MASSACRE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PARIS COMMUNE
By John Merriman
Basic Books. $29.99, 384 pages
To the annoyance of many of us, the French have long exuded an attitude of moral and intellectual superiority — a self-appraisal that, in my view, falls far short of reality.
Consider, if you would, that the history of France literally drips with blood. For starters, we have the savage repression of the Knights Templar, which during the Crusades amassed the largest standing army in the Christian kingdom, and were the leading bankers as well. Pope Clement V felt challenged, so at his order the French King Philip IV had “fifty-four Templars burned alive on one morning in Paris,” according to John Robinson’s 1991 book “Dungeon, Fire & Sword.” The Knights Templar vanished overnight.
Or the French Revolution and its aptly-named sideshow, The Terror. The British historian David Andress estimates that the Revolution brought death to “one-half million or more,” thousands condemned as “traitors” by ad hoc military courts. To make these murders more “efficient,” the revolutionists devised a guillotine to chop off heads at an assembly-line pace.
The Napoleonic wars, the product of an empire-hungry general? France ravaged Europe for more than a decade; historians estimate the body count, military and civilian, at between 3.5 million and 6.5 million persons.
Ancient history? In part, perhaps. But the French propensity for violence was grotesquely illustrated once again in 1871, when politically disenchanted Parisians took up arms against the government in the name of a “more just society.”
Their grievances were legitimate, according to historian John Merriman of Yale University, a specialist in European history. Post-Revolution France was once again in the hands of a Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon III, a nephew of the late emperor. Short and corpulent, enemies jibed at him as “the hat without the head.”
Immigration from the countryside saw the Parisian population double in the 1850s and 1860s. Living conditions were dreadful. One observer described Paris as a “gothic city, black, gloomy, excrement-and-fever ridden, a place of darkness, disorder, violence and blood.” In Paris, more people died every year than were born.
Napoleon turned to the architect Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to rebuild the tattered city, with the aim of “bringing light and air” into a city ravaged by periodic epidemics of cholera. Haussmann delivered: broad boulevards, sewers and splendid avenues, gave Paris a sparkling new face. (Some noted that the width of the boulevards made them obstacles to the construction of revolutionary barricades.) But Haussmann’s rebuilding also entailed the destruction of some 100,000 apartments in 20,000 buildings, further cramming the populace into inferior housing. Meanwhile, more prosperous residents delighted in the “rebirth of the queen city of Europe.” Sensing disorder, Napoleon sought stability through police spies said to number more than 4,000, who kept dossiers on 170,000 Parisians.
Alas, in the midst of rising have or have-not contradictions, the incompetent Napoleon chose to blunder into war with Prussia (over the trivial issue of succession to the Spanish throne.) In hindsight, his military planning was abysmal. During “mobilization,” trains carried regiments to scattered fields distant from any fighting; few soldiers (or officers) cared to die in what was considered a senseless war.
Napoleon’s drubbing by the Prussians was swift and cruel. Siege guns battered Paris. As food supplies vanished, “mice and even rats became meals.” Finally, a “Government of National Defense” capitulated. Surrender terms forced France to cede the prosperous region of Alsace and much of Lorraine to Germany. A new government, the Commune, was formed under an emerging and erratic revolutionist named Adolphe Thiers, who was perhaps not the measured leader Paris needed at the time. As Mr. Merriman writes, “He may have had a Napoleon complex, if there is such a thing. Even a friend noted that Thiers reacted to anyone who ‘refused him blind confidence’ with outrage and verbal violence.”
Thiers proved an absolute failure. During a complicated leadership struggle, he turned on his erstwhile comrades in the Commune and helped destroy the revolution he had helped create. The disgraced army split into paramilitary factions, which set out to help him crush the Commune. Officers for the most part wanted naught to do with such reforms as humane rules for the workplace and betterment of the health system. Soon a civil war raged, with Frenchmen slaughtering Frenchmen, in horrific numbers. Thiers’ goal seemed to be creating a ruling faction that would prevent any future “revolution.”
Cannon fire ripped through neighborhoods that are now familiar tourist haunts. Soldiers announced they would take no prisoners. In the Latin Quarter, one Communard reported, one could hear only “the sounds of execution squads at every step, bodies, every second, the sound of shots killing ordinary people.” Summary “justice” resulted in Communard leaders being gunned down by firing squads.
Mr. Merriman throws up his hands in frustration in trying to tally the human toll. (Estimates are as high as 100,000.) In essence, Paris became a “slaughter house,” with no one pausing to count or identify the dead. He describes the so-called “Bloody Week” — May 21 to 28, 1871 — as “the biggest massacre in nineteenth-century Europe.”
The violence had a far-reaching aftermath. The Communards inspired such radicals as Karl Marx and Mao Zedong. Mr. Merriman concludes, “If the Paris Commune of 1871 may be seen as the last of the nineteenth-century revolutions, the murderous, systematic, state repression that followed helped unleash the demons of the twentieth century.”
The Paris Commune is one “achievement” that the French are happy to ignore.
• Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books. He lives in Washington.