History of Prussia - John S. C. Abbott

The Commune

As Prussia refused to treat with or to recognize any one of the mob governments which had sprung up in Paris, Marseilles, Lyons, and Bordeaux, it became necessary to choose a National Assembly to confer with Prussia upon terms of peace. The Assembly was chosen for this specific object. It was not elected as a permanent government, but a temporary convention. It was chosen in great haste, under the protection of the Prussian armies. Many hundred thousand French voters were in captivity. Thousands of Frenchmen, chagrined at the ruin which blind and malignant insurrection had brought upon their country, refused to vote: they said, "You who have overthrown the empire, and have thus brought these woes upon us, may bear the responsibility of making a dishonorable peace."

The Assembly of Deputies, consisting of about six hundred and fifty-three members, met in Bordeaux. Utterly powerless, they were compelled to drain to the dregs the cup of humiliation which Prussia presented to their lips. They chose M. Thiers president or chairman of the convention. Having performed their melancholy task, instead of simply making arrangements for France, by the voice of universal suffrage, to re-organize its government, and choose its rulers, they very strangely began to assume that France had, without any such vote, become a republic; that the one body, chosen simply to make peace with Prussia, was its government; and that M. Thiers, whom six hundred and fifty men has chosen as their chairman, was the President of the Republic of France.

With this despotic assumption they adjourned to hold their sittings in the magnificent palace of Versailles,—twelve miles from Paris. They did not dare to adjourn to Paris, where their authority as a government would not be recognized, and where their action would be intimidated by surging mobs. Their manifest duty was to proclaim, that, having agreed upon terms of peace with Prussia, France was now called upon, by the voice of universal suffrage, to choose an assembly to re-organize the government according to the will of the people. They were afraid to do this. They did not dare to entrust the people with its own destinies. The Imperialists demanded this loudly and continuously. "Thus," they said, "is the only possible way of securing peace and harmony in France. Submit the question to the people. Let the majority decide; and let the minority, like good citizens, cheerfully acquiesce in the decision of the majority. A government—whether it be a republic, a monarchy, or an empire—sustained by the suffrages of the people will be strong: every other will be weak."

Unfortunately for France, the Assembly would not do this. There would have been a moral power in this political fairness, which would have exerted a mighty influence upon the nation, and which would have paralyzed the energies of the Communists in Paris, who, in imitation of the action of the Assembly, were endeavoring to usurp undelegated authority, and were declaring themselves the government of France,—the true republic. Thus two self-called republics, each a usurpation, were soon found facing each other in deadly hostility.

This civil war, thus introduced, had a profound political significance. The city of Paris contained a population of about a million and a half: the country, in its small towns and rural districts, numbered over thirty-five millions. From all parts of France, and all parts of Europe, radical men, extreme democrats, communists, and socialists, of every grade, had flocked to Paris. They were very energetic, loud-spoken, determined men. It is not improbable, that, in the city of Paris, they could cast a majority vote. According to the usual estimate, of one vote for every five of the population where there is universal suffrage, Paris could cast three hundred thousand votes. Now, if we suppose that the radicals numbered two-thirds of the voters, which is far above what they would claim, they would cast two hundred thousand votes, and their opponents one hundred thousand.

The remainder of France would cast seven million votes. Very few of these, except in one or two of the large cities, as Marseilles and Lyons, would be in favor of the radicals. Under these circumstances, the two hundred thousand radical voters in Paris were unwilling that the seven million voters in France should have the opportunity, through universal suffrage, of choosing their form of government and their rulers.

These two hundred thousand radicals in Paris assumed the right of trampling in the dust the principle of universal suffrage, which is the foundation of a republican government, and of overthrowing by mob violence the government of the empire which that universal suffrage  had established in France, and had, by repeated votes, sustained during a period of twenty years.

Ignoring all the rights of thirty-five millions of the population of France, the leaders of the Commune so called, in a tumultuous gang, voted themselves the government of France; compelled the banks and other moneyed institutions to supply them with funds; forced, by revolver-shots and bayonet-thrusts, men who detested their principles into their ranks, over which the blood-red flag of rapine and murder floated; ordered all citizens between nineteen and forty to enter the ranks of Communists, under penalty of death; demolished every press, and silenced every voice which called in question the rectitude of their deeds; established the watchword, "Death to the rich, the landholders, and the priests!" declared God dethroned, all religion abolished, all rights of private property annulled; blotted out the family, and substituted in its place the beastly principle of what they called free love. They had the inconceivable effrontery of calling this most hideous despotism which earth has ever known "the French Republic."

