The Consequences of the Fall of the Emperor: A Bloody Revolt in Paris

After a bitter defeat in the war against Prussia in 1871, the people of the city of Paris had had their fill. The emperor of the country was in a…

After a bitter defeat in the war against Prussia in 1871, the people of the city of Paris had had their fill. The emperor of the country was in a Prussian prison and the citizens decided to make another revolution.

Sunday, May 21, 1871, was a fine weather day in Paris. On the lawn of the Tuileries Gardens, the merry citizens gathered to listen to a concert that had been arranged.

About 1,500 instrumentalists lined up to delight the audience with music by Mozart and other popular composers.

Roughly two months had passed since the Parisians had declared the independence of the city that had broken away from the rest of France, by declaring the so-called Paris Commune.

The time that had passed had been spent by the city’s nearly two million poor inhabitants in establishing a new, righteous society without a single ruler.

The city government, known in French as: “Le Comité Central Republicain des 20. Arrondissement”, had among other things introduced equal pay for men and women, a ban on child labor and abolished the death penalty.

When the music died down, one of the officers of the commune stood up. He called “citizens” as if to cheer up the crew.

“Are you going to shoot us? Do your brothers, spouses and children shoot?”
A Parisian woman with a group of French soldiers.

The atmosphere was mixed due to rumors that the government forces, under the command of the head of state Adolphe Thiers, were planning to take military action soon.

“Mr. Thiers said he would come to the city yesterday. Mr. Thiers did not come to the city and he never will. I therefore invite you to come here next Sunday at the same time and place”.

However, the next outdoor concert in the Tuileries Garden was postponed. The bloody battle for the city had already begun. Thiers’ forces were on their way with the intention of destroying the impoverished townspeople’s hopes for a more just world.

Animals from the zoo for dinner

The creation of the Paris Commune was a direct result of the complex power struggle that took place in Central Europe in the 1870s.

On the other side of the battle line was the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, who, together with Prime Minister Bismarck, was in the process of establishing a large empire consisting of the small German states.

On the other side of the battle line was the French emperor Napoleon III, a close cousin of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. In the previous years, Napoleon III had come up against all the great powers in Europe and angered various inhabitants of his country.

He hoped to create a new unity among the French and therefore declared war on the Germans who were surprisingly well prepared for the attack.

However, after only half a month of fighting, the French surrendered at Sedan on September 2, 1870, and the Germans even managed to capture Napoleon III.

Germany broke France back again

A careful balance of power kept Europe’s great powers in check in the 19th century, but when King Wilhelm I of Prussia and his prime minister Otto von Bismarck united the German states, Germany ended up at war with France in 1870.

The winner: William I (1797-1888):

King William I ran afoul of his parliament in 1862 over military reforms in Prussia that included increased spending on the military.

He summoned the diplomat Otto von Bismarck in the hope that he could resolve the dispute. The plans worked and Vilhjálmur made Bismarck his prime minister.

The creator of ideas: Bismarck (1815-1898):

The prime minister had ambitions to unite the German states and to create a powerful German state.

The goal was achieved after the victory in the Franco-German war (1870-1871): as a result, the German Empire was declared and Bismarck was made chancellor.

Low profile: Napoleon III (1808-1873):

Lodvík Napoleón Bonaparte was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I and therefore naturally dreamed of selling the French crown to himself. The fall of his uncle had cost the family power, but Loðvík was nevertheless made emperor after a coup in 1852.

Just 18 years later, he was deposed after the Germans completely defeated the French in the war.

The road to Paris was open and the Germans began a merciless siege of the city. The Parisians, however, refused to surrender to the enemy.


The whole mass of volunteers had joined the city’s unit of the French National Guard, without necessarily having received any special military training, but their resistance was still enough to keep the Germans at bay for four months.


The siege meant that food shortages soon became apparent in the metropolis and the price of food rose day by day. For example, craftsmen had to go to the bookmakers and pawn their tools for food.


