1871: The Paris Commune falls

15 comments May 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the last barricade of the Paris Commune fell to the onslaught of the army — and a legion of Parisians fell to the army’s firing squads.

On the evening of that bright Sunday when the insurrection finally collapsed, a Sunday when the streets of central Paris were crowded with returning bourgeois, all expressing their satisfaction that the struggle was at last over, the city’s walls were placarded with a proclamation emanating from MacMahon. “Inhabitants of Paris,” said he, “the Army of France has come to save you. Paris is delivered. At four o’clock our soldiers carried the last position occupied by the insurgents. Today the struggle is over, order, work and security will now revive.

I read that announcement in the Rue de Rivoli, not far from the Hotel-de-Ville. A moment later, however, I heard a discharge of musketry … Several insurgents who had been taken fighting were being shot. (My Adventures in the Commune, Paris, 1871, an anti-Commune source)

The day was climax and curtains for the first working-class seizure of power in industrial Europe, but in truth indiscriminate reprisal executions had been underway since troops of the conservative Versailles government first breached rebellious Paris on May 21.

What followed was semaine sanglante, the “bloody week” — each barricade’s surviving defenders executed summarily, and anyone in the city liable to a similar fate if the nearest French officer disliked the cut of his or her jib. Rumors swept the city that women of the Commune were torching buildings, for instance, and suddenly any woman in the street could be killed as an arsonist; some firefighters were shot as saboteurs when the “water” they threw on such flames failed to speedily quench them,* and was consequently adjudged to be kerosone.

And heaven help he who should chance to resemble one of the wanted Communard leaders!

Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium … Members and functionaries of the Commune were thus shot, and often several times over, in the persons of individuals who resembled them more or less.


Un rue de Paris en 1871, by Maximilien Luce.

The total body counts are guesswork: the killing ran far ahead of the record-keeping. Twenty thousand, or thirty, or more are thought to perished by summary execution. Even the press of the bourgeoisie, whose sword arm the Versailles men comprised, was aghast. London’s Times filled its broadsheets with calumnies upon the Commune, but noted on May 29:

“The Revolution is crushed;” but at what a cost, and amid what horrors! … the Communists seem not very much worse than their antagonists. It sounds like trifling for M. Thiers to be denouncing the Insurgents for having shot a captive officer “without respect for the laws of war.” The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women and children, during the last six days.

Whatever the true death toll, it massively surpassed that of the much more eagerly commemorated Revolutionary Terror.

Not for Executed Today to number what the butchers themselves could not. In a city turned charnel house in the midst of a Week of Blood, a few scenes of mortality from the day the Commune fell. (Heavily sourced to the very pro-Commune — hence potentially sensational — History of the Commune of 1871)

This people, heroes in the face of the foreigner, must therefore by called assassins, criminals, wretches, because they died for the Universal Republic, because in defense of their beliefs, their conscience, their idea, they preferred, in their fierce enthusiasm, to bury themselves in the ruins of Paris rather than abandon it to the coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than any foreigner.

-Lissagaray

The 147 Fédérés at Communards’ Wall

At a wall still consecrated to leftists in the Pere Lachaise cemetery of Belleville, 147 were summarily shot.

The 147 are acclaimed as the last defenders of the Commune.

the Commune is in its death throes. Like the dragon of fairy lore, it dies, vomiting flames … What must these men feel who are killing and being killed in the cemetery! To die among the dead seems horrible. But they never give it a thought; the bloody thirst for destruction which possesses them allows them only to think of one thing, of killing! Some of them are gay, they are brave, these men. That makes it only the more dreadful; these wretches are heroic! Behind the barricades there have been instances of the most splendid valour. A man at the Porte Saint-Martin, holding a red flag in his hand, was standing, heedless of danger, on a pile of stones. The balls showered around him, while he leant carelessly against an empty barrel which stood behind. — “Lazy fellow,” cried a comrade. ‘”No,” said he, “I am only leaning that I may not fall when I die.”

-Paris Under the Commune, an anti-Commune source

Communard Eugene Varlin

Varlin, alas! was not to escape. On Sunday the 28th May he was recognized in the Rue Lafayette, and led, or rather dragged, to the foot of the Buttes Montmartre before the commanding general. The Versaillese sent him to be shot in the Rue des Rosiers. For an hour, a mortal hour, Varlin was dragged through the streets of Montmartre, his hands tied behind his back, under a shower of blows and insults. His young, thoughtful head, that had never harboured other thoughts than of fraternity, slashed open by the sabres, was soon but one mass of blood, of mangled flesh, the eye protruding from the orbit. On reaching the Rue des Rosiers, he no longer walked; he was carried. They set him down to shoot him. The wretches dismembered his corpse with blows of the butt-ends of their muskets.

Varlin was shot along with a nameless batch of others to whom the March 18 execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas had been hastily imputed (they were held at the generals’ execution site, to contemplate their sin). A pro-government paper allowed that Varlin “died game.”


L’execution de Varlin, another Maximilien Luce scene.

Many at the stock exchange

According to the Paris Francais as quoted by this Marxist review of the events

It is at the Bourse that there was to-day the largest number of executions. The doomed men who attempted to resist were bound to the iron railing.

The stock exchange is “a fit place, to be sure, for this sort of business,” observes our interlocutor.

Eighty-plus defenders of Belleville, at the Arc de Triomphe

The London Times editorialized on May 31 upon this incident when the Marquis de Gallifet plucked from the mass of Belleville’s May 28 captives “eighty prisoners, principally soldiers of every arm, linesmen, artillerymen, and Zouaves, [who] were set apart and afterwards led to the right of the rampart to be shot.”