This government of the Commune represented perhaps two hundred thousand of the very worst men—the most utterly devoid of moral principle, and the most reckless in demoniac desperation—this world, bad as it is, has ever seen. It was the representative of the most ignorant and depraved portion of the population in Paris. It looked with utter contempt upon the moral and industrious inhabitants of this country, who owned the soil, cultivated the farms, honored the religion of their fathers, and respected the rights of property and the virtues of private life.

These Communists hated the empire of Napoleon III., as well as that of Napoleon I. And well they might. For twenty years, the second empire had saved France from the ravages of these foes of humanity. While sacredly respecting the democratic principle of equal rights for all men, it had given France twenty years of internal peace, of prosperity at home, and influence abroad, such as the nation had never enjoyed before. During all these years, there had never been a barricade or a riot in the streets.

One of the first acts of the Communists was to order the utter destruction of the magnificent column in the Place Vendume, one of the most admired of the works of art in France, or on the globe. It was particularly offensive to them; probably because the statue of Napoleon I. surmounted it. Upon a pedestal thirty feet high there rose a shaft, ten feet in diameter, a hundred and forty feet into the air. The triumphal column was commenced in 1805, and finished in 1810. It commemorated the achievements of the French armies in the brilliant campaign of Austerlitz, in which they shattered the coalition formed by Prussia and Austria against France. The history of the war was pictured in plates of bronze, cast from cannon taken from the enemy, and which incased the column in spiral form to its summit.

In preparation for the demolition of the column, these bronze plates were removed for a distance of six feet from the pedestal. Then with infinite labor, by means of chisel and pickaxes, the flinty cement and masonry were cut through as the woodman fells the tree. Having thus effected two deep cuts, an immense pulley power was applied by means of cables attached to the summit. An eye-witness thus describes the fall:—

"The crowd is cleared away from the middle of the Place; the great cables slowly tighten; another convulsive struggle with the monster column as the cables grow tighter, and stretch to their utmost; a moment of intense suspense; then a crash: it is breaking at the bottom. The great statue at the top slowly commences moving backward. The huge mass of stone and bronze is falling, slowly at first (you would have plenty of time to run from under it); then faster; then it flies through the air like a flash, and there is a sound like thunder, and a shock as of an earthquake; and the huge column of the Place Vendome, which might have stood until the day of judgment, disappeared in a cloud of dust and flying pieces of stone and mortar.

"A shout went up from the crowd in the Rue de la Paix long and loud; but whether it were joy or grief, or exultation or sorrow, or terror or dismay, or all combined, it would be hard to tell. When the dust cleared away, there was nothing to be seen but a shapeless mass of stone and iron and debris, instead of the grand and graceful shaft that but a moment before had lifted its head proudly to the skies. The crowd are yelling and hooting, and burrowing among the dust and debris  of the work, some on the pedestal hoisting the red flag. Bergeret makes a speech; Fortuna makes a speech; Rochefort makes a speech. The statue of Napoleon is lying on its back as it fell, the back of the head crushed in, and one leg broken off."

It has been a deep and settled purpose of the revolutionists to destroy everything connected with the empire that could remind the people of its former splendor and greatness. First they intended to blow up the column with powder; but that was found to be dangerous. Then it was proposed to take it down piece by piece; but that would lack dramatic effect. It ought to fall as did the empire, with a crash that would be felt by Europe. And so it was done.

In the terrible conflict which raged without cessation night and day for nearly two months between the Commune in Paris and the Assembly at Versailles, each party controlling well-drilled troops of about two hundred thousand men abundantly armed with the most formidable instruments of war which modern art has been able to construct, and in possession of the most powerful forts and defences which have ever frowned upon this globe, scenes of horror were witnessed which have never been transcended upon any field of blood.

