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The Thiers Government and the Outbreak of Civil War in France, February–April 1871

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Robert Tombs
St John' College, Cambridge


In the numerous works devoted to the French civil war of 1871, nothing has so much been taken for granted as the motives of the government during the six weeks that separated its taking office on 19 February and the outbreak of fighting on 2 April. Thiers and his colleagues are part of the myth of the Commune, the scribes and pharisees of the revolutionary passion play. They fill the roles well: there are few figures so unprepossessing in the history of nineteenth-century France.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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1 Consequently, there are no recent scholarly biographies, even of so important a figure as Thiers. Malo, Henri, Thiers 1797–1877 (Paris, 1932)Google Scholar, detailed and pro-Thiers, gives no documentary references; Dreyfus, Robert, Monsieur Thiers contre l'empire, la guerre, la commune, 1869–1871 (Paris, 1928)Google Scholar, pedestrian and superficial, and Lucas-Dubreton, J., Aspects de Monsieur Thiers (Paris, 1948)Google Scholar, witty and penetrating, are based on secondary works and a few published sources. Works on other members of the government are even more limited.

2 Serman, W., La Commune (Paris, 1971), p. 5Google Scholar.

3 At the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères (MAE), Archives Diplomatiques, section Papiers d'agents, ‘Papiers Thiers, Traité de Francfort, armée d'occupation 1871–73’ and Papiers Jules Favre, Guerre’, vol. v (16 02–10 03 1871)Google Scholar and vol. VI (11 March–15 June). At the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN), Papiers A. Thiers, Correspondance 1871, 20621–20623. At the Archives Historiques de Guerre (AHG), reports and despatches in Li, ‘Guerre de 1870–71, Armée de Paris’, cartons 118–21.

4 Annales de l'Assemblée Nationale (Paris, 1871), I, 64Google Scholar.

5 Ibid. p. 73; Howard, Michael, The Franco-Prussian War (London, 1967), p. 446Google Scholar; Sorel, Albert, Histoire diplomatique de la Guerre Franco-Allemande (Paris, 1875), II, 276–7Google Scholar.

6 MAE Correspondance politique, Russie, nouvelle série, t. 245, fo. 117.

7 2 March 1871. BN Papiers Thiers, 20621, fo. 70.

8 Broglie to Favre, 14 March, MAE Papiers Favre, VI, fo. 25; Thiers to Favre, 10 March, ibid. v, fo. 334.

9 Thiers to Broglie, 6 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20623, fos. 98–9; Thiers to Favre, 10 March, ibid., fos. 107–8.

10 Lucas-Dubreton, J., Aspects de Monsieur Thiers (Paris, 1948), pp. 325–6Google Scholar.

11 Enquête parlementaire sur l'insurrection du 18 mars, no. 740, Assemblée Nationale, 1871 (Versailles, 1872), II, 63Google Scholar.

12 For the governmental view of these events see Vinoy, Gen. J., Campagne de 1870–1871, l'armistice et la Commune (Paris, 1872)Google Scholar; Simon, Jules, Le Gouvernement de M. Thiers, I (Paris, 1878)Google Scholar; Favre, Jules, Gouvernement de la Défense Nationale, III (Paris, 1875)Google Scholar; Thiers, Adolphe, Notes et souvenirs de M. Thiers 1870–1873 (Paris, 1901)Google Scholar; and statements to Enquête. For the view of the insurgents, Lissagaray, P.-O., Histoire de la Commune de 1871 (Paris, 1972), first published 1876Google Scholar, and Rougerie, Jacques, Paris libre 1871 (Paris, 1971)Google Scholar.

13 Fiaux, Louis, Histoire de la guerre civile de 1871 (Paris, 1879), p. 43Google Scholar.

14 de Paladines, Gen. D'Aurelle to Enquête II, 433Google Scholar.

15 Favre to Thiers, 4 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20622, fos. 8–10 (two dispatches), and 6 March ibid., fo. 13.

