Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Desperate Tale

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71
by Alistair Horne

Alistair Horne's study of the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune which followed is a remarkable history "from the inside", as it were: "inside" in this case being within Paris, first during the Prussian investment and then amidst the follies and fury of the Commune and the vengeful Versaillais who crushed this nascent Utopia in the bud. Horne makes good use of his primary source -- many British and American, giving an Anglo bent to his work. But it is hard to fautt him for this, as it was only the onlookers who had time or inclination to write during the terrible year of 1870-71.

The story is unfamiliar to most, and is a shattering tale of the desperation of Parisians trapped in the 'most beautiful city in the world' as Prussian guns surround. The incompetence and hubris of the French leaders -- whether military or political -- is a tragi-comic thread woven throughout the tale, but the farce truly turns to tragedy only after armistice is signed with Bismarck and the newly minted Kaiser Wilhelm. It is then that the feelings of betrayal engendered in the Parisian populace at the unspeakable concessions given to the Prussians leads to open revolt among the working class of Paris, led by the leftist preachers of defiance to the old ways of empire, militarism, and profiteering.

Similar to Tuchman's The Proud Tower, Horne's history shows a society at a vital cusp in time, when old ways and concerns are being swept forcefully into a new era. Unlike Tuchman's history of the period before World War I, however, the modes of life are not so much swept away as transformed into new obsessions which are crystalized into patterns resisting further sublimation. Among these are Glory, Socialism (via Marxism and Communism), and a class war that still influences today the life of France. Reading of the horrific price exacted upon the rebels by Thier's forces of "Order" when Paris is finally retaken from the Commune, it is hard not to feel sympathy for their argument that they felt themselves treated as less-than-human in other affairs. It is even harder not to fall prey to despair for the human condition, if even such bright lights as shine in Paris can sink into barbarisms more associated with Kosovo, the Hutus and Tutsis -- well, what hope for us all?

For those not familiar with the story (as your present writer), the revelations are many and disturbing. Besides the senseless carnage, the near-misses leave one breathless. The Louvre saved from conflagraion a fortunate rain after days of sunshine; Notre-Dame almost burned to the ground by hopeless Communards during the final days; Renoir -- not yet a famous artist -- saved from execution by a chance favor given years earlier to one who became one of rht Commune's most vicious leaders. But the true revelation is destruction and near-destruction wreaked upon my favorite city, not by the German guns and troops, but by the Parisians themselves on both sides of the barricades. Even Dietrich von Choltitz refused Hitler's order to destroy the City of Lights during the final days of the Nazi occupation. How upsetting to read of the self-inflicted wounds -- some nearly mortal -- in this history.

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