Before long all the horses, cows and pigs were eaten. Wealthy people could turn to the dog butchers to get meat on their plates, but the poor had to make do with rats.


The animals in the zoo did not escape either. There, bears, antelopes and two elephants gave their lives to feed the Parisians. Only the tigers escaped from the salty Parisians, but people did not dare to approach them. The predators themselves were starving.


The government feared an uprising

On January 28, 1871, the Parisians succumbed to the Prussian overpower and were forced to negotiate a peace that was against their will and they experienced as a great humiliation.


The townspeople stayed indoors while the Prussians marched through the city en masse, but beneath the calm surface anger simmered.


Conservative government leader Adolphe Thiers had taken over the reins of government. He planned to wait for a fight, but he did not intend to put up with the rebellious citizens for long, because it seemed to him that they were on the way to rebellion.


Determined not to tempt the Parisians too much, Thiers ordered the government army to retrieve 400 cannons that had been left in the city.

In 1871, the citizens of Paris defended themselves against the French army that was waiting to attack the city.

On the morning of March 18, while most Parisians were still fast asleep, thousands of soldiers stormed the city.

The cannons were closely guarded by the National Guard. The soldiers flanked the National Guardsmen and began to pull away the cannons.

A group of women on their way to a bakery in the Montmartre district on the outskirts of Paris spotted the soldiers, who were easily recognizable in their red trousers and blue jackets.

The women rushed to the tower of the nearest church and rang the church bells to draw attention to the soldiers’ actions.

The soldiers of the state army deserted

People immediately began to flock to Montmartre where some began to build fortifications while others procured weapons.

Suddenly, something happened that no one had expected: Some of the soldiers pointed their gun barrels up to the sky, as if to indicate that they were not going to use their weapons.

The disobedience of the public was also contagious: “Cut off the horses”, shouted one of the National Guardsmen when the cannons started to be pulled away.

Men and women immediately obeyed the call and the cannons did not fire. To the immense delight of the people, many soldiers left their posts and joined the rebels.

Elsewhere in the Montmartre district, General Claude Lecomte was severely beaten. He ordered his soldiers to fire directly into the sea of people.

The crowd went wild when his instructions were heard. A woman stepped forward and directed her question to the soldiers:


German troops captured the French Emperor, Napoleon III, during the Battle of Sedan.

The emperor fought for the throne

Defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to the overthrow of Napoleon III. As with his uncle, however, he did not allow himself to be oppressed on the sole basis that he had been captured and was in the custody of the enemy, but tried again to come to power.


After the disintegration of the French army at the Battle of Sedan on September 1 and 2, the Germans captured Napoleon III.


The news soon reached Paris, and when the news reached the empress she angrily shouted: “No, emperors don’t give up! He’s dead!”


As soon as September 4, the Third French Republic was declared and the reign of Napoleon III was thus over. But the emperor did not think of giving up so easily.


He was thrown into prison, along with 13 of his closest advisers, in a palace alone near the city of Kassel in Hesse, where he tried to find a way to regain power in France.


In November 1870 he attempted to speak to Bismarck and obtain his permission to return as part of a peace settlement. Since France, in fact, had already lost the war and Bismarck therefore dictated the entire content of the peace agreement, Napoleon’s speech fell on deaf ears.


On March 1, 1871, the new French National Assembly officially stripped the Emperor of all powers, and to add insult to injury, the Assembly also blamed him for the loss of the war.


Forsmåður Napoleon ran away to England, where he spent the rest of his life in the Camden Place palace not far from the City of London. He did not live long in exile because his health deteriorated after the war and he died on January 9, 1873.


His death also marked the end of the French Empire. Napoleon had one illegitimate child, the son Napoleon Eugène Loðvík Jóhann Jósef Bónaparte who served in the British army in the following years and died, unmarried and childless, during the British war against the Zulu kingdom in 1879.

