Saturday, May 23, 2020

Guest Post: May 22, 1871 - Coalition Forces capture Paris

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

"In the presence of the enemy, who will soon be outside Paris, we have just one thing to do; to retire from here with dignity" ~ Adolphe Thiers

In 1871, the surrender at Sedan was ordered by Emperor Napoleon III out of the need to save French lives. But unfortunately, the slaughter of his former subjects would continue long after the collapse of the Second Empire.

The main reason for this continuation tragedy was that the Prussian demand for the province of Alsace was politically unacceptable. This dispute undermined President-designate Adolphe Thiers' authority at a crucial time when he was seeking to form the Third Republic. Having defeated the Danes, Austrians and now the French, the rise of the German Empire was unstoppable but the acquisition of French territory was a step too far, it was intolerable. For the sake of France, Thiers was prepared to accept the loss of Alsace and even to make the Prussians the large payment demanded by Otto von Bismarck. This wasn't a deliberate choice, it was a dirty compromise, the indirect result of the unhelpful disengaged position of the British Government and also the fact that the victorious Prussian Army was camped outside of Paris while Bismarck awaited his Danegeld. However, in Paris the Communards considered themselves undefeated and swore to fight on. It was readily apparent to many that the Iron Chancellor's insistence had caused a national humiliation that fueled the flames of a terrible Civil War. This realization was made even though Parisians could not even agree on who was to blame - Napoleon III, Bismarck or Thiers. The truth was all three and British Prime Minister William Gladstone had his own share of responsibility in the tragedy that would follow.

The previous century had been an extended period of political tumult for France. Monarchist deputies wanted the return of Orléanist rule. Revolutionaries in Paris wanted to establish what Fredrich Engels would describe as a "dictatorship of the proletariat". The country was simply too divided to confront this new crisis. The ageing French statesman and historian Thiers was a veteran of the February Revolution of 1848 that had pitted Orléanists, Bonapartists, Republicans and radical Revolutionaries against each other in a microcosm of a century of struggle. Using the unique perspectives he had developed from this experience, Thiers had hoped to gain the support necessary to lift the Siege of Paris through negotiation. But he failed because Gladstone insisted upon British Neutrality. He fled and the government of National Defense was seated in Bordeaux. But meanwhile, Communards seized power in Paris and other big French cities such as Lyon and Marseilles. When the Paris Commune found common cause with the Versailles Troops, it was clear that the Third French Republic would fail.

The only military power that could subdue the Communards was the Prussian Army; however, the capture of Paris would be risky, dangerous and counter-productive. In the interests of French unity, Gladstone agreed to provide British regiments to serve in a Coalition Force that could re-establish the authority of the French government without directly intervening in the war itself. These Coalition Forces of the Third Republic, Prussia and Great Britain captured the members of the Committee of the Public Safety who was running the Paris Commune from the Hôtel de Ville.

The fall of Paris and the presence of British Foreign Minister Lord Glanville at the declaration of the German Empire were historic moments. Great Britain had been present at the formation of the Second German Reich and their alliance would be the cornerstone of European security over the course of the next century.

Author's Notes:

In reality, the Paris Commune was suppressed during "The Bloody Week" by the regular French Army.

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