Home » history » Petroleuses and Communards

Petroleuses and Communards

Nope, Not the French Revolution—Eighty Years Later

Nope, Not the French Revolution—Eighty Years Later

Most Americans know little about French history, particularly in the years after the French Revolution and Napoleon. I mean, aren’t they “surrender monkeys”?

Not quite. In 1870-1871, Germany invaded France and crushed the French forces at Sedan, as described by Émile Zola in his novel Le Débacle (The Débacle). The Emperor Napoleon III hurriedly decamped; and the Third Republic under Adolphe Thiers, headquartered at Versailles, took over and continued the war. The problem was the city of Paris. The lightly armed National Guard wanted no truck with either Thiers or the Prussians, whereupon the forces of both laid siege to Paris.

This is when the Paris Commune was formed, which ran the besieged city from March to May of 1871. There were stories (probably mythical) of Parisiennes called petroleuses (illustrated above) armed with bottles of inflammable fluids roving the streets, setting fire to buildings. Admittedly, Napoleon III’s Tuileries Palace was torched; but most of the fires were attributable to French and Prussian cannon fire. Still, women found hurrying home with bottles of cooking oil were frequently executed on the spot.

Altogether, the casualties of the siege were about ten times larger than the entire Reign of Terror under Robespierre: The invading forces usually did not take prisoners and instead went in for an early version of ethnic cleansing, targeting mainly the working poor.

It was during this siege that the Parisians first developed a taste for horsemeat, which they were forced into eating along with dogs, cats, and various vermin when food supplies became scarce.

When I was in Paris, I visited the Communards’ Wall at Père Lachaise cemetery, where several hundred men, women, and children were captured, lined up against the wall, shot by firing squads, and buried in a mass grave.

Not too many years later, Vladimir Lenin carefully studied the lessons of the Paris Commune and adopted them in the Bolshevik Revolution, which was much less bloody than the events of Paris in May 1871.