Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

Another Frightening Similarity between French History and Modern America: The Paris Commune

Recent American history offers some frightening parallels with one of the most disturbing incidents in French history, the Paris Commune of 1871.

The Paris Commune was a chaotic revolutionary regime that ended in a bloodbath. Frighteningly, the behavior of the Commune revolutionaries mirrors the behavior of recent American radicals.

For example, the Commune’s leaders had a debate about abolishing the police, shades of America’s recent “defund the police” slogan, Podcaster Mike Duncan notes. The Commune’s leaders also destroyed historic monuments, including the Vendôme Column and the Tuileries Palace.

Additionally, the Commune’s leaders promoted many policies familiar to modern Americans. Those ideas included rent relief, employee takeover of businesses, and feminism. However, none of the radical policies came to fruition because the Commune only lasted two months.

A Revolution Born in Defeat

The cause of the Paris Commune was the collapse of Napoleon III’s rickety Second Empire in the Franco Prussian War.

The catastrophe began when the Germans captured Napoleon III himself and much of the French Army at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. Consequently, France had no government and nobody who could surrender to the Germans.

Instead, the French Army fought on and the people of Paris endured a brutal 135 day siege. Ordinary Parisians suffered horrendously during the siege. There were stories of people eating rats and dogs to survive. Meanwhile, France’s leaders had fled to Bordeaux and organized a “Government of National Defense” far from the starvation and the Prussian shells.

On 26 January 1871, the Government of National Defense signed a ceasefire. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the starving city of Paris would pay the Germans a 200 million franc indemnity. The on 8 February 1871, France’s citizens went to the polls and elected a new national assembly.

The new assembly, like most French people, was conservative, Catholic, rural, and royalist. Most of the parliament’s members wanted a constitutional monarchy. However, they could not agree on which royal family should rule France.

Instead, conservative republicans led by Adolphe Thiers took control of the assembly and formed a government. Thiers believed the only way France could survive was to make peace with the new German Empire at all costs. Predictably, Germany’s new leader, the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, struck a hard bargain. France lost a key territory Alsace Lorraine and had to pay reparations to Germany.

Trauma and Revolution

Naturally, many Parisians became angry. They had suffered terrible traumas in a destructive war and got nothing in exchange.

The situation in France in 1870 resembled America in 2021. Ordinary people had endured a terrible trauma and sacrificed heavily, yet received no rewards. Working class draftees fought the war, while ordinary Parisian families endured the siege and starvation.

Meanwhile, the elite exempted themselves from the trauma by avoiding military service and fleeing the city. For example, France’s “Defense Minister” Léon Gambetta fled Paris in a balloon at the beginning of the siege.

In 2020, America endured the trauma of COVID-19. During the pandemic, the rich sequestered themselves at home, while ordinary people went out to work and risked their lives. One result of that was the George Floyd riots in May and June 2020, which took on some features of a revolutionary uprising.

For example, protesters took over areas of Seattle and Minneapolis. In Seattle, protesters even set up a revolutionary government they called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or CHAZ.

The Paris Commune was the CHAZ on a far larger and grander scale. The Commune began on 18 March 1871 when the French Regular left Paris, just as the CHAZ began when the police fled Seattle in June 2020.

Radicals in Paris’s militia used the army’s exit to seize government offices. On 22 March 1871, a left-wing group called the Central Committee of the National Guard declared itself the “government” of Paris. This group organized a revolutionary government they called the Commune.

Like the CHAZ, they composed the Commune of dreamy idealists who tried to implement all of their dreams. Their policies included debt relief, rent relief, employed businesses, separation of church and state, and abolition of child labor.

A Nation Divided

Those policies were a total rejection of the new National Assembly at Versailles and the results of the 8 February 1871 election. Hence, we see another reminder of modern America in which people reject the results of elections for ideological reasons.

Those policies were a total rejection of the new National Assembly at Versailles and the results of the 8 February 1871 election. Hence, we see another reminder of modern America in which people reject the results of elections for ideological reasons.

Most of the Commune’s radical ideas remained on paper. However, they destroyed some symbols of the old regime, including the Vendôme Column which celebrated Napoleon I’s victories.

