When did the 'Turn of the Century' actually begin? The 1871 Paris Commune marked a turning point for socialists, anarchists and revolutionaries around the world. It also ended in a brutal crackdown, with consequences for the working class. Yale Professor John Merriman explains how the Paris Commune began as a social experiment, and ended in bloody massacre. We dive into individual stories of the commune and consider whether this chapter in European history marks the beginning of the 1900s.
John Merriman teaches, researches, and teaches French and Modern European history. His books include Dynamite Club: How A Café Bombing Ignited the Age of Modern Terror was published by Houghton-Mifflin in 2009, by JR Books in London, and in French translation by Tallandier as Dynamite Club: L’Invention du Terrorisme à Paris, and in Chinese translation, as well. Yale University Press published a second edition in 2016, with a new preface discussing several of the recent terrorist attacks in France and the United States. He recently published Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Époque Paris (Nation Books, 2017). Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune appeared with Basic Books in New York in 2014 and by Yale University Press in Great Britain. It has been translated into Portuguese in Brazil and in Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese. In 2019 the University of Nebraska Press published a collection of his essays: History on the Margins: People and Places in the Evolution of Modern France.
Merriman’s other books include The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848-1851 (1978); The Red City: Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century (1985), published in French as Limoges, la Ville Rouge (1990); The Margins of City Life: Explorations on the French Urban Frontier(1991), French edition, Aux marges de la ville; faubourgs et banlieues en France 1815-1870 (1994); and The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village in Time (2002, was published in Chinese translation in 2015), in French as Mêmoires de pierres: Balazuc, village ardéchois (Paris, 2005), and in Dutch; and Police Stories: Making the French State, 1815-1851 (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Welcome to turn of the century a podcast but the turn of the 20th century and inflection points in our modern history. As I mentioned previously, we are talking about this time point as a crucial foundational point in our history. But what marks the turn of the 20th century. By definition, it could just be, you know, December 31 1899. But we think a little bit more broadly than that. And we've been experimenting with maybe in the starting in the 1870s 1890s. Today, we're talking specifically about 1871. And the Paris Commune, which I know can sound a bit shocking to start the turn of the century so far before 1900. But to talk a little bit more about the Paris Commune and the significance of that moment, I have with us, French and modern European history professor john Merriman. Professor, welcome. All right. I'm glad you're here as well. JOHN has written a series of excellent books on this time period, on the commune on the mythical Belle Epoque , which we will get to in a second episode. But this is the first of two episodes that we're going to talk today. And like I said, before, we're diving into the commune. Many of you may have heard of the Paris Commune, but we're going to start very basically, john, can you lay out I know this is can be a challenging question to start with. But can you give us a basic understanding what was the 1871 Paris Commune?John Merriman:
Well, in March 1871, ordinary people and montmatre which is now just a tourist trap, but saw that the soldiers and their red pants they would have the red pants until they realized that the pressure that the Germans could could see the red pants who fog in 1914 that they went up to monmatre take back the canons of the Paris National Guard Monmatra looms over the city of Paris. So cannons up there had a very great ability, if used to shoot down fire down on Paris. And the women were at the market hoping it's hope to try to buy find something to purchase to eat. And they saw the soldier taking away or trying to take away the cannons. So they woke up the menfolk and the men, women and children blocked the the cannons from being taken down the narrow cobblestone streets away from my mouth. And that began a lot commune Paris, the Paris commune. Thiers who was handled Provisional Government appropriately enough, based in Versailles, where the Kings had always been the Bourbon, until the French Revolution. He pulls his troops out of Paris, they surround Paris, and the commune, the commune of Paris, begins on the 17th of March and a glass into a bloody week, which was from May 25, to 28th, when ordinary people in Paris, were slaughtered. And the book I wrote about the Paris commune called "massacre, the life and death of the Paris Commune", is mostly about about bloody week. And how on bloody week when you could be killed for simply being an ordinary person anticipates the horrors of the late 19th century massacre that Armenians in 1895 and again in 1915, by the Turks, and in later in the 20th century, when it could be killed for being a communist, or be killed simply for being Jewish. So the Paris Commune and ordinary people wanted to want to have the right to have their own political lives. And the outside government did not want that. And locking into a party is one of the most intriguing episodes in the 19th century. And the reason that we can discuss it in terms of the turn of the century. Is that for me, and that's why I wrote the book and anticipates the horrors of the 20th century. What Yeah,Joseph Hawthorne:
and you know, in that answer, you've answered a lot of questions. I've been, you know, thinking about it planning, or you've started to delve into them. And so, picking up on on one thread that you were just mentioning before, you know, Paris Commune was a lot of average people and eventually the slaughter of You know, average people, but what was the hope of the Paris Commune? What was the idealJohn Merriman:
You know, it's a whole mix of people and they were still debating and talking is that the guns, the canons of Versailles government got even closer. And the slaughter began. I mean, there was Jacobin who were in the tradition of the French Revolution. And in 1848, there were moderate Republicans that just wanted Paris to have the right to have its own Mayor. Paris had briefly had a mayor in 1848, in Paris wasn't allowed to have a mayor again, until the dreadful shock shock became mayor in 1977, because the mayor of Paris would be seen as potentially threatening to whoever was, was in power. There also a smattering of anarchists, who didn't want any government at all. There were democratic socialists, a whole bunch of them. So it was a mix of, of ordinary people. Now, one thing that upon which we must insist, is that they weren't drawn for basically from all parts of Paris that it was, the ordinary people were from the plebeian cafe, the cafe Populaire of Paris, they had a next thing the government had internet had annexed the inner banlieue you the inner suburb in 1860. And added more on the small. So there were 20 year old, the small as they are now. But the Paris Commune began in the 18th are only small, but which includes more math, but included really the 17th, the 19th, to 20th, and the 13th. And these were, this was people, Paris. So these are ordinary artisans. These were people who earn their living going down and working at the market and hauling huge sacks of everything around. These are men but also women because they're all of women and was terribly important. In the Paris Commune there were there were clubs of women, women, they the clubs met in the largest places that you could meet, which were churches. And these people were basically not religious people, but they would go to beautiful church just like Saint eustache and have political meetings and women would would horrify Catholic onlookers, a practicing Catholic onlookers by getting up into the where the priest would, would give the sermons on Sunday and, and demand equal rights demand the right to divorce, demand the right to their children be taught by lay teachers, and not by the legions of nuns, sisters, who were teaching in Paris, so it was a real mix. But to have one has to emphasize that the social geography of it all. And these corners would be would be singled out by the Versailles troops during bloody week. And that's something we can talk about in a while. Yeah,Joseph Hawthorne:
so you know, one thing I guess, before we get to the end of the commune, which is rather, I was gonna say, disastrous, maybe that's the wrong word. You know, it's a horrible ending, isn't I'll put it before we get to the end. You know, the common is also like, we've been kind of hinting at talking about a radical experiment for a lot of different people for a lot of different interests or goals, you know, which can vary from, you know, average worker rights to anarchists to mean all sorts revolutionaries. But what was the context for the Paris Commune we kind of hinted at this before, you know, why 1870 why the spring of 1871,John Merriman:
the French and second French Empire, Napoleon third had collapsed. He stupidly got into war with the Prussians and their, their other allies among the German states, and they get they get blown out and and Napoleon, the third is literally virtually arrested. He's very ill, but he's sitting on a horse and, and sit down, which is right up near the Belgian border, and he's arrested. And that's the end of that. And on September 4, there had been no basically, yet another revolution in Paris, Paris, France was declared to be a republic. But the Franco Prussian war in Paris is surrounded and the French lose. And the Paris Commune was the work of lots of people who thought that the armistice had been signed too readily by the Provisional Government. And so defeat was the context but but also the opportunity with a new republic, to have more rights for Paris and to have adjust and even social Republic that hopefully will come out of the whole mess.Joseph Hawthorne:
And so then, you know, it may sound a little obvious, but why were the French and as even pression powers that be threatened by the commune and I also i'm curious, if you think that, you know, if the comedy had succeeded, it would have spread to or it's it would have spread to other parts of France. Well, twoJohn Merriman:
