Monday, April 8, 2013

Great Moments in Stupidity: The French Revolution of 1871

Napoleon Bonaparte

Normal nations, like normal people, try to learn from their mistakes. This was not the case with the French who, in 1870, picked a fight with one of the more well-equipped and well-lead armies on the European continent by declaring war on Prussia (see "The Franco-Prussian War" if I ever get around to posting it).
France, despite having a very poor won-lost record since the heady days of Napoleon Bonaparte, just had to pick on the one country that was more than ready to deal with anything that the French might want to throw at them. And on top of that; the French Emperor Napoleon III, despite his self-impressive title, was certainly no match for the Iron Chancellor himself: Otto von Bismarck.
It took the Prussians less than 3 months to totally humiliate the French Army; a record that would stand until the Spring of 1940 when the German Army would defeat the French Army and chase the British Army out of continental Europe in 70 days!
As noted in the preceding paragraphs, the Franco-Prussian War was over in less time than it took to write about it. It did, however, lead to the "Revolution" of 1871 and the first attempt to implement a then new, and revolutionary, economic system known as communism.
By now, it should be obvious to the reader that revolutions do not just spring into being on the spur of the moment. This is particularly true if the French people happen to be the party responsible for the revolution. It is practically a truism of the history that the French will revolt only under certain conditions. These conditions include, but are in no way limited to:
1) The presence of an incompetent government
2) A recent military humiliation
3) The presence, or immediate availability, of someone named Napoleon
4) Large numbers of hungry and/or poor people wandering around in the streets of Paris
5) The people fitting the description of #4, above, have access to firearms and other such weapons
6) That the French citizens meeting the conditions of #4 and #5 will immediately adopt the most unworkable of the available solutions to #1
Of the six criteria listed above as prerequisites for a French Revolution, #1 is practically a guarantee that #2 will occur. In the case of the French Revolution of 1871, the immediate cause of #2 can be found in #3 because it was the stupidity of Napoleon III that put the Prussians in such a bad mood that they immediately routed the French Army and then began reducing Paris to rubble with constant artillery fire.
The incessant artillery rounds that were falling on Paris had a negative impact on the population identified in #4 and its opinion of the French Government's ability to resolve the situation. Since most of the French Army had withdrawn to the center of Paris (a position that made it more difficult for the Prussians to pick them off in a leisurely manner), condition #5 was easily fulfilled. All that remained was for someone to propose the radical change that was required by condition #6. And, since France was not known for its rationality in revolutionary matters, you might have guessed that they adopted the only solution that was practically guaranteed to fail.
By January, 1871 the Prussians had been able to force the newly-formed French Government (the Third Republic) into an agreement regarding a cease fire and truce under the terms of which the Prussians would make a "symbolic" entry into Paris, "occupy" it briefly, and then go home. Considering that the previous French Government had been foolish enough to start the war Louis-Adolphe Thiers, the nominal head of the ThirdRepublic, agreed to these terms in the hope that it would allow France a chance to address its numerous internal problems without having to worry about the Prussian Army. These problems included:
1) That ever since the Revolution of 1789 the economic "gap" between the upper and lower classes of French society had widened to the extent that there was essentially no "middle" class. You were either rich or you were poor. The food shortages, which had been increasing in recent years, had now grown into an almost daily affair since the Prussians had control of most of the countryside and the little food that was available was being used to feed the now essentially useless French Army.
2) That the current population of Paris was becoming more and more receptive to any idea, no matter how impractical or radical, that would lead to a "fairer" economic or political "system."
3) The fact that Paris was the only city in France that did not have "self-rule," which would allow the population to make decisions about local policy. This policy had been adopted after the First Revolution when the government of the FirstRepublic had come to realize that the citizenry of Paris was not the most rational population to deal with during a crisis.
4) The previously mentioned irrational citizens of Paris, thanks to the retreat and wholesale desertions of the French Army, were armed to their collective teeth with everything from small arms to heavy cannons.
5) The citizens, emboldened by their newly acquired firepower, had formed a National Guard which was electing its own officers without the approval of the central French Government.
The crisis broke into open insurrection when, on March 18th 1871, Thiers ordered troops assigned to the Regular Army to take control of cannons that had been stored atop a hill near central Paris. The regular troops, instead of following orders, aligned themselves with the National Guard. When their commander, General Claude Martin Lecomte, ordered the regulars to open fire on an unarmed crowd, they refused to do so and placed themselves under the control of the Central Committee of the National Guard.
When other army units rapidly followed suit by joining the National Guard, Thiers ordered an evacuation of the civil authorities of France in general, and Paris in particular, to the relatively safety of Versailles. The Central Committee of the National Guard found itself in de facto control of Paris and immediately ordered that elections be held on March 26th in order to choose what would become known as the Central Committee of the Paris Commune.
