When the ‘nobodies’ dared to govern: Remembering the Paris Commune

Author Michèle Audin on the forgotten women behind the historic events of 1871
Photo: The Communards' Wall at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (karaian / Flickr CC)
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On March 18, 1871, a radical insurgency drove France’s then president Adolphe Theirs and his government out of Paris to Versailles. The anti-clerical, revolutionary government that controlled the City of Light until May 28 of that year is known as the Paris Commune.

To mark the 150th anniversary of these two months that shook the world, author Michèle Audin explains why the Paris Commune was and remains important, for the construction of the French state as well as the imaginary of the international Left. The interview was conducted by Ethan Earle, project director for “A Season in Hell” — a political analysis series of the Brussels office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung co-published in Canada with Ricochet.

You are a mathematician and author, and you have a blog on the Paris Commune that has become an invaluable resource for anyone interested in its history. Tell us more about this project, your career and your intellectual and political relationship with the Commune.

Michèle Audin
G. GARITAN (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It all started when I wanted to write a novel that took place in Paris during the Commune. I soon realized that what I thought I knew about it was almost always distorted and often very wrong. And that I was not the only one who was making these mistakes. There’s a whole “golden legend” surrounding the Commune and it’s very interesting to understand where that legend comes from, and why and how it has spread. In any case, I learned things that I wanted to tell people about, but it was too much for a novel. Things stayed like that until I came up with the idea of creating the blog. Writing my blog posts helped me slough off all that “excess” knowledge.

I ended up killing two birds with one stone: I wrote my novel Comme une rivière bleue and the blog went on living its own life.

That’s how research is: the more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn! I’d already had the same experience with research in mathematics, but it still surprised me. As you can see, I’m not completely avoiding mathematics. In fact, maths plays multiple roles in this story. It instilled in me a duty to be meticulous and rigorous. But also, one of the themes in Comme une rivière bleue is what the members of the Paris Academy of Sciences were doing in Paris during the Commune.

Obviously, my desire to write a novel was not the beginning of my relationship with the Commune. My relationship with the Commune and its golden legend dates much further back, undoubtedly because I was raised in a communist family. Originally, the relationship was more sentimental than intellectual or political. My first visit to the Communards’ Wall made a big impression on me. That was on the centenary of the Commune. I was 17.

The Communards' Wall at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Ertly (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is the Commune so important? How did it — and the response to it — contribute to the building of state power in France? Why is it still firmly lodged in the French collective memory today?

During the 20th century there was a political leaning, along with a strong Communist Party, that viewed the Commune as a sort of prologue to the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. This focused a good part of the “memory” issue by asking questions such as: Was it a beginning or an end? Was it a dictatorship of the proletariat or an example of self-governance? I’m simplifying.

What no one knows — and will never know — is how many casualties there were.

Today, on the other hand, it remains a major political issue. I think it was the only time in the history of France that the “vile masses” (as described by Thiers) took centre stage and even took power for a few weeks. A great many Parisians began talking and debating about their businesses, lives, desires and hopes. They weren’t professional politicians, they were nobodies. They didn’t even give their elected representatives — who were almost as unknown as they were — the right to speak for them. That’s what our “democracies” fear the most.

You recently wrote a book about the Semaine sanglante, when the Commune suffered its final defeat and more than 10,000 Communards were killed by the Thiers government. Tell us about that week. What should everyone know about it?

Thiers and his government fled to Versailles on March 18, 1871. In Paris, the central committee of the National Guard organized elections, after which, on March 28, the Commune was proclaimed.

At the same time, in Versailles, Thiers was not wasting his time: he was reorganizing the army, notably with the help of prisoners of war released by the Prussians. This army was formed to attack Paris: this time there was no question of giving the soldiers a chance to fraternize with the Parisians, as happened on March 18 in Montmartre. The civil war began in Versailles on April 2. It was a bloody war, even though it was initially kept outside Paris thanks to defensive fortifications and the forts in the south (Issy, Vanves and so on). At least this was the case until May 21, when, due to the weakening of the Commune and a critical bastion that was poorly or not at all defended, the Versailles army was able to enter the city through the Porte de Saint-Cloud. As the week wore on, the army methodically reclaimed the city, moving from west to east. It ended on May 28 in Belleville.

Somewhere between 600 and 900 barricades had been erected in the city, and the Versailles army either took them or simply went around them. But what we don’t know enough about is the fact that it was not just a street war. The fighting on the barricades was bloody, but it was war all the same. The Versailles army then went on to massacre, both systematically and completely arbitrarily, the populations of the conquered neighbourhoods. The eastern neighbourhoods in particular saw outright carnage.

What no one knows — and will never know — is how many casualties there were. More than ten thousand unknown bodies were buried in the cemeteries of Paris, but countless others disappeared.

You are also the daughter of Maurice Audin, an anti-colonialist who was murdered under torture in 1957 in Algeria by the French army. Do you see any similarities between the construction of the official state memory of the Commune and that of the Algerian War?

It seems to me that there are more than just similarities.

Many officers in the regular French army who led the repression against the Parisian insurgency had studied in Algeria. They easily transitioned from colonial crimes to the massacres of Semaine sanglante.

For example, in the Battle of Algiers, in 1957, all police powers were given to the army, just as happened in Paris in May 1871 — the first time ever that had been done for a large city. This time, it was the colonial war that “benefited” from what was learned during the Semaine sanglante.

Another example is the “tricolour terror.” As Thiers said during the Semaine sanglante: “The soil of Paris is littered with their bodies. Hopefully this dreadful spectacle will serve as a lesson to those insurgents who dared to declare themselves supporters of the Commune.” Is this not the same “philosophy” that was implemented in May 1945 in the massacre of Sétif and Guelma?