The terrible strife culminated in the thronged streets of beautiful Paris, the city which the sagacious energies of the empire had filled with the triumphs of architecture and the treasures of art, and had made the most orderly, and by far the most attractive, of any city upon the globe. The thunders of artillery; the shriek and crash of shells; the explosion of mines, magazines, and caissons; the incessant growl of mitrailleuse, and roar of musketry; the frantic cry of flying women and children; the groans of the dying; the yells of the infuriated combatants; the smoke and flame of the sweeping conflagrations; the tumult; the dismay, all combined in the presentation of a scene, which, in every element of horror, surpasses all the imagination can conceive.

The leaders of the Commune were atheists. No one who rejects the fatherhood of God can respect the brotherhood of man. One of their leading journals, Le Montagne, of April 24, 1871, says,—

"Education has made skeptics of us. The revolution of 1871 is atheistic. We take our dead to their graves, and our wives to our hearts, without a prayer. A song to the lark in the morning is better than the mumbling of psalms. An ode to sparkling wine is better than the chanting of hymns. Our dogs, which used only to bark when a bishop passed, will bite him now."

It is eighteen hundred years since Christ Jesus came to our lost world with the announcement of "Peace on earth, and goodwill among men;" and yet this war-scathed world probably never witnessed scenes of crime and woe more terrible than were seen in Paris during the last week of May, 1871. An eye-witness of the fraternal strife, after a very careful computation, estimates, that, on the two sides, forty thousand were killed or wounded. By the bombardment and conflagration, property was destroyed to the amount of two hundred million dollars. Other incidental losses in rents, prostration of business, and depreciation of credit, amounted to a hundred million dollars more.

Communist and Versaillist seemed alike inspired with almost demoniac malice against each other. The Communists shot in cold blood sixty-nine illustrious captives whom they were holding as hostages. Among the number were M. Darboy, the venerable Archbishop of Paris, Bishop Maret, Abbe Deguerry, Curd of the Madeleine, and eleven nuns. Twelve hundred citizens were also butchered because they refused to enter the ranks of the Communists in this dreadful civil war. The bodies of these victims were mutilated in a manner which would have disgraced the most untutored savages. A correspondent of The New York Times, writing from Paris on the 29th of May, says,—

"Before shooting the priests, eleven of them were stripped stark naked, and tied each to a nun, who was, in like manner, divested of every particle of dress. The demons in human form boasted loudly of their devilish acts. Is it to be wondered at, that, after seeing this, McMahon has ordered no quarter to be given?

"But, even if killed to-morrow, I would not write one line to defend the horrid butcheries practised by the government troops. No man who is a man can stand by and see women shot, and children from ten to fourteen years of age put to death, and approve. Allowing that the leaders of the Commune have been guilty of terrible, of revolting crimes, as they have been, it forms no excuse for the terrible excesses of soldiers under the command of a great soldier, and controlled by the will of one of the most eminent of living statesmen.

"A woman is taken with arms in her hands. She is not sent off for trial; she is not given a moment's respite to prepare herself for eternity: she is torn from her children, divorced from her family, and in five minutes is as lifeless as a stone. Mere boys have been caught in the act of firing houses, and in feeding burning buildings with petroleum; but they knew not what they did. They were wild, they were crazed, and were set on by men who should have been held responsible; yet these boys have been led out and shot. Many instances have been repeated to me by personal eye-witnesses. I blush for humanity when I write these facts.

"At the Luxembourg, in the Park Monceau, and in the Square Tour St. Jacques, there are large trenches filled to the brink with human bodies, many of them only half killed, and yet warm with life. Insurgents, men and women, with hands tied behind their backs, are taken to the brink: there is a volley of musketry, the smoke clears away, and the victims are engulfed in the trenches. Horror, horror! And yet at Versailles they think that this summary vengeance is not half bloody enough.

"Fourteen sewing-girls employed in the dress-making establishment of the well-known Madame Royer were suffocated in the cellar, where they had sought refuge from shot and shell; and, when the house was set on fire, they perished. The little garden of the Tour St. Jacques, on the Boulevard Sevastopol, was a mass of dead bodies, awaiting burial. The barricades in the vicinity were also in a dreadful state, from the dead bodies, half covered, lying therein. This little green square, so filled with trees and flowers and shrubs a few days ago, is now turned into a burial-ground. Over a thousand are already buried there. Large trenches are dug, and twenty bodies thrown into each trench. Yesterday, near Mr. Washburne's house, six children, between the ages of eight and ten years, taken in the act of setting fire to houses, were shot on the spot by an officer of high rank."