The French are filling up the darkest page in the book of their own or the world’s history. The charge of ruthless cruelty is no longer limited to one party or to one class of persons. The Versailles troops seem inclined to outdo the Communists in their lavishness of human blood. The Marquis de Gallifet is escorting a column of prisoners to Versailles or Satory. He “picks out eighty-two of them, and shoots them at the Arc de Triomphe.” Next came a lot of 20 firemen, then a dozen women, one aged 70. On another spot our Correspondent came upon “80 corpses, piled upon each other, a mass of arms and legs and distorted faces, while the roads and gutter literally flowed with blood.” About 1,000 are said to have thus suffered. By this wholesale and summary execution of prisoners in batches of 50 and 100, not only must the innocent perish with the guilty, but many must bear the penalty of imaginary guilt.

An utterly disconnected Englishman, according to the paper’s correspondent, was accidentally among the four score at the Arc, and only saved by the fortuitous intervention of a Belgian attache.

an English officer somehow got mixed up in the procession, and was forced to keep in it by the escort, who, out of 5,000 prisoners, could not, of course, be expected to recognize one innocent man … it so happened that some of the prisoners tried to escape, and to make an example the leader of the cavalry escort, the Marquis de Gallifet, a man who is not prone to err on the side of mercy, had then and there 81 shot, and the English officer was all but one of them, his explanations being at first refused the slightest attention. Human life has, in fact, become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog.

Socialist physician Tony Moilin

One single fact was Tony Moilin reproached with: that of having on the 18th March taken possession of the mairie of his arrondissement, and having thus had a share in giving the signal for the insurrection …

The court-martial condescended to tell him that the fact of the mairie, the only one he could be reproached with, had in itself not much importance, and did not merit death, but that he was one of the chiefs of the Socialist party, dangerous through his talents, his character, and his influence over the masses; one of those men, in short, of whom a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so

[A] respite of twelve hours was granted him in order that he might make his testament, write a few words of farewell to his father, and finally [marry his pregnant lover] … on the 28th May, in the morning, Tony Moilin was led into the garden a few steps from the palace and shot. His body, which his widow claimed, the surrender of which had been at first promised, was refused her. (History of the Commune of 1871)

The unnumbered dead of Lobau Barracks

Since morning a strong cordon is being formed round the theatre (Châtelet); where a court-martial is permanently established. From time to time one sees a band of fifteen to twenty individuals coming out, composed of National Guards, civilians, women and children fifteen to sixteen years old.

These individuals are condemned to death. They march two by two, escorted by a platoon of chasseurs, who lead and bring up the rear. This cortege goes up the Quai de Gevres and enters the Republican Barracks in the Place Lobau. A minute after one hears from within the fire of platoons and successive musketry discharges; it is the sentence of the court-martial which has just been executed.

The detachment of chasseurs returns to the Chatelet to fetch other prisoners. The crowd seems deeply impressed on hearing the noise of the shootings.

This is another publication’s story cited in the History of the Commune of 1871, which itself also details the court-martial procedures of this drumhead tribunal:

Thousands of prisoners who were led there were first of all penned in upon the stage and in the auditorium, under the guns of the soldiers placed in the boxes; then, little by little, like sheep driven to the door of the slaughter-house, from wing to wing they were pushed to the saloon, where, round a large table, officers of the army and the honest National Guard were seated, their sabres between their legs, cigars in their mouths. The examination lasted a quarter of a minute. ‘Did you take arms? Did you serve the Commune? Show your hands.’ If the resolute attitude of a prisoner betrayed a combatant, if his face was unpleasant, without asking for his name, his profession, without entering any note upon any register, he was classed. ‘You?’ was said to the next one, and so on to the end of the file, without excepting the women, children, and old men. When by a caprice a prisoner was spared, he was said to be ordinary, and reserved for Versailles. No one was liberated.

The classed ones were at once delivered to the executioners, who led them into the nearest garden or court. From the Châtelet, for instance, they were taken to the Lebau Barracks. There the doors were no sooner closed than the gendarmes fired, without even grouping their victims before a platoon. Some, only wounded, ran along by the walls, the gendarmes chasing and shooting at them till they fell dead. … There were so many victims, that the soldiers, tired out, were obliged to rest their guns actually against the sufferers. The wall of the terrace was covered with brains; the executioners waded through pools of blood.


Summary executions — death squads — continued for days or weeks afterwards in Paris; martial law throttled left organizing in the city; and those “fortunate” enough to have been captured alive were processed in a steady stream of judicial executions over the months yet to come.

The Commune, a palpably subversive example even in the present day, was destroyed in every way possible for the Versailles government. But its example could hardly be forgotten.

Marx would write The Civil War in France of the only proletarian revolution he would actually witness in his lifetime.

The next generation’s subversives also took inspiration from the Parisian example … and lessons from its mistakes. Lenin — a fond student of the Commune, who was eventually buried wrapped in a Communard banner — said that

two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over … The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.

“The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten,” Lenin vowed, and his own revolution gained a vital object lesson in the Bloody Week of Paris, and an anthem besides: Communard Eugene Pottier, fleeing the Versailles army’s slaughter, wrote the verses that have been sung ever since by millions dreaming of a better world — the Internationale.

* Water can accelerate a fire, under the right circumstances.

Also on this date

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