CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1What Victor Hugo memorably called ‘l’Année terrible’ [The Terrible Year or The Year of Horrors], from August 1870 to July 1871, was marked above all in the imagination of the Western world by the two dramatic sieges of Paris. The first was by the German army, from September 1870 to January 1871, to force the surrender of the French Government of National Defence, and then by the French army during April and May 1871, to crush the popular insurrection known as the Paris Commune.

2Recent history had witnessed other sieges, a feature of conventional war throughout the ages. Only a few years before, there had been the siege of Vicksburg (1863), during the American Civil War; the siege of Delhi (1857), during the Indian Mutiny; and the siege of Sebastopol (1854–1855), during the Crimean War. Some of Europe’s historic cities had suffered sieges; for example, Venice and Rome in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, and Warsaw in 1831. The ‘Année terrible’ also saw major sieges of Strasbourg and Belfort.

3Nevertheless, the two sieges of Paris were traumatic and sensational as no others had been. First, because it was Paris: one of Europe’s most populous cities, its leading cultural centre, the main focus of international tourism, and the historic capital of one of its most powerful states. To many observers, it was scandalous that such a city should be the target of military attack, which threatened cultural treasures of world significance as well as the lives of a large civilian population. Yet Paris was also the world’s largest fortress, with ramparts, outlying forts, a flotilla of gunboats, and armoured trains. From a military point of view, these two sieges were on the grandest scale.

4Second, because of what many contemporary observers thought was the incongruity between a city seen as the epitome of fashion, luxury, and pleasure, and the stark violence of war and starvation. The whole city was fortified and barricaded. Elegant ladies were recruited as nurses. Artists and intellectuals served on the ramparts and in the trenches. World famous restaurants served horsemeat and rats. And then, in May 1871, the city’s most famous sites saw a pitched battle between two armies.

5Third, because of the extreme extent, by 19th-century standards, of civilian suffering, death, and destruction that was caused. During the German siege, the population went hungry, caught epidemic diseases, suffered from cold, and faced severe artillery bombardment. During the siege of the Commune, and especially during its final ‘bloody week’, the city again suffered artillery fire, brutal combats in its streets, widespread destruction of some of its greatest monuments, summary executions, and mass arrests.

6An immediate consequence of these violent events was the disruption of the Parisian economy, the core of France’s manufacturing and export trades, and a major loss of population.

7If these events have been chronicled, often in a very dramatic way, little attempt has been made to look at the long-term socio-economic consequences, which is why this demographic study is original and welcome. In the 1870s, there were attempts to calculate rates of death and disease, and to quantify population loss. But few researchers over the last 150 years have looked further, and none has used sophisticated research methods such as in this article.

8This approach, while interesting for specialist demographers as an exploration of methods applicable to historic cases, is also valuable to all those interested in this subject. For example, it gives the possibility of assessing the broad effects of the much-criticized food policy of the Government of National Defence and the municipal authorities in the 20 arrondissements during the German siege. The government decided not to impose general food rationing, which meant that rationing by price created severe inequalities. But the arrondissements did set up cantines municipales, which provided a subsistence diet to increasing numbers of people, especially in the poorer districts. Basic foodstuffs—most importantly, bread and horsemeat—did mean that starvation was kept at bay, but as this study finds, there was a measurable impact on the youngest children’s survival, growth, and life expectancy.

9The Commune, on the other hand, suffered no food shortages, and the distribution of money and food to families of the National Guard seems to have meant that there was no general effect on health and growth, even though families and the economy were severely disrupted by the effects of the civil war, increased deaths, and mass arrests, which easily explains the sharp fall in fertility.

10Yet the Parisian economy was resilient enough to recover quite quickly, it seems from the demographic evidence; and this confirms the impression of many contemporaries that despite the trauma of the civil war and the suffering it caused, the city soon seemed fairly normal again.

Robert Tombs
St John’s College, Cambridge
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 06/07/2021
Distribution électronique pour I.N.E.D © I.N.E.D. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait