In the Name of the People
Washington Post Book World, July 9, 1995

see also


PARIS BABYLON: The Story of the Paris Commune
by Rupert Christiansen Viking; 435 pp; $23.95

"NOBLE, PATIENT, deep, pious and solid Germany," Thomas Carlyle wrote, was about to become Queen of the Continent "instead of vapouring, vainglorious, gesticulating, quarrelsome, restless and oversensitive France." The year was 1870. Germany at the time was just barely a nation, courtesy of Prussia and Otto von Bismarck. France was the glittering Second Empire of Napoleon III, centered on Paris, a voluptuary's paradise sometimes described as "this kept woman of the World."

It is hard to blame Carlyle for not knowing back then that Bismarck's "noble" Germany would one day cause World Wars I and II. What seems surprising today, though, is that Carlyle's view was widely shared throughout Europe.

France, of course, was still afflicted with delusions of gloire and grandeur left over from the conquests of Napoleon I. But much of the blame in 1870 derived from the ambitious territorial meddling (Mexico, the Crimea and Italy) of Louis Napoleon, who in August of that year unforgivably let himself be tricked into declaring war on Germany. The reason: a fancied slight to French honor. That folly led swiftly to what Paris Babylon is mostly about: Bismarck and Moltke's lightning defeat of the French army in 1870, the abrupt fall of Louis Napoleon from power, the humiliating German siege of the French capital through the winter of 1870-71 and the ghastly weeks of the Paris Commune that followed.  

These events all involve oft-told historic tales. Perhaps that is why author Rupert Christiansen, except in the early going, gives short shrift to overview narrative and historical analysis. The book's great, though not unmixed, blessing lies in its blizzard of details: lists, cooking recipes, military orders, newspaper clippings, death statistics, anecdotes, public notices and private thoughts from journals, papers, letters and diaries.

Some voices are predictable: Victor Hugo, the Goncourt brothers, Karl Marx. Others not so, among them American dentist Thomas Evans, who helped the Empress Eugenie escape from France after the Empire collapsed.

The eating habits of besieged Parisians are a familiar topic, including the sad execution for meat of the city's two beloved zoo elephants, Castor and Pollux. But Christiansen provides pages of menus, the prices of choice cuts from dogs and rats and exotic animals like wapiti, as well as allusions to couscous of cat and macaroni served with a meat sauce of field mice.

Bismarck, wanting to humiliate France, took his time. As the price of peace, Germany demanded (and eventually got) Alsace and Lorraine, plus huge monetary reparations. As the siege pressed on and the rest of France proved unable to help, Parisians felt betrayed and fed their delusions on wild rumors and patriotic rhetoric, losing touch with the reality of national defeat. Under such pressures workers fell prey to what Christiansen calls "the virulent new language of class warfare."

After Napoleon III was taken prisoner at Sedan, a Republic had been swiftly and provisionally established under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers, the man charged with negotiating a peace. Bismarck got his terms; defeated France had no alternative. When the war -- and the siege -- were over, the government was established in Versailles.

Paris felt that it and France had been sold out. When Thiers instituted strict rules about rent and credit, the city defied the government. A mob killed two officers sent with troops to collect cannon from Montmartre. Thus was the Paris Commune born as a civil war by an independent city governed in the name of the people; the Parisians called on cities all over France to follow their lead.

Unpaid rents were forgiven; it was announced that anything pawned could be retrieved free of charge. Marriage was outlawed. A Committee of Public Safety was created. The Commune renamed the months in 1793 style. The Commune's Prefect of Police, 24-year-old Raoul Rigault, hated religion so much that he refused even to speak the name of God or any saint. Boulevard Saint Michel became Boulevard Michel. A few churches were pillaged. A number of priests and bishops, taken as hostages, were threatened with death, and some were later killed. (From London Karl Marx deplored the Commune's "too great decency.")

After the soldiers of the shaky new French Republic entered the barricaded city on May 22, 1871, they executed some 17,000 Frenchmen.  Like the Commune itself, these events helped perpetuate savage hatred between classes, distrust of the military, corrosive anticlericalism and justifiable middle-class fear of "the people" that endured for decades.

Christiansen concludes, rather casually, that the Commune "simply had to happen." In one sense that is entirely true. But in another it is entirely meaningless. There were moments when it could have gone another way -- if Napoleon III had stayed out of war, if the French army had been better equipped, if Thiers had gone a bit slower with the fiscal reforms needed for France to pay off her war debt, if the extreme left had had more common sense, if Parisians generally had been less prone to patriotic guff and political frenzy.

The events in Paris Babylon, including the rising and crushing of the Paris Commune, fit a pattern that prevailed for more than a hundred years after Frenchmen first killed their king in 1793 and, in the name of the people, visited the Terror upon one another. Through all that time France was -- and would remain well into this century -- her own worst enemy.