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Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Paris Commune

The spark for the war between Prussia and France was the candidature of Leopold of Hohenzollern to be King of Spain after the deposition of Isabella II. Even though this was withdrawn, there was public anger in France against Germany, and a war party was formed within the government, supported by the Empress Eugénie and the Parisian public. Napoleon III was too ill to resist, and Bismarck was also eager for war. The French were confident of victory, helped by their efficient rifles, but Prussian canons and the military genius of Moltke, who lead the Prussians and their south German allies, resulted in a crushing defeat at Sedan. Napoleon III surrendered to avoid a massacre. Following his abdication, a government of National Defence was formed, presided over by General Trochu.

Mémorial illustré de la guerre de 1870-1871

Mémorial illustré de la guerre de 1870-1871, des deux sièges de Paris, de la Commune et des deux présidences. Paris: Librairie nationale, 1878. p. 521. Shelfmark: 9080.dd.10. Copyright © The British Library Board

The Prussians surrounded and besieged Paris during the terrible winter of 1870-1871, beating off French armies raised in the rest of the country. Parisians suffered starvation, bombardments and disease, and balloons and pigeon post provided the only contact with the outside. British public opinion switched from support of Prussia to sympathy for the French. Paris was surrendered and the Prussians entered the city on March 1 1871. The new government of President Thiers passed legislation demanding rents from Parisians and withdrawing the pay of the National Guards. The government was established at Versailles. It tried to seize the cannon belonging to the city. The insurrection in Paris began in March when the Parisians kept their cannon by force. The Commune was proclaimed on 28 March, with its seat in the Hôtel de Ville, and its symbol the red flag. A civil war was fought between the Commune and the troops of the Versailles government.

B. Boissonnas, Une famille pendant la guerre 1870-1871

B. Boissonnas, Une famille pendant la guerre 1870-1871. Dessins par P. Philippoteaux. Paris: Hetzel, 1877. Shelfmark: 12510.h.2. Copyright © The British Library Board

The Commune was suppressed by government troops during the last week of May 1871, known as the 'Semaine sanglante'. Parisians fought in vain at barricades, and many were shot without trial. The palace of the Tuileries, situated at the eastern end of the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais de Justice, the Finance ministry and police head-quarters were burned down. Parties of British tourists came to view the smoking ruins. 147 Communards were shot in the Père Lachaise cemetery, and hundreds of Communards were buried in a ditch there. Many more were shot after courts-marshal. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Communards were killed, and after a further 35,000 arrests, many were deported to New Caledonia in the Pacific.

As a result of the Treaty of Frankfurt which ended hostilities, most of Alsace and part of Lorraine passed from France to the German Empire, and the French inhabitants could only retain their nationality if they left the area. France also had to pay huge war reparations.

Many works on these events can be identified in Explore the British Library using the title search terms 'guerre 1870', 'franco-prussian war', 'franco-german war', 'siege Paris', and 'commune 1871'. (Search terms are not case-sensitive). Most of this material is in the London collections. Collections of caricatures are held at shelfmarks Cup.648.b.2, Cup.648.b.8, and 14001.g.41. Proclamations of the Commune are at N.Tab.205/3. These events were also reported in the London papers, most notable being The Illustrated London news, for which correspondents sketched and wrote on the spot. Copies are held at St Pancras and in the Newspaper Library. A few issues of newspapers published in Paris during the war and the Commune are also held in the Newspaper Library, including Le moniteur des Gardes nationales, 12-15 oct. 1870, Courrier de la guerre, 5 and 18 sept. 1870, La caricature politique, fév. - mars 1871, Caïn et Abel, 1-3 avril 1871, and Corsaire, 8-16 mai 1871. More information can be traced in the Newspapers catalogue.


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