The Myth of the Paris Commune

Around the rising of the Paris Commune against the Provisional Government of France many myths have accumulated, writes John Roberts, which in varying versions have influenced all subsequent French politics.

Strictly defined, the Paris Commune of 1871 was the municipal council which was installed on March 28th and lasted until Whitsun. But it is rarely spoken of in this simple sense. Parisians had demanded a “Commune” since the previous October, and although few people were quite sure what this meant, it was not simply a new set of town councillors.

The men of the Commune themselves did not always know what they were meant to do, or what they were entitled to do, and since 1871 the confusion has thickened. There is no historical episode about which myth and legend have sprouted more luxuriously. The Commune has passed out of history and into the realms of ritual and symbol for its friends and enemies alike.

On Whit Sunday wreaths are still laid against the wall of Pere Lachaise cemetery to commemorate the Communards shot there at the close of the fighting in 1871, while above Paris rises the cupola of Sacre-Coeur as an expiation for the sin of the rising and a thank-offering for the deliverance of France from its scourge.

The Commune came at a moment of disorganization and confusion in French politics. The Second Empire had taken France into war on July 15th, 1870. The early, shocking defeats of the army were followed by the news of the Emperor’s capture at Sedan. A dynasty founded by a soldier could not survive this humiliation, and the victory for which the Republican opposition had struggled under the Empire was given to them by the Prussian General Staff.

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