-by Pourochista Rahmati
Even as the final week of the Commune began to unfold, the battle over the Commune’s memory had already begun. These competing histories of pro and anti-Communard forces would become reflected in the material cityscape of Paris. The anti-Communard bourgeoisie played a leading role in the reconstruction of Paris after Bloody Week, working immediately to erase remnants of the Commune from public memory in Paris.1 The harsh censorship of the topic under successive French regimes indicated the lasting influence of the Commune’s opponents in writing the accepted history of the event for the French establishment – only in 2001 did the French government recognize and apologize for the extralegal killings of suspected Communards by government forces.2 Regardless, memorials and monuments to the Commune would be produced soon after its demise. Small scale local commemorations by Communard sympathizers took place in the form of communal banquets that served as recreations of similar banquets organized during the Commune. Still, it would take fifteen years for a memorial site to emerge organically. Monuments to the Commune are material testimonies to these competing histories, protesting the erasure of the Commune from the public eye in Paris and serving to solidify the Commune’s symbolism in modern socialist politics.
Both the Commune’s proponents and opponents interpreted the Commune as a symbolic ‘break’, one that needed an official history.3 For its opponents, it was the definitive end of the French revolutionary tradition.4 The Commune signified moral failure on the part of the French nation and the destruction of Paris a form of divine retribution: a cautionary tale that needed to be erased from collective memory in France in order to preserve national unity.5 For the Commune’s proponents, what initially appeared to be a memory of defeat was transformed into first a memory of martyrdom and a moral indictment of the Third Republic and finally into an international beacon of hope for leftism.6 For socialists like Karl Marx and anarchists like Peter Kropotkin, the Paris Commune was not a symbol of defeat but a utopia ahead of its time.
The Monuments des Fédérés in Pere-Lachaise cemetery was the first and only monument to the Paris Commune until the 1980s. The Mur des Fédérés marks the final resting place of 147 communards lined up against the wall, shot by the French army, and buried in a mass grave at its face.7 Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing throughout the 20th century, ex-Communards and their sympathizers would hold an annual popular funeral procession marching through Paris and ending at the face of the wall.8 Rather than a site of mourning, the Mur des Fédérés became a rallying point for celebration of the Commune’s potential and a protest of the French state’s policy on the Paris Commune. The cemetery was soon transformed into a site of secular pilgrimage for socialists and their sympathizers around the world.9 When it became clear that it had evolved to become a site of memorial and a rallying point for the French left, the wall became a hotly contested public space and the subject of censorship – restrictions were placed on speech in the cemetery or in front of the wall.10
The Mur des Fédérés was the first subject of a century-long battle over public acts and sites of remembrance for the Paris Commune, a controversy that permeated all levels of the French government and produced heated debate.11 It took 26 years for the municipal government of Paris to simply erect a plaque alongside the Mur des Fédérés and to approve the Parisian City Council’s Monument aux Victimes des Revolutions in Pere Lachaise Cemetery – the latter of which was only approved because it did not explicitly refer to the Commune.12 Aside from the Place de La Commune (inaugurated in 2000), and the Square Louise Michele, inaugurated in 2005, opposite the Sacré-Cœur – itself an anti-monument to the Commune – there are no other easily visible traces of the Commune in the cityscape of Paris.13
The various monuments, memorials, and celebrations of the Paris Commune both in Paris and in the reinterpretations and appropriations of the Commune abroad have produced a vibrant commemorative culture with a strong sense of international solidarity and revolutionary unity.14 In the narrative proposed by monuments to the Commune, the Paris Commune was not a defeat of the Left but a model for future revolution. This narrative would be evoked around the world by Communist world leaders and activists, reinterpreted and appropriated for different revolutionary projects from different geopolitical perspectives, but all modeling themselves on the Paris Commune.15 Controversy over these monuments is controversy over the memory of the Commune: the failings of those in power and the ever-present potential for violent revolution.
Monuments are public testimonies to a given historical narrative, symbols that project power through their sheer material size and presence. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, dominating the skyline of Paris from the heights of Montmartre, was partially constructed as an act of national penance for the Commune. For its creators, it signaled a return to the path France had strayed from in 1789 – it is a material expression of this historiography.16 Significantly, the most publicly prominent monument to the Commune is not typically recognized as such and is indeed an act of public protest against its memorial. Thus, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris is not necessarily a monument in the traditional sense: it is an anti-monument to the Paris Commune, a protest against any positive commemoration of the Commune and the revolutionary history of France.
The Basilica was the product of the “Government of Moral Order’s” agenda and the Cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that had long been tied up with French monarchism.17 The monument functions to enshrine the Paris Commune in the national memory, ostensibly for atonement but arguably, as a warning to future revolutionaries and the Parisian public as well. Built on the spot the Commune began and near the cemetery where it met its end, the hilltops of Montmartre were deliberately chosen for this act of repentance due to their history and imposing location.18 Forty years of political controversy – protests, petitions, accusations of it being an “incessant provocation to civil war” – haunted its construction.19 The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a testament to one of the two competing memorializations of the Paris Commune; the counter-narrative of the Versailles government that posits the Commune as an act of violence against the social order, the State, and God. These two fundamentally irreconcilable and deeply political narratives coexist in Paris. The Basilica towers over the historically working class neighbourhood of Montmartre and receives bustling tourist attention, but not without considerable dissent even today.
