CHAPTER XV. THE COMMUNE.
The story of the Commune is piteous, disheartening, shameful, and terrible. It seems as if during three months of 1871 "human nature," as Carlyle says of it in his "French Revolution," "had thrown off all formulas, and come out human!" It is the story of those whom the French call "the people," - we "the mob," or "the populace," - let loose upon society, and society in its turn mercilessly avenging itself for its wrongs.
By March 12,1871, the Prussian soldiers had quitted the environs of Paris, and were in full march for their homes. Two of the detached forts, however, remained eighteen months longer in their hands. On March 20 the National Assembly was to begin its session at Versailles. The Provinces were very mistrustful of Paris, and the assembling of the deputies at Versailles was of itself a proof of the want of national confidence in the Parisians.
When it was made known that the German army was to enter Paris, the National Guard of Belleville and Montmartre stole cannon from the fortifications, and placed them in position in their own quarter on the heights, so that they could fire into the city.
On March 18 General Vinoy, who had succeeded Trochu as military commander of Paris, demanded that these cannon should be given back to the city. Many of them had been purchased by subscription during the siege, but they were not the property of the men of Belleville and Montmartre, but of the whole National Guard. A regiment of the line was ordered to take possession of them, and they did so. But immediately after, the soldiers fraternized with the National Guard of Belleville, and surrendered their prize. An officer of chasseurs had been killed, and General Lecomte twice ordered his men to fire on the insurgents. They refused to obey him. "General Lecomte is right," said a gentleman who was standing in a crowd of angry men at a street-corner near the scene of action. He was seized at once, and was soon recognized as General Clement Thomas, formerly commander of the National Guard of Paris. He had done gallant service during the siege; but that consideration had no weight with the insurgents. General Lecomte had been already arrested. "We will put you with him," cried the mob, - "you, who dare to speak in defence of such a scoundrel." Both the unfortunate generals were immediately imprisoned.
[Footnote 1: Leighton, Paris under the Commune.]
At four P. M. they were brought forth by about one hundred insurgent National Guards; Lecomte's hands were tied, those of General Thomas were free. They were marched to an empty house, where a mock trial took place. No rescue was attempted, though soldiers of the line stood by. The two prisoners were then conducted to a walled enclosure at the end of the street. As soon as the party halted, an officer of the National Guard seized General Thomas by the collar and shook him violently, holding a revolver to his head, and crying out, "Confess that you have betrayed the Republic!" The general shrugged his shoulders. The officer retired. The report of twenty muskets rent the air, and General Thomas fell, face downward. They ordered Lecomte to step over his body, and to take his place against the wall. Another report succeeded, and the butchery was over.
By evening the National Guard had taken possession of the Hotel-de-Ville, and the outer Boulevards were crowded by men shouting that they had made a revolution. On this day the insurgents assumed the name of "Federes," or Federals, denoting their project of converting the communistic cities of France into a Federal Republic.
In vain the Government put forth proclamations calling on all good citizens, and on the Old National Guard, to put down insurrection and maintain order and the Republic. The Old Battalions of the National Guard, about twenty thousand strong, had been composed chiefly of tradesmen and gentlemen; these, as soon as the siege was over, had for the most part left the city. Bismarck's proposition to Jules Favre had been to leave the Old National Guard its arms, that it might preserve order, but to take advantage of the occasion to disarm the New Battalions. As we have seen, all were permitted to retain their arms; but the chancellor told Jules Favre he would live to repent having obtained the concession.
The friends of order, in spite of the Government's proclamations, could with difficulty be roused to action. There were two parties in Paris, - the Passives, and the Actives; and the latter party increased in strength from day to day. Indeed, it was hard for peaceful citizens to know under whom they were to range themselves. The Government had left the city. One or two of its members were still in Paris, but the rest had rushed off to Versailles, protected by an army forty thousand strong, under General Vinoy.