“It seemed literally as if the whole town was on fire” wrote on May 23 Edwin Child, an English seed merchant who had rather unluckily found himself trapped in Paris when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and was still stuck in the city during the Commune. The “semaine sanglante” had begun two days earlier, when the French government launched an attack on the rival revolutionary government in Paris.
As Edwin Child was writing (hiding in his bedroom), 70,000 troops from the French army were fighting hand to hand in the streets with the National Guard, the military arm of the Commune. Alongside the barricades, Paris had been set ablaze. Rumours – mainly spread after the end of the conflict – declared that it was groups of ‘petroleuses’, woman throwing fire bombs, who were causing the destruction, but it was just as likely that misdirected army cannons were to blame.
Whoever was responsible, by the time the last pockets of resistance were rounded up and cruelly massacred in the Père Lachaise cemetery at the end of the week on Sunday May 28, Paris was in a dreadful state. Around the city, wrote Théophile Gautier, was “a silence of death….There was not even the song of a bird.”
Around 25,000 people are estimated to have been killed during that week, and it would take Paris several years to recover. Nevertheless, the ruins of Paris quickly fascinated people from across France and around the world. A city that had been famous for its monuments, then for its modernity, had willfully destroyed itself.
With the first weeds just pushing their way through the piles of stones and charred timber, one man spotted an opportunity. Ludovic Hans, a journalist on the liberal newspaper “l’Opinion nationale”, quickly wrote a guide to the ruins. Somewhat incredibly, this guide was published within two months of the end of the Commune.
Referring to the ruins, Hans wrote in his guide that “you have to see them, you have to observe for yourself what delirium can achieve, served by nameless people in its service.” In reality though, this justification seemed designed to mask a genuine fascination with the twisted, burned, crumbling appearance of the city.
His opening line in any case is a breezy one. He advises visitors to discover the ruins following set routes over several days, beginning in the centre. “We’ll part, if we may, from the Madeleine whose columns are speckled with bullets, and, turning our back on it, enter the Rue Royale which presents much other damage.”
In addition to Hans's book, other souvenirs such as this map were produced for visitors.
Not content to just make an inventory of the destruction, Hans incorporates many of the traditional insider tidbits that characterise guidebooks. At number 16 Rue Royale he notes, “the flames destroyed a boulangerie which made croissants that the employees of the (nearby) Marine Ministry will never forget.”
He needn’t have been concerned. This boulangerie, opened in 1862 by Louis Ernest Ladurée, later became much more famous still when it reopened as an even more bourgeois tea shop and purveyor of macarons. “A fire in the bakery opened the opportunity to transform it into a pastry shop”, declares today the official Ladurée website, artfully neglecting to mention the revolutionary origin of the flames.
Hans’s guide then spins off into oblique form of dark tourism, mixing humour, art and gore. It is all interspersed with disapproving asides which – unconvincingly – attempt to convince the reader that he’s not in fact reveling in the misery and misfortune.
A little further down, on the Rue de Rivoli, he highlights the creative aspect of the destructive flames. “The Finance Ministry, which was always a mediocre monument, has become a superb ruin. Fire is a worker of genius. From this uniform, geometric, insolently regular mass, it has made a lively, decorative, interesting edifice.” Pushed one step further, we can almost imagine the birth of the art nouveau movement emerging from this revolutionary fire!
In other locations, Hans attempts a little descriptive solemnity. At the Palais-Royal, he points out a clock and writes “it was ten past one when the clock stopped.” By the next line though, he is already back in his posture as a sardonic critic. “Of all the monuments that the fire reached, the Palais-Royal is the one that it treated with the least taste, making only a mediocre ruin of it. It was the destiny of this unfortunate palace to have a bourgeois aspect right to the end,” he mockingly notes.
The guide continues in this vein, covering the right-bank, the left-bank and the western suburbs, over a suggested tour of four days. It is largely still possible to follow his tour, although you would need a huge stretch of the imagination to picture the ruins in the places Hans points out.
Hans was in fact very much a moderate conservative. During the Commune he penned another book, "Le Second siège de Paris", which he declared to be his 'anecdotic' eye-witness version of the events. The tone of this book is far more earnest, deploring the attack on the "homeland, order and the Republic."
Interestingly, he also adds that "in front of so many ruins, there is no sentiment possible other than pain and indignation." By the time he had taken out his pen again to write his guide, he seems to have been able to add a certain number of other sentiments. Was his guide then written to reassure his largely bourgeois audience, to play down the revolutionary actions of the Commune by instead transforming them into a kind of nihilstic art performance?
Perhaps the most symbolic destruction of all was the Hotel de Ville, and here Hans makes a rather telling suggestion. "The best thing would be to conserve it in its current state, with a commemorative plaque, so that where the Commune took its toll, a ruin would always be standing."
Written so quickly after the conflict, Hans didn’t have the power of hindsight. As he had imagined, Paris did very quickly forget about a conflict that achieved little more than the transformation of a boulangerie into a cake shop. It wasn't the destructive folly of the Communards that was forgotten though, but rather the murderous government clampdown. Perhaps a burned out city hall would have reminded Parisians what their forefathers had once optimistcially hoped to achieve.
- Read the guide online (you can also download it as a PDF).