quick points. One is that Bismarck of course was against the common Bismarck being the Chancellor of Germany and he allows for the French troops that were had been been put in prisoner of war camps to be released. So they could join the army of Tiana which I had 30,000 people by the time the commune was crushed. There were attempts and other communes, one in Saint Etienne and one in limoges were used to live for a long time, way back. In knock one, whenever there's something going on, and in Paris, I followed in one, and Le creuset and in other places, there were attempts in deal in Marseille as well. There were attempted communes, but it was a whole mix of things, in the prescience hope against hope the communards hoped against hope, that somehow, you know, the, the ordinary people in Lyon, Marsailles Lemoge, aand Saint Etiene, and would march to the rescue, well, it didn't work out that way. So it has to be seen in the context of the military military defeat. And also in the fact that at the end of the Second Empire, there have been a whole wave of strikes of labor militancy, of demands for by women and men for for better conditions. And this sort of a lot of this happened in Paris and the sort of fed into the organization in the hopes of, of the communards. And when I wrote the book on the the commune I challenge was, how do you? How do you present this and so I took people on both sides, mostly on the commune side, and I followed them, I took somebody who was very, very well known, so people would follow it, the painter Gustave Knobe, who was an important person in the sixth arrondissment, and then I took it on ordinary people. One of the knots ordinary people was I took the bishop, Archbishop of Paris, Darboy was executed on May 15. And I took a guy on the other side who kept a diary and he wasn't a mass murderer, like a lot of his colleagues, but I just followed these people through the commune. And tried to, to bring it to life. But the important thing is to concentrate on their hopes, and the end, hoping against hope, and the social geography, of contention, of popular contention. And it was a magic moment. Now the communists become part of the history, history, geography of France is taught in the schools, my kids were in school principals quite a few years. And when you go up to, if you go to to appear, Pere lechaise cemetery where the fighting, they'll find they were fighting among the tombs in Pere Lechaise cemetery, go to the, what we call the wall of the federails and, that's where they dug this big ditch. And then and the outside truth, shot all the people that were digging the ditch and buried them in the in, in this huge hole bait, this hole, this huge mass tomb. And you could go up there, you know, when the wind is blowing, and it's, it's, you people still take flowers up there now, not just on the anniversary of the commune. So it still has an important place in the collective memory. of ordinary people above all ordinary people on the left, it was it was a great hope. It was a great social and political experiment, full of those that the Versailles government could set up and he men and uppity women, ah, and they shot them down about 15,000 people. Ordinary people died. In the commune, I tell one story. I tell many stories in there. But a guy is stopped by a couple of sergeants and they said, Let me look at your hands. And he didn't have the, the soft hands of somebody who typed for a living such as little old me. He had the rough hands of amazing battered hands. And they said, well get your feet on me. What do you do for a living? And he said, I'm amazed. And they said so it's Mason's going to run France now. up against the wall M-F. They didn't say mF but they they had their own terms and and they killed them right there. Because he's ordinary person. So this is what I tried to do to bring all the life and you know, it's still wrenching and when you when you read it when you read the archives, and you see what happened during that time. It's Thrilling too.Joseph Hawthorne:
Yeah. And I want to get into that just a quick aside, because again, we've kind of been hinting at this. But what was reality? What was the reality of life like in the few months of the commune, because obviously, the Versailles government painted a certain picture, before we get into the bloodshed. What was it? What was it like to be, let's say, a mason in, in Paris at the time? Well, youJohn Merriman:
didn't have any work. I mean, there that, you know, basically, economy is shut down. If you're talking about during the commune. I mean, there, there wasn't much work. But for me, the Versailles government, they said well, and the elite, you know, who are drinking their champagne andJoseph Hawthorne:
Yeah, I think it's a really good summary of a Versailles, they were saying all these there's a bunch of drunken commoners and they're getting into the wine, carve into the wine cellars of the rich and they're just, you know, drinking themselves Blotto all the time. But in fact, you know, one of the interesting things about the, the communists at the time, there wasn't much work and lots of suffering that people were still meeting in clubs and deciding what kind of future they they wanted to have. Um, it was a time that was full of hopes and political clubs, meeting and as I said before, and then churches, which is the largest places that you could meet, it was really like the French Revolution. The Jacob n club, and the French Re olution was called the Jacobin lub because they were relig ous, because the Jacobin was a religious order, but they were called Jacobin, because they m t in the convent of Jacobin, wh ch was a large place that they ould meet. So but the guns go closer. And one of the i onies is that, you know, becau e the cannons are being fired ut, so from the west, basically outside of Paris to the period of basically uncertainty, but the idea of