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The 150th Anniversary of the Franco-Prussian War Armistice

Rue de Rivoli after the Paris Commune

You probably won’t see anything in the press today commemorating the signing of Franco-Prussian War Armistice on January 28th, 1871, which ended the months-long siege of Paris. But this was a fascinating and important moment in French – and especially Parisian – history, for many reasons. Here’s a brief summary and timeline of some of the most intriguing events and consequences of the Armistice.

The Start of the Franco-Prussian War: Two Men & Their Ego

July 19, 1870: The Franco-Prussian War, although declared by the French Emperor Louis Napoléon III (the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, who needed a war victory to boost his waning popularity), was also egged on by Prussia’s Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck for his own political reasons (a war against the French would finally unite all of the independent German states into the German Empire, with Bismarck as its chancellor). Basically the war started because these two guys had big egos.

Painting of Bismarck and Napoleon III
The meeting of Napoleon III and Bismarck after Napoleon’s capture at the Battle of Sedan, 1870, by Wilhelm Camphausen, 1878. Caption contest?

The Fall of the Second Empire: And a Hot Air Balloon Ride

September 2, 1870: Vastly outnumbered, Napoléon III and a huge chunk of his army was captured at the battle of Sedan. Bismarck was hoping for a quick peace, but back in Paris the Second Empire was declared ‘over’ and France’s Third Republique declared two days later by a provisional government. The Prussians surrounded Paris two weeks later and Bismarck demanded France cede forts and Alsace-Lorraine in return for an end to the war. The acting Foreign Minister Jules Favre refused to give an inch, and War Minister Léon Gambetta famously escaped the city in a hot air balloon to muster new French armies in the countryside to keep the war effort going. Hard to believe this hasn’t been made into a Hollywood film.

Gambetta Departs Paris,

The Siege of Paris: Where Ratatouille Has a Whole New Meaning

September 17, 1870: The Siege of Paris, which lasted almost five months, started with a blockade of all food and medical supplies. The Parisians supposedly only had two months’ of food stored, but managed to last longer by eating horses and donkeys, then zoo animals, then cats and dogs, and finally, rats. But eventually those ran out and they were down to rationing bread in January when the bombardments began. Gambetta’s armies weren’t even close to Paris. But the Parisians still refused to surrender.

“Line for the Butcher, Siege of Paris 1870” by Clément-Auguste Andrieux
“The Rat Skinner” by Narcisse Chaillou

Historical Aside #1: Been There, Done That

The last time in French history that Paris endured a long siege was in May 1590, during the 8th War of Religions, when the Protestant Huguenot Henri of Navarre, heir to the French throne through his wife Princess Margaret de Valois (whose father and four brothers all died off one by one in a very Game of Thrones fashion, see the film Reine Margot), waged war against the Catholic Ligue, who refused to recognize him as King when his brother-in-law died in 1589. He knew if he could get Paris to submit, the rest of France would follow. After almost four months, the siege was broken by Spanish allies arriving to aide the Catholics, but an estimated 45,000 Parisian – almost 25% of the population – already starved to death. Oddly, only three years later Henri of Navarre was finally welcomed by a jubilant crowd in Paris after he converted to Catholicism (“Paris is worth a mass,” and all that jazz), and became Henri IV, one of the most beloved kings of France. He signed the Edict of Nantes, allowing Freedom of Religion, so perhaps they were all just relieved that the wars were over and ready to forgive anyone willing to make that happen. #Unity? (#toosoon?) Back to 1871.

Henri IV statue
Henri IV, today presiding over the Pont Neuf

An Armistice: But No Peace

January 26, 1871: The provisional government, unable to hold other cities in France, and worried about mass starvations in Paris à la 1590, finally agreed to surrender and signed an armistice in Versailles two days later to end the siege. The armistice included a provision to elect a French National Assembly which would have the authority to conclude a definite peace. However, although they could finally eat, Parisians were not happy. First of all, they thought they could still hold out longer against the Prussians. Second, they feared the Royalist majority in the Assembly would try to restore monarchy (which had taken no less than THREE revolutions to dislodge). Parisians – especially the poor working classes – wanted a Republic, not another king or emperor, while the countryside was far more conservative.

Historical Aside #2: Déjà Vu?

Perhaps unwilling to be held captive in the big city with nothing to eat and no decent garden to sunbathe in, over 200,000 Parisians, mostly middle-class, left Paris for the countryside as soon as the lockdown – er, siege – was lifted.They may have also figured out what was about to happen once the Parisians had a few weeks to fatten themselves up again…

Peacekeeping Measure Backfires (Rather Spectacularly)

March 18, 1871: After a brief victory lap around the Arc de Triomphe, the Prussian troops wisely retreat to the outskirts of the city while the National Assembly works out the Armistice details at Versailles. Worried the angry republican Parisians would ruin the cease-fire, France’s provisional head of government, Adolphe Thiers, decides to disarm the city’s National Guard, sending a garrison of French troops up to Montmartre to remove the very cannons used to defend the city during the long siege. The National Guard refused to surrender the cannons and fired on the troops instead, killing two generals, thus setting off a city-wide insurrection (or revolution, depending on which side you were on).

historic image of cannons on Paris hilltop
Cannons protecting the City of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War
The Paris Commune barricades the city, March 18, 1871

The Paris Commune: Good Idea, Bad Timing?

