The Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune - 1870

Siege of Paris - 1870

The story of the Siege of Paris begins during the Franco-Prussian war which broke out in July of 1870. Prussian chancellor Otto Von Bismarck sought to unite all of the German kingdoms under one nation-state. He provoked France into declaring war on Prussia, which caused four independent German states to join an alliance, forming the Northern German Confederation.

On July 16 of 1870, the French Parliament voted to declare war on Prussia. French forces invaded German territory on August 2nd. The German coalition had superior numbers, and made better use of the latest technologies such as railroads and artillery. The Germans invaded northern France on August 4th, and won a series of quick victories. French Emperor Napoleon III was captured and the Second French Empire was decisively defeated.

The German army then marched unopposed towards Paris. The Palace of Versailles was captured and served as the army's headquarters. By the 19th of September, the entire city of Paris was encircled by 240,000 soldiers and cut off from the outside world. Under the command of General Leonhard von Blumenthal, the Siege of Paris had officially begun.

German Empire 1871

The Siege

Prussian Artillery Surrounding Paris in 1870 Prussian Artillery
photo credit:

Bismarck suggested the shelling of Paris to ensure the quick surrender of the city. But the German high command rejected this proposal on the insistence from General Blumenthal. He argued that it would have a horrid effect on French civilians, violate the rules of engagement, and badly damage the reputation of the German Confederation, without speeding up any victory.

Paris was at this time one of the most fortified cities on Earth, with 21 miles (33km) of city walls over 30ft (10m) high, and a series of sixteen detached forts throughout the city, all of which had been built in the 1840's at enormous expense. The city was defended by 400,000 militia and national guardsmen.

Prussian Army Surrounding Paris in 1870 Prussian Army Surrounding Paris in 1870
photo credit:

National government officials, however, had abandoned the city before the German army arived, fleeing to Tours. And many middle and upper class residents had left prior to the arival of the Germans. The only diplomat who chose to remain was the United States minister. A military leader named Louis-Jules Trochu acted as head of state for Paris, commanding National Guard units within the city. The realization that the government had left Paris to fend for itself created substantial resentment amongst the population of the city. Food began to run dangerously low, with the population resorting to slaughtering horses to sustain themselves.

The Paris Commune

As the German army surrounded the city, radical groups within Paris saw that the Government of National Defense had very few soldiers defending it. In October of 1870, National Guard units from the working class neighborhoods began demonstrations demanding a new form of government, a Commune. Regular army units loyal to the government dispersed the crowds without incident.

Thousands of demonstrators flooded the steets daily, demanding the resignation of Trochu, and the formation of a governing Commune. Louis Auguste Blanqui, the leader of the most radical faction, set up an office in the Prefecture of the Seine and began issuing orders to his followers.

German Military Parade in Paris German Military Parade in Paris
photo credit: Library of Congress

Seeking an end to the German occupation of France, a preliminary peace treaty is signed between France and Germany on January 18th, 1871. The Alsace and Lorraine territories are anexed to Germany, and 5 billion Francs are paid from France. This unites Germany into one country. A German victory parade marches through Paris in February in celebration.

A New French Government

National elections are held in February of 1871 to conclude a peace treaty with Germany. It returned a royalist majority, reflecting the conservative nature of France as a whole. The extreme groups fighting for control in Paris feared that the new National Assembly meeting in Versailles would restore the French monarchy.

To ensure order in Paris, Adolphe Thiers, executive head of the provisional national government, forms a plan to disarm the people of Paris. Their first act is to remove the city's cannons. Their goal is to enter Paris and crush the insurgency, restoring order and national unity. Resistance from the revolutionaries broke out again on March 18.

On March 26, municipal elections resulted in a victory for the revolutionaries who then formed the Commune government within Paris. The new government was made up primarily of socialists, some of whom followed in the French Revolutionary tradition of 1793. Carl Marx describes the Paris Commune as the first true working class government. One third of its leadership was of working class origins, while the rest were lawyers, doctors, and journalists. These leaders refered to themselves as Communards.