The Communards were “nobodies.” … It’s very difficult to find them and to tell their stories.

But there’s more. A lesson is taught, but at the same time there are denials. One Versailles historian, Maxime Du Camp, swears that no more than 6,500 were killed in Paris during that bloody week. Oddly, the question of the number of deaths also seems to be an issue. Who knows how many were killed in Algeria in May 1945?

And that of course evokes memories of the repression of the demonstration by Algerians on October 17, 1961, in Paris. There, too, it was all about terrorizing people. It happened in Paris, barely 60 years ago. Due to a massive cover-up by the French government, we still don’t know for certain how many people died.

You most likely know that historians researching the Algerian War run into major problems when trying to access the archives in France. Since the Commune happened longer ago and in Paris, it is much easier to consult the archives for the history of Paris in 1871 than for Algeria in the 20th century.

But rest assured, despite this easier access to the archives, the government cover-up has been well organized there too, so there is a lot that we will never know about massacres in Paris in 1871.

The Passerelle de la Fraternité includes a plaque in memory of the unknown number of victims of the 1961 massacre.
John Perivolaris (Flickr CC) / Lämpel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You are also the author of books on the forgotten people of the Commune, especially women. What does literature allow us to do that the study of history does not?

The Communards were “nobodies.” Even back then, they were. They were rebuked for it: “Look at this stonemason who wants to govern France!” said one Versailles soldier to a Communard worker he was about to execute. It’s very difficult to find them and to tell their stories.

And it’s that much more difficult when these nobodies were women. First of all because, even back then, they were left out. Let me give you an example. Everyone says that the Social Revolution Club was a predominantly female club. It also dealt with subjects such as “women in the church and the revolution.” Except that the minutes of the inaugural meeting in the Commune’s official newspaper mentions seven people ... all men.

That’s how history was written at the time by the Communards. But there’s more. I'll give you two further examples.

Alix Payen was a young woman who, in April 1871, enlisted as an ambulance driver in the same National Guard battalion as her husband. She took part in the fighting at Fort d’Issy as well as in Neuilly and Asnières. These were not skirmishes, but outright warfare. She would go out to collect the fallen men while bullets from the Versailles army were still raining down. Her husband was killed. She would write to her mother, telling her about life in the battalion. “Especially at night, the fighting becomes fierce,” she wrote, which I made into the title of “her” book published by Libertalia. Her letters were published by Péguy in 1911 and by Maspero in 1978 (C’est la nuit surtout que le combat devient furieux). I don’t think there are any other eyewitness reports for that war written by someone who was in the thick of the action. Yet she does not appear in any biographical dictionary of the Commune, not even in any dictionary of “the women of the Commune.”

Neither does Emilie Noro, who was arrested during the Semaine sanglante and taken as a prisoner to Versailles, where she spent months before the charges against her were dropped. She wrote an account about her mistreatment in those hellish prisons, which lay forgotten in a drawer until 1913, before being published and then forgotten again.

And it’s not just these omissions, be they old or new. The civil register — the ultimate source, the one that proves whether or not you actually existed — was very unequal. Not just because women were often called by their husband’s surname, which is not the name they are known by in the civil register, but also because, in official documents, all the witnesses were men (and these witnesses are very useful for finding connections between people).

Thanks to the civil register and to various witnesses, I learned a lot about one Communard named Albert Theisz. I knew that he had taken refuge in London, that he had been joined there by a woman who, no doubt, had hidden him after he escaped, that she had supported him by working as a laundress and so on. But I was unable to learn anything about this woman, not even her name — at the very most, perhaps, the name of her husband, who was not Albert Theisz. She was “the devoted companion” of Albert Theisz. She’s a woman who has been lost to history.

That’s where the story ends.

The only way to find out more about her was to reinvent her. She is the heroine of my novel Josée Meunier, 19 rue des Juifs. This is an example of what literature can do. I hope she also brings something to the story.

We have talked about forgotten histories, as well as serious and difficult passages in history. But the Commune is also an important event in the imaginary of the Left around the world. Could you describe to us a historical event from the Commune that might feed our imagination? An anecdote that might give us hope?

Sure. The joy experienced during the feast of the proclamation of the Commune. Hungarian jeweller Leo Frankel, a foreigner who was elected to the Commune and became the first “minister of labour” in the history of France. The decree banning night work for bakers so they would have free time, a social life, and be able to read and learn (according to Frankel, the only truly socialist decree issued by the Commune). A member of the Proletarians’ Club who grumbled that these workers had come to thank the Commune for the decree; after all, the people should not have to thank their representatives for having done their duty. And, my favourite, the words of an old wage worker who, in a Montmartre club, replies to a young man who has just explained to her the goals of the Commune:

“He tells us the Commune is going to do something so the people don’t starve to death while working. Well! It’s not too early for that! Because I’ve been a washerwoman for 40 years and I’ve been working throughout Holy Week, always without having enough to eat and pay my rent. And why then do some people get to take time off from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, while we have to work? Is that fair? If I were in charge, I would arrange things so that the workers could also take turns resting. If the people had vacations like the rich, they wouldn’t complain so much, my fellow citizens.”

Michèle Audin, mathematician, now devotes herself to literature and is particularly interested in the history of the Paris Commune and the workers’ movement in the late Second Empire. On this topic, she is the author of the novels Comme une rivière bleue and Josée Meunier 19 rue des Juifs (published by Gallimard). She has also produced compilations of the writings of Eugène Varlin, the letters of Alix Payen and La Semaine sanglante (published by Libertalia).

Informal commemorations of the 1871 events continue on walls and streets throughout France.
Ittmostt (Flickr / CC)
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