Somewhere my former European and World History teachers are rolling their eyes because I did not remember learning about the Paris uprising of 1871. John Merriman in The Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune does a superb job of describing the events surrounding the uprising.
Here is a brief summary from the publisher’s website:
The Paris Commune lasted for only 64 days in 1871, but during that short time it gave rise to some of the grandest political dreams of the nineteenth century—before culminating in horrific violence.
Following the disastrous French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, hungry and politically disenchanted Parisians took up arms against their government in the name of a more just society. They expelled loyalists and soldiers and erected barricades in the streets. In Massacre, John Merriman introduces a cast of inimitable Communards—from les pétroleuses (female incendiaries) to the painter Gustave Courbet—whose idealism fueled a revolution. And he vividly recreates the Commune’s chaotic and bloody end when 30,000 troops stormed the city, burning half of Paris and executing captured Communards en masse.
Many would argue that the Communards (or Communists in modern lingo) were wrong for taking over the city. However, Merriman makes a convincing argument that no matter if the Communards were wrong, they did not deserve the slaughter they received from the French national government. The government response was a bit much – using artillery against French civilians is excessive.
Merriman’s account is focused more on the Communards than the French national government. I wish that he spent more time discussing the weaknesses and strengths of the government’s reasons for attacking the Communards. I understand that it was a hectic time (especially with parts of France occupied by the Prussians after the Franco-Prussian War), but I do not think that it was proper to slaughter Parisian civilians – possibly in the thousands.
The book also is an excellent example of how quickly fighting can become barbarous. Merriman discusses the various abuses on both sides. Once atrocities started, neither side gave quarter to the other. I am not one to judge soldiers in combat, but I also do not condone the slaughter of people who have surrendered.
The Massacre is a well-written book on a subject that is not universally known.