Streets Barricaded by the Paris Commune of 1871 Streets Barricaded by the Paris Commune of 1871
photo credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Paris is now a revolutionary city once again. The first French Revolution lasted through the 1790s and was terminated by the 1st French Empire. The Revolution was back again in 1848, and terminated by the 2nd French Empire. The leadership of the commune sought to make the French Revolution permanent. There are some that want Paris to govern itself. Others think that Paris is the center of the country and has the right to rule the rest of France.

The Commune had a hostile relationship with the Catholic Church since its inception. On April 2nd, a vote was held declaring the Church of "complicity in the crimes of the monarchy." The Commune seized property of religious congregations, and ordered Catholic schools to cease religeous education and become secular. Over 200 priests, nuns, and monks were arrested, and 26 churches were closed to the public. Ultimately the Arch Bishop of Paris is executed by the Communards along with 23 priests.

The Second Siege of Paris Begins

Blood Week 1871 Invasion of Paris
photo credit: World Statesmen

Communes briefly formed in other French cities, but were quickly suppressed, leaving the Paris Commune alone to oppose the government at Versailles. The insurgents were unable to organize themselves militarily. The French government based at Versailles negotiated with the German army for the release of about 60,000 military prisoners, armed them, and began attacking Paris.

French national soldiers saw the Communards as criminals that needed to be crushed. They wanted to deal with the revolution once and for all. By killing these revolutionary elements, they felt that this may end the cycle of revolution that had been going on since 1789.

On the 10th of May, a massive assault is made on Paris from the west. After one week of fighting, the walls of Paris are breached. On May 21, government troops entered an undefended section of Paris.

Paris Barricades 1871 Barricaded Streets in Paris
photo credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Barricades are set up on city streets to stop the advance of the French army. The commune was very popular in the working class neighborhoods in the north east section of the city. Street by street fighting occurred as the French army moved through the city, with prisoners executed on both sides.

Over the next week, thousands of Parisians are killed. The revolutionaries make their last stand at the Père Lachaise cemetery. In the east section of the cemetery, surviving fighters for the commune are lined up and shot at the Wall of the Fédérés.


Toppling of the Vendome Column Toppling of the Vendome Column
photo credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

40,000 French citizens are arrested and tried on war councils. 4,500 are deported to the French territory of New Caledonia. Those who avoid arrest flee to Geneva, London, and the United States. Many do return when a general amnesty is declared for them at the beginning of the 1880s.

Upon returning to Paris, many were shocked by the state of the city. Not only was there damage done by sporadic bombardment from both the Prussian and French armies, but the revolutionaries had also defaced monuments and other symbols of French history. Many described Paris as a city that had been generally defiled. Dozens of buildings were burned down by the revolutionaries including the Finance Ministry, and the 339 year old Hotel de Ville. Notre Dame was nearly set ablaze as well. Paris was seen as a symbol of civilization that had been defaced.

Paris buildings lost 1871 Historic Sites Destroyed During the Paris Commune of 1871
photo credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

France loses a bit of national greatness from the entire experience. The Paris commune becomes an international symbol for socialism, Marxism, and Communism. Carl Marx describes it as a symbol for what future societies should be. Others describe it as what must never be.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Basilique du Sacré-Cœur) was later erected at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. It was erected to serve as repentance to God for defeat in the Franco-Prussian War as well as the Paris Commune. It is erected in one of the most rebellious neighborhoods, and is meant as an embodiment of conservative moral order. Construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1914.

Later, in 1940, when the Germans are once again approaching Paris, a decision is made by the French to not defend the city. The Paris commune of 1871 is specifically mentioned as a reason to not allow any kind of power vacuum to form.

and reconciling both of them to God in one body through the cross, by which He extinguished their hostility.
Ephesians 2:16

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

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