THE STORY OF THE COMMUNE.*
WE may soon begin to regret the times when History was a plant of slow growth, and it was reserved for a future genera- tion to form any definite judgment of its greater phenomena. It is not the first time of late that we have been called upon to notice the ever-increasing mass of books which are written about the painful but fascinating subject of the Commune of Paris, and the terrible Civil War whose story so painfnIly revives upon a smaller and shorter scale the excesses of the French Revolution. The volume before us, however, is, as we suppose, the first that has appeared in English in the form of a grave chronicle collated from all the best available sources, comparing conflicting accounts, and examining into the causes of things. The other versions that we have read, and from time to time reviewed, have been for the most part the re- vival of old letters and old personal stories; usually sensa- tional, and verging on the commonplace or the scandalous, with little in them to be in any sense dignified by the name of history. The reproduction of such a feature of the day as special correspondence is in no sense to be treated as a serious chronicle. But it is strange to think how fast time moves as we grow older, and that a quarter of a century has passed since the wild upheaval after Sedan, which resulted in the foundation of a Republic which then seemed to be the merest ephemeral of the shifting sands, but now, in spite of constant variations and perpetual changes of Ministry, begins to look as if it were founded upon rock. With rather superfluous candour, and a refreshing air of naivete, Mr. Thomas March tells us in his introductory chapter that "to understand all the currents of thought which helped to sweep the Commune into being, some knowledge of the reign of the Emperor Napoleon III. is necessary." It must be confessed that this is no unsafe position to take up, and that whatever the especial constitution of currents which sweep into being, there can be no doubt that the reign of Louis Napoleon had a good deal to do with leading up to the Commune. But if the stability of the Republic be a thing to be believed in, it was but the last link in the chain of a series of contributive events. Perpetual changes of masters, ander one name or another, had fairly worn the patience of the people out. The shows and pomps which seemed to dazzle, only, served to weary them. And the Kings and Emperors who thenght that the glitter of their courts, and the profuse expenditure which attended them, killed discontent and established power, were only raising up against themselves fresh forms of outrage and revolt. The French people may like to be led by a strong hand ; but they like to be the strong hand better, and if they suffer, to feel that they suffer, even in the throes of a Revolu- tion or a Commune, from some power which they believe to be themselves. All the changes of Ministers and officials, which • The History of the Paris Commune of 1871. By Thomas March. London* Swan Sonnetlichein and Co. 1896, would tire the English spirit out, are to them so many tokens of their supremacy ; and if one can read the signs of the last quarter of a century at all, the surrender of Sedan was a sur- render of the past altogether. The Commune was its awful rebound ; but we believe that the causes of Commune and Terror vanished with it, and though the French nature may and must remain unaltered, all in it that tends to these im- possible excesses will with another generation have fully passed away. That the writer of the history before us wishes to meddle with Louis Napoleon as little as possible, except as a mere antecedent, may be gathered from the fact that his name does not appear in the index attached to the volume at all. Indeed this humble but neces- sary part of a useful book of this kind appears to have been too much neglected. Its needs no index, however, to bring back to those who remember it, the startling catas- trophe of Sedan, perhaps the greatest and most utterly unexpected coup de thecitre which the world's history has known. The present writer had gone out just a fortnight before to the Engadine, and on his way been brought sud- denly face to face with the realities of war, the cannon booming sullenly before Strassburg as the train passed on its ordinary way on the right bank of the Rhine, and the huge waiting-room at Cologne Station being converted to a hospital. In a little hotel at St. Moritz, then at a very early stage of its development, the telegram arrived in its usual half-Hebraic form, which bore the strange news that visitors could not realise. What must it not have been in Paris, that brief message, " Macmahon defeated at Sedan ; his army and the Emperor taken prisoners ; Bazaine unrelieved " ? And even then the news had been kept back for two days.
Mr. March's description of the scene that followed is vivid enough,—that of the huge assemblage, in the Sunday daylight, on the Place de la Concorde and the " Corps L6gialatif " (which is not, however, a geographical expression), swayed and possessed by one common idea, the deposition of the Emperor. Whatever his share in the catastrophe, we have never quite understood the feeling, as its inevitable result, that of producing still further disorganisation, might even have struck the masses. An effective Regency of popular appointment would have been the measure which should most have commended itself to the general mind, one would have thought, under the pressure of so perilous a position. But the mob does not reason at such times as these ; and the lineal descendant of the Parisian populace which "invaded a Queen's apartments and gained its will," determines to invade the Parliament House, and "settle accounts with this useless debating society which upholds, or at least has upheld, an Emperor whom fate and infatuation have brought to ignominy and hatred." So the mob did, and the legislative body re- turned from an adjournment to find it in possession, and for Leon Gambetta, one of the Republican Deputies, to bring the chaos to an issue by declaring the Napoleonic dynasty at an end, and going with Jules Favre and others to the Hotel de Ville to proclaim the Republic, and to form a new Govern- ment. The unhappy Empress, so far forgotten for the hour, and happier than her Austrian prototype, saw the throng from the windows of the Tuileries, and escaped to England before night.
