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 Napoleon III, who had abdicated and fled. Whole French armies had capitulated. The Prussians then besieged Paris from September 19, 1870, until the signing on January 28, 1871, of an armistice between Prussia and the new provisional government of France. Whatever misery already festered in the slums of Paris was multiplied by famine during the siege. Folklore recounts the consumption of rats and the animals in the zoo, but privation, borne disproportionately by the poor, was authentic. To misery was added humiliation. The Prussian army bombarded Paris in January. Then the Prussians were authorized by the peace treaty to annex Alsace-Lorraine and to stage a victory parade down the Champs-Élysées on March 3, 1871 (shades of June 1940!).

Popular opinion in Paris blamed Napoleon III’s Third Empire and also the provisional government that succeeded it for not knowing how to fight. Many Parisians inherited an embellished memory of how the French revolutionary volunteers of 1792 had defeated the professional armies of Prussia and Austria by a new way of creating a military: conscription (the levée en masse), the promotion of officers for talent, and fervent soldiers.

The antigovernment passion that seized part of the population of Paris in the fall of 1870 (and also some other cities like Lyon, where Mikhail Bakunin led a brief popular rising in September 1870) began with calls less for social justice than for a renewed patriotic war against Prussia. The fact that Paris National Guard units, using the tactics remembered from 1792, failed in their main attempt to break through the Prussian lines on January 19, 1871, hardly dampened their war fever. The other side—the provisional government at Versailles and the rural France that it represented—felt both anger and fear toward the Paris populace. The humiliated regular French army felt resentful anger against the Parisian patriots while conservative rural France feared the urban crowd.

Paris had not only its insurrectionary elements (never really in a majority) but also a military force that had been prepared for the war against Prussia and never was able to engage in fighting. The Paris National Guard, a part-time militia, consisted of about 340,000 men, many feeling strong patriotic revulsion against the new French provisional government at Versailles; there were also cannons, many of them grouped on the crest of Montmartre. The provisional government wanted to disarm Paris. On March 18, 1871, a military operation by the Versailles authorities to bring the cannon down from Montmartre failed. Men, women, and children blocked the way and cut the horses’ harnesses. Some of the soldiers fraternized with the crowd. In the excitement, two generals were taken by the crowd, roughed up, and finally executed.


Insurrectionary feeling in Paris expressed itself at this point in a spasm of patriotism and even of militarism. It is well to remember that the French left has always had its nationalist side. In the Commune of Paris that side was uppermost in that first encounter in Montmarte and never wholly absent. One scholarly book about the Commune of Paris even argues that it was primarily nationalist.2 Merriman doesn’t dignify that interpretation with a mention.

Following the Montmartre fiasco, Thiers made a crucial decision. He chose to withdraw his forces from the city, the better to reconquer it later. So the insurgents found themselves in charge of Paris. They did not have to overcome existing authorities; the existing authorities had handed the city over to them. Thereupon they began freely and enthusiastically to construct a new society. Proposals flowed forth from a vast array of citizens’ clubs that often appropriated churches as meeting places. Their goals were more characteristic of independent artisans than of a twentieth-century industrial proletariat. They wanted to revive employment with workers’ cooperatives. They wanted cheap credit. They wanted better education for girls, freed from the church’s control, and they wanted the separation of church and state.

Courbet, elected president of a Fédération des Artistes (to which Corot, Manet, and many others also belonged), wanted to free art from the deadening power of the state. The Parisians’ strongest grievance against the provisional government in Versailles, aside from giving up the fight against Prussia, was its cancellation of the temporary suspension during the fighting with Prussia of debt and rent payments and pawnshop maturities.

The Marxist commentators who later appropriated the Commune as their own praised it for its independence as a true working-class government—the world’s first “dictatorship of the proletariat”—more than for any possible socialist character of its actions. The nearest the Commune came to socialism was the prohibition of night work in bakeries (harder to apply than it first appeared), and the expropriation of one foundry abandoned by its owners in order to establish a workers’ cooperative on the premises.

