Very Short Reviews: John Merriman’s _Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune_

Merriman Massacre

Today, One Thing after Another is instituting a new, recurring feature: Very Short Reviews. Inspired by the Oxford University Press series, Very Short Introductions, these posts will review books in ten sentences, each of which we will number so that you can see that they indeed amount to ten sentences. Usually, One Thing after Another does not identify authors unless they are from outside of the department. In this case we will make an exception. We hope you will enjoy this feature–and maybe read some of these books.

John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

  1. John Merriman’s book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, views the Paris Commune from a Communard perspective and deals primarily with its suppression.
  2. This perspective is a bit problematic because since it does not devote equal attention to the thoughts and doings of the French government in Versailles, it makes that government’s actions appear inscrutable, unfathomable, and generally unsympathetic.
  3. Merriman clearly sympathizes with the Communards because they represented working-class Parisians who were badly oppressed.
  4. Merriman could have augmented the readers’ sympathy for the Commune if he had spent more time discussing its objectives and the various reforms it intended.
  5. It is sometimes hard to like a Commune leadership that was long on talk, short on action, and badly organized; Merriman is a bit easy on this leadership—he is certainly indulgent of people like Raoul Rigault, the Commune’s prefect of police.
  6. Rank-and-file Communards also liked to talk a lot, but when push came to shove, the numbers who were willing to risk their skins seemed to dissipate rather quickly (although those who did fight were certainly courageous enough).
  7. Merriman is not a military historian, so his account of military affairs (e.g. the Franco-Prussian War that preceded the Commune and the suppression of the Commune itself) is a little vague at times.
  8. Unfortunately for the Parisian proletariat, when the Versailles government reconquered Paris, it was rather indiscriminate in determining who had served the Commune—it shot large numbers of working-class people on the slightest pretext (perhaps 17,000 according to Merriman, although historians disagree on the figures).
  9. Mass executions of Communards, Merriman argues, foreshadowed the political massacres associated with the 20th century.
  10. Merriman is very good at capturing the mood of Communard Paris from a variety of perspectives, and his recounting of the massacres that followed the government’s victory is chilling.

Hugh Dubrulle


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