Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Commune

Gambetta protested against an armistice made without consulting him, but he did not reject it. He urged the people to spend the three weeks' time in raising new forces to continue the war. The elections were held early in February, and the members elected betook themselves immediately to Bordeaux, where the people received Thiers—one of the successful candidates—with the imploring cry, "Thiers, get us out of this!" Nearly all the members were in favor of peace.

In this Assembly it was settled, by what is known as the "Bordeaux Compact," that first of all order must be restored in France, and the country freed from the German invader. Whether France should be in future a republic, a kingdom, or an empire, was not to be decided until later. Thiers, the ablest man present, begged the other deputies to subscribe to this compact, and was unanimously chosen to act meanwhile as the head of the government.

After appointing a minister, Thiers himself, with Favre, hastened to Versailles to secure the best terms possible from the victorious enemy. Bismarck, who carried on all the negotiations for the Germans, proved a very hard antagonist. He insisted, in the peace of Versailles, that France cede all Alsace and part of Lorraine to Germany, that an indemnity of $1,000,000,000 be given within three years' time, and that, until it was all paid, German troops should be quartered in France as security. It was also agreed that German troops might enter Paris in triumph, and occupy part of the city until the National Assembly should ratify the treaty. Thiers almost fainted when he heard the harsh terms demanded by Bismarck, but the only change he and Favre could secure was a slight reduction of the indemnity,—Bismarck's original demand was for $1,200,000,000. The National Assembly was to ratify this peace; and as the German troops were to stay in Paris till it did so, the Assembly ratified the treaty so promptly that the troops remained less than two days.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The "entry" of the invading troops was solemn and impressive indeed, for they came slowly marching along the Avenue of the Grande Armee, their bands bursting forth in triumphant airs under the Arch of Triumph of the Star. But Paris itself presented no festive appearance, the fine sculptures of the arch being still protected by boards, as during the bombardment, every window tightly closed, all the curtains drawn, and not one Frenchman either in the streets or up at the windows! 1 Down the deserted Champs Elysees the conquerors marched, before stopping and camping on the Place de la Concorde, for it had been agreed that they should advance no farther. The "line of demarcation" was guarded by double lines of German and French sentinels, to prevent any trouble. You can imagine the rejoicing in Paris when these Germans marched out again, the second day after entering, and the relief of Thiers and his government when this ordeal was safely over!

The Assembly was now transferred to Versailles, for Paris was still the center of the country and of the government. Meantime, the people there, relieved from famine by the raising of the siege, did not at first realize at what price peace had been obtained; but, having no work to do,—not even the guard duty which had occupied them so wholesomely during the siege,—they now had plenty of leisure to discuss matters. As usual, there were some men, who, meaning well but having little or no judgment, so wrought upon the mob by their eloquence, that popular excitement soon got beyond control. Then the entrance of the Germans proved "the last straw." Riots broke out with which the National Guard seemed to sympathize, instead of trying to suppress them.

Seeing the populace in such a state of ferment, the national government deemed it best to remove the cannon held by the National Guard, or militia of Paris. Infuriated by this attempt, the Parisians swarmed out against the regular troops, summarily shot two generals, and seized the cannon themselves! Whereupon, too weak to contend with the rioters, the government forces hastily withdrew to Versailles.

Thus left to manage as they pleased, these rebels took forcible possession of the city hall, and speedily organized a new government of the city of Paris, while the red revolutionary banner of the Commune was flaunted on all sides. The Commune of Paris not only denied the authority of Thiers and the National Assembly, but declared against the treaty of Versailles. Being utterly lawless themselves, the Communists could not, of course, maintain order; all wanted to lead, and all talked at once; one leader after another, therefore, was deposed as incompetent, while drunkenness and anarchy prevailed on all sides.

During the Commune, at the suggestion of a rabid architect, the mob undermined and tore down the famous Vendome Column, which soon lay prone on the pavement! Still, you will be interested to know that the architect was later punished for this act of vandalism, for when order was restored, he was condemned to pay all the costs of the re-erection of this historic monument.

The ignorant class, deluded into believing that all would soon be well, blindly obeyed the Commune, without perceiving that it was leading them straight to destruction. In their mad rage against Thiers for signing the Versailles treaty, they utterly destroyed his valuable historical library. The Commune not only disowned the government at Versailles, but would brook none of its interference; closing the city gates against it, and thus giving the signal for a new siege, for no decent national government could submit to the dictation of an insurgent city. Troops were therefore hastily collected to put down this insurrection, but only thirty thousand men were available, until the Germans, realizing the serious state of affairs, hastened the return of their war prisoners of Sedan and Metz. This army of about one hundred and fifty thousand, sent by the national government to subdue Paris, was scornfully termed by the Communists "the men of Versailles." When the Communists heard that this army was advancing to reduce them to order, they promptly seized as hostages some two hundred prominent citizens who favored the national government—among others the archbishop (Darboy).

The rule of the insurgent government of Paris, or "the Commune," lasted seventy-one days, and the second siege of the capital, which now began, continued during the last seven or eight weeks of that time. During this siege there was in Paris none of the law and order which marked the siege by the Germans. In fact, all good and peaceful citizens were terrorized by the violence of the mad rabble in command, who were just talking of a new Reign of Terror, and were proposing to set up a guillotine, when the government troops, after seizing several of the forts, succeeded at last in forcing their way into the city.

Seven days of grim fighting in Paris streets ensued, for the Communists had erected barricades everywhere, and madly defended themselves inch by inch. In their rage, they slew their hostages, including the venerable archbishop, and set fire to the Tuileries, the Louvre, and the city hall, besides many other important public and private buildings. The government troops, by rushing onward, succeeded in saving the Louvre with its art treasures, but the famous Tuileries are now nothing but a glorious memory!

Thus, although the Germans are to blame for ruining and sacking some places in the northeastern part of France, the Communists are mainly responsible for the awful destruction in Paris, where their name will always be held in abhorrence. To make sure that buildings once set afire would burn to the very ground, women of the lowest class were sent around to saturate them with kerosene, being on that account called keroseners. Many of these poor wretches were caught or shot down, in the very act of madly trying to spread the fire.

Rushing ever onward, the government forces brought the Communists to bay in a cemetery (Le Pere La Chaise), where no quarter was either given or taken, and where corpses lay strewn so thick, that "the air of the whole district was fraught with pestilence!" Besides the innumerable killed and wounded, the army of Versailles secured some ten thousand prisoners, a few of whom were executed on the spot, and others after trial by court-martial, while many were either exiled or deported for a number of years.

The Tuileries, destroyed by the Communists, and the palace of St. Cloud, set afire by French bombs to dislodge the Prussians during the first siege, have never been rebuilt; but the city hall has since been re-erected as nearly as possible as it was before.