The Commune of Paris: Who Shot the Prisoners?

Thirty seven years have passed since the 18th March, 1871, when the working class of Paris took the management of affairs into their own hands, though the Prussians were at the gates. What the working class did and how they did it has already been told in detail by Lissagaray ; and in the description, marvellous for the amount of information and deep analysis of. events, given in Marx’s pamphlets on “The Civil War in France.”

To-day the working class should study this historical event, not only as a record of the treatment meted out to them by their rulers, but still more for its lessons for their future guidance in their struggles with the bourgeoisie. The first lesson is that lying on the surface— the way in which the capitalist class howled and shrieked at the (mostly mythical) actions of the Communards. Taking their cue from what Marx called “the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption “—M. Thiers—they called for vengeance upon the “murderers” and “assassins” of Generals Lecomte and Clément Thomas, and denounced the Central Committee for their death.

General Lecomte was the one in command of the soldiers sent by M. Thiers to steal the cannon belonging to the National Guard at Montmartre. When the people surrounded the soldiers and persuaded them to leave the guns, Lecomte four times ordered the soldiers to fire upon the crowd, including women and children. Instead of doing so the soldiers took him prisoner, and wished to shoot him on the spot, but were induced by some officers of the National Guard to place him under guard in a house in the Rue des Hosiers and to send for the Central Committee.

There happens to be in existence a document detailing the death of these two Generals, by one of the enemies of the Commune—a Versailles officer—and published by P. Vésinier in his “History of the Commune.” This officer details his own arrest with two companions, by the National Guard, and how they were taken to a house in the Rue des Rosiers and there met General Lecomte—all awaiting the Central Committee. He then says, “The Committee did not arrive. The crowd outside tired of waiting for it and its decisions, broke the window panes and every moment levelled a gun at us; but the officers of the National Guard, seeing the gravity of our position . . . thrust back the arms that were directed against our breasts and spoke to the crowd, (who yelled ‘To Death !’) and did everything to gain time, promising to defend our lives with their own . . . The window frame was broken by the efforts of those outside, and gave passage to the most furious of them. Must I say that the very first who laid their hands on the General were a corporal of the 3rd battalion of foot chasseurs, a soldier of the 88th infantry, and two Mobile Guards. One of the last two named miserable men, striking his face with his fist cried out ‘you once put me in prison for thirty days: it is I who will give you the first shot.’ This was a horrible scene . . . and all at once an old man, whom I did not know, was thrown into the midst of us who evidently had only a few instants to live. Lieutenant Meyer told me that he was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Rue Pigalle while going for a walk as a spectator.” (This is incorrect. General Clément Thomas was caught, in civilian clothes, taking plans of the street barricades, and was arrested as a spy.) “. . . The unexpected arrival of the unfortunate General Thomas, so much detested by these battalions of Montmartre and Belleville on account of his just severity during the siege, had ruined us all . . . he was dragged a few steps aside and killed by ten or a dozen shots, . . . a few moments later, the unfortunate General Leccomte had to submit to a like fate in the same manner. . . . What was most to be lamented was that French soldiers were the first, at such a moment, to fire on their general, alone and disarmed; . . . .” (Signed) Captain Beugnot, (Ordnance Officer of the Minister of War. Versailles. March 23rd, 1871.

Here, then, is proof positive from the enemy’s side, that these two Generals were shot by their own soldiers in the fury their actions had aroused. But the existence of this evidence did not prevent in the slightest the pouring out of wild rhetorical abuse upon the Commune. Just as to-day when some poor fanatic, either for personal or other reasons, decides to put an end to the existence of some royal or other ruling “head” of capitalism, the Press pumps up a deluge of mingled “sympathetic thrills” for the victim and “righteous indignation and horror” against the “assassin” at so much per “thrill” or line as the case may be; or as when the workers voted a Liberal Government into power here they were described as a “keenly intelligent section of the community, far too wise to swallow the sophisms of Mr. Chamberlain,” but when, in Belfast, they wished to improve their economic condition, then they were “a mob of lawless rioters,” and were shot down, regardless of sex, in the name of “Law and Order.” Even as late as 1902, Mr. E. Emerson, in his “History of the Nineteenth Century,” says, “The prisoners were shot on both sides.” This is a deliberate lie, written in the interests of the ruling class by its paid agents, historians and others.

What may be called the beginning of the regular murder of the prisoners in cold blood was the killing of the Commune officers, Flourens and Duval, by Thier’s soldiers on April 3rd. In response to public pressure, raised through these and similar actions, the Commune seized some hostages, including Archbishop Darboy, but merely kept them confined without any ill-treatment.

Several times the Communards offered to exchange five of the most prominent hostages, including the Archbishop, for one Communard — Blanqui — but Thiers refused. When it was pointed out that these refusals might result in the death of the “saintly” Darboy the answer was “We cannot help it.” The murdering of the prisoners taken by the Versailles troops steadily continued, but not a single prisoner or hostage was shot by the Communards till after the entry of Theirs’ soldiers into Paris—the first executions taking place on May 22nd, seven weeks after the death of Flourens and Duval. Then three were shot, and later six more, in each case by the people breaking open the prisons and demanding the death of the hostages, not by any official orders of the Commune.

