ON THE south-eastern wall of Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, a marble plaque, inscribed “Aux morts de la Commune”, marks the spot where Europe’s bloodiest 19th-century uprising reached its end.
The 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune is being marked by Covid-restricted cultural events from Saint-Denis to the Rue de la Fontaine, site of the final barricade. It is also providing an opportunity to reflect on a brief but savage experience that still stirs bitter emotions.
The sudden emergence of the Commune, in March 1871, just four years after Europe’s crowned heads had descended on Paris for its Exposition Universelle of fashion, business, and technology, shocked the Continent.
A year earlier, when France had been defeated by an invading Prussian army at Metz and Sedan, the workers of Paris had refused to accept surrender and proclaimed a “social and democratic” Third Republic.
President Louis Adolphe Thiers sent forces to pacify the city, and a provisional workers’ government agreed to negotiate. But this was overruled by a self-declared Committee of Public Safety; and, on 18 March 1871, in a blaze of red flags, a revolutionary commune was proclaimed.
The city’s factories were turned into co-operatives, and wages were standardised, while Napoleon’s Victory Column, at the Place Vendôme, was pulled down, and the Hôtel de Ville, Conseil d’État, Tuileries Palace, and Finance Ministry were doused in petrol and set alight.
Two months later, Thiers’s forces, commanded by Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, crossed the Seine from Versailles and entered Paris after bombarding the city. It took them eight days to clear it of suspected Communards, killing up to 20,000 men, women, and children, and arresting 50,000 more in what became known as la semaine sanglante (“the bloody week”). As parallel communes had been declared at Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, and Narbonne, the deposed government had feared a nationwide insurrection, and used this to justify its ferocity and victory celebrations.
THE Commune had targeted the country’s predominant Roman Catholic Church, long resented for identification with wealth and privilege — “a clerical establishment operating in the shadows”, as the anarchist Élie Reclus called it.
In 1846, Pope Pius IX had condemned the “unspeakable doctrine of communism”, expressing confidence that it could be held at bay by the united efforts of Christian governments. By 1871, when a succession of international revolutionary congresses had threatened violence against church institutions, the confrontation had reached a head.
Pamphlets circulated, accusing the Church of hostility and betrayal, while places of worship were used as ammunition dumps and political clubs, religious education was abolished, and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was set alight, amid angry calls for an expiatory chapel commemorating the guillotined King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette to be torn down.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!” the Communard newspaper La Montagne declared, branding belief in God “a pretext for robbery and murder”.
On 4 April, 120 priests, magistrates, and traders, chosen for their social prominence, were arrested, to be held as hostages against reprisals by Thiers’s army at Versailles.
The list included Archbishop Georges Darboy, of Paris, who had, ironically, cold-shouldered France’s authoritarian governments. “For 19 centuries, you’ve stifled free thought in the name of your Christ religion — now it’s the turn of free thought to get the better of you!” the Commune’s 25-year-old security chief, Raoul Rigault, taunted him.
The Commune offered to swap Archbishop Darboy, who refused to sign himself “ex-archbishop”, for the revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, who had been elected Commune President from his Versailles prison cell. Thiers turned the offer down, effectively sealing the Archbishop’s fate.
The United States Ambassador, Elihu Washburne, was “profoundly moved” by the Archbishop’s frail, emaciated appearance when he visited him in Mazas prison.
“I was the first man the archbishop had seen till then, apart from the guards and judges,” Washburne recorded. “But he seemed aware of his critical position and perfectly prepared for the worst that might befall him. Not one bitter word, not one reproach were uttered by him against his persecutors”.
On 24 May, as Versailles forces closed in, Darboy and his fellow-hostages were transferred to the more secure La Roquette prison, surrounded by a hostile crowd.
When an order came to kill them in retaliation for Versailles atrocities, they were saying mass in their cells, and the guards questioned the instruction. An hour later, the Archbishop died, with five others, against the prison wall, reputedly blessing his executioners.
A group of Dominican priests were shot a day later, and left lying in the Rue d’Italie. Eleven nuns and girls, the youngest aged eight, suffered a similar fate. On 26 May, ten Jesuit and Sacred Heart priests were taken in a group of 52 to the Commune’s last stronghold at Belleville and hacked to death.
