The Bloodiest Urban Revolution

A barricade of the Communards at the corner of the Rue de Rivoli and the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, Paris, April 1871

The Great Terror of 1793–1794 is often considered the bloodiest episode in the history of Paris, thanks perhaps to Charles Dickens. By careful count, Robespierre’s Revolutionary Tribunal ordered 2,639 people executed in Paris between April 1793 and July 1794.1 But at least seven times that many were killed in the final week of street fighting in Paris from May 21 to May 28, 1871. What has become known as the Commune of Paris, the subject of John Merriman’s new book, Massacre, was the bloodiest urban revolution of the nineteenth century anywhere. Merriman likens it to the Saint Bartholemew’s Day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572 and to the Armenian massacre of 1915. During the Commune the working poor of Paris, instead of a religious or ethnic minority, were largely the victims.

An accurate number of Parisians executed in May 1871 by order of courts-martial or simply on the whim of a soldier does not exist, for the same reason that civilian casualty figures for the 2003 war in Iraq do not exist: no one bothered to count. The courts-martial kept sketchy records, and the many individual soldiers or platoons who killed their prisoners out of hand were even less accountable. In addition to somewhere between 17,000 and 35,000 dead, more than 4,500 supposed revolutionaries were subsequently deported to the French possessions in the Pacific, mainly to New Caledonia. Thousands more went into exile nearby, such as the painter Gustave Courbet, who was falsely held responsible for toppling the column in the Place Vendôme with its statue of Napoleon and assessed a huge sum for its repair. Courbet had actually worked to protect the Louvre from arson. He went to Switzerland.

These deaths were overwhelmingly the work of the French army units sent into insurgent Paris by Adolphe Thiers, the head of the French government, which was temporarily relocated to Versailles. While Thiers’s soldiers killed tens of thousands, the revolutionaries in Paris killed sixty-six (or maybe sixty-eight) of their prisoners. Though few in number, these latter deaths were explosive emotionally because of the victims’ prominence: they included two generals of the French army, the archbishop of Paris, the curate of the Church of the Madeleine, and a senator. Feelings were further agitated by the fires that consumed many major public buildings in Paris. Conservative opinion has therefore tended to blame the violence largely upon bloodthirsty Communards. Merriman turns the tables unsparingly against the “forces of order.”

The “forces of order” felt free to execute any supposed insurgent they could find. Events that led to the uprising of Paris in the spring of 1871 help explain the extreme harshness of the repression. France had just lost a war with Prussia, heedlessly provoked by the Emperor…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.