One Last Word (12 February 1871)

Let us say one last word on the current drama, before its concluding dénouement.1

France has just fallen into the abyss toward which it was carried by a frantic race. And now everyone raises their hands to the sky, blaming ignorance, corruption, fatality… and who knows what else. Empty rhetoric! Fatality is the law of the material universe and not that of humanity, which retains sole responsibility for its own affairs. Ignorance and corruption plague other countries much more than they do France. Our victors surpass us in selfishness and cupidity. Is less ignorance required to herd human cattle behind a William2 than a Bonaparte? It is said that the Germans have conquered us because they all know how to read and write. What strange reasoning! Education is a matter of ideas alone. The printed word is but a mere instrument. A reader nourished on foolishness will become a fool. Is there any better proof of this than these very Teutons? Even the most illiterate of our soldiers would not have believed that the enemy executes its prisoners in cold blood, methodically tearing out their tongues and eyes. But the Germans believed this immediately. This stupidity condemns them. They are a people of lackeys with the intelligence of a cavalry horse.

Let us not seek imaginary causes for our misfortunes. Let us leave metaphysics to one side. Paris has only itself – its own credulity, its own weakness – to blame. The world has never seen such a spectacle: an entire population hurtling down the road to ruin under the pretext of avoiding it, and, in the name of their salvation, drinking to the dregs the empoisoned concoction that they know will kill them! The press is always the real culprit, the true source of public corruption. Amongst the newspapers that now continuously rail against ‘the government of the rout’, some, with an infernal Machiavellianism, first did all they could to drive it into the abyss, while shouting ‘To the Prussians!’, so as to better deliver us to the Prussians. Others, who are more discreet, lent assistance through their complacency, out of hatred of the republic. Some simply allowed things to run their course, and let them be, out of respect for force. The least bad among them raged, cried, implored, but did nothing to help take action or halt the German advance. Le Combat, which remained steadfast, was an exception.3 All, then, were complicit to varying degrees. Today they are fulminating, with a great many curses, in the hope of avoiding any responsibility. Useless clamour! They will not succeed; the responsibility rests entirely with them.

No! This immense catastrophe has nothing to do with fatality! No! The fall of the Empire at Sedan did not inevitably [fatalement] beget the fall of the republic and of France in Paris. We must not let the authors of our ills claim that the inevitable outcome of the war was clear to them from the start, and that with this in mind, their prompt steps towards peace had always had as their goal, and so would have resulted in, the easing of our fate. Above all, we must not allow them to invoke the fait accompli in support of this falsehood, which is rather the fruit of their betrayal, and in no way the ineluctable consequence of the decrees of destiny. Far from serving our cause, all this tearful hand-wringing dealt us a terrible blow. They reassured and encouraged the enemy, and gave it the certainty of emerging victorious, for simply by taking such steps these tremblers, these auxiliaries of the invader showed Bismarck that they feared the people. When these hypocrites, led by a Jesuit, called themselves a ‘Government of National Defence’, by ‘defence’ they undoubtedly meant capitulation. They were careful not to say this at the time, and indeed for a long time afterwards. But today they admit to it with the words ‘We had to succumb’. They take refuge in their fatality. Let us drag them out of this sanctuary in which they seek shelter for their crime.

Let us leave the Empire behind us and consider the situation as it stood on 4 September [1870]. Was the public attitude on that day dejected or resolute? The joy at internal deliverance no doubt shone above all else. But if a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the enemy had really predominated in our hearts, would not sadness have cast its shadow across this joy? Such elation in response to nothing more than a few days reprieve would have been mere madness. But we had our wits about us, and hope against the threat coming from without was not separated from hope for change within.

Only the agents of the national rout saw the situation as bleak, and thought there was no other option than prostration at William’s feet. They acted accordingly. But today they pretend to serve as the organs of public opinion; after having kept Paris in the dark for five whole months [while they secretly negotiated with the Prussians], and hidden their coup in shadows and mystery, they now substitute Paris for themselves and say: ‘The city did this, the city wanted that; the city had lost all hope, the city signed an armistice, etc.’ This is very audacious, it is far too audacious. But such audacity in imposture has been their entire policy since 4 September. Bonaparte, the man of deception par excellence, is nothing compared to them. How is this surprising? A Jesuit leads them.