The pages that follow read like a story of organised disor- ganisation. The Internationalists appear on the one hand, and the revolutionary journalists on the other, and Rochefort and Mangin and Delescluze assume force and importance in the story. Mutual distrust and unintermitting rivalry seem to animate the whole, rather than any spirit of patriotism or even of self-defence. The Central Committee and the Inter- national Association established themselves as distinct bodies, holding separate meetings and having no official intercourse, though with constant unofficial communication through the numerous persons who were members of both. They took upon themselves as a Government all the responsibilities of the hour, announced urbi et orbi the change of the regime, proclaimed the invincibility of the French Army and the constancy of the French people, and declared through Jules Fevre the fixed determination of the entire country to cede to the enemy no stone of her forts, and no inch of her territory. That famous declaration has passed into melancholy history, and was illustrated by a tearful interview of Favre with Bismarck outside the walls of Paris. Blood and iron proved too strong for tears The whole of the story that followed
was full of dramatic surprises. Scarcely less startling than Sedan itself was the news that came of the complete beleaguer- ment of Paris. The thing seemed incredible in the days of railways and telegraphs, that the capital of life and pleasure should be cut off from the great world, a portent never possible in the days of the first Napoleon, when all the Powers of Europe had been leagued against France. The world would not believe that its letters and messages could not pass in and out in the usual way ; and the rivalry of the various corres- pondents of the newspapers, the feats of this journalist and that, and the observations of the "Besieged Resident," were the talk of every morning's breakfast-table. Meantime, within the besieged city all the passions were seething and fermenting, which led up to that awful Commune, which is the main subject of the book. It is very like a second edition of the Revolution in little; though shootings-down take the place of the guillotine, and the terrible incendiarism which broke out like a fever among the crowd formed the central feature of the lawless spirit :—
" Paris scarcely knew day from night. The now thick, black cloud of smoke which hung over the Seine, and on either side of it, obscured the daylight and intensified the horrors of an awful drama. The air was hot with the fires raging in every direction ; close, through the cloud above and the absence of wind ; fetid, with the stench arising from human blood which lay in congealed pools along the streets and splashed upon houses, and from the dead bodies which still remained where they had fallen, or had been merely removed from one open place to another. Additional though smaller conflagrations had been ignited by the federates during the night in the eastern district. Viewed from a distance, the sight was majestic and terrible, never to be forgotten ; in the midst of it, the terror and stupefaction were almost beyond human endurance. Men cried because of it, and because in no other way could they reduce the severe tension under which their hearts and minds laboured. The earliest lit fires still burnt on ; the more recent devoured with yet unwhotted fury all that which the malign incendiarists had intended for destruction. On all sides were heard the roar of the flames, the breaking of timbers, and the crashing in of roofs and walls. The devastation was so tremendous, and the agent employed to effect it so fearful a foe to fight, that it seemed to the awe-struck Parisians almost past credence that the creatures who had set in motion such a formid- able power should be of the same nature and language as them- selves."
We suppose as we quote that it really is still too soon to write or read this story with any sort of judicial calmness. Somehow, in the growth of papers and reports, the world seems to have been fairly sickened of the subject. For hardly any of the leading men of the Commune has Mr. March a word to say, and we presume that it must be the inevitable result of mani- festations of this kind. Varlin, who was shot on Montmartre by the crowd rather because they were bent on shooting somebody than for any other cause, was, according to Mr- March, " in honour, modesty, and sincerity, the noblest of the entire Commune." His is not one of the best-known names; and we doubt not that in the coming time there will be found
enthusiasts to whitewash the leaders of the Commune, even as after a period they did Robespierre and his companions ; but, as we fear, with much the same measure of success. The stories of the deaths of the Archbishop, of Rossel, and of others, are revived and told again by the author, and the last historical phenomenon of wholesale blood - madness set out with much fullness. That human nature is an unregenerate and awful thing, and that it has perhaps a wilder streak in France than anywhere else, is almost all that practically results from the historical inquiry which Mr.
March appears to have proposed. That " only the outcasts of society can own a universal republic," as only the dumb have a universal language, is not a sentiment of a very clear bearing; while to say, as n conclusion, that " the idea that the poor are deprived of their birthright by the selfish action of the rich," is "one which bad vitality and which yet lives," is surely to understate very mildly indeed the problem which lies at the root of the whole business of government. If that idea were not the motive power of half the outrages, public and private, which the increase of scientific destructives makes
more dangerous every day—half the science of nowadays being applied to mutilating people, and the other half to mending them—we should be well on the road to a happier state of things. We do not see that it is likely to disappear. But we do hope and believe that the endurance of a steady Republican Government in France, not " universal," but
constitutional increasingly, is the best security against the recurrence of Terrors and of Communes amongst the most
attractive of the races of the world.