“Are you going to shoot us? Do your brothers, spouses and children shoot?”


Lecomte repeated his order angrily. Anyone who disobeys will be shot on the spot, he added angrily. Then a non-commissioned officer stepped out of his line and shouted loudly:


“Turn the rifles!” The soldiers all obeyed him as one. As in a coordinated movement, they turned the guns so that the barrels were pointed downwards.


The cannons remained in Paris and the National Guard arrested Lecomte.


Thiers was greatly alarmed when the news of this failed operation reached him, and he ordered the government and the army to leave the capital. The government then settled in the Palace of Versailles, about 20 km away from Paris.


The first settlement with the state army had gone as planned and nothing seemed to be able to prevent the demand of the Parisians for a just society with freedom and equality for all.


Paris wore red

This successful uprising took the opposition leaders by surprise, but they had been plotting an uprising against the government for years.


The opposition consisted of anarchists who wanted to abolish state power, socialists who wanted to introduce a stronger state power, and romantics who dreamed of the French Revolution of 1789.


No one in the opposition was ready to take the initiative. Instead, it was around 200,000 members of the National Guard who took power first.


“The rebels seem to have taken possession of the city of Paris. National Guard soldiers are hovering everywhere. Walls spring up and adventurous children climb them”, wrote the writer Edmond de Goncourt on March 18.


“One shudder to look at their stupid, unremarkable faces, whose victory and drink have given them a peculiarly pigmy glow of glory”. “France and the city of Paris are now under the rule of the workers”, he added contemptuously.


Workers and intellectuals came to power in Paris and their goal was to create a more just society. According to the new law, it was prohibited, among other things, to have children work in bakeries.

The citizens took power

The leaders of the Paris Commune were elected by registered voters in the City of Paris. All men had the right to vote, regardless of income and property, but women, on the other hand, were not allowed to vote.

The leaders of the commune chose to be in close contact with the people and as a result chose to have neither a president nor a mayor.

The idea that no one should be superior to another did not only apply to politicians, but also to soldiers, which is why there were no officers in the French army.

The forces were therefore under the control of a central government called in French “Le Comité Central Republicain des 20. Arrondissement”. The highest authority of the commune was a council with 92 members. The members decided the political policy and passed laws.

Nine committees elected by the council and consisting of its members handled the day-to-day operations. The committees were supposed to imitate the activities of the ministries of the National Assembly.

Although the decentralized government was often characterized by chaos and was sometimes ineffective, the Paris Commune managed in the short time it was in place – just over two months – to pass various forward-looking laws.

A group of soldiers had already marched to Versailles and put Thiers by the cat’s nose, but discretion won out.


The National Guard leaders decided to call free elections in Paris so that the representatives of the people could determine the future.


Socialists, anarchists and romantics won a landslide victory in the elections on 26 March, not least because Thiers had asked his supporters to boycott the elections.


The color red – a symbol borrowed from the French Revolution – was everywhere, on belts, lapel pins and even on the flag that flew over the town hall, where the victors were hailed.


The rebels shouted the slogan “Paris Commune” as trumpets were played, drums were beaten and gunshots were heard. Now an attempt should be made to unite the disunited group of the rebels.


Elections under siege

Adolphes Thiers’ army attacked just a few days later, on April 2 to be exact. Bombs hit the whole city and the English writer John Leighton had this to say about the explosions:


“Everyone was terrified and rushed away screaming.”


In the midst of this bloody onslaught, the townspeople tried to organize a new society. The Paris Commune was governed by a central committee known in French as “Le Comité Central Republicain des 20. Arrondissement”, which had a total of 92 members.


However, the new council dissolved before it was convened for the first time.


One of the elected members had been imprisoned by the government, and although a number of moderate committee members, as well as a few radicals, refused to serve on the committee.

Progressive laws were enacted

The members of the Paris Commune dreamed of creating a more just society where the poor would be helped by law.