16 Favre to Thiers, 4 and 8 March, MAE Papiers Favre, V, fos. 282 and 306.

17 For views of deputies see, for example, de Meaux, Vicomte C., Souvenirs politiques 1871–1877 (Paris, 1905)Google Scholar; de Lacombe, Charles, Journal politique (Paris, 1907)Google Scholar; and de Marcère, M., L'Assemblée Nationale de 1871 (Paris, 1904)Google Scholar. See also the lively though sometimes misleading Brabant, F. H., The beginning of the Third Republic in France (London, 1940)Google Scholar and the amusingly malicious Bosq, Paul, Souvenirs de l' Assemblée Nationale 1871–1875 (Paris, 1908)Google Scholar.

18 Annales, I, 254–69.

19 Ibid. p. 260.

20 See speeches of Parent and Thiers, ibid. pp. 254, 281–3.

21 Ibid. p. 260.

22 See speech by Millière, , 24 03, Annales, II, 91Google Scholar.

23 Lissagaray, , Histoire, p. 104Google Scholar. For attitude of bourgeois National Guard, see, for example, Girard, Louis, La garde national 1814–1871 (Paris, 1964), p. 356Google Scholar.

24 Annales, I, 270–96.

25 Favre to Thiers, 3 March, MAE Papiers Favre, V, fo. 266; 9 March, ibid. fo. 323; to Picard, 4 March, ibid. fo. 277; to Thiers, 8 and 9 March, ibid. fos. 314, 319 and 320.

26 Thiers to Favre, 5 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20623, fos. 93–4.

27 Report of Commission, Annales, I, annexe no. 47, p. 33Google Scholar; Thiers to Favre, 10 March, MAE Papiers Favre, v, fo. 333; speech of Blanc, Louis, 10 03, Annales, I, 271Google Scholar.

28 Ibid. pp. 271–2.

29 De Belcastel, ibid. pp. 276–7.

30 Ibid. p. 278.

31 Le Figaro, 16 March (quoting Le Rappel); Dreyfus, Robert, Monsieur Thiers contre l'Empire, la guerre, la Commune (Paris, 1928), p. 277Google Scholar; Lucas-Dubreton, , Aspects, p. 242Google Scholar.

32 Annales, I, 280–8.

33 Thiers to Favre, 10 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20623, fo. 105.

34 Annales, I, 289–91.

35 Thiers to Favre, 10–11 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20623, fos. 105–9.

36 Favre to Thiers, 3 March, MAE Papiers Favre, v, fo. 267; and 11 March, ibid. VI, fos. 1 and 3.

37 Ibid. fo. 13.

38 Simon, , Gouvernement, I, 200Google Scholar.

39 Thiers to Gen. Susane, AHG Li 90.

40 Sutter-Laumann, , Histoire d'un trente-sous (1870–1871) (Paris, 1891), p. 222Google Scholar; Souvenirs d'un garde national pendant le siège de Paris et sous la Commune, par un volontaire suisse (Neuchâtel, 1871), II, 81Google Scholar.

41 8 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20623, fo. 83.

42 Ferry, to Enquête, II, 64Google Scholar.

43 MS memoir by Eudes, Institut Français d'Histoire Sociale (IFHS), Fonds Eudes, 14 AS 99 bis.

44 Yriarte, Charles, Les Prussiens à Paris et le 18 mars (Paris, 1871), pp. 147–8Google Scholar; Fiaux, , Guerre civile, P. 57Google Scholar.

45 12 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 206223 fo. 34; Yriarte, , Les Prussiens, p. 148Google Scholar.

46 Col. de Mortemart, Baudoin to Enquête, II, 454Google Scholar, IFHS Papiers Eudes, 14 AS 99 bis.

47 See, for example, Vinoy, , Campagne, pp. 208–91Google Scholar; Vinoy, to Enquête, II, 97Google Scholar; reports of Gen. Susbielle, AHG Lu 7.

48 Broglie to Thiers, 11 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 26021, fo. 76; Favre to Thiers, 6 and 9 March, 26022, fos. 13 and 22; de Gabriac to Favre, 21 March, MAE Correspondance politique, Russie 1871, t. 245 (nouvelle série) fo. 121.

49 Thiers, to Enquête, II, 9Google Scholar.

50 Tombs, R. P., ‘The forces of order and the suppression of the Paris insurrection of 1871’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge, 1978), pp. 44–5Google Scholar.

