1871: Archbishop Georges Darboy, Paris Commune hostage

Add comment May 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the doomed Paris Commune martyred Archbishop Georges Darboy.

When Darboy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was tapped for the job in 1863, there had already been two recent occupants of the seat of Notre Dame killed violently over the generation preceding.*

A “learned, conscientious, and respected prelate,” Darboy’s own cross to shoulder was the collapse of the Second Empire with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

That conflict in turn triggered the 1871 working-class revolution in Paris which briefly drove the established government to the old Bourbon haunts at Versailles while maintaining the capital as the Paris Commune.

Darboy declined to follow the many Parisian bourgeoisie who escaped the city in those brief months, but his importance as a visible envoy of the rival order was not so easily refused. The Communards seized Darboy as perhaps the crown jewel among dozens of hostages against the anticipated Versailles counterattack.

Versailles declined to bargain for Darboy or any of the other human shields.** Instead, the city’s cobblestones drank the blood of 20,000 or more in a seven-day urban invasion in late May that has become known as the “bloody week” (semaine sangiante) — and the Commune’s hostages would mingle their blood with the those on the barricades, suffering in their few individual persons the vengeance the Parisian workers longed to visit upon an entire class.

When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”

At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.

The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.

They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ‘0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, — met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.

The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.

Lissagaray

The six who fell on this occasion would be followed in the Commune’s few remaining days by many more of their fellow hostages — and by countless communards. Theophile Ferre, who authorized the May 24 reprisal execution (and specifically called for Archbishop Darboy’s selection) was himself executed by the victorious bourgeois government that November.

* One of those violent deaths sent an assassin to the guillotine in 1857.

** Specifically, the Commune attempted to exchange Darboy and other hostages for Louis Auguste Blanqui, the great socialist leader whom Versailles had taken prisoner.

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1871: Gaston Cremieux, Marseilles Commune leader

Add comment November 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1871, Gaston Cremieux was shot at Marseilles for his role in that city’s lately-destroyed Commune.

Cremieux (French Wikipedia page: most external links in this post are also in French) was a gifted young lawyer with a social conscience who was known for taking on indigent-defense cases and working-class causes.

Given his prominence in radical circles, Cremieux was naturally thrust into leadership when word of the Paris Commune brought Marseilles, too, into a popular rising.

Lissagaray called Cremieux “an elegant and effeminate speaker … a mild enthusiast, who beheld the revolution under rather a bucolic aspect.” His admirable principles were not those of bloody revolutionary will, and he was accordingly viewed (or disdained) as a moderate.

The Marseilles Commune lasted only a fortnight: neighboring towns did not rally to it, and elsewhere in the south Toulouse and Narbonne communards were crushed within days.

When troops of the bourgeois Versailles government — the city to which it had fled from Paris — took Marseilles, according to Lissagaray, they “arrested at random, and dragged their victims into the lamp-stores of the station. There an officer scrutinized the prisoners, made a sign to one or the other of them to step out, and blew out his brains. The following days there were rumours of summary executions in the barracks, the forts and the prisons. The number of dead the people lost is unknown, but it exceeded 150.”

Cremieux’s own conscience was pretty clean in all this — he’d even advocated against keeping hostages. (Unsuccessfully, but Marseilles did not kill its hostages, unlike Paris.) “Show me those whom Cremieux has shot,” his lawyer would later protest to the military tribunal called to try him.

Cremieux’s own shooting would have to suffice. He died crying “Vive la République!” as the firing squad emptied its barrels into his torso … as per Cremieux’s request to preserve his face lest his parents be too shaken by his corpse. Just call him a family man.

A posthumously-published French volume of Cremieux’s work contains verse, a play about Robespierre’s fall, and his “Impressions of a Condemned Man”.

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1872: Communards Serizier, Boin and Boudin

1 comment May 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1872, three adherents of the late Paris Commune were shot at Satory (which was doing steady business in the execution of Communards).

We take this story from the dispatch filed the same day for the London Telegraph and reprinted in the New York Times. Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.


Dilatory as the French authorities are in bringing culprits to trial, they dispatch them with terrible haste so soon as their guilt has been certified by the final Court of Appeal. No public notice is ever given of an execution, and few people ever hear of it until it is all over.

A paragraph appeared in an evening paper last night to this effect: “The Commission of Pardons has commuted the sentenced passed on PASCAL and LUCIPIA; the appeals of SERIZIER, BOIN and BOUDIN have been rejected.” To the world at large this paragraph conveys no hint as to the date of execution; the initiated read between the lines that on the following morning, dawn will rise on a dismal military pageant on the plains of Satory.

There is, nevertheless, a certain amount of uncertainty in the matter, so very closely are all such secrets kept in France; and it was only on the receipt of a hint from a high authority that some time after midnight I determined to start with a friend for Satory. The impression made upon me by the ghastly spectacle I shall try to describe in the plainest possible language.

SATORY.

A finer exercising ground than the plain of Satory it is not possible to imagine. The ground is as flat as a billiard-table, and it is not devoid of a certain beauty — the thick turf being singularly fresh, and he vast square plain surrounded by a belt of fine trees.