State and church were separated

The revolutionary proletariat in Paris accused the churchmen of being the henchmen of the emperor and the aristocracy and wanted to make the priests and bishops powerless in the new glorious society.

For the trick, the elected representatives of the Paris Commune passed a law allowing for the separation of church and state, as well as a decree that forbade members of the church from teaching in the city’s schools.

Child labor was prohibited

Orders were also passed that banned child and night work in the bakeries of the city of Paris. The legislation also left it up to employers to shorten the working day to ten hours.

The commune similarly agreed that the wives and children of national guardsmen who lost their lives in the war should enjoy a pension that enabled them to provide for themselves with food and shelter. This was true whether it was a married couple or not.

Women gained rights

The commune implemented equal pay for men and women. A committee was also set up to investigate how girls’ educational conditions could be improved. All members of the committee were women.

This committee work resulted in the establishment of a vocational school that was only intended for girls. New laws also made it legal for women to file for divorce on an equal footing with men and to receive alimony.

When it came to casting, the members were only 60 in total. Despite challenges and opposition, these newly elected representatives of the people nevertheless managed to pass landmark laws that would make life easier for the citizens.

At the first meeting on March 28, compulsory military service was thus abolished, and the same story was told about the death penalty.

The Committee further agreed that the tradesmen could take their tools to the bookies, without being called upon for the debt.

State and church were then separated, and a law was passed which stated that workers could take over any factory if the owner had abandoned it. It should also be mentioned that the fall of the city was burned.

The army executed people without trial

The rebel leaders could at first rejoice that the government soldiers had supported them in the first clashes.

However, the sympathy did not last long: at the beginning of April, there was an emergency outside the city between the National Guard on the one hand and two regiments of the government army on the other.

The enemies captured only 30 national guardsmen and executed them without trial. In response to this, the council passed the so-called “hostage law”.

“Baptism, marriage and funeral – everything has to be paid for”.
This is what one Parisian said about the greed of the Church.

This law authorized anyone to imprison anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the government at Versailles and make him or her “hostages belonging to the inhabitants of Paris.”

The journalist Raoul Rigault was supposed to enforce these new laws, but he was also the police chief of the Paris Commune. Rigault was an ill-indoctrinated man who gathered around him a whole group of informers:

He jokingly said that he had prepared an ax that could be used to decapitate 300 people at once.

The church was hated

Rigault disliked the clergy. Most rebels considered the church to be the worst enemy of the proletariat, next only to the emperor and the party.

The priests not only supported the empire and the elite, but they were also greedy for money. “Baptisms, marriages and funerals – everything has to be paid for”, said one Parisian in a plaintive tone.

The church also did not think it was too good to punish the least powerful.

Married couples could be content with paying two francs for the registration of the birth of a newborn child, but unmarried mothers, on the other hand, had to pay no less than 7.5 francs for the same event, which amount corresponded to two days’ work for many people.

As a result, priests made up a large percentage of the 200 persons that Rigault had arrested in revenge for the National Guardsmen who were executed.

Revolutionary National Guardsmen, as well as innocent civilians, lost their lives in bloody battles.

To his great delight, he had the Archbishop of the City of Paris, Georges Darboy, arrested. When the surprised archbishop asked why reconciliation, Rigault replied:

“You imprison us with your superstition. Now we are the ones who have the power and the right, and we are going to use it.”

He assured the bishop, however, that the rebels would never burn a member of the church alive at the stake, as the church had done to its enemies during the days of the Inquisition.

“We are more human than that”, Rigault confided to the manly prisoner: “We will shoot you!”

The defenses collapsed

While the Parisians were busy settling disputes with the emperor and the church, they defied the organization of military defenses in the city.

The National Guard lacked a commander, and since no one was responsible for the army, it proved almost impossible for them to make decisions and give orders that were obeyed.

