The Paris Commune of 1871 was one of the great traumas that shaped modern France. It ranks alongside the 1789 Revolution, the Vichy regime 1940-44, the Algerian War of Independence 1954-62 and – some would add – the civil unrest of May 1968.
The Paris Commune existed from 26 March to 30 May 1871. After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, Paris was occupied, having heroically withstood a six-month siege by the German armies. Parisian workers reacted angrily to occupation and refused to cooperate with the soldiers. On 18 March, the new French government, with German permission, sent its own forces into the city to capture military weapons so that the workers could not arm themselves and fight back.
The workers refused to allow the French Army to seize cannons and other weapons and so the French Government of “National Defence” declared war on the city of Paris. On 26 March 1871, in a wave of defiance, a municipal council composed of workers and soldiers was elected – called the Paris Commune. Throughout France workers rallied to defend their colleagues in Paris, but the uprising was quickly and brutally stamped out by the government.
Less than three months later, the city of Paris was attacked by the strongest army the French government could muster. 30,000 unarmed workers were massacred, shot by the thousands in the streets of Paris. Thousands more were arrested and 7,000 were exiled from France.
On 24 May 1871, the Archbishop of Paris, a judge, two priests and two Jesuits were shot by an execution squad in the courtyard of La Roquette prison. Two days later, a further 52 men, mostly gendarmes and priests, were shot on rue Haxo in the adjoining neighbourhood of eastern Paris. Today, a parish church marks the spot.
The whole tragic history is recounted in The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 published by historian Alistair Horne in 1962, who noted that, “for all our recent conditioning, the modern mind boggles at placing such occurrences inside what passed for the world’s most civilized city.”
The events of the Commune might have deprived the art world of one of its most famous Impressionist painters. In April 1871, oblivious of what was going on around him, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was painting a view of the River Seine when he was seized by National Guards. Convinced he was a spy sketching river defences, they almost heeded the words of an old lady who witnessed the scene and suggested throwing him in the river. Instead, Renoir was dragged to the nearest mairie where there was a firing squad on permanent duty.
Fortunately for Renoir and posterity, a controversial political malcontent named Raoul Rigault was in charge of the local detachment of National Guards. A few years earlier, starving and desperate, Rigault had been on the run from Louis Napoleon’s police when he came across the painter in the middle of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Renoir disguised him with a smock and palette and hid him for several weeks.
It was Rigault who recognized Renoir and promptly set him free. It is interesting to speculate if the playwright Victorien Sardou could possibly have known this story when he penned his five act drama La Tosca for Sarah Bernhardt, first performed in Paris in 1887. The plot is better known today from Puccini’s Tosca, but in both play and opera the painter Cavaradossi hides the political revolutionary Angelotti in an old Roman well in a bid to avoid capture by the ruthless police chief Scarpia.
We shall never know. When he died, The New York Times (9 November 1908) wrote that Sardou was “the dean of French dramatists… a man possessed of singular charm, and was greatly beloved, and there is universal regret that he left no memoirs.”