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the siege of paris

by Justin Reid

The Franco-Prussian War culminated in the Siege of Paris. As the Prussians advanced in 1870-71, Paris began to undergo a revolution due to various factors, including the failure of the government and the military’s protective role.1 These elements, and the beginning of the siege, led to a drastic change in how Parisians lived within the confines of the city’s walls.

If the spark of revolution required sources of ignition, surely the Siege of Paris and France’s failed conquests against Prussia were enough to incite the revolutionary ideals of the Commune. But how did the Siege of Paris push some Parisians to ultimately embrace the Paris Commune? First, the Siege of Paris worked to isolate Parisians. Residents and officials took to ballooning to escape and send messages out of Paris. Mr. Reitlinger, a diplomat, was given leave to flee by balloon from the National Defence Government.2 The ballooning voyages of Mr. Reitlinger and countless others are evidence of the isolation and dire circumstances the inhabitants of Paris found themselves in. Furthermore, Paris merchants decided to take it upon themselves to exchange goods as it became difficult to trade outside the city walls.3 The new way of trade and self-reliance in a cloistered city was a reminder of how governance could work free from a regime’s interference.

Second, the added worry of food shortages supplied Parisians with more fuel to condemn the government for the situation they found themselves in. This was apparent in the rations that the Americans in Paris had acquired such as canned meat, fruit, and vegetables without the French knowing until later in the siege.4 There was also the increased food prices which included rats for 15 cents, but even they died of hunger after scouring the empty kitchens.5 Class division was also evident in the food shortages as the suburbs in Paris were host to more varieties of cuisine.6

Third, the armistice terms agreed to by the politician Adolph Thiers, and the negotiation to end the war, did nothing to help morale.7 Faith in the government had been brought to an all-time low with the armistice conditions being made public and the city under siege.

Lastly, Paris was the heart of the financial, cultural, and political epicentre of France, and its citizens were wondering to what aim the profits of Paris were directed and if they were beneficial to citizens or not.8 This means of production could give Parisians a way to control their destinies as they moved forward free from the grip of the government’s restraints and pressure. Faced with isolation, thoughts of starvation, crippled morale, and questions about the means of production, some inhabitants embraced the revolutionary ideas of the Paris Commune.

The Paris Commune came to fruition because of the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris. But the revolution owed its inception to the failures of the French government and the demoralizing effect it had on the besieged residents of Paris. It is important to note that there were multiple factors behind the Paris Commune which are not all noted in this overview, but are just as vital.

from the archive

“Les ballons sortis pendant le Siege de Paris” (translation: “The balloons released during the Siege of Paris.”) Library of Congress, published by M.G. Mangin between 1870-1880.9

This image highlights how and why balloon technology was used during the Siege of Paris. It provides information about the names of passengers and departures, including who was flying the balloons, where they landed and took off from.10 The collection of images directly relates to the Siege of Paris and the desperation that Parisians faced in needing to send messages outside of the besieged city. The image also depicts the Siege of Paris above the map of France, highlighting a small battalion with cannons.11 This image of balloons amplifies the importance of the Franco-Prussian war and reaffirms France being on the losing side of the battle. However, balloon technology helped Parisian morale during the siege up until the French government surrendered.12 There was “resentment felt by Parisians, whose city had been surrendered to Prussia by President Thiers, against the outcries of Parisians for self-defence.”13 The French government’s capitulation to the Prussians was one of the reasons that sparked the revolutionary ideology of the Paris Commune.

  1. Michele Martin and Christopher Bodnar, “The Illustrated Press under Siege: Technological Imagination in the Paris Siege, 1870–1871,” Urban History 36, no. 1 (2009): 67.
  2. Frederic Reitlinger, “A Diplomat’s Memoir of 1870: Being the Account of a Balloon Escape from the Siege of Paris and a Political Mission to London and Vienna by,” (London: Chatto & Windus, 1915; Project Gutenberg, 2015),
  3. Rebecca L. Spang, “‘And They Ate the Zoo’: Relating Gastronomic Exoticism in the Siege of Paris.” MLN 107, 4 (1992): 766
  4. Wickham Hoffman, “Camp Court and Siege: A Narrative of Personal Adventure and Observation During Two Wars,” (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1877; Project Gutenberg, 2016)
  5. Hoffman.
  6. Hoffman.
  7. K. Brunner, “Myth and the Paris Commune,” Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, 41/42, (2014/2015): 52.
  8. Martin and Bodnar, 68.
  9. “Le Ballons Sortis Pendant Le Siege De Paris created by, 1870-1871,” Library of Congress (January 01, 1870),
  10. “Le Ballons Sortis Pendant Le Siege De Paris.”
  11. “Le Ballons Sortis Pendant Le Siege De Paris.”
  12. Alistair Horne, “By Balloon From Paris,” History Today, 3, 7 (July 1963): 448.
  13. Emily M. Jones, “The Political Nature of the Paris Commune of 1871 and Manifestations of Marxist Ideology in the Official Publications of the Central Committee,” (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2018)

Further Reading

Gordon, Charles A. “Recollections of Thirty-Nine Years in the Army.” London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., LIMD, 1898; Project Gutenberg, 2014.

This open-access source covers the career of British Soldier Sir Charles A. Gordon, specific chapters relate to the Siege of Paris. This is a thorough narrative of the Franco-Prussian war, starting in September 1869 and ending on March 14th, 1870, just days before the Paris Commune begins. Gordon himself uses balloon technology to get messages out of an isolated city during the Siege of Paris.

 Marion, Fulgence. “Wonderful Balloon Ascents or, the Conquest of the Skies: A History of Balloons and Balloon Voyages.” 1870; Project Gutenberg, 2008.

This open-access source is a historical look at ballooning which began in Paris in 1783 and ended in 1863, a few years before the Siege of Paris.

Yonge, Charlotte M. “Little Lucy’s Wonderful Globe.” 1871; Project Gutenberg, 2003.

This open-access source draws from Charlotte M. Yonge’s literary work. In Chapter XV, Yonge makes up a story in which Lucy has found herself in 1870 Paris during the siege.

One thought on “the siege of paris

  1. Great post! I think one of the things that’s fascinating is just how much people were aware they were living through a historical moment, and went about in recording it through journals and the like (the same sources you are using!). It’s a fascinating tension between trying to carry on with the everyday and coping with the exceptional.


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