How far M. Thiers is responsible for the acts which have taken place under his government, it is, perhaps, not easy to decide. For twenty years, he has been the most able and the most implacable foe of the empire; but, during one month of his reign, Paris and France were the theatre, it is safe to say, of a hundred times more crime and woe than were experienced in France during the whole twenty years of the imperial government.

The Commune, finding its cause desperate, seemed resolved that the whole city of Paris, with all its once-happy homes, its wealth, its treasures of art, should perish with them. The torch of the incendiary was applied to the Tuileries, the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Hotel de Ville, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Palais de Justice; while incendiaries, women and boys, were sent in all directions with torch and petroleum to fire long lines of buildings.

The floors and furniture of the Palace of the Tuileries were saturated with petroleum; then the torch caused the devouring flames to burst forth with terrible fury. An eye-witness writes,—

"How the palace burned! The flames revelled in the historic apartments, whipped up the rich furniture, burst out the plate-glass windows, brought down the fantastic roof. It was in the Prince Imperial's wing, facing the Tuileries garden, where the demon of fire first had his dismal sway. There is a curious jet of flame where Bismarck used to sit and smoke. Crash! Is it an explosion, or fall of flooring, that causes this burst of black smoke and red sparks in our faces? God knows what hell devices may be within the burning pile. It is surely well to give it a wide berth.

"And so eastward to the Place of the Palais Royal, which is still unsafe by reason of shot and shell from the neighborhood of the Hotel de Ville. Thus the devastation leaps from chimney to chimney, from window to window. In the name of modern vandalism, what means this burst of smoke, and jet of fire? Alas for art! The Louvre is on fire independently; and so is the Palais Royal and the Hotel de Ville, where the Rump of the Commune are cowering in the midst of their incendiarism, and the Palace of the Ministry of Finance, and many other public and private buildings besides.

"Here is the Rue Royale, burning right royally between the Place de la Madeleine and the Rue du Faubourg St. Honors. The fire has been down the Rue St. Honore, up the Faubourg, and is working its swift hot will in the Rue de Boissy. In all the Rue Faubourg St. Honors, the gutters are full of blood. The Versaillists do not dare to rush at the barricades around the Hotel de Ville; but they are mining, circumventing, burrowing. Meanwhile, the holders of the Hotel de Ville are pouring out death and destruction in miscellaneous wildness."[Correspondence of the London Times]

It was the grand idea of the Commune to crown the mob of Paris with the most despotic power monarch ever wielded; to call that crowned monarch a republic; to organize the smaller cities into similar despotisms, and thus to place all France at the mercy of the Communists in the cities. They intended to silence with dagger, dungeon, and guillotine, every journalist or individual who should speak against its tyranny. Society was to be thoroughly re-organized, with no rights of private property, with marriage degraded to a mere partnership for a day or an hour, with God voted out of existence, and all religion abolished. The children born to unknown fathers were to be herded in public institutions, and trained in the principles of infidelity and atheism at the public expense.

During the brief reign of the Commune in Paris, it had driven out a large portion of the city property-holders; had seized their houses rent free; had robbed the churches, and imprisoned and slaughtered many of the priests; had levied its assessments upon the Bank of France, the money-changers, the railway, insurance, and other corporations; had shot such citizens as ventured to utter a word of remonstrance; had suppressed every newspaper which opposed its measures; had changed the names of streets and places without number; and had commenced the destruction of every memorial, however beautiful or useful, of the imperial reign. Vigorously it was engaged in the work of destruction, when the Army of the Assembly, led by Marshal McMahon, fought its way into the smouldering streets.

This most horrible of all conceivable despotisms the Communists called "The Republic Universal and Social;" and over it they unfurled, in mockery too awful to be ludicrous, the banner of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

The last three days of the demoniac strife between the Commune and the Assembly seemed to culminate in every conceivable aggregation of horrors. During the night of May 26, Marshal McMahon, leading the Army of the Assembly at Versailles, had succeeded in fighting his way to the Rond Point, in the centre of which the magnificent Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile  is reared. Here, at the head of the grandest avenue in the world, he spread out his batteries, and opened a terrific fire upon the foe, who had thrown up enormous barricades along the Grand Avenue; had filled the stone houses which lined it with sharp-shooters; and had planted their heavy guns, plied by well-trained artillerymen, upon the terrace of the Tuileries. The torch had not then been applied to the palace; and the scene, as witnessed from its windows, was awful in its sublimity.