Generations of scholars have scrutinized the social, geographical, generational, and gender composition of the Parisian crowd in 1871 in search of some key to explain its insurrectionary drive. The preponderance of independent artisans within it has always been clear, despite some industrial development in the suburbs. The sweeping urban renewal projects carried out during the 1860s by the prefect of the Seine department, Baron Georges Haussmann, have also been studied for their possible effects on the uprising: historians have inquired into the alienation of families displaced from their leveled old neighborhoods and the concentration of these families in new suburbs like Belleville and Ménilmontant.

The clearest result of Haussmann’s broad avenues was the problem they posed for the construction of effective barricades by the Communards—an effect Haussmann intended. While Merriman surveys these inconclusive debates, his main interest lies less in what motivated the Parisian insurgents—in the last analysis they fought to defend their neighborhoods against a military aggression—than in what motivated the soldiers who slaughtered them.

Thiers and his regular army force of 130,000 men began to probe the forts and walls of Paris in April 1871. They went at it in a mood of “cleansing,” or even of colonial conquest. It was not certain, at the beginning, that the soldiers would fire on their fellow citizens. They had declined to do so on March 18 in the confrontation over the cannon on Montmartre. Step-by-step escalation in April hardened both sides. The Communards shot a physician who had been sent by the Versailles government to parlay, unwisely dressed in a colonel’s uniform. Thiers’s forces executed two popular Communard officers, Gustave Flourens and Émile Duval. At this point the Communards took the archbishop and other clergymen as hostages. One Paris National Guard unit renamed itself ominously the “Avengers of Flourens.”

The regular troops seem to have received an explicit order to treat captured Communards not as soldiers but as criminals. Many of them were simply gunned down on the spot. Others were condemned in rudimentary courts-martial, without rights of defense or appeal. Still others were marched to Versailles for trial. Systematic shooting of those found guilty reached such proportions that the firing squads began to use the new machine guns that the army had adopted in 1866. The victims included women and children believed to have assisted at the barricades.


The executions were justified by the army’s systematic stigmatization of the Parisian crowd as primitive beings, unworthy of life. A major strength of Merriman’s vivid account of the “massacre” is his documentation from contemporary texts of the army’s image of the Parisian working poor as depraved, diseased, colonial, or animal. The soldiers sometimes identified guilty revolutionaries by remnants of National Guard uniforms they had been unable to remove, or by powder stains on their hands or faces. All too often they identified them by mere appearance. There was no need to prove that a suspect had committed some act. Rough faces or clothing or accents often sufficed. Class was highly visible in 1871.

Women had a major part in the Commune, not only in the endless club meetings and in feeding and supplying the combatants, but even in combat itself. The Versailles authorities and the officers attributed particularly loathsome and unfeminine qualities to the “Amazons of Paris.” The one role women did not assume was command. Even though Louise Michel and Élisabeth Dmitrieff attained celebrity in the clubs, no woman was named to the two main governing councils—the Commune or the Central Committee of the National Guard.


Granger Collection

‘The Dead of the Paris Commune Have Risen Under the Red Banner of the Soviets’; Soviet poster, 1921

The most fearsome of the revolutionary women in conservative imaginations were the pétroleuses, women reputed to have carried lamp oil through Paris, setting buildings on fire. There is no denying that many Paris buildings were burned, including the city hall, the Tuileries palace, the law courts, and residential neighborhoods. Merriman emphasizes the finding of recent scholars of the fighting such as Robert Tombs that the Versailles forces’ own artillery set many of the fires and destroyed whole city blocks.

The insurgents did indeed burn some buildings. They singled out some for revolutionary symbolism, such as the Tuileries (where the public park of that name is located now), but there is no evidence that pétroleuses set it on fire. The Communard leadership set some fires in an attempt to slow the Versailles forces’ advance. When the regular troops quickly learned how to breach the barricades by entering adjacent buildings and firing on the defenders from behind, the guardsmen burned buildings that overlooked their barricades. It is likely that no pétroleuse ever existed, but with imaginations fevered it was enough for a housewife to return from shopping with a bottle of cooking oil to be shot on the spot.

