Monday 24 May 2021

Week 21: Vive la Commune !

100 years ago this week: Week 21

In the history of Paris, May 21 - 28, 1871 is known as the Semaine Sanglante, the bloody week when thousands were killed as government forces took back control of the city from the Communards. We mark the 150th anniversary of these tragic events this year, but 100 years ago the commemorations were far from front-page news. Instead, the mainstream press chose to focus on a completely different - and locally irrelevent - commemoration.

Turn the pages here.

We have already seen in this series of articles how the 50th anniversary date of the creation of the Paris Commune was almost completely ignored in the media, In that post, I wondered if there would be more reporting for its bloody conclusion. We are now at that date, and the answer is...not really! For the principally bourgeois editors of the traditional press, two events ensured that the commemorations could be kept away from the headlines and - importantly from their perspective - painted in a negative light.

First of all though, back to L'Humanité, where the commemorations did take up many of the newspaper's columns across the week.

Long live La Commune

In a few hours, it will be fifty years - half a century - since the Commune fired, on the top of Belleville, its ultimate cannon shot. Fifty years since, in Montmartre, Eugène Varlin, hands tied behind his back, climbed disdainfully towards his final ordeal, showing his assassins how a working man can die for a lot less than twenty five francs.

Paris has a duty to recognise this heroic past, these martyrs adorned with an immortal glory, and to give the fiftieth anniversary celebrations a very special sparkle. The city knows it and feels it. The traditional parade in front of the Wall will, in a few hours – everything points towards this – take on an incomparable grandeur and strength.

L'Humanité continues with a call to action - everyone to the Wall! This simple message though also betrayed the divisions on the left. Whilst the Communists traditionally celebrated the anniversary at the Mur des Fédérés (Communard's wall) in the Père Lachaise cemetery, the Socialists held an alternative commemoration in the Montparnasse cemetery. The Wall is still the principal memorial point for the victims of the repression today (147 combatants of the Paris Commune were shot here and thrown in an open trench at the foot of the wall on the final day of the Commune), but Socialists and Communists did not want to share the same platform 100 years ago.

A different 'Memorial Day'

Such divisions made it easier for convential newspapers to ignore the commemorations and instead concentrate on a different 'Memorial Day'. In 1921, the commemorations for the Commune were organised on the same Sunday as the American 'Memorial Day', which was celebrated with great pomp that year also in Paris. Most newspapers featured the US celebrations prominantly on their front pages, often with photos, Remembering soldiers who had died for their country was seemingly less fraught with risk than rememering combatants who had been killed by the soldiers of their own country.

The picture and headline above were featured on the front page of Le Journal. For mention of the Commune in the same newspaper you had to turn over the page. At the top of one of the columns is a simple headline - "Bagarres communistes" (Communist brawls). Whilst even L'Humanité accepts that the commemorative event ended with some fighting (which for them was caused by the police and some goading church groups), almost all other newspapers were happy to be able to centre their reporting on the messy and rough conclusion to the day - which was, for their readership, clearly in contrast to the peaceful paegentry displayed by the Americans.

La semaine sanglante

A final point of note. The 'semaine sanglante' is the accepted term today for the final week of the Commune, when at least 20,000 Parisians were killed as the Versaillais forces crushed the naisant local government, but I have only found the term in two newspapers in 1921 (one of which was L'Humanité naturellement). Today the blood is that of the Communards, but the term is a more general one, covering also the destruction and burning of buildings and monuments - by both sides - as well as the Versaillais soldiers killed in the fighting. Perhaps the deaths of 20,000 people seemed slight against the deaths of millions in WW1, but the invisibility of the term in the press was probably more a reflection of a wider French trait for historical blindspots. If we don't mention it, perhaps we can pretend it never happened.


Arthur said...

I don't think you can begin to understand WW1 without understanding the Belle Epoque, and to understand that, you need to understand the Second Empire, the Franco-Prussion War and the Commune. I recommend the History of the Paris Commune of 1871 by Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, even though the English translations leave much to be desired.

Ralph Lloyd-Jones said...

Alasdair Horne's 'The Siege of Paris'gives quite a good English language account of the Commune. He also wrote good books on the Battle of Verdun in 1916, the 1940 Fall of France and what happened in Algeria in the 1950s - '60s. All essential reading if you're interested in French history.

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