In the same ”History” Emerson says 10,000 Communards were slaughtered in the streets, but even the official report of Theirs’ Government admits something like 30,000 victims to its fury, and we may be sure that this report did not over estimate the number.

As far as different actions in war may be termed “bad” or “vile” there is one action proved against the Government soldiers that even the foulest slanderers of the Commune never dared accuse it of, namely, the firing upon the “Red Cross” ambulance waggons and surgeons. The following letter is published by P. Vésenier in his “History” (p. 231).

  “Citizen Editor,” (of “Official Journal“)—”We bring to your notice an unheard of fact accomplished by the artillery of Mont Valerien on the 3rd of April. About twenty surgeons, accompanied by seven waggons belonging to the International Ambulance Society, bearing the Red Cross of the Geneva Convention on white flags, were made targets of, and had it not been for a bend in the ground, in which they took shelter, the shells would have struck the surgeons and the wounded . . . The Physician in Chief of the Hotel de Ville, Dr. Herzfeld ; Deputy Physician, Dr. Claude.”

Another rather thin shriek was the cry of “incendiarism!” “petroleuses!” Quite apart from the fact that the Versailles soldiers set fire to far more buildings than the Communards, both by petroleum and shells, it was the former who commenced the business by inundating a building with petroleum, at Ternes, where some National Guards had taken refuge, and burning them to death. In fact in every case of abuse of the Paris working class the facts show that it was the people of “order” who committed the deeds laid at the workers’ door.

One of the useful lessons of the Commune was the workers’ power of manipulating various functions in Society. Like other working class movements, the Commune had a large share of middle-class and professional men at the head of affairs, and the useful fact stands out that in those commissions dominated by the workers the operations were almost uniformly successful, while on those commissions dominated by the journalists and “intellectuals” the most serious blunders were committed.

Theisz, Varlin, Frankel, Camélinat, Treilhard, Jourde, were all working men, and their various departments were splendidly managed. On the other hand the “educated” leaders like Cluseret and Félix Pyat, only muddled everything they touched and threw their departments into chaos. The I.L.P. and Fabian drivel that the “intellectual expert” is required to guide the working class in its movement to emancipate itself is flatly contradicted by the history of the Commune. When it is recollected that the intellectual geniuses of the bourgeoisie require months to prepare even the simplest scheme of social action, the work of the proletariat in Paris, despite the mistakes made, shines sunlike by comparison. For it must be remembered that these actions were taken in circumstances of particular difficulty. Surrounded by hostile armies, both French and German; harassed by enemies within and without; with the services designedly thrown into the greatest confusion by the Government officials when they fled to Versailles, and above all, without time to develop or mature their schemes before they had to take part in the battle of the streets; yet they abolished night work in bakehouses, annulled rent debts owing during the siege, stopped the sale of the workers’ articles in the municipal pawnshops, and even started a scheme for running the factories and works in Paris by the employees on a co-operative basis. That symbol of tyranny and oppression, the Vendome column, was pulled down, and the guillotine was burnt.

What a change came over the scene when Versailles gained the upper hand ! Then commenced that ruthless slaughter of men, women and children—after the fighting was over—that should sink deep into the minds of the working class as proving the contempt and loathing they are held in by their masters, and how little the latter, despite their bleating of “humanity” and “Christianity,” cared for the human lives that stood stood in the way of their retention of power to exploit and dominate the working class. One of the biggest mistakes of the Commune was its humanitarianism, its kindness to its enemies, even to the last moment. All these actions were taken for signs of weakness by the Assembly, and a more ferocious vengeance could not have followed had the Communards shown the greatest brutality. For, be it remembered, the wholesale massacre was stopped only when the ruling class feared a pestilence from the heaps of corpses which littered the city. Then deportation began, and thousands were exiled to inhospitable New Caledonia.

The working class must draw the lesson and allow hate to take a larger place in their view of their enemies, and, when the time comes, to strike with all their might against their foes. In reality this is the most humane method. Had the revolutionaries of 1871 started by shooting Thiers and the whole Government of Defence, even though a bourgeois republic might have finally been established, it would have been with far less bloodshed than actually occurred.

Another lesson provided by the event is the necessity for sound organisation. When the enemy was within the walls then the suicidal Anarchist cry of “each man to his own arrondissment” arose. No one will deny that deeds of valour then took place, but these detached flashes of heroism were useless against the organised armed forces of the enemy. The other Anarchist nonsense, at one time called “direct action,” and lately resuscitated under the term “taking and holding the means of production” by trade union action, is shown up in all its hideous fallacy.

Until the working class control the fighting forces any attempt to forcibly emancipate themselves by other means would merely result in the slaughter of unarmed men and women. But to obtain this control they must conquer political power. By this means and this means alone will the working class overthrow capitalism and all its horrors. And one of the most inspiring of the events, as well as valuable of lessons, in this battle will have been the Commune of Paris.

Jack Fitzgerald