Barricades had more symbolic than military effect. Here as in other respects memories of the Revolution of the 1790s drove the insurgents’ strategy and tactics. They believed that mass citizen conscription, the election of officers, and the construction of barricades would defeat the professional army of Versailles. The Communards imagined themselves completing the revolutionary process begun in 1789 but still unfinished. When things became difficult they set up an executive committee within the Commune and called it the Committee of Public Safety. They went back to the Revolutionary calender of 1793–1794. When the Central Committee of the National Guard appealed to the regular soldiers to fraternize with the people of Paris on May 23, they dated their proclamation “prairial 4, year 79.”

The term “Commune” itself came from the French Revolution. It requires some explanation. The first constitutional arrangements of the 1790s, maintained by Napoleon and continuing today, established the commune as the smallest unit of French local government. Today there are about 37,000 communes in France, each governed by an elected council that chooses the mayor. Paris had its own commune at first, like any other town, but when revolutionaries proclaimed a “revolutionary commune” on August 9, 1792, they were asserting the right of municipalities to govern themselves. After the Revolution was over, Paris was not allowed to have its own mayor again until 1977, with brief exceptions in revolutionary times, as in spring 1848 and fall 1870. Declaring a revolutionary commune on March 28, 1871, was insurgent Paris’ way of asserting its legitimate authority against the provisional government of Thiers at Versailles.

But the formulas of the 1790s did not impede the regular army’s conquest of insurgent Paris. One problem was the dilution of the Commune’s authority by a movement suspicious of any centralized power. The insurgents grouped themselves in layers of committees. During the Prussian siege, local vigilance committees in each neighborhood (arrondissement) had formed a Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondissements. Then the Commune was proclaimed as the senior governing body on March 28, with a Committee of Public Safety within it after May 1.

But the Commune had to share power with its own military force, organized in a Central Committee of the National Guard. No effective executive authority emerged among these competing authorities. No dominant personality established a sufficient ascendancy to be remembered today, even though some of them, like the hard-drinking dandy Raoul Rigault, who made himself prefect of police, had charisma. The Commune of 1871 was a curiously anonymous uprising. For lack of any effective central authority, the Paris National Guard men (and women) tended to fall back on defending their own neighborhoods. It is not surprising that the regular army subjugated the city in one week without much trouble, despite a courageous defense by individuals and small groups fighting barricade by barricade and house by house.

The facts of the insurgency of the Commune of Paris and its repression are clear enough. What is less clear is their meaning. Marx was a skeptic at first, always scornful of French revolutionists like Auguste Blanqui who thought more about herioc gestures than about economic processes. In keeping with his own tougher-minded analyses, Marx thought Prussian victory would hasten revolution by speeding up industrialization with its inevitable by-products of proletarianization and revolution, under the guidance of his own scientific socialism. Only a minority of the members of the Commune belonged to Marx’s First International.

Then, when the Parisians created their own self-governing Commune and the fighting began, Marx set aside his doctrine in his enthusiasm for their courage in “storming heaven,” as he put it in a letter to a friend. For Marx, even though the Paris uprising contradicted everything he had written about how revolution must germinate inexorably within capitalism, the Commune of Paris was a harbinger of how the proletariat might govern directly. From the Commune’s failure, Lenin drew the additional lesson that to succeed an uprising in a capital city would have to be led and organized by a firmly centralized and dictatorial party.