51 BN papiers Thiers, 20622, fo. 8.

52 Enquête, II, 11.

53 Gouvernement, I, 225.

54 Vinoy, and d'Aurelle, to Enquête, II, 97 and 437Google Scholar; Yriarte, , Les Prussiens, p. 218Google Scholar.

55 Simon, , Gouvernement, I, 228Google Scholar; Vinoy, , Campagne, pp. 203–6Google Scholar.

56 Comm. Lunel to GOC, 15 March. Archives de la Seine, D 2R4 238.

57 Ferry, , Vinoy, and d'Aurelle, to Enquête, II, 65, 97–8, 434Google Scholar.

58 Simon, , Gouvermement, I, 242Google Scholar.

59 Vinoy, and Thiers, to Enquête, II, 98 and 11Google Scholar.

60 To Enquête, II, 78.

61 Lucas-Dubreton, , Aspects, p. 399Google Scholar. The phrase was Manzoni's, used to Thiers in 1848.

62 See Vinoy, , Campagne, pp. 211–32Google Scholar; Ferry, to Enquête, II, 6677Google Scholar: Lissagaray, , Histoire, pp. 109–17Google Scholar; Rougerie, Jacques, ‘Notes pour servir à l'histoire du 18 mars 1871’ in Mélanges d'histoire sociale offerts à Jean Maitron (Paris, 1976)Google Scholar; Tombs, , ‘Forces of order’, pp. 5168Google Scholar.

63 Fl⊚, Le to Enquête, II, 7981Google Scholar; Tirard, (mayor of 2nd arrondissement) to Enquête, II, 337Google Scholar; Fiaux, , Guerre civile, p. 99Google Scholar.

64 Schoelcher, and Dubail, to Enquête, II, 329 and 357Google Scholar.

65 Annales, II, 4–15, 20.

66 Ibid. pp. 34–7, 49–50.

67 Tirard, to Enquête, II, 340, 344Google Scholar.

68 APP Ba 364–3.

69 Statements to Enquête, II, by Saisset, pp. 303–8; Schoelcher, p. 327; Lavigne, p. 464; and Thiers to Saisset, 24 March, BN Papiers Thiers, 20623, 112.

70 Statements to Enquête, II, by Tirard, p. 340; Dubail, p. 357; Schoelcher, p. 324; Lissagaray, , Histoire, p. 145Google Scholar.

71 Fiaux, , Guerre civile, p. 134Google Scholar.

72 Journal Officiel of Paris, 25 March.

73 Floquet, and Tirard, to Enquête, II, 292, 342Google Scholar.

74 Annales, II, 34–7, 45; Rougerie, J., Paris libre 1871, pp. 145–6Google Scholar.

75 E.g. Thiers, to Enquête, II, 9, 11Google Scholar; Saisset, ibid. p. 313; Vautrin, ibid. p. 377.

76 Enquête, II, 343.

77 Lord, (T.W. L.) Newton, , Lord Lyons, a record of British diplomacy (London, 1913), I, 380Google Scholar; Washburne, E. B., Recollections of a minister to France (London, 1887), II, 57Google Scholar (quoting diary entry of 28 March 1871).

78 Police reports of Fédéré activity, APP Ba 364–3, passim; military dispatches, 31 March–2 April, AHG Li 118, Li 120, Li 121. See also Gen. de Sesmaisons, C. M. R., Hier et aujourd'hui, les troupes de la Commune et la loi de deux ans (Paris, 1904), p. 7Google Scholar; and Gen. Barail, F. C. Du, Mes souvenirs (Paris, 18941896), III, 261Google Scholar.

79 IFHS 14 AS 99 bis, MS memoir by Eudes and letter from Flourens; APP Ba 364–5, letter from Rossel.

80 Enquête, I, 318–19.

81 Vautrain, to Enquête, II, 377Google Scholar.

82 Letter to F. Domela-Nieuwenhuis, 22 Feb. 1881, quoted in Lichtheim, George, Marxism (London, 1964), p. 121Google Scholar.

83 Thiers to Assembly, 21 March, Annales, II, 36; see articles in Journal Officiel of Paris, 21 March (signed Duval) and 22 March (headed ‘Paris est dans le droit’). For examples of how little these positions changed see Annales, II, 854 (9 May) and 885 (9 May), and Journal Officiel of Paris, 24 May (proclamation of central committee).