Discipline was scarce, but it can be said that the soldiers saw the defense of the city as a voluntary job.

As a result, only 7,000 of the 12,000 National Guardsmen who had been called out when the intention was to build a fort on the important defensive point of the city, Concorde Square, turned up on 9 May.


A large part of the fortifications during the rebellion consisted of street fortifications made of pavement slabs and paving stones.

The revolution should be complete

In 1789, the people of the city of Paris started the French Revolution. The work fell apart, but 82 years later the Parisians were ready for a new game.

Ideologies of various kinds characterized the 19th century. Among the rebels in the capital of France in 1871, there were both socialists and anarchists, but these were two of the dominant revolutionary ideologies of the time.

Historians, however, are of the opinion that most ordinary Parisians primarily wanted to make a revolution against the monarchy and the clergy.

In the eyes of the population, it was about taking power away from the people who had once again led France into impasse and humiliation, left behind by the defeat that followed the reunification of Germany.

The rebels wanted to complete the mission that their forefathers had begun in the French Revolution.

The goal was life as equal citizens in a self-governing republic, where no one was forced to work under a privileged elite.

It is probably not surprising that one of the main supporters of the Paris Commune was the father of communism, Karl Marx.

The lack of military defenses meant that pressure increased on the city walls.

On Sunday, May 21, as Parisians in a sort of optimistic mood listened to the classical music played in the Tuileries Gardens, the defenses gave way and 120,000 soldiers of the French army swarmed the streets of the city.

The city of Gjörvöll turned into a battlefield. Fighting citizens built street fortifications everywhere.

“We could hardly put our heads out of the window without being shot”, wrote librarian M. Chatel.

The National Guard of the Paris Commune fought fiercely, but was far outnumbered by the government’s soldiers, because for every National Guard there were four or five state soldiers.

“Three women were arrested last night, throwing fireballs through a basement window from the street. The women were gathered in a corner and shot to death.”
American Red Cross worker in Paris 1871.

By the next evening, the government troops had conquered the entire western part of the city, as well as the Montmartre district. There was a very heavy loss in that district, because Montmartre stands on a hill and from there the soldiers could make an artillery attack on the whole city, and the next day the state army had captured most of the center of Paris.

When the National Guard retreated, its members burned public buildings and the houses of the chemical workers behind them.

Among the buildings that burned to the ground were the palace in the Tuileries Garden and Paris City Hall.

The wind caused the flames to creep from one building to another, and soon the workers’ houses themselves were also engulfed in light flames. Firefighting equipment was extremely scarce.

Women blamed for the fire

If rumors are to be believed, a special group of women were responsible for most of the arsons.

They were blamed for throwing kerosene bottles through the basement windows of the chemical workers’ homes.

“Three women were arrested last night, throwing fireballs through a basement window from the street. There was no doubt what they were up to. The smoke poured out of the windows. The women were gathered in a corner and shot to death”, says John Stanley, who served at the Paris Red Cross.

The next day a woman was said to have been seized in the Rue du Bac with several bottles of kerosene in a belt which she carried under her dress.

Philosophers and ideology

In the 19th century, there were various theories about how societies should be organized and managed.

Communist: Karl Marx (1818-1883):

The German philosopher envisioned a model state – “the totalitarianism of the small property”.

There the workers owned the factories and the means of production and governed society without the interference of officials and the police.

Capitalist: Adam Smith (1723-1790):

In the eyes of the Scottish economist and philosopher, freedom was all that mattered.

If the people were allowed to do as they pleased, society would surely find the balance needed for the individual to enjoy happiness.

Conservative: Edmund Burke (1729-1797):

Changes should never happen suddenly, believed this British politician and philosopher.

Instead, they should be implemented step by step and should be based on ideas or traditions that have proven their value.


If the rumors of the soldiers in the government army are to be believed, this group numbered around 8,000 women. No one knew the truth because the arrested women were shot as soon as they were caught.


