less than a century removed from the Reign of Terror.
But especially important, according to Merriman, was the hatred that the well-to-do held toward the downtrodden. He quotes individuals who speak of the Communards and their supporters as beasts or wild animals, whose extermination was necessary to rid the city of a terrible contagion. Paris, according to this point of view, needed to be purified — an expiation by blood.
When the terrible time in May since known as “Bloody Week” was over, and the last of the Communards were lined up against the wall in Pere Lachaise cemetery and shot, the Communards had executed 68 hostages, while the Versaillais had executed between 12,000 and 15,000.
Thousands more were slaughtered in the streets of Paris, and many more simply disappeared.
The Paris Commune may have been the last of the 19th-century revolutions, but as Merriman persuasively concludes, it also served as a chilling introduction to the atrocities of the century to come.
Mary McAuliffe is the author of “Dawn of the Belle Epoque” and “Twilight of the Belle Epoque.”
Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, by John Merriman (327 pages; Basic; $29.99)