The public, moreover, facilitated their task, for it treated them in ways that stretched the limits of credulity, patience and submission. No dictatorship in history has ever mounted such a comfortable old nag. But in the end, both the nag and rider took a tumble, and the mount, injured, utters loud cries against the horseman. The horseman responds: ‘It is not me, it is my mount. It carried me, so it led me. I ended up where it took me.’ But only the most docile and thoroughly yoked donkey in the universe would accept such thanks.

The time of impudence has passed. The commission of the Hôtel de Ville now actually looks like what it has always been: a delegation for the King of Prussia. The capitulation has officially certified that Bismarck reigns in and governs over Paris. This is nothing new. To proclaim openly, like [General Louis-Jules] Trochu,4 that ‘resistance is nothing but heroic madness’, or, like Ernest Picard,5 that ‘we will defend ourselves out of honour, but any hope of victory would be fanciful’, was already to declare oneself an agent of the enemy rather than to lead the national defence.

To think something impossible and then to undertake nonetheless it is madness indeed. But this madness is called treason when the task is to defend the country [la patrie] in extremis, and when you are free to decline this burden. Trochu and Picard’s actions were crimes, and their words foolish. We will show here that on 4 September, despite twenty-two years of moral decline, despite the major setbacks of August and the almost total destruction of the French troops, the situation was in no way desperate. Far from hope being a chimera, everything was in our favour. One simple measure, suggested by both good sense and the circumstances, would have infallibly resulted in the defeat, if not the annihilation, of the German army.

We will not have perished on account of the transcendental reasons spouted by the press, but quite simply because of a military error. It is true that the cause of this error is entirely political, which transforms it into an attack on the independence of the nation.

Sixteen days passed between the proclamation of the republic and the arrival of the Prussians at our city walls. The future course of the war depended entirely on how this fortnight was to be utilised.

On 4 September, we had almost no weapons or soldiers left, and 300,000 to 400,000 Germans were marching on Paris. Europe was convinced that they would enter the city without encountering any opposition and would impose their conditions on it. But Paris has its walls and forts, and it stands at the centre of the entire French railway network. Here lay the nub of the problem. From 4 to 20 September, the tables could have been turned and the roles of the French and Germans inverted. Victory and defeat would have changed sides: it was a simple question of numbers and of transport that was easy to resolve.

The capital, with the arrival of 200,000 people fleeing the German advance, had two million souls. A million women and children should have been sent to the provinces and replaced by one million young men. Moreover, provisions should have been supplemented in order to ensure that they would last six months. It was thought that there was only enough for two months. Events showed that there was enough for four. A further four months’ supply would have allowed stocks to last for two-thirds of a year. Success would then have been absolutely certain. […]

While this immense mass of men and things accumulated in Paris, various forms of work should have been vigorously carried out along the entire line: starting up the Chassepot rifle factories and the canon foundries; fortifying the defences with picks and shovels; ranking and organising the troops, with former soldiers, non-commissioned officers and intelligent and noble-hearted young men training a new cohort of leaders. We have all the resources needed to improvise ways of mustering good officers. It is simply a matter of rejecting habit and routine, and maintaining basic good sense. Ten days of study are enough to turn a reasonably well-educated young man into a capable officer. 1792 proved this. When the battalions of volunteers were formed, the petits bourgeois, elected by the soldiers, immediately understood the need for discipline and military instruction. Mass conscription is madness if the recruits are not immediately transformed into a regular corps. Military instruction has been condensed into manuals that summarise the lessons of past combat and apply them in manoeuvres, and the new officers, animated by the enthusiasm for freedom, set about studying their theory night and day. This work does not require genius. A schoolboy can do it. There is no need to have spent thirty years hanging about military barracks, as claimed by the established routine. Anyone who truly puts his mind to it can learn what he needs in a week, if he applies theory to practice.

