Charles Trueheart at The American Scholar:
Transitory, confusing, hopeless, the Paris Commune of 1871 is easily ignored or misunderstood. The title of John Merriman’s new book gets right to the point he wants us to remember: that it ended in an orchestrated genocide. Soldiers slaughtered tens of thousands of Parisians, both combatants and civilians, while the rest of France looked away or cheered the killers on.
The Commune’s misbegotten spasm of early people power lasted just 64 days and occurred in the political and social vacuum left by three successive French humiliations—the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War, the crushing Siege of Paris, and the ignominious dissolution of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.
When the siege ended, in January 1871, with the French government’s capitulation, better-off Parisians in the central and western parts of the city sought to shake the blues by reverting to habits of prewar gaiety, jamming the brasseries, departments stores, and boulevards.
In the northern and northeastern arrondissements, meanwhile, a miserable population seethed in crowded slums. The building of Haussmann’s Paris that so dazzled the world had drawn cheap labor in quantity from the provinces and beyond. Many of these people were now out of work. The war had brought refugees to join them. Their suffering was acute, their anger directed at the business classes, the political leadership, and the Catholic clergy. It boiled over almost overnight.