1. Colette Wilson, 2007, Paris and the Commune 1871-78: The Politics of Forgetting, (Manchester: Manchester University Press): 15.
2. Paige Pendarvis, “A Tale of Two Cemeteries: The Paris Commune, the Haymarket Affair, and the Politics of Memorialization,” Vanderbilt Historical Review 1 (1) (2016): 39
3. Julia Nicholls, 2019, Revolutionary Thought after the Paris Commune, 1871–1885. Vol. 120, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 23.
4. Nicholls, 22.
5. Raymond A. Jones, “Monument as Ex-Voto, Monument as Historiosophy: The Basilica of Sacre-Coeur,” French Historical Studies 18 (2) (1993): 502; Colette E. Wilson, Paris and the Commune 1871-78: the Politics of Forgetting (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007): 25.
6. Ann Rigney, “Remembering Hope: Transnational Activism Beyond the Traumatic,” Memory Studies 11 (3) (2018): 374; Nicholls, 50.
7. Nicholls, 21.
8. Nicholls, 22; Pendarvis, 37.
9. Pendarvis, 40.
10. Nicholls, 22; Pendarvis, 37.
11. Pendarvis, 39.
12. Pendarvis, 38; Wilson, 15.
13. Wilson, 15-16.
14. Nicholls, 57; Rigney, 375.
15. Rigney, 374.
16. Pendarvis, 40; Jones, 483-484, 487, 501.
17. Jones, 484-484; David Harvey, “Monument and Myth,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69 (3) (1979): 365.
18. Harvey, 364-370; Pendarvis, 39.
19. Harvey, 377-379.
Bargain-Villeger, Alban. “The Scarecrow on the Other Side of the Pond: The Paris Commune of 1871 in the Canadian Press.” Journal of Canadian Labour Studies 74, 2014: 179-198. https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/llt/2014-v74-llt04673/1060925ar/
Bargain-Vielleger’s journal article is an analysis of the memorialization of the Paris Commune in Canada: specifically, its relationship to the formation of Canadian identity. Vielleger argues that the press’ demonization of the Commune was central to the national mythology of Confederation, providing a cautionary tale for Canadians during the nation building process. While this work largely focuses on the Paris Commune’s impact in Canada, it is an interesting side story that focuses on how the Commune impacted a nation’s identity from across the ocean.
Coghlan, J. Michelle. Sensational Internationalism : The Paris Commune and the Remapping of American Memory in the Long Nineteenth Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. https://sfu.userservices.exlibrisgroup.com/view/action/uresolver.do?operation=resolveService&package_service_id=11513563270003611&institutionId=3611&customerId=3610.
Coghlan’s book Sensational Internationalism is an account of the Paris Commune as reflected through American memory: literary, visual, performance, and popular culture – including campus culture. The work is both an account of how the Commune has been memorialized in American cultural consciousness by its proponents and its opponents, and Coghlan’s own attempt to cement it in American memory – a testament to its newfound memorialization by the modern American left and the Occupy movement.
Fregosi, Franck. “The “Ascent” of the Communards’ Wall at Pere-Lachaise: a Secular Partisan Pilgrimage.” Translated by Cadenza Academic Translations. Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 155 (3), 2011: 165-189. https://www.cairn-int.info/article-E_ASSR_155_0165–the-ascent-of-the-communards-wall-at-per.htm
Fregosi’s work proposes that the Communards’ Wall at Pere-Lachaise is a site of secular pilgrimage for left-wing activists, a particularly notable development given the tradition of anti-clericalism among the Left – especially in France. Fregosi posits the Communards’ Wall as such to challenge the traditional notion of the pilgrimage as an inherently religious venture to encounter the divine. For Fregosi, this form of civil pilgrimage represents the synthesis of partisan social mobilization and an unconscious quest for the sacred among anti-theists.
McCracken, Scott. “The Commune in Exile: Urban Insurrection and the Production of International Space.” In Nineteenth-Century Radical Traditions. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016: 113-136. https://sfu.userservices.exlibrisgroup.com/view/action/uresolver.do?operation=resolveService&package_service_id=11599776430003611&institutionId=3611&customerId=3610
McCracken’s work is a piece of a larger book on Nineteenth Century Radical Traditions. In this piece, McCracken explores the discourse that exiled Communards abroad participated in and how this formed the international memorialization of the Commune. McCracken argues that the media produced by these exiled Communards contributed to the memorialization of the Commune in two manners: to memorialize the Commune’s martyrs, and to remember the potential of the Commune and the possibility of a future utopian city.