We could have produced thousands of excellent leaders in Paris if we had accepted the support of intelligent young people. It is true that such an approach does away with the law on promotion, that gospel of standing armies. But what fine fruits this cherished law bore! Ask Sedan, Metz and Paris what they now think of it. Today officers are not made for the army; the army is made for officers. It is their own personal thing, their inheritance. To alter it in any way, no matter what the grounds or the need, is an attack on their property, a sacrilege. Even the greatest warrior, a Hannibal for example, were he to come out of the National Guard he could not even join the army as a corporal. France would tremble to its core. This is stupidity elevated to the highest power. If there is any institution in the world born of the needs of common salvation and with no other raison d’être, it is without question the army. But like everything else that is governed by authority, it has become a den of selfishness and corruption, and no longer serves as anything more than the prey of particular interests. If we were to free ourselves of this scandal we would discover as many officers of merit as we need. In the hands of republicans and level-headed men, in September Paris would have improvised thousands of leaders for its 1,500,000 men. We seldom suspect what we are capable of doing, the day we cast aside la routine, that moral ulcer of nations.

Alas! None of this could take place. The legislative body vomited up on France a government worthy of its origins. Born out of an imperial assembly, it contaminated the Empire, smothered the revolution and delivered the country to the invaders.

And yet how certain victory would have been had it but trusted the energy of the nation! All the young people of the provinces would have rushed towards the capital in order to concentrate the forces of the avenging army there. We would have seen 200,000 men build redoubts, with feverish ardour, in Garches, Meudon, Clamart, Thiais, Montmesly, Chelles, Montfermeil, Livry, Choisy, Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. The Butte Pinson, the Sannois hills, the Gonesse plain would have been covered in entrenchments, all ready to repel the Prussian offensive from afar.

Would the enemy have even persisted in this insolent siege that found such Machiavellian auxiliaries in the Government of National Debacle? At least in Châtillon it would not have faced the 45,000 demoralised troops from Sedan, tired of being driven to their slaughter out of incompetence. And the enemy would not have got as far as Châtillon. It would not have gone beyond the Seine, or Choisy, or Villeneuve-Saint-George, or even Corbeil. It would not have invested the city, not from a distance of one league, or from ten, or even from twenty leagues – and the more it had to increase the size of its encirclement the more risky it would have become.

A government that bares its teeth is not treated the same as one that greets its enemies with open arms. Guarded by a vigorous government and by 1,500,000 men, 300,000 of whom were veterans, it would have been impossible to approach Paris. Bismarck and Moltke6 would have understood this perfectly. Prudence would have told them: ‘Maintain your distance, the volcano is about to erupt.’ What could the Prussians have done at that point? Traverse a France that had no soldiers, carry out mass requisitions, desecrate undefended cities, attack unarmed populations, and take the strongholds that were left without their garrisons and artillery? And then what?

While these aimless and inconsequential marches were proceeding, the storm would have grown in Paris. Canons, rifles, discipline, tactics and experience would soon have constituted an army of a million men, supported by a reserve of 500,000 National Guardsmen. Not that chaos of scattered battalions proposed by Trochu, but a set of strongly connected legions. The Prussians would then have had to settle matters with this France in arms, sustained by the desire for vengeance and by good artillery. It is not with our backs to the walls of Paris that we would have settled these scores. At bottom, what would this army have been? Precisely the one that Gambetta raised a month too late! The same men, but under such different conditions.

Gambetta lacked a vast parade ground on which to shelter his troops while they were being organised. The rest of the country no longer had any such place of refuge. Lyon, the largest centre after Paris, had been blocked and bombarded, with no possibility of resistance. What could have been done? Split up the recruits into small groups? The Prussians, looking out for the formation of these nuclei in formation, would have hunted them down and dispersed them, one after the other. Unite them in masses strong enough to control the countryside? This is what was attempted, but with disastrous – and truly inevitable – results.

Moreover, Paris pressed for the arrival of reinforcements. Instead of relying on itself, it relied on others. It had been necessary to send to its aid, in the presence of a skilled and battle-hardened enemy, groups that lacked training and solidarity. Then there were the difficulties with provisions, the cold, exhaustion, the lack of cohesion – all the causes of ruin that can be resumed in a single phrase: ‘young conscripts’. Trochu’s perfidious entreaties brought the final blow. In order to help him, our forces were scattered, and the enemy, pouncing on this disjointed army, cut it up and dispersed it. Trochu lost all our armies, those in the provinces as well as in Paris, all sacrificed to the sham defence that had to conceal its treachery and allow this to lead, artfully, to the denouement by famine. Why did the illustrious dictator not summon our troops to rally inside the city walls while the roads remained free and open, when, at a word, on one signal, they would have come running, and when provisions, weapons and munitions would have accompanied them by the railways?

