Friday March 18, 2016

Fire and Blood: The Paris Commune of 1871

After years of political turmoil, the citizens of Paris rose up against the government and declared independence. The Paris Commune of 1871 was a model for the revolutions of the 20th century- freedom, liberty, equality, were the cries. But the violence it unleashed, the use of propaganda, the demonizing of the "other", all foreshadow the abuses of state power to come -- in the 20th century until today. **This episode originally aired May 28, 2015.

Paris Commune 1971

A barricade on Rue Voltaire, after its capture by the regular army during the Paris Commune of 1871. (Wikipedia)

In the spring of 1871, Paris was in flames. The streets a river of blood. Rotting corpses everywhere. For eight glorious weeks, the hungry and the poor of Paris declared themselves free. They took to the streets, drove out the army, and started to build a society that would be more fair, more honest, more equitable. The Paris Commune was a short-lived revolution that pitted city against state, poor against rich, for social justice. It was a grand political dream.

At the end, it was an impossible dream, ending in massacre. But it was a dream that refused to die. The revolution that was the Paris Commune would inspire revolutions to come in the next, more bloody century. And the repression of the Commune, too, would be echoed in the propaganda and the state-sponsored violence of the 20th century, and of our own time.

Paris today is the city of light and love, a destination for tourists. But if you look beneath the surface -- if you know how to look -- the traces of the Commune are still there. John Merriman is a professor of history at Yale University. In this episode he takes producer Philip Coulter on a walking tour of that Paris, and those weeks of freedom and hope, so many years ago. 

John Merriman is the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University and the author of many books, including The Dynamite Club and the classic History of Modern Europe. His most recent book Massacre: the life and death of the Paris Commune is published by Basic Books.