like, waiting est, they were taking they we e destroying houses in the fancier quarters in in, in, in, n western Paris, in what a hour, the 16th. And the eighth and the seventh are on the s all arm. So people just want d to have enough to eat and k pt waiting for these armies to arrive for these people o arrive from the all and y say, and they never arrived o hoping there'd be some sort of ettlement on So remembe , it only lasts from from Mar h 17th until bloody weeks. So t ey're talking about a matter o weeks. But it was hard if most eople in Paris, the wealthy co ld get out. They always had the had a place to go they had an ou know, Chateau, they had n aunt and to Tour they had an unt in Rouen or an uncle in Ro en or something like that. So hey could get out. But poor eople that know but nowhere to go. And the military prosecutors screamed when they're tr ing people and lining them u to shoot them, Pairs tous l monde Coupable: In Paris, ever body was guilty. But But he me nt meant but all the people wh weren't wealthy enough to get out of here, so had nowhere o. So Pairs is overwhelmingly a place inhabited by working pe ple who get by when things are good, but when things wer not good economically, they c uldn't get by and they want they wanted what would been c lled during the Second Repu lic 1840 to 51 droit de ravailler or the right to work. hey wanted protection for the r trades from the governme t. So there are lots of interest ng things going on and amazi g things. Just you know, in the ays before it all collapsed. Th y were still debating and hopin for the future. And it mu t have been on May 16. I th nk it is they they bring it Cour and hope and, you know, kind of a mix where, like, almost hope et's suggestion and others, the knock down the Vendome column in the Place Vendome could ave the statue of Napoleon the first time on tope, and ever body applauds. And they have the r pictures taken next to the fallen pieces of this column, hich of course was put back p and it's an elegant plus and, and all of that. So there was ho e until the end, and then it a l falls apart. So they're trying to survive. against hope, I guess, that you know, it becomes clear that there isn't there aren't gonna be reinforcements. There isn't going to be a commune of Marseilles or Lyon coming to save the day, which leads us to bloody week. Basically, how does the Paris Commune endJohn Merriman:
what ends the the troops come pouring into Paris, again, is left openJoseph Hawthorne:
and also whose true which troops are theseJohn Merriman:
Versailles the Versailles government aka a traditional government, and they go down the big boulevards that Heusmann and Napoleon the third created the tourist, American tourists and British tourists German Tourists when they go to Paris now they tend to be attracted to boulevards. And these were created in the 1850s and 60s. And one of the reasons they created it was you couldn't build barricades across boulevards. And then they move into the working class quarters and begin killing people. I want to tell one story because you could get lucky. And here's a quick story about someone who got lucky was a journalist. And he had managed to get a hold of a red armband. This has been the last hours last day really of the commoner and bloody week, and he's walking up to boulevard Saint Michel, which is an awful, awful boulevard. And he stopped. And they say, what do you do? What do you do? And he says, He lies he says, I'm a medical person, because he had a red armband on from the Red Cross. And the guys arrest him said, well, you're a communist, or you're a socialist, because you've got red, red is their color, isn't it? So they arrested me. And he's tried for 35 seconds in one of the courts, which they'd set up here in the Senate, which is right next to this or that the gardens have Luxembourg. And he's Class A means they're going to execute. So he's waiting in line to be killed. He's waiting in line to be killed not for, you know, ticket to go to a theater in the Latin Quarter, but to be shot, because they were killing them one after another. And the guy next to him is guarding him said Qu'est-ce fait tu las vie?IT'sgonna be past tense:
What did you do in life when you were alive? He said, he lies he says, Well, I was a medical student. And the guy says, I'm a medical student, too. Let me see what I can do. And so he tries to get his boss to let the Get in. It's young 15, 14, 13, you can hear the machine guns. And he comes back, he says, You can't find them. I can't find them. So I'll try something else. And he runs away again. You know, 543, he's going to be shot. He's third in line to be killed. And he says, you're all right, I got you off. And he takes them away. And they go across the street for the Jardin Luxembourg to a bar. And he has a drink with the two guys that arrested him and his Savior. And of course, being me being me, I have to write anything I write about I have to see I've gone to that bar to have a drink. I the same bar is still there by Luxembourg. So it was serendipity. You could get lucky and not be killed. But in most cases, it was up against the wall MF. And that was the end of the green beans, same French La fin de harticots, the end of the green beans, it's great expression, and they'd be killed. So that's what happens in the last shots are fired right near a Pere LaChaise after the fighting in the cemetery. And then they chain men and women together, women together and take them out to Versailles, I and execute more men. I was in a hotel De Ville, Town Hall drinking champagne or recently in our friend who won a prize I kept thinking on the other side is this this barracks of the hotel De Ville, we had an apartment quite near there actually. Um, and that's where they were killing people just massacring them during the Paris Commune. So, but again, the point of my book and one of them and what I'm saying now is it anticipates the demons of the 20th century, when you could be killed for simply being Armenian, or being Jewish, or, you know, 6.2 million, a World War Two. And so that this was something that was unusual for for the 19th century, I anticipates the demons of the 20th century. So I've already said twice. But uh,Joseph Hawthorne:
