The crushing of the Paris Commune

The crushing of the Paris Commune is still hard to comprehend. Over two days in May 1871, 130,000 troops from the regular French army entered Paris to suppress an improvised city government calling itself La Commune. Historians still dispute the figures, but seven days later the army had killed perhaps 10,000 defenders, unarmed helpers and hapless bystanders. Prisoners were shot out of hand. Of 36,000 people arrested, around 10,000 were executed, imprisoned or deported.

In “Massacre”, John Merriman an historian at Yale University, combines two narrative tasks with considerable art: an overview of the tangled background and vivid close shots from the street. The collapse of France’s armies in an ill-chosen war with Prussia a year earlier had finished off Napoleon III’s authoritarian Second Empire. Radical French cities vied with a conservative countryside for control of a fragile new republic. To seal victory, the Germans besieged the capital. As food supplies ran low in January 1871, the French sued for terms. War-weary voters chose a right-wing government under Adolphe Thiers, granting him a mandate in effect to accept a harsh German peace.

The Commune sprang from the sense among Parisians that they had been betrayed. Radical candidates had swept its parliamentary seats. Especially in the poorer quartiers to the east, revulsion at the peace, dreams of fighting on and anger at the lifting of a wartime moratorium on debts mingled with hopes for democratic rights and social reform.

From The Economist (Nov-2014)

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