Thiers, now encamped at the old royal palace at Versailles, became frightened of the Commune. He began forming a new French Army from prisoners of war released by the Germans. Thiers put France’s only remaining popular general, Patrice MacMahon, in command of the new army. The new army had only one mission crush the Commune.

Hence, the Franco-Prussian War gave way to a French Civil War. The war broke out because France was a deeply divided nation. The divisions included rural and urban, secular and religious, monarchist and Republican, conservative and progressive, and income inequality. Some of those divisions echo modern America.

In Paris a growing working class was increasingly angry at the increasing wealth and luxury of the middle and upper classes. Napoleon III had made the situation worse with a gigantic gentrification scheme disguised as urban renewal that pushed much of the working class out of the city.

Napoleon III’s autocracy had kept a lid on the divisions in French society. The German victory blew the lid off making a revolutionary explosion inevitable.

Fear played a role in the crisis. Many French conservatives, Catholics, and rural residents had horrific memories of the French Revolution. In particular, the Reign of Terror and the Vendee a guerrilla war that led to atrocities by revolutionary armies that many critics call genocide. Hence, many French people feared that a Revolution that could lead to a new Reign of Terror and a second Vendee.

Consequently, French conservatives, led by Thiers, planned their own Reign of Terror against the revolutionaries. Thiers was planning to do unto the Commune as they would do unto him, only he would do it first.

The National Guard, the Commune’s militia, got a taste of Thiers’ plans during a clumsy attack on Versailles on 3 April 1871. During a brief battle, Regular French soldiers, mostly rural residents, shot unarmed National Guardsmen after they surrendered. In response, the Commune began taking hostages, including  the Archbishop of Paris, and threatening to execute them if the Army shot more prisoners.

The Bloody Week

The Commune’s end began on Sunday 21 May 2021 with the start of Bloody Week. On that day, MacMahon began his offensive.

The army stormed through the city, smashing buildings with artillery. Besides the fighting, soldiers shot hundreds or thousands of unarmed prisoners.

For the first time in history, soldiers turned machine guns on crowds of unarmed people. During the fighting, Commune soldiers retaliated by killing unarmed prisoners, including the Archbishop and many priests.

Historians estimate 6,000 to 20,000 people were killed during Bloody Week. No accurate body count is available because they threw many of the dead into mass graves.

The Paris Commune and the events leading up to it should serve as a cautionary tale for modern Americans. I think there are many disturbing similarities between 1860s and 1870s France.

Some disturbing similarities

Mid-19th Century France was a nation experiencing vast technological and economic changes. The 1850s and 1860s saw industrialization, railroad construction, the rebuilding of Paris, the telegraph, and the emergence of modern newspapers. Just as modern America is experiencing deindustrialization and the rise of disruptive digital technologies such as Social Media.

However, France’s leaders were mired in nostalgia and dedicated to recreating the past rather than dealing with the transformation. For example, the French left was obsessed with recreating the glories of the First Republic. Napoleon III was intent on rebuilding his famous uncle’s Empire, and the Right wanted to recreate the Ancient Regime of the Bourbons.

However, France’s leaders were mired in nostalgia and dedicated to recreating the past rather than dealing with the transformation. For example, the French left was obsessed with recreating the glories of the First Republic. Napoleon III was intent on rebuilding his famous uncle’s Empire, and the Right wanted to recreate the Ancient Regime of the Bourbons.

Finally, 1860s France was a nation absolutely convinced of its own greatness and intent on ignoring powerful rivals (the British Empire and Prussia). Indeed, the French spent the 1850s and 1860s, ignoring Prussia’s rising power, just as Americans spent the first two decades of the 21st Century ignoring China’s growing power.

Moreover, in 1870, the French believed they had the greatest army in the world capable of beating anyone. Much as modern Americans take pride in having the world’s greatest military.

The result of a national policy built on hubris and nostalgia was the catastrophe of 1870. Napoleon III thought he could restore his sagging popularity with a quick victory over the Prussians. Instead, Prussia’s state-of-the-art military machine destroyed France’s decrepit army in a few weeks.

The similarities between 1870 France and modern America are frightening. Smart Americans need to study those similarities if we want to avoid France’s fate.