4) Communards and Dreyfusards


Establishing the Commune

The Third Republic offered peace to the Prussians after Napolean III's capture following The Battle of Sedan in September 1870. The battle essentially decided the war in favour of the Prussians, but the fighting did continue under the new French government of the Third Republic. The Siege of Paris immediately followed which led to the capture of the city by the Prussians and the defeat of the French. Although, Paris could still communicate with the rest of France allowing them to break the lines of the Prussians, even using hot air balloons to send mail. This feeling of defeat brought shame to the Parisians.

Democracy had been rejuvenated, but Paris was seeing themselves as a separate entity to the rest of France. Paris experienced urbanisation, political radicalism and set up the national guard to defend the commune. Thiers led the government in the Second Republic and ordered the army to supress the commune, Jules Ferry became the Prime Minister but was forced to resign after the commune, and Patrice de MacMahon became the second President of the Third Republic. The government ended up retreating to Versailles leaving Paris to revolt.

Blanqui and Delescluze, two contemporary philosopher-politicians, believed that the Parisians were a small revolutionary shell acting together. They also believed that the arts and politics shouldn't be separate spheres.

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The Commune

The Commune was established in March 1871 but only lasted a few months. Following the attempt to seize the guns at Montmartre, despite Paris having paid for them themselves, tensions increased as, without the guns, Paris couldn't protect itself.

The communards ended up killing guards related to the national government, and the Bishop of Paris. The communards were very anti-authoritarian and were very invested in destroying the symbols of the past.

La semaine sanglante (the bloody week) was their symbolic last stand. The Parisians didn't unite to fight off MacMahon's army, instead splitting up and defending their own neighbourhoods. They were once again hiding behind barricades. They were defeated.

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Interpreting the Commune

There was political and cultural radicalism within the commune. For example, there were press freedoms (but they were still monitored), they abolished the death penalty, ended conscription, restored the republic calendar, introduced pensions, and were anti-clerical. They were reviving the ideas of the First Republic. They also had gender and wage equality, workers' rights, co-operative movements, food banks, medical care and the red flag. It was very forward thinking, seeming to mirror many rights we enjoy today. Such ideas separated the communards from many of their contemporaries.

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Anarchism and the Russian Revolution

Future revolutions, like the Russian one, often referred back to the ideas of the commune. Parisians are also still proud of the commune even though it didn't last very long as it influenced a lot of future revolutions.

Kristan Ross in her book, 'The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune' (1988) argues that those in the commune believed the city should be owned by those who live in it. The middle classes fled Paris following the entrance of the Prussians meaning they could no longer influence society. So, people stopped paying rent, for example, until their conditions were met like improving the living conditions.

The communards also believed that workers could work different jobs thus disrupting the rigid social classes.

Henry Lefebvre in his 'The Production of Space' (1974) argued that space was always changing with certain spaced imbued with meaning, like a dining room or a parlour. But, the commune made claim to the ownership of such spaces, like parks.

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The Dreyfus Affair

During the 1890s, another division was created surrounding a Jewish man called Alfred Dreyfus. He was in the Intelligence division in Paris during the war. In 1894, Dreyfus was wrongly accused of communicating French military secrets to the German embassy in Paris. He was convicted of treason and imprisoned in Devil's Island for the next 5 years. Evidence was found in 1896 by Georges Picquart who identified a French Army Major as the real culprit. But Dreyfus was already imprisoned at this point so the truth was covered up. The army actually accused Dreyfus of additional charges based on falsified documents.

Word of the military court's framing of Dreyfus and the attempted cover-up spread which pressured the government into reopening the case. The intense political and judicial scandal divided French society. There were so-called 'Dreyfusards' like Clemenceau and Jaurès, and 'anti-Dreyfusards' like Barrès and Drumont. Dreyfus was put on trial again and was convicted with a 10 year sentence this time, but he was given a pardon and set free. Eventually, all the accusations were demonstrated to be baseless and in 1906, he was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. 

1898 was seen as a particularly anti-semitic year.

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