Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne

I recently flipped through Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and The Commune 1870-71 to brush up on an important epoch in revolutionary history.  The siege, which came at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune which grew out of the siege’s aftermath are significant for a number of reasons.  First, the Commune was a decisive influence on Lenin and the Bolsheviks.  In Horne’s words, “Without the lessons and legends derived from the Commune, there would probably have been no successful Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.” (15)  Second, it migrated the center of power in mainland Europe from France to the newly created German Empire -- consecrated at Versailles during the siege -- with the German victory passing Alsace-Lorraine into its hands.  Third, the Commune is a notable data point in urban revolt and socialist governance.  Fourth, the civil war that would eventually destroy the Commune and much of Paris was a shockingly bloody event.

Horne provides the following narrative to make sense of the destruction:

In purely military terms, Paris fell twice in the space of six months; first to Bismarck, secondly to the French Government forces under Thiers.  But she also fell in more than one sense; pride, as well as her traditional role of being the prime centre of European power, were involved (the latter never to be restored), and finally there was the grim fall of morality that accompanied the repression of the Commune. (xviii)


Certainly no nation in modern times, so replete with apparent grandeur and opulent in material achievement, has ever been subjected to a worse humiliation in so short a time. (14)

The impressive Great Exhibition of 1867 that opens the book demonstrated the heights of grandeur from which Paris fell.  At the time France and Paris were rapidly modernizing: industrializing, urbanizing, and implementing Haussmann’s urban plan for Paris (which was partially intended to minimize the risk of future urban revolts).  

All this would be temporarily interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, which Emperor Napoleon III (aka Louis-Napoléon) was goaded into declaring on Prussia by Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, who wanted a war to bring about German unification.  The dispute arose from an insult contained in the Bismarck-edited Ems Telegram; Horne quotes a French historian as commenting, “Never had an international cataclysm been unleashed over such a futile pretext.” (37)

France seriously underestimated the capability of Prussia’s military, and quickly found itself on the defensive.  After the decisive Battle of Sedan in which Napoleon III was captured, Paris mobs enraged at the news of the defeat swept into action on September 4th, 1870.  They stormed first the legislative building and then city hall to seize power; the Second Empire ended and the Third Republic began.  Trochu, popular with the public for his criticism of the French army before the war, accepted the post of President.

The new government prepared for the inevitable siege.  One fateful measure was conscripting and arming the Paris National Guard, which swelled to 350,000 members.  The government “trained them and armed them insufficiently to be of any military value, but just enough to constitute the most potent revolutionary threat the nineteenth century had yet seen.” (229)  The National Guard would become the “storm-centre of the Left,” (92) participating in much agitation throughout the next few months.

After several tense demonstrations in front of city hall in October, on the 31st a spontaneous demonstration erupted in the same location.  The crowd, furious at the triple disasters of Le Bourget, Metz, and news of an armistice proposal, thrust Blanqui, Flourens and other Left leaders into a chaotic scene inside city hall.  After protracted negotiations, the government agreed to hold immediate elections and to not retaliate against the demonstrators, ending the standoff peacefully.  The government partially reneged on the deal by rounding up several Left leaders / demonstrators shortly thereafter.  This betrayal, along with the elections eventually producing an ultra-conservative government and January 22nd’s government massacre of demonstrators in front of city hall embittered the Left.

The new government and its President, Theirs, further inflamed the passions of Paris by allowing the triumphant Germans to march through the city and by passing financial laws “as cruel as they were stupid.” (260)  At this point Parisians took matters into their own hands.  The National Guard seized a store of cannon and organized a Central Committee which began to openly defy the government.  When Theirs ordered the army in to recoup the cannon on March 18th, his regulars fraternized with the National Guard and eventually ended up executing two of their own generals.  Theirs and the government fled to Versailles while Brunel unfurled a red flag from the city hall belfry.  Thus, “For the first time since ‘93, revolutionaries were the undisputed masters of Paris.” (276)

