The Fall of the Paris Commune: May 28, 1871

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


“Let us go, my friends, for the sake of God.”


Archbishop Darboy

Thus Pére Captier encouraged his companions, who were going, they were certain, to their death. Captier was the superior of a house of Dominicans who ran the College of Arcueil, near Paris. On May 19, 1871, a group of “citizens” representing the “Commune” of Paris had arrested Captier with four other Dominicans (Fathers Bourard, Cottrault, Delhorme, and Chatagneret) as well as eight lay professors and servants of the college. Six days later, the 12 men were taken first to a fortress on the outskirts of Paris and then to a prison within the city. Along the way they were jeered at and insulted, though they were accused of no crime. They now made their confessions, to prepare for another journey.


“Let us go, my friends . . .”


It was about five in the afternoon of May 25. One by one, the prisoners were led into the streets that on all sides were filled with armed men. These men now opened fire on the prisoners. Captier fell, mortally wounded. Bourard, Cottrault, Delhorme, and Chatagneret were cut down, as were the three professors (Monsieurs Gauquelin, Voland, and Petit) and the five servants (Aimé Gros, Marce, Cheminal, Dintroz, and Cathala). For 24 hours the bodies remained on the street, insulted by passersby, though a few paid the fallen the respect due to martyrs.


The government that had ordered the execution of the “martyrs of Arcueil”—as well as, the day before, of the archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Georges Darboy—had been in power less than two months. It was voted in by the citizens of Paris as a city council, called the Commune, after the president of France, Adolphe Thiers, told the National Guard to lay down its arms. The German army had just withdrawn from the city, and Thiers wanted to make sure the unruly Parisians gave him no trouble. They did give him trouble, however; for, the National Guardsmen refused to lay down their arms, and radical workers proclaimed the independence of Paris from France.


Some of the most radical men in the city were elected to the Paris Commune. Some were Jacobins, who wanted to revive the French Revolution of 1793. Some were followers of Proudhon, who wanted to make France a federation of independent communes, with no central government. Still others were socialists and Marxist members of the revolutionary Communist organization called the First International. The flag of the Commune was not the French revolutionary tricolor, but the red banner of the Communists. These “Communards” wanted to end any government support of religion; they wanted to reestablish the revolutionary calendar and pass laws to better the lot of workers. Among the measures the Commune approved was handing over abandoned factories to organizations owned and controlled by workers.


Caricature of Thiers leading the assault on the Commune

Similar communes were established in five French cities, but they were soon suppressed. On April 2, 1871, the army of the French National Assembly laid siege to Paris. For six weeks the siege continued until, on May 21, the Assembly’s troops were able to enter an undefended section of west Paris.


The French call the days that followed la semaine sanglante (“bloody week”), for the loss of life caused by both sides was horrendous. The Communards raised barricades in the city streets and, in their anger, destroyed public buildings including the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville. It was during bloody week that Archbishop Darboy and his companions, along with the Arcueil martyrs, were killed. On May 26 another group of about 50 Catholic laity and clergy were taken from their prison and led to the last stronghold of the Communards in Paris—the heights of Belleville. There they were brutally murdered and their bodies mutilated by a mob of men, women, and even children. Two days later, the Communard resistance was at last overcome and all of Paris was in the hands of the government’s troops.


The end of the siege, however, did not spell the end of the bloodshed. In the days and weeks that followed, tens of thousands of Parisians were arrested. Thousands were executed or deported from France.


The republican government had begun its rule of France in blood.


A Communard Song


L’Internationale, the anthem (under slightly different versions) embraced by socialists, anarchists, and communists, was originally written to commemorate the Paris Commune. (Its title refers to the First International, the revolutionary organization founded by Karl Marx and other Communists.) The author of the text, Eugene Pottier, had himself been a Communard. He intended that the anthem be set to the tune of La Marseillaise, but Pierre De Geyter wrote the characteristic melody for the song in 1888. It is this melody you will hear below.



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