Troops are marching in companies to take up their appointed positions on the ground. A raised battery is a prominent object, and opposite to it, at some distance, is a huge earthen mound, against which a target stands out distinctly in black and white. The troops are forming in three sides of a square, which is completed by this butt.

It is not until you get quite close to the mound that you perceive on the lower ground immediately in front three white sticks ranged in a line, each about four feet high and five feet apart. These are the poteaux against which the culprits are to stand.

A good many soldiers, not on duty, have turned out en amateur to see the show; they collect on the top of a mound near the butt, but they are driven down by the artillery sentinels and mounted police, who, dressed in a little authority, canter about with superfluous fidgety zeal.

The morning air is chill, and everybody on duty or off duty tries to comfort himself with a smoke. “Nous avons encore trente-cinq minutes,” says a sergent-de-ville, in a grumbling, querulous tone. And the condemned men? They only had thirty-five minutes, and methinks they had as much reason to complain.

A soldier proceeds to work at the target, sqwing it off short; he is going to take it away, perhaps, that it may not divert the soldiers’ aim; and one feels irritated with him for being so slow.

One wonders, too, that they have allowed the red signal flag to remain at the top of the butt. Would not a Communist see an omen or an augury in the accident?

An engineer close to me is coolly fashioning wedges, in preparation for the artillery practice, which is to begin “aussitot que cette affaire est finie.”

Another protests impatiently that he wants his breakfast. Three dogs, which are perpetually frightening the horses of the mounted police, as well as the riders, excite continual merriment. There are scarcely more than a dozen civilians present, but I observe two women.

One — a brazen-looking creature, with a black mustache, and wearing that peculiar kind of hooded cloak which you see constantly in Belgium — was laughing a hoarse, harsh laugh, that chilled one’s blood. The other was charmingly dressed in black silk, and looked like a lady; she spoke to nobody; her face was deadly pale; her eyes were large with tears, and yet there was a strange compression about the lips that told of intesnse firmness of purpose. Her bearing was rigidly calm, but I fancied that the stick of her dainty black parasol was snapped in two.

What had that woman to do at such a scene? I know not; but, assuredly, it was not curiosity that brought her there. There was now a slight diversion. A cart drove up covered with black cloth, and hid itself away to the left of the poteaux.

THE EXECUTIONERS AND THE CONDEMNED.

Then the pelotons or firing parties marched in and piled arms opposite the same slim sticks about which everything in that huge plain seemed to gather of its own accord.

The pelotons were taken, one from the line, two from the Chasseurs de Vincennes. Hardened though they must be by this time and embittered though they are against the Communists, I do not think, to do them justice, that they liked their duty. They looked pale, they were perpetually falling out, and they smoked with suspicious eagerness.

I tried to impress on my own mind that these fellows were murderous ruffians who had slain unoffending fellow-creatures in cold blood. SERIZIER and BOIN, Colonel and Lieutenant in the Communist army, had tortured and killed the very priests who had devoted themselves to the task of tending the wounded on both sides, for no reason but that they were good men. BOUDIN had actually shot down a chemist in the Rue Richelieu because he protested against his son, a mere lad, being impressed into working at a barricade.

But, with the best will in the world, I could not persuade myself that it was right and proper for 5,000 soldiers to be brought out under arms for the mere sake of killing three defenceless wretches. Meanwhile the minutes passed on; the officers rolled up cigarettes, compared watches, and consoled each other with the reflection, “Soyez tranquille, mon cher, ca sera l’heure militaire.”

And so it was; for just as the first silvery tones of a distant church clock were wafted across the heath, striking the hour, the trumpets rang, the drums beat Aux champs, the troops dressed up, and the three ambulance wagons dashed into the square at a sharp trot.

The prisoners had not been apprised of their appeal hvaing been rejected until four o’clock in the morning, but they seem to have accepted their fate with singular philosophy. They had all eaten and drunk, and SERIZIER had asked for a “pipe of tobacc” for the last time. In driving along he said to the two gendarmes by whom he was accompanied, “Wat a mistake I made to quit Belgium! Quelie belle affaire j’ai fait la. C’est egal, je saurai bien mourir.

Strangely enough, he confessed to a Dominican, a priest of the ver order against which he had shown such diabolical hatred.

Each man was accompanied by two gendarmes. And here I cannot help noting one of the strange peculiarities of an over-excited state of mind. When the drums beat “Aux champs,” the merely dramatic feeling of the scene was intensely moving.

And yet when, a moment later, I first caught sight of the tops of the jack-boots of the first tell gendarme who appeared at the ambulance doors, I was so forcibly reminded of “Le Petit Faust,” and scores of other pieces wherein these functionaries are held up to ridicule, that I almost burst out into hysterical laughter.

The tragedy, however, soon proved too terrible, for the gendarme was closely followed by BOIN, who had scarcely touched the ground before he exclaimed, waving his hat in the air, “Vive la Commune!”

The three men walked quickly to the poteaux, and placed themselves in position as coolly as though it were the most natural thing in the world. They then, as though with one accord, flung their hats or caps into the air, and shouted several times in thrilling tones, “Vive la Commune!”

