Ideas

How the Paris Commune of 1871 became a model for 20th century revolutions

It was 150 years ago when 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 foreshadowed the abuses of state power to come.

150 years ago, citizens of Paris rose up against the government and declared independence

*This episode originally aired May 28, 2015.

In the spring of 1871, Paris was in flames. The streets, rivers of blood. Rotting corpses everywhere. But 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 just, more honest, more equitable.

The Paris Commune was a short-lived revolution that pitted city against state, poor against rich, all in the cause of social justice. It was a grand political dream.

In the end, it was an impossible dream, ending in massacre, during the last week in May, almost exactly 150 years ago. But it was a dream that refused to die. The revolution that was the Paris Commune would inspire revolutions to come in the next, much bloodier century.

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

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 once and future 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 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. 

In this episode he takes IDEAS producer Philip Coulter on a walking tour of that Paris, and those weeks of freedom and hope a century and a half ago. 

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