We would not then have had to witness the lamentable spectacle of Chanzy falling after Palatines, Faidherbe after Chanzy, Bourbaki after Faidherbe. All succumbed from a similar cause. It is the same piece of theatre, played out over several acts, with identical characters. Assembled a month earlier behind the impregnable ramparts of the capital, the million soldiers who have so cruelly become the victim of either ineptitude or treason, would have met an entirely different fate. In that case there would have been no marches in the cold and the rain, no frozen bivouacs, no alerts or sudden panics, no days without bread or nights without sleep; they would have been assured of supplies and shelter, without worries or exhausting journeys, assured of rest for the body and peace of mind, of hope and joy instead of despondency and fear. And also all the time to train, to learn in safety, to acquire discipline, experience, to become accustomed to weapons and manoeuvres. They would have been as calm as in times of peace, with no concern for the enemy. They could be there, in front of our very eyes, within rifle range, and we would mock, we would deride them. We could lose twenty battles against them while continuing to gain experience. We could close the door in their faces, and return home to begin again at the right moment.

Bismarck was quite vexed by this game. He complained about it with grotesque naivety in his response to diplomats’ objections to the bombing. ‘We have’, he said, ‘no intention whatsoever of destroying the city. Rather, we seek to overcome their central and fortified position, from which the French army prepares its attacks on German troops, and that serves as a refuge after these have been carried out.’ And with that, Bismarck set about massacring women and children in order to subdue the men. Very well then. This is a new article to add to the pleasant laws of war. One now has the right to slit women and children’s throats in order to force a people to submit.

This Bismarck has an insolent good fortune. Everything works to his benefit, even his own foolishness. On the advice of German doctors, he was able to seize just the right psychological moment to fire off his flying pills; the shells missed their target but starvation rations drained our strength. What a shame that the Krupp guns dawdled as they did along the way! If only they had bombarded us in October! That was our real psychological moment. Despite all the Trochus and the Favres of this world, we would then have broken the backs of Wilhelm and his band of scoundrels. But alas! We are not so fortunate. For us, nothing happens on time.

Like the Teutonic shells, Gambetta’s conscripts arrived six months too late. They melted away during the autumn rain. Two months in Paris would have readied them for the North Pole and the Sahara. They would have entered Paris as conscripts, and left as veterans when the time came to leave. No longer an anxious quasi-herd, they would have been a solid and tightly bound army, self-reliant and impatient for revenge. This is what our soldiers would have been had we assembled them in the capital during the sixteen days of forced grace that the enemy granted us. […] The enemy would have spared us its insolent pity because they would have had to save it for themselves.

In the savage war Germany waged against us, the government of the Hôtel de Ville had its choice of denouements, between triumph and disaster. It preferred disaster. Between 15 and 20 September, rather than hurriedly amassing weapons, provisions and soldiers in Paris, it failed to prepare in any way and sought only to earn Wilhelm’s mercy, thereby compounding our peril with dishonour. It systematically disorganised the National Guard, which had become, as a result of the shortage of troops, our one serious resource. Pursuing its sole goal, surrender, it paralysed all the means of struggle, so as to force the Parisians into submission through powerlessness. Lacking both rifles and cannons, rather than welcome the offers that came in from private industry, which rapidly mobilised to produce these weapons, it remained completely inert. Only 31 October7 brought it out of its torpor and forced it to adopt some token preparatory measures. On 30 November it mounted its series of great sorties, which met with disaster. The attempt in Montretout was the last act of this funereal comedy.

And yet Paris, even reduced to the state established by its pitiful government, could still have won. It had 300,000 men, National Guardsmen and soldiers, armed with rapid firing rifles, and 150,000 National Guardsmen equipped with hammer rifles, along with 300 short- and long-range canons, and a thirst for vengeance. In the hands of a loyal government and a devoted leader, this army would have emerged victorious from the fight. It had numerical superiority, its choice of points to attack, and complete freedom of movement. There was no risk of surprise, of dispersal through defeat, or of any serious enemy attack.