Stories like this caused panic among the population.


“Any woman seen walking with a bottle was immediately assumed to have kerosene in the bottle, and suspicions immediately arose that she intended to set it on fire,” wrote American diplomat Wickham Hoffman.


Children were killed in the streets

The arson caused the army to use increasingly brutal tactics against the rebels. Not even children were safe.


In a message to US Secretary of State Hamilton Fish on 24 May, US Ambassador EB Washburne reported that his aides had come upon the bodies of eight children in the rue d’Antin, the oldest of which appeared to be no more than 14 years old. The atmosphere here in Paris is so mixed that there is no way to describe it properly”.


Child killers inspire not only fear, but also anger. In an attempt to retaliate in kind, the “Committee for the Common Good” decided to ignore the ban on the death penalty and to execute several hostages.


One of them was the archbishop. The warden of La Roquette prison in Paris ordered on May 24 that the archbishop should be dragged out to the prison yard.


There, a firing squad consisting of young workers lined up and fired one shot each. The young men met no better than the archbishop survived the execution attempt, wounded and bleeding.


The soldiers fired again, and when the wounded archbishop was still alive after the second attempt, several National Guardsmen stepped forward and carved up the bishop’s stomach with their bayonets.


A cemetery turned into a battlefield

A total of 4,000 rebels and almost 300 soldiers lost their lives in the street fighting. The last of the fallen died in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, which was the last place of the National Guard.


On the evening of May 27, the government forces invaded the cemetery. National Guardsmen and government soldiers fought between the tombstones, until well after dark, but eventually the army gained the upper hand and the 150 National Guardsmen who survived the battle were forced to surrender.


The soldiers lined up the prisoners against a wall and shot them. The next day, all protests were silenced. Writer George Sand described insanity as follows:


“I’m from Paris. I feel like I’ve been suffocated, I’m upset and sorry. Looking at the ruins is nothing compared to the insanity that has gripped Paris. With very few exceptions, it seems to me that everyone should be wearing a straitjacket. Half of the population wants most to hang the other half who would do the same if given the chance. This can be seen so clearly in the eyes of everyone I meet”.



After the uprising, France once again became a republic, but it collapsed when Hitler’s forces invaded the country.

The rebellion ended with a republic

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), leading politicians set up a provisional government to rule the country until a new heir was chosen.

After the uprising of the Paris Commune, it became clear that the country could not unite around a new emperor any time soon.

The victors of the battle for the Paris Commune were the first to attain high positions.

Adolphe Thiers who led the Provisional Government was officially made President of the “Third Republic” on 30 August 1871.

Two years later, he was succeeded by a conservative general named Patrice Mac-Mahon, who had been at the forefront of those who fought against the Paris Commune. By the time the story was over, it had become clear that a new emperor would probably never come to power.

The Third Republic lasted until 1940, when Hitler invaded France and installed the collaborationist Vichy regime. After the war, France once again became an independent republic.

When the uprising was over, there was a settlement of the events and many people were executed without trial.

“The court-martial still convenes,” writer Émile Zola wrote about the situation four days after the city’s surrender, and he went on to write: “There is nothing like shooting everyone in Paris.”

Some historians believe that around 20,000 people were executed in connection with the uprising, but the exact number of deaths is not known for sure.

Communism rose from the ashes

A military court later sentenced about 7,000 people to prison or exile on New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific Ocean.

Although the Paris Commune was dissolved, it inspired several people who would later influence the course of history, because in 1911 the politician Vladimir Lenin lived for a short time in the city.

“The Paris Commune was the social revolution that completely liberated the working class, both politically and economically. The Commune appealed to the entire world, and in that sense it is immortal”, he wrote.

Lenin led the revolution in Russia six years later.

You can read about the Paris Commune here

  • Alistair Horne: The Fall of Paris , Penguin, 1965
  • John Merriman: Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871, Yale, 2014

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