yeah, no, I mean, that's exactly what I was going to kind of wrap up with, is if you can elaborate more on that, you know, because I was thinking, especially for American listeners, American fans of history. There's a number of maybe, I don't know if use common but like kind of utopias being set up around this time, like societies trying to make the world a better place at the end of the 1800s. But why? Why is the Paris Commune important? You know, how did the massacres you're just describing how to bloody week set up much of the history of the 20th century?Unknown:
it is first that France then almost becomes a monarchy. And it's sort of what they call the Republic of the moral order, which lasts really till 1877. And there's lots of, of hatred of what happened. If you go to Paris, one thing don't visit, don't visit Sacre Coeur or the Basilica of Sacra quarter, not because I don't like its architecture, which you can find cathedrals in Saints that has Byzantine architecture. I hate it because it was put up there on places where they hold Communards around, tortured them and then executed them. And it was there to build a Basilica and saying, oh, France must have sinned, you know, forgive us and and so it's up there. It's a dreadful, dreadful monument. But ultimately, you know, by 1890, 1891, when when they had the first May Day demonstrations, Louise Michelle, who had been a participant in the commune, female participant in the commune, who had seen state terror up close. And she becomes an anarchist. And she was the one of the people leading the marches on May day. And May day is still important. In most of Europe, and in France, it's not important in in Hungary, and in Poland these days, so it should be Poland's become a, you know, a fascist theocracy, and I go to Poland all the time. So it makes me very sick. But anyway, May 1 is an extremely important date for the left and becomes part of the collective memory. So. So if you want to go to my Monmatre which is a tourist trap, as I've already said, once, before, I would avoid Sacre Coeur, you can still see zillions of Americans setting up on the steps there and, and all that water.Joseph Hawthorne:
So, you know, zooming out a little bit more, like I said, at the beginning, one of the the dates been playing with as a kind of beginning of the end of the 19th century, and you know, a movement towards 20th century towards very modern history. Could be 1870s, could be around the Paris Commune. What do you think about the Paris Commune is a kind of beginning of the end of the 19th century?John Merriman:
Well, you I mean, there's been a lot of debate about this, you can see it as the last of the, of the French revolutions after 1789 1792 1840, 1842, attempt t save the Republic and 1851. It' a more semi skilled crowd. W used to write these articles books about the crowd an history my late friend Georg Herve. That's the title of on of his, one of his books. So yo can see this, as in some ways the last of the of the 19t century, revolutions, I thin that's fair enough, Franc wouldn't have another reall attempted revolution, unti 1968. So it's the last up, bu by that point of view, but i terms of repression, that' where you're looking anticipating. And that's th point of my book, I guess, s ate terror, you're looking a the 20th century. So it's bot the last of in the sense of the last of the traditional F ench revolutions. And it's the irst of the kind of violent tate orchestrated repressi n of ordinary people that that came to characterize. Well, I ean, there's atrocities a the beginning of World War One, most of them by the by the the Germans in Belgium and i , in France, but but to when we hink of the atrocities, you thi k of all the Armenians who died in a 95 and a 1915. But above all, what happens in Hit er's Hitler's Germany and what happens to the two? o it anticipates, as I said, be ore, the demons of the 20th cen ury. So that's looking forward. In a way, that's what it wrot the boJoseph Hawthorne:
guess, that's a good point to think about, you know, what kind of history we're talking about. If we're talking about, you know, a turning points in in state terror, you know, state violence, then I think, certainly, you know, it could be a real turning point. And, of course, it's something that we can still debate more. And so this is where I'm going to leave off our first conversation. We are going to next time, talk about fast forwarding, right on the eve of World War One, so kind of the other pole of the turn of the century period that we're talking about. But john, thank you so much for joining us today. And look forward to talking again, very soon.John Merriman:
Sure. My pleasure. Thanks, joeJoseph Hawthorne:
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