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Siege and Commune of Paris Collection (ca. 1870-1871)

Find resources in and related to the Siege and Commune of Paris Collection at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections

Significant Dates

19 July 1870: Emperor Napoleon III declares war on Germany (really a coalition of German states, led by Prussia)

31 August 1870: France surrenders to Germany at the Battle of Sedan

4 September 1870: Napoleon III deposed; Third Republic established

19 September 1870: Germans begin their siege of Paris

28 January 1871: Paris surrenders to the Germans; Armistice includes provision for election of French National Assembly (February 1871)

1 March 1871: Settlement with Germany ratified

18 March 1871: Resistance erupts in Paris

26 March 1871: Municipal elections are held and the Revolutionaries are victorious; the Paris Commune is established

21 May 1871: French national troops enter an undefended section of Paris; la semaine sanglante (bloody week) begins

28 May 1871: Commune forces are defeated; French national government takes harsh measures against the revolutionaries


Hotel de ville (City Hall) after 1871 fire

Hôtel de ville (City Hall) after 1871 fire

The Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University Library is home to one of the premier collections of original source materials on the Siege and Commune of Paris (ca. 1870-1871). Included in the collection are photographs, caricatures, newspapers, books, pamphlets and posters. Over 1200 of the Library's photographs and other images from this collection have been digitized, like the one above, and are available on the Library's website.

Though the government of the Paris Commune lasted only a very brief period (March-May 1871), this moment in French history stands out as one of the most significant, and has often been referred to as a model worker's revolution. Prior to this, in order to bolster France's waning power on the European continent, and his own at home, Napoleon III declared war on a coalition of German states led by Prussia, resulting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. France was defeated by the Germans at the Battle of Sedan and Napoleon III was deposed in late 1870, spelling the end for the Second Empire. A new French government of national defense, the Third Republic, was quickly established and an armistice, ratified on 1 March 1871, included a provision for the election of a French National Assembly, which would have the authority to conclude a peace with Germany.

The new French national government was dominated by provincial royalists, however, and with movement of the government to Versailles, republican Parisians feared a return to monarchy. At odds with the Parisians, Adolphe Thiers, executive head of the provisional national government disarmed the National Guard, a citizens' militia organized to assist in the defense of Paris during the 1870 German siege and made up primarily of workers, and another French revolution was born. The revolutionaries dominated municipal elections in March 1871, and organized a communal government, the Commune de Paris (Paris Commune). Commune members included "Jacobins" who followed Revolutionary traditions of 1793, Proudhonists or socialists who supported a nation-wide federation of communal governments, and Blanquistes, socialists who demanded violent action to bring about change.

Following the quick suppression of several communes accross France, the Versailles government attacked the insurgents, known as Fédérés, completely crushing them. 20,000 revolutionaries were killed during a single bloody week known as la semaine sanglante, while only 750 government troops lost their lives. The national government took harsh  repressive measures following their victory, imprisoning and exiling many of the remaining Communards.