THE Commune crushed, the triumphant Thiers and MacMahon claimed to have vanquished the revolutionary cause for ever, and presided over an outpouring of propaganda, complete with crude photo-montages depicting the commune’s stalwarts as degenerates.
While some celebrated figures, from Gustave Flaubert to George Sand, readily lent support, there were others who feared that violent discontent would soon return.
“There has been neither compromise nor conciliation; the solution has been brutal, imposed by sheer force of arms,” the diarist Edmond de Goncourt wrote.
“The bleeding has been done thoroughly, and a bleeding like that, by killing the rebellious part of a population, merely postpones the next revolution.”
Would-be anarchists and subversives everywhere, meanwhile, learned vital lessons.
Marx, whose monumental Das Kapital of 1867 had set a new baseline for agitation, saw the Commune as the first “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which had broken the “parson power” of the Church and put class struggle back on the agenda after the defeats of 1848. But the Communards had been defeated, Marx concluded, by their own “good nature” and “conscientious scruples”: by shrinking back from the required ruthlessness.
Lenin, similarly, lauded the Commune as a practice run for 1917. Instead of trying to establish justice, however, it should have concentrated on “exterminating its enemies”, he argued. Its brutal suppression had revealed what the vengeful bourgeoisie would do when attempted revolutions collapsed. Against such enemies, there could be no place for hesitation or doubt. The time had come for true “revolutionary boldness”.
WITH dozens of its clergy murdered, and much of its infrastructure ruined, the Church would learn lessons, too — although this would take some time.
The Papal Nuncio was criticised for failing to save Archbishop Darboy, whose body was recovered from a ditch and given a state funeral, while the Sacré-Coeur basilica was constructed at Montmartre to symbolise the restored moral order.
Yet moves against the Church continued across Europe. Secularising reforms were enforced in Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, Portugal, and Belgium, while an anti-clerical government in Spain deposed Queen Isabella II and seized church lands.
In Germany, Bismarck initiated a Kulturkampf, banning religious orders, confiscating property, and imprisoning more than 1000 priests. In Italy, where King Victor Emmanuel had annexed the Papal States in 1870, a secret society, the Alfieri, demanded “the expulsion of priests and burning of all churches”.
Church leaders saw the necessity of a convincing social alternative to radical doctrines. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII duly defended the rights of workers in the encyclical Rerum Novarum. He deplored how the “greed of unchecked competition” had enabled “a small number of very rich men” to “lay upon the teeming masses of labouring poor a yoke little better than slavery”.
Yet the much quoted encyclical came too late, and was too restrained, to correct the Church’s image in the eyes of radical agitators, who still saw it as an enemy of freedom, an institution committed to ruling rather than serving.
In 1905, after more than a century’s antagonism, church properties were renationalised. Church and State were declared totally separate under a new French law.
“We have to undo in a very short time the clerical reaction of a century,” France’s anti-clerical Premier, Émile Combes, a former RC seminarian, told the Chamber of Deputies. “Once again, the Church has organised itself into a despotic hierarchy, leading the people to an ideal totally opposed to modern society.”
It would take further confrontation before the Church across Europe finally relinquished its identification with power, stopped compromising its spiritual independence for the sake of material advantage, and found its rightful place as a modernising social and cultural force, ready to co-operate with all political systems that respected human rights and dignity.
THE Communards’ end came on 28 May in a final desperate fight among the tombstones of Père Lachaise, some still scarred by bullets, where 147 captured diehards were later put against a wall and shot.
The marble plaque was installed in 1904, although it took further decades for separate tablets to commemorate those summarily executed at the Jardin de Luxembourg and other Paris locations, and until 2016 for a National Assembly resolution to rehabilitate slaughtered civilians.
While the Commune still serves as an iconic emblem for anarchists, socialists, and internationalists of every stripe, its legacy also resonates powerfully for many forms of contemporary protest. Not surprisingly, this month’s anniversary has provoked some strong feelings.
Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of martyrdom, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.