Many have spoken of the besieger’s formidable entrenchments. But a serious defence would not have allowed such work to have been undertaken in the first place. We let the Prussians do as they please. This is the Hôtel de Ville’s greatest crime. We could have overrun the German lines ten times over, forcing the enemy to lift the siege – but we could not hold the countryside against them. Abandoning the attempted blockade would have forced them to retreat to Metz. Paris would have then reassumed leadership of the war effort, which without doubt would have finished with the expulsion of the invaders. But these were not the aims of our perfidious government. In its eyes, revolution was the enemy; it knew no other.

On 22 January, it filled the Hotel de Ville and office of Public Assistance with soldiers, and fired without warning upon a peaceful crowd. Then, like Bonaparte, following this massacre on the boulevards, it calumnied the victims by holding them responsibility for the onset of violence, and filled the prisons with innocent people – people that it now has effrontery to bring before a court martial.

Relying on these threats to repeat the terror of the 2 December [1851] coup, the government has delivered Paris to the enemy through a so-called armistice that is the most ignominious of capitulations. It was imprisoned in Paris and, in accordance with the laws of war, its stipulations could apply only to the besieged area. It dared, however, to extend the supposed armistice to the whole of France, which remained free from invasion; to make matters worse, it passed over in silence the clause that allowed for hostilities to continue in the east. There the French troops came to a halt while the Germans continued to manoeuvre, in keeping with this exceptional clause, and the entire army in the East succumbed as a result of this betrayal. The Trochu plan is no different to the Bazaine plan.8 It followed the same stages to achieve the same success.

And finally, this last monstrosity, unprecedented in the annals of the human race! The government of Paris, made a prisoner of the Prussians as a result of the accord of 28 January, and as such nothing more than their instrument, dared to give orders to the provincial government, which was still protected and enclosed by French armies; this government had become the sole representative of France since the capture of its Parisian colleagues, a capture that entailed their deposition from office.

It then dared, as a result of Bismarck’s threats, to convoke a National Assembly in conditions so impossible that they have confirmed our status as deserving the ridicule and scorn of the rest of the world. And, in an even more painful turn of events, our free government, which was still protected by national bayonets, found itself obliged to obey a government that was held captive by the enemy, and that had become its agent.

While awaiting the day of public condemnation, all who retain within them the heart of a true citizen must vigorously protest against this loathsome peace that cowardice and treason seek to impose on us, a peace that has been hatched like a conspiracy and that will be our eternal shame. For France has not been laid low by the fall of Paris, and it can still exterminate the invading hordes. No serious soldier would dare question this truth, for the plan we must implement is obvious to all, and leaves no doubt over its result.

The Germans will either have to leave or succumb.

The dictatorship of the Hôtel de Ville stands accused, therefore, of high treason, and of launching an assault upon the very existence of the nation.

  1.  Source: Blanqui, ‘Un Dernier Mot’, La Patrie en Danger (édition hors Paris), 12 February 1871, 1-3; it is included in MSS 9595, ff. 65-6, and reprinted with some omissions in MF, 296-316. This pamphlet, published in defiant response to the government’s capitulation to the Prussians, served as a final coda to La Patrie en Danger, the newspaper Blanqui founded on 7 September 1870 and which ran for 89 issues until it ceased regular publication on 8 December, for lack of funds.
  2.  William I (1797-1888), King of Prussia from 1861 to 1888 and the first German Emperor following the unification of Germany in 1871.
  3.  Like Blanqui’s own La Patrie en Danger, the newspaper Le Combat was launched in September 1870 as a patriotic response to the Prussian invasion, by the future communard Félix Pyat. It was closed by the government in February 1871. Cf. Firmin Maillard, Histoire des journaux publiés à Paris pendant le siège et sous la Commune, 4 septembre 1870 au 28 mai 1871 (Paris: É. Dentu, 1871), 29.
  4.  General Louis-Jules Trochu (1815-1896), President of the Government of National Defence.
  5.  Ernest Picard (1821-1877), Minister of Finance in the Government of National Defence.
  6.  Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), Chief of the Prussian General Staff.
  7.  Following the surrender of a major part of the French army at Metz, on 31 October 1870 angry crowds converged upon the Hôtel de Ville in Paris and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a new, more militant and responsive government. Blanqui briefly served as de factor minister of the interior in this short-lived government. On 17 March 1871, Blanqui was arrested for his participation in the October insurrection.
  8.  A reference to Marshall François Achille Bazaine (1811-1888), who ordered his troops to surrender at Metz on 27 October 1870.