It was one of the most beautiful days of spring, cloudless, serene, and brilliant. The magnificent avenue, blooming with flowering shrubs, and waving with deep green foliage, where thousands of the little chirping sparrows of Paris had reared their nests, was bathed in sunlight. The grand Arc de Triomphe, in the distance, towered over all surrounding objects. The thunders of a terrible cannonade seemed to shake the very earth, as the veteran troops of the Assembly, in grandest military array, endeavored to force their way down the avenue, blowing to pieces with solid shot and shell the obstructions which opposed their march. The fire of the assailants was with equal energy returned by the desperate Communists. The air was filled with the missiles of destruction, shrieking in their demoniac flight, and exploding with thunder roar.

As you looked up the avenue from the windows of the Tuileries, the Palace of the Ministry of Finance, on the right, was seen in flames; liquid tongues of fire shooting up through volumes of blackest smoke. On the left, in the direction of the Ecole Militaire, the sky was darkened by another column of flame and smoke, bursting up in billowy masses, which gave a lurid gloom even to the brilliant sunlight which seemed to struggle against these horrors. All along the river-banks to the Pont Neuf, and all along the wide boulevards to the Madeleine, the terrible battle raged from corner to corner, from house to house, from barricade to barricade. From windows and housetops, and from behind chimneys, bullets were flying in every direction. No quarter was asked or given. There were many hand-to-hand fights; and death was the inevitable doom of the vanquished. The shrieks of the maddened combatants blended with the roar of artillery and musketry. Gory corpses strewed the pavements; rivulets of blood were in the gutters. Everywhere there was terror, misery, ruin.

Tuesday was like Monday. From barricade to barricade, from street to street, the surging tides of battle ebbed and flowed. Women fought as fiercely as the men; many of them with probably no idea of what they were fighting for. No mercy was shown by either party. Fifty Communists fled for protection into the Church of the Madeleine. They were pursued; and their blood crimsoned the tessellated floor.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of May 28, the last position of the Communists was carried by the Assembly's troops. That night Marshal McMahon issued a proclamation to the people of Paris, announcing their deliverance from the reign of terror of the Communists, and that order, security, and labor were about being re-established. In this protracted battle in the streets of Paris, it is reported that the Assembly lost about three thousand men.

Thus the terrible insurrection of the Commune was ended. And now the question comes, What next? What government will France adopt? The National Assembly is merely a convention, chosen to make peace with Prussia; and M. Thiers is its chairman. Will that Assembly vote itself the permanent government, like the Communists, declare itself a republic, and announce its chairman, M. Thiers, President of the French Republic, without submitting the question to the people? There are indications in that direction. The situation of France is certainly embarrassing and perilous in the extreme. There are five powerful parties, radically opposed to each other in their principles of government,—the Imperialists, Orleanists, Republicans, Bourbonists, and Communists. Whichever one of these is established, judging from the past, the other four will combine for its overthrow. M. Thiers the Orleanist, Jules Favre the Republican, and Rochefort the Communist, bent all their united energies for years in the most desperate assaults against the empire. By the aid of Prussian arms, they overthrew it. It does not seem at present that any party, except the Imperial party, is willing to submit the question to the decision of the French people. The fundamental principle of the Imperial party in France is, that "the sovereignty resides with the people; that it is the right of the people, by the voice of universal suffrage, to establish such government as it prefers."

This is the fundamental principle of American republicanism. It is difficult to conceive how there can be any permanent peace in France unless this principle is recognized. If this principle be adopted, and the minority will acquiesce in the decision of the majority, then France, whether organized as a constitutional monarchy, a republican empire, or a moderate republic, can enjoy prosperity and happiness. If it be not recognized, or if the parties be so divided that no majority can be found, then government after government will arise upon the foundation of intrigue and violence; and there is nothing to be seen in the future but anarchy and revolutions. May God guide la belle France  to peace and prosperity!