The Paris Commune: Short-Lived but Important
The Paris Commune of 1871 is one of the most interesting topics in French history. The Commune, which was the council or government of Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871, had a large impact on the course of French history and produced a lasting lesson for the rest of the world, despite its brief existence. The Paris Commune was one of the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War, in which France was defeated by Prussia.
The city of Paris was under siege at the hands of the Germans for several months. This was the culmination of a relatively short war that had not gone well for France. After the siege, France and the German Empire made terms for peace, but the German army triumphantly entered Paris and made a display of victory, adding insult to injury.
A Restless Populace
The people of Paris, before and during the Franco-Prussian War, were already disenchanted with the current political state of the city and of the nation. The population of Paris included a large percentage of working class individuals and soldiers who were restless because they felt the government of Paris did not allow them a sufficient degree of self-government.
This was particularly troublesome for the people in light of the fact that many of the smaller villages of France did have self-government in the form of democratically elected councils. The government of France, it is widely agreed, believed that the citizens of Paris were too volatile and unruly to govern themselves, and so were denied democratic representation. This was a major grievance as France initiated and lost the war with Prussia.
French Defeat and Humiliation
The Franco-Prussian war was a major turning point in the history of France and a major opportunity for the citizens of Paris for one key reason: the National Guard. The National Guard was a group of citizen-soldiers who were supplied with weapons and allowed to elect their own officers. During the siege of Paris, the National Guard was made considerably larger in an attempt to defend the city from the Germans.
After the French defeat, therefore, a large number of armed citizens remained in Paris, many of whom had elected radicals like anarchists and Marxists as their leadership. As the Germans paraded through the streets of Paris, the citizens became even more restless and excited, and the failures of Napoleon III's government were fresh in their minds.
The National Guard
The danger of an armed citizens' militia led by radicals was not lost on the leadership of the French army and the national government. In an attempt to avoid trouble in besieged Paris, the governing National Assembly had moved to Bordeaux, leaving few authority figures in Paris to maintain peace.
Given this precarious situation, the French army was ordered to confiscate many of the weapons that had been provided to the National Guard for the defense of Paris. However, the National Guard and its leaders had already gained considerable authority in Paris, and the order to confiscate their weapons provided the impetus necessary to turn this opportunity into an uprising.
Rebellion, Election, and Downfall
As members of the National Guard began to fight the French army and rebel against the government's orders, enthusiasm for revolution grew and many members of the regular army joined the rebellion alongside the National Guard. The French army could not effectively counter this amount of force, so what remained of the army withdrew from the city, leaving the National Guard in charge.
Immediately, the National Guard arranged for a Commune, or city council, to be elected by the people of Paris. Once elected, the Commune put many socialist principles into practice, heavily emphasizing the lower classes and workers' rights. Thus, the Paris Commune, is an interesting example of rule by the working class. The Commune's life was brief as the French army soon began to fight back, ultimately ending in a "Bloody Week" of fighting, but its historical legacy still lives on.