Many Communards viewed their movement as a harbinger, and went to their deaths comforted by the thought that they had prepared revolutions to come. During the first century after its repression, the Commune of Paris was commemorated in that teleological way. As it turned out, Paris was to have a surprisingly peaceful future. A bare decade later, in 1880, the Third Republic was firmly in place and sufficiently confident to amnesty some Communards. Paris, always divided politically, became far more conservative in the twentieth century. In 1900 a majority of its arrondissements had nationalist mayors. The main Parisian street demonstration of the 1930s was a protest against the Third Republic by right-wing war veterans on February 6, 1934. As the Commune’s centennial approached, Jacques Rougerie, one of its most resourceful historians, concluded that it had been not the dawn but the dusk (crépuscule) of nineteenth-century urban uprisings.3

Communist parties or organizations close to them nevertheless maintained a proprietary grip on commemorations of the Paris Commune. In the USSR, a Communard flag was placed in Lenin’s mausoleum in 1924. The battleship Sevastopol was rechristened Paris Commune in 1921; it shelled German troops in the Crimea as late as 1942. On the centennial date of March 18, 1971, the USSR issued a commemorative 6-kopek stamp honoring the Paris Commune.

In Paris, commemorations of the Commune, and preparation for future Communes, became focused upon a section of wall on high ground at the southeast corner of the Père Lachaise cemetery, in the 20th arrondissement: the “wall of the fédérés” (mur des fédérés; the Paris National Guardsmen were called fédérés because they were organized, in characteristically libertarian fashion, as a federation of neighborhood units). The wall was not the site of the Communards’ final resistance, as is sometimes thought, but a place where prisoners were brought to be shot. On May 28, 1871, 147 prisoners were shot there, and their bodies tipped into a ditch.

In May 1880, when an amnesty permitted the return of some exiled Communards, they performed a commemorative ceremony at that spot. “Going up to the wall” (la montée au mur) became a kind of secular pilgrimage. The May Day parades of the French Communist Party always ended there. On May Day 1936, when socialist and even radical leaders joined the parade in recognition of unification of the entire French left within the electoral coalition called the Popular Front, 600,000 marchers went up to the wall. The main twentieth-century leaders of the French Communist Party up to, but not including, Georges Marchais have elaborate tombs there. Despite the decline of the French Communist Party today to a splinter group, the montée au mur continues under the auspices of the Association des Amies et Amis de la Commune. In 2014 it took place on May 24.

But the montée au mur as a kind of revolutionary calisthenics in preparation for the final uprising is hardly credible today. Unruly capital cities are still able to topple regimes, at least momentarily (as in Cairo), but they are hardly able to impose new ones. The expensive, monumental Paris of today has become the theater for a great diversity of demonstrations that may persuade the government of the day to backtrack on some particular policy but hardly threaten its existence. These ritualized “manifs” range from the huge march in June 1984 of over a million in favor of the continued independence of Catholic schools to blockades by tractor-driving farmers lobbying, on numerous occasions, for firmer price supports. The Paris streets have also been filled with more than a million people for other kinds of mass expression: the outburst of joy when France won the Association Football World Cup on July 12, 1998, and the outburst of sorrow and indignation on January 11, 2015, following the murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Generally in the twentieth century left and right have competed for control of the streets of great European cities, and the right has often won. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti extolled “the multicolored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals” in the “Futurist Manifesto” he issued in Paris in 1909, but he went on to support Mussolini.

John Merriman’s vivid account of the Commune follows a life’s work of richly detailed studies of nineteenth-century French social conditions and movements. Only the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has a comparable mastery of the Commune today. Tombs, author of a meticulous account of how the French army operated in the reconquest of Paris,4 makes fully clear that it committed atrocities but he is cool and analytical about it. He attributes only indirect responsibility to Thiers, the head of the government.

Like the Communards, Merriman holds Thiers personally responsible for something he can only call state terror—the Parisians tore down Thiers’s house and dispersed his art collection. Using eyewitness accounts he makes palpable the passions of this tragedy. He is unmatched on how the conservatives stigmatized the Paris poor, and on the role of Communard women in both fact and imagery. At his book’s end, Merriman makes his own montée au mur late on an autumn evening. He almost hears ghosts of the past, but they don’t return.