At the outset of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant sent William I of Prussia a message which the French, on seeing a copy, interpreted as expressing a position of benevolent neutrality. In December, after the ignominious collapse of the French armies, Victor Hugo bitterly accused Grant of helping the Prussians triumph over the very ideals that had once united France and the United States:
So he delivers his noble country to the Emperor,
So he mingles it with tyrants, murders, horror,
So he submerges it in this horrible and somber triumph,
So in this bed of opprobrium he lays down this virgin.
Hugo then calls on the memory of American patriots:
Shuddering Kosciusko wakes up Spartacus;
And Madison stands up and Jefferson rises;
Jackson raises his two hands before this hideous dream;
Dishonor! cries Adams; and Lincoln, astonished,
Bleeds, and it’s today that he is assassinated.
Napoleon III declared war on Prussia on July 19, little dreaming that his armies would soon be routed by Prussia’s better-equipped and better-led forces. On September 4, two days after Napoleon’s disgraceful surrender at Sedan, revolutionary Parisians invaded the Legislative Assembly and forced the declaration of a new republic. The troops of the German commander Helmuth von Moltke cut Paris off from the rest of the country by September 19, beginning the stifling siege of Paris that is the central event in the books under review.
Hugo suffered through the siege, having returned from self-exile on September 5, and chronicled the events of that fall, winter, and spring in his epic poem L’Année terrible. General Louis Jules Trochu was the president of the provisional government of national defense, although Léon Gambetta, based in Tours, was its most energetic leader. On January 5, 1871, the Germans began to bombard the capital, which was already mired in famine; because the invaders were also winning the war in the provinces, the Parisian leaders had to sign a humiliating armistice on January 28.
Ardent republicans and socialists, wanting a more aggressive defense of the capital, had failed to dislodge the provisional government in two abortive rebellions in October and mid-January. In the new legislative elections on February 8, 1871, they were badly outvoted by conservatives who, ever fearful of the radicals, elected Adolphe Thiers head of the government. Thiers negotiated a peace treaty with Bismarck on February 28 which ceded Alsace and part of Lorraine to the new German Empire that had been declared at Versailles on January 18. Radical Parisians, including many National Guard troops, humiliated by the treaty and disenfranchised by the reactionary government, resisted Thiers’s troops. They declared the Paris Commune on March 28 and set up their own government by committees, still hopeful that some of the successes of 1789, 1830, and 1848 could be repeated.
At first the Commune’s main committees included an entire spectrum of the left-of-center, from moderate republicans to adherents of the First International. While the Germans …