the paris commune -- 2/24/15

Today's selection -- from Death in the Haymarket by James Green. In the cataclysmic Franco-Prussian War or 1870 -- Bismarck's war -- the French Army surrendered to the Germans. But the citizens of Paris refused to surrender, and turned against their own French generals as a result, bringing about a bloody civil war fought within the walls of Paris. The citizen leaders that emerged became known as the Paris Commune, and though they ultimately capitulated, they served as inspiration to the nascent communist movement (Karl Marx's Das Kapital had been published in 1867) for decades to come. Americans in particular were fascinated and ultimately horrified, especially given the labor strife that was beginning to emerge in America, and the event was a harbinger of the anti-communist fears that continue even to this day:

"All during the late summer of 1870, ... [American] readers ... intently followed news of the Franco-Prussian War: first the stunning news of the French army's defeat at Sedan, and then the capture of Napoleon III and the fall of his empire. ...

"In September newspaper headlines called attention to events in Paris, where citizens rushed to join a democratized National Guard and to defend their city when it fell under siege. When an armistice was signed in January of 1871, Parisians denounced it and crowds marched to the Bastille flying the tricolor and the red flag of the International. Within a month 'a mysterious authority made itself felt in Paris as vigilance committees appeared throughout the city. In March, just as the French army seemed ready to restore order, even more sensational news appeared in the dailies: the people of Paris were refusing to surrender their arms. Indeed, when French generals ordered the Parisian National Guard to disarm, the guardsmen turned their guns on their own army generals. Government forces withdrew to Versailles, now the seat of a new provisional government, and on March 28 the citizens of the former capital created an independent Commune of Paris. Americans were utterly fascinated by this news, and the press fed their hunger for information about the momentous event. As a result, the Commune became an even bigger story than the Franco-Prussian War had been.

"When the French army laid siege to Paris and hostilities began, the Chicago Tribune's reporters covered the fighting much as they had during the American Civil War. Many Americans, notably Republican leaders like Senator Charles Sumner, identified with the citizens of Paris who were fighting to create their own republic against the forces of a corrupt regime whose leaders had surrendered abjectly to the Iron Duke and his Prussian forces.

"As the crisis deepened, however, American newspapers increasingly portrayed the Parisians as communists who confiscated property and as atheists who closed churches. The brave citizens of Paris, first described as rugged democrats and true republicans, now seemed more akin to the uncivilized elements that threatened America -- the 'savage tribes' of Indians on the plains and the 'dangerous classes' of tramps and criminals in the cities. When the Commune's defenses broke down on May 21, 1871, the Chicago Tribune hailed the breach of the city walls. Comparing the Communards to the Comanches who raided the Texas frontier, its editors urged the 'mowing down' of rebellious Parisians 'without compunction or hesitation.'

"La semaine sanglante -- the week of blood -- had begun as regular army troops took the city street by street, executing citizen soldiers of the Parisian National Guard as soon as they surrendered. In retaliation, the Communards killed scores of hostages and burned large sections of the city to the ground. By the time the killing ended, at least 25,000 Parisians, including many unarmed citizens, had been slaughtered by French army troops.

"These cataclysmic events in France struck Americans as amazing and distressing. The bloody disaster cried out for explanation. In response, a flood of interpretations appeared in the months following the civil war in France. Major illustrated weeklies published lurid drawings of Paris scenes, of buildings gutted by fire, monuments toppled, churches destroyed and citizens executed, including one showing the death of a 'petroleuse' -- a red-capped, bare-breasted woman accused of incendiary acts. Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture of what the Commune would look like in an American city. Instant histories were produced, along with dime novels, short stories, poems and then, later in the fall, theatricals and artistic representations in the form of panoramas.

"News of the Commune seemed exotic to most Americans, but some commentators wondered if a phenomenon like this could appear in one of their great cities, such as New York or Chicago, where vast hordes of poor immigrants held mysterious views of America and harbored subversive elements in their midst. One of these observers, Henry Ward Beecher, the most influential clergyman in the nation, preached a widely reported sermon in which he reviewed the wantonness of the destruction in Paris and likened it to the terrors of the French Revolution. He trusted that the religious faith of Americans would prevent such a godless outbreak in our cities. The nation would be spared the terror that afflicted Paris as long as America remained without an aristocracy, as long as it maintained a free press and offered free education, as long as it was blessed with cheap land for farming; but Beecher also warned his fellow citizens: 'we may not always be so secure.' He feared that an eruption like the one in Paris might someday occur here if the country stratified itself as European nations had, and if the upper classes did not show more concern for the poor.

Andrew Cameron devoted a great deal of attention to the Commune and its meaning in his Workingmans Advocate. Without comment, he ran in serial form sections of Karl Marx's Civil War in France, a fervid and favorable portrayal of the Communards. Cameron did not endorse the revolutionary methods Marx espoused; nor did he excuse the incendiary acts of the Parisian street fighters. He did, however, tell his American readers that the people of the Commune 'fought and fell for the rights you either enjoy or are striving for, i.e., the right for self-government and the rights of the laborer to the fruits of his toil.' He concluded by quoting Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist-turned-labor-reformer, who had declared: 'Scratch the surface ... in every city on the American continent and you will find the causes which created the Commune.' "


James Green


Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America


Anchor Books


Copyright 2006 by James Green


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