March 26-May 28, 1871: Parisian republicans (also called Les Fédérés) form the Paris Commune. Lossely based on the ideals of the 1789 Revolution, it was an anti-religion, pro-working-class government with Socialist and Jacobin factions that promised, among other things deemed “radical”, equal rights for women (they fought on the barricades alongside the men), a ban on child labor, separation of church and state, a complete remission on rents owed during the siege, and a 10-hour workday. They flew their red flag on buildings throughout Paris for the two brief months they controlled the city (and other towns all over France). The French government troops finally stormed the city to violently put an end to the Commune (while the Prussians looked on from the suburbs…I’m dying to know what was going through their minds). It was an(other) ugly moment in French history: approximately 20,000 Parisians – men, women, and children – were slaughtered (this number is disputed by both sides as either too many or too few), another 38,000 arrested, and 7,000 deported. Sore losers, the Communards also killed hostages (including a church full of priests) and burnt down building all over the city such as the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville (which was rebuilt a few years later to look older than it actually is). A large chunk of the Paris archives were lost in the fires as well, particularly the civil registry of births, deaths, and marriages dating back centuries.

The ruins of the original Hôtel de Ville after the Paris Commune (rebuilt in the 1880s).

In what may be the earliest example of #CancelCulture, the artist Gustave Courbet (of Origine du Monde fame) was accused — and fined — for inciting the mob to tear down Napoléon I’s column on the Place Vendôme. In fact, he actually requested the National Assembly dismantle and move it to Les Invalides, alongside the the First Emporer’s tomb (and war booty). It was rebuilt in the exact same spot.

Vendome Column destroyed by Paris Commune
The Vendôme Column, torn down by the Paris Commune

Effects of the French defeat of the Franco-Prussian War

For France

France ended up having to cede Alsace and most of Lorraine, including the city Metz, and pay an indemnity of five billion Francs (not sure about the conversion on that, any experts out there?) The German troops would occupy France until it was paid in full (and France had to cover their expenses during that occupation, too). One silver lining: even though the Commune lost the battle, the National Assembly (and any pretenders to the French throne) finally got the message that the people were done with kings and emperors, and the establishment of the Third Republic would herald a new era of democratic rule in France (with a regrettable blip during the Nazi Occupation in WWII). Another result of the war — as many of you who took the Secrets of Paris Tour of Montmartre might recall – was the government tax collected to build Sacré-Coeur Basilica on the very spot where the cannons once stood. Officially it was in penance for the Franco-Prussian War, but the locals in Montmartre felt it was put there to punish the ones who started the Paris Commune (it’s run by a very conservative Catholic order, and literally overshadows the locals’ beloved Eglise St-Pierre).  

Basilica Sacré Coeur
Basilica Sacré Coeur, in Montmartre

For Germany

The newly-united Germany is now an empire, with King William I of Prussia crowned Emperor at a ceremony in Versailles on January 18, 1871. Germany would go on to wreak havoc in France (and elsewhere) two more times in the next 75 years, followed by 75 years of peace from 1945-2020 (and – all signs looking good! – counting).

For…Italy?

An interesting side effect of the war was Italy’s ultimate unification through the annexation of the Papal States, whose independence had been protected by Napoléon III until his defeat in September 1870. I’m not as familiar with Italy’s history, so I’m curious if this was (is?) a sore spot for the average Italian or if they’re pretty happy with the outcome.

Recomended Reading (and Listening)

This is really just the briefest historical overview, so ifit wheths your appetite for more I encourage you to dig in and learn more about this fasciating period that had a profound and lasting effect on Paris.

Emile Zola’s three-part novel, La Débacle, or The Debacle (sometimes translated as The Downfall) covers the buildup of the Franco-Prussian War, the unpreparedness of the French military, the Battle of Sedan, and the Paris Commune following two French soldiers (and the sister of one) who end up fighting on opposite sides of the barricades in Paris. It was only written 20 years after the event, so it’s very much a time capsule of thought at the time (for those who need reminding, Zola was the author of J’Accuse, about the Dreyfus Affair of 1905).

Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-71 is the first book in a trilogy following the historic rivalry between France and Germany. “In this brilliant study of the Siege of Paris and its aftermath, Alistair Horne researches first-hand accounts left by official observers, private diarists and letter-writers to evoke the high drama of those ten tumultuous months and the spiritual and physical agony that Paris and the Parisians suffered as they lost the Franco-Prussian war.” It was first published in 1965.

John Merriman’s 2014 book Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871, is a portrayal of day-to-day life during the Commune’s brief life, focusing especially on the street battles between the Parisian soldiers and the French army troops (thus the gory title) as opposed to the social aspirations of the Commune. It’s considered one of the best books on the Commune.

And then of course there’s Karl Marx’s who wrote about the Commune in The Civil War in France while it was happening and described it as a model of revolutionary, participatory government. It was originally written “with the aim of distributing to workers of all countries a clear understanding of the character and world-wide significance of the heroic struggle of the Communards and their historical experience to learn from.” You can read it free online here.

If you can hadle some French, check out the 2001 graphic novel Le Cri du Peuple, an adaptation of the libertarian novel about the Paris Commune by Jean Vautrin. “Jacques Tardi adapted the novel of Vautrin to the comic strip medium with flair, making the Paris of 1871 come alive, with its hopes, its joys, and its loves, as well as its sufferings, its disillusions, and its tears.  If the romantic oeuvre of Vautrin and Tardi makes no secret of clearly taking the side of the rebels of 18 March, its devotion to respect historical facts remains no less exemplary.”

Finally, RFI (Radio France International) published a great podcast on their English channel just as I was finishing up this article, for their series “Paris Perspective”: ‘Parisian Exceptionalism’ 150 years after the Commune They even address the same issue I found, namely that the French press seems strangely silent on this anniversary: “Covid lockdowns notwithstanding, could it be that the popular, and often violent protests by Gilets Jaunes in 2018 and 2019 might have encouraged the incumbent centrist administration of Emmanuel Macron to “keep a lid” on the anniversary?” Worth a listen to put it into modern-day context.

So that’s your historical snack of the day, hope you learned something interesting. 😊

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