On March 26th, Paris voted the Commune into power.  The Commune, as Horne puts it, initially “was little more than a slogan with no ideology, no programme, constantly glancing over its shoulder to 1793.” (294)  Composed mostly of Jacobins (headed by Delescluze) and Blanquists with a sprinkle of Internationalists (Karl Marx’s followers) and others, the Commune pursued policies that were a “mixture of incredibly irrelevant trivia and genuine attempts to right social injustices.” (330)  Splits developed over the Jacobin formation of a Committee of Public Safety, which the Internationalists opposed.  Some members also were aghast at the excesses of Prefect of Police Rigault (“An Eichmann or Beria born before his time” (299)).  Despite the revolutionary rhetoric and social reform, Parisians “were agreeably surprised at how normal life in Paris still seemed to be.” (304)  However, the Commune consistently avoided the issue of the crushing peace terms meted out by the Germans. (332)  One of the Commune’s “most memorable, as well as most pointless” (349) acts was the tearing down of the Vendôme Column.

After commencing a second siege of the city, Theirs’ army entered Paris on May 21st.  The Communards at the barricades were no match for the regulars, and the Commune was ruthlessly crushed during the “Bloody Week.”  Much of Paris burned during the reconquest, and the body count eclipsed either the Reign of Terror or the 1917 Revolution (380) clocking in at about 25,000 dead.  Horne comments that “[The Bloody Week] provided a terrible example of how swiftly a civil, urban conflict can become degraded into such unbridled ferocity.” (418)

The Commune’s experience captured the imagination of Marx who chronicled it in The Civil War in France.  Lenin would study the lessons of the Commune, believing its two great mistakes to be the failure to seize the Bank in Paris (thus allowing Thiers’ army to be financed, among other consequences) and the failure to crush the Versailles-based government immediately after it fled Paris, when it was most vulnerable.  In short, “To Lenin and his followers, the supreme lesson of the Commune was that the only way to succeed was by total ruthlessness.” (432)

To me, the greatest mistake of the Commune, and of the French of 1870-1 generally, is the inability to appreciate new developments in technology and society and the consequent refusal to abandon past strategies and tactics as antiquated and ineffective.  Paris’ ideas that the French could repel foreign invaders by a levée en masse style attack of a century previous, or that barricades and muskets wielded by flaky amateurs can defeat professional soldiers with rifles and artillery moving along grand boulevards proved to be dreadfully wrong -- courage is no substitute for competence.  

On the other hand, the Commune got a lot of things right.  It rode a wave of popular discontent to power, had wide legitimacy as the result of democratic elections, capably administered a city in wartime, pursued admirable social reforms, collaborated relatively well given the diverse political philosophies present and the absence of likely leaders (such as Blanqui, who was in prison), kept repression to a minimum and inspired with its proclamations and actions.

Horne’s writing assumes decent background knowledge of French language, French history and French geography, so understanding the details of the narrative can sometimes be difficult (and provides a chance to brush up on one’s French).  He clearly has expertise in French/German conflict history, given the multitude of references to other French events and personalities, but all of the foreshadowing and name-dropping can border on irritating.  A parallel he often, helpfully, invokes for comparison is the Siege of Leningrad.  Horne also takes many extended excerpts from first-person accounts.  Clearly he has done research that he wants to show off, but this can break up the flow of the reading.  All things considered, it is a decently written work of history.


  1. so it's all about not understanding new technology? hmmm, what about not overcoming the artificial divisions of nationalism? Why fight Bismarck and not talk to the German workers?

  2. Well, obviously nationalism plays a pretty big factor in two nations going to war (and one changing its character during that war). I don't get the impression that the Commune could really impact that in any way. And the second phase of this episode is French civil war, so nationalism plays a lesser part there.

    The German workers (and the rest of the world) were definitely paying attention to what was going on in and around Paris; it was a pretty well-covered news event at the time. In fact the consideration of how the German workers would react influenced Bismarck's strategy at least once.

    But contacts with the outside world were pretty limited with the besieged city. Keep in mind that the only way Paris had to communicate with the outside world, with few exceptions, were hot air balloons (whose direction could not be controlled, and whose bandwidth was pretty limited anyways) and carrier pigeons (which were a very lossy form of communication).