They all three were smoking. SERIZIER threw away his pipe, but BOIN kept his cigar in his hand, and BOUDIN was actually smoking as he fell. The face of the latter was so covered up by the handkerchief with which he alone allowed his eyes to be bandaged that his features could not be discerned.

SERIZIER, who was in the middle, indignantly threw down the handkerchief with such force as to cast it far beyond him. BOIN also refused the bandage wherewith the soldier stationed beyond him offered to cover his eyes, and by an involuntary action he put it into his pocket.

BOUDIN was coarsely clad; and SERIZIER, an undersized man, with heavy sensual features, looked like the type of a London rough. BOIN was a tall, well-built man, having good, clean-cut features and black mustaches. He was dressed in a light-brown velvet coat, Garde Nationale trousers, and a colored-scarf round the waist.

THE EXECUTION.

The priest, going up to each in turn, kissed him on both cheeks, in what seemed to me a hurried and perfunctory manner.

Then, while the sentence was being read to the prisoners in a quick, low, quite inaudible tone, BOIN made a long harangue, much of which was lost in the perpetual rolling of those ghastly drums.

But one could distinguish snatches of sentences such as “Soldiers, you are children of the people as we are, and we will show you how children of the people can die. Nous mourons innocents,” and then opening wide his light coat — he wore no waistcoat — he offered his white shirt-front for a mark, and, striking his heart with his open palm, he exclaimed: “Portez armes en joue! feu! tirez au coeur!”

This he repeated several times, and while he was yet speaking, standing out clear away from the poteaux and looking death at ten paces literally in the face, a sword flashed in the sun, and the three men leaped from the ground only to fall to it in horrible contortions.

The smoke and the report were unheeded, for all the senses of the horrified spectator were arrested by the awful spectacle of writhing limbs and twisting hands.

BOIN seemed to be rewarded for his bravery by suffering less than the others, but SERIZIER literally rolled over, and BOUDIN also moved. The surgeon then went up, examined BOUDIN first, and then directed one of the sergeants in reserve to give the coup de grace in the ear. Then SERIZIER was examined and treated in the same way; and lastly, after a considerable interval, BOIN was dragged into position and dispatched.

I cannot give you any idea of the sickening impression produced by this seemingly deliberate butchery.

I say seemingly, for the men may have been dead, but, in any case, surely if the coup de grace must be given, it should be done at once. I did not time the proceedings, but, long as my description is, I believe that not more than two minutes elapsed from the time that the ambulance wagons came on to the ground to the time that the volley was fired.

Several more minutes, however, elapsed before the dull thud of the last coup de grace delivered a bout pontant right into the poor wretch’s ear struck upon the ground. I have seen something of the horrors of war at Sedan and Strasbourg; I have witnessed the degradations of a public hanging in England, but have never seen anything so horrible as this supplemental butchery of the coup de grace.

AN AFTER SCENE.

When the surgeon and his attendants retired fro the poteaux, it became evident that painfully long as the interval had been, he had not been sparing of trouble. For with an eye to dramatic effect, he had disposed the bodies symmetrically, so that their feet should point towards the defiling troops.

Then the trumpets struck up a lively tune, and all the troops present — three batteries of artillery, carbineers and other caalry, four or five battalions of the line, engineers, &c. — some five thousand men — marched at quick step before the stark, stiff, staring bodies.

I cannot think that such a sight can have any other effect than that of exciting sympathy for the guilty. To see a man lying on his back there, his head a shapeless mass and the large red spot on his breast growing every moment larger and larger, and to think that not ten minutes ago he was speaking with passionate eloquence — this tended rather to make one forget his crimes than to remember his cruelty.

Yet I am bound to confess that this feeling is not shared by all, for when the troops had passed by, and the black van had driven up and unladen its dreadful burden of plain coffins, I saw an officer point with his foot at the yet warm brains of BOIN, and I heard him say, “C’est avec celui qu’il a fait son discours.”

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1871: Hostages of the Paris Commune

Add comment May 26th, 2010 Headsman

The fall of the Paris Commune on May 28, 1871 launched many a leftist insurrectionary into the martyrs’ firmament.

But the last semaine sanglante that engulfed the Commune there was blood enough for many martyrdoms.

On this date in 1871, just days before the Commune gave way, it executed a clutch of hostages (French link) in desperate reprisal for the Versailles army’s cruelties. For the Commune, it was too little ruthlessness and much too late. For the 52 who stood up against the wall this date, they were just as dead.

These unfortunates were marched from La Roquette prison — whose inmates by dint of timely resistance only narrowly avoided a more extensive massacre — to Rue Haxo and slaughtered.

A number of them were men of the cloth. In 1938, the Catholic church of Notre Dame des Otages was erected on the site and dedicated to the victims’ memory.


A crucifix at Notre Dame des Otages. Copyrighted image used with permission.

(The markers on the spot have settled on 52 as the number of the victims, which might be the historically authoritative count; different sources, however, provide slightly different numbers.)

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1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

1 comment November 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

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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.

On this day..

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