The 92 people who were subsequently elected were composed of a few skilled workmen, a small number of "professionals" (journalists, physicians, and lawyers) and a large number of political activists of every affiliation from Communist to socialist and even to the few remaining Jacobins (who tended to fondly remember the effects of the guillotine on those that had opposed the First Revolution and were thus adamant that it be used liberally during the current revolution).
Despite its seemingly incompatible differences, the Central Committee of the Commune did manage to make a start on a program that would have maintained vital civil services for the some 2 million citizens of Paris. This start would prove to be one of its few successes because, thanks to the more radical members of the committee pushed for what was more of a "reorganization" of society than a social "revolution." This, of course, was not what the Communist members of the Central Committee had in mind.
The Commune, in reality, never had a chance at success from the moment it was first declared because the Central Committee had somehow managed to forget that a sizeable portion of the French Army had remained loyal to the ThirdRepublic and was thus organizing itself at Versailles.
The army of the Third Republic made its presence known to the Commune on April 2nd by, in a move copied from the Prussians, laying siege to Paris and subjecting those parts of the city that were under control of the Commune to an almost around the clock artillery bombardment. This, although not an immediate success, did put the ThirdRepublic in a strong enough position to refuse to negotiate with the Commune after only a week of siege. By the middle of April the government troops had managed to recapture the suburban district of Courbevoie; and an attempt by the National Guard to march against Versailles was nothing less than an unmitigated disaster.
The Central Committee of the Commune of Paris responded to the above-mentioned events by doing what all "provisional revolutionary governments" are prone to do when faced with major opposition: they made a swift conversion from an aggressive military strategy to one that was purely defensive in nature while its members made numerous impassioned speeches (during relative lulls in the bombardment) in which they urged the Communards to stand firm against the army of the Third Republic. Then things started to go really bad for the Commune.
1) After the loss of Courbevoie and the subsequent disastrous march against Versailles, the women of the Commune assumed roles within the National Guard that had previously been "male only" (despite the fact that women were not allowed to vote in the election that had installed the current pack of idiots as the Central Committee and that no woman was a member of the Committee).
2) The expected groundswell of international support for the Commune never materialized except among the political exiles of other European countries that were already living in Paris. In fact, the most capable general to serve the Commune was the Polish exile Jaros³aw D¹browski.
3) The only international support that did materialize came from labor unionists in other European countries that were, in turn, harassed by their respective governments.
4) The man who was responsible for the idea that Communism was inevitable, Karl Marx, busied himself with writing letters and making speeches on behalf of the ParisCommune from the safety of the British Library in London.
By the middle of May the army that had remained loyal to the ThirdRepublic had breeched the outer defenses of Paris and had entered the more prosperous western side of the city, where they were warmly welcomed by the inhabitants. At this point, the Parisians began to ignore the Central Committee and each district began to fight the returning army as it saw fit. This was exactly what the ThirdRepublic had foreseen would occur and the Versailles army was able to defeat each district's component of the National Guard.
The army was later reported to be responsible for the wholesale executions of unarmed citizens without benefit of trial or anything even remotely resembling "the due process of law." In many more cases, the Commune ordered the execution of hostages either directly or by standing aside and leaving the dirty work to the mob of now desperate Communards.
By the 26th of May, fighting had been reduced to street by street assaults by the army on the hopelessly undermanned barricades of the Commune. The following afternoon the commanding general of the Versailles forces declared that Paris was once again under control of the Third Republic. What followed were the arrests and, in most cases, the execution of anyone that was even as much as being suspected of being sympathetic to the Commune.
By the time the Third Republic was through extracting its revenge against the Commune, various sources place the body count at around 30,000 dead Parisians who had been involved (regardless of the degree of involvement) with the formation of the Commune.
Since the summer of 1871, the French citizens have not made the slightest attempt at an open revolution against anything or anyone.
The next time you decide to revolt against the incompetent, bankrupt pack of idiots that you call a government remember these simple facts:
1) Livraghi's Second Corollary to Cipolla's Laws of Stupidity clearly states that stupidity grows geometrically while intelligence grows arithmetically. This can be restated as "the stupidity of a mob increases as the square of the number of people comprising the mob." This means that there is no safety in numbers.
2) Get the entire army on your side. The most inspiring and eloquent of speeches can be ended abruptly by a well-placed artillery barrage.
3) Do not immediately attack the aristocracy or the wealthy. These groups tend to have the 2 things that are vital to the success of any revolution and are invariably in very short supply among the members of the mob: money and brains. Somebody has to figure out a way to end the revolution before it sinks to the level of a French Revolution and the city is filled with a shitload of dead people.
4) Don't revolt! Look at what happened to France and what will happen to the Russians in an upcoming posting.

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