How Paris and Notre Dame Endured the Ravages of Socialism

By Joshua Philipp

 

The world watched together on April 15, as the Notre Dame cathedral burned. It all happened very slowly, starting with a spark that seemed easy to extinguish, yet grew until the blaze engulfed the whole roof, until its spire fell.

While the damage wasn’t as devastating as it could have been, and people came together to finance its repairs, that moment when a symbol of Western civilization burned before the world’s eyes is something that many won’t soon forget.

Notre Dame is the heart of Paris. A series of temples and churches was built on its site starting in the 4th century, during the Roman Empire. The cathedral, in its current form, was completed in 1260 after more than 100 years of construction.

It’s a relic of history—a place that has witnessed the development of Western civilization as we know it.

And Notre Dame also is a place that has endured all the fury of the new movements that have looked to wipe out history, religion, and traditional culture, including the French Revolution, various socialist uprisings, and the Paris Commune of 1871, when communism first took power.

The War on Faith

A shift took place in Europe during the French Revolution that began in 1789. People, believing in the new age of “enlightenment,” believed that they could throw out all the things of the old world and that, in the reason of the modern age, men could form something better.

That movement of “reason” launched the Reign of Terror, which saw the guillotine as a new and reasonable way to end the lives of between 18,000 and 40,000 people, after the king and queen were beheaded.

A frenzy took over the hearts of men, driving a desire to not just abandon the past, but to destroy it in spirit and in form. The leaders of the French Revolution set up their new “Cult of Reason,” deemed the first state religion of atheism.

A sketch from 1793 shows the “Goddess of Reason” under the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution. (Public Domain)

Notre Dame was among their targets for destruction. They took 28 stone statues of the Kings of Judah from the cathedral and beheaded them. They dressed farm animals in the clothes of priests and placed prostitutes at the heads of churches to represent the “Goddess of Reason.” The cathedral itself was turned from a place of worship to a place of debauchery.

When Napoleon Bonaparte brought an end to the French Revolution, and banned the atheist Cult of Reason, he brought life to the cathedral again with his coronation in 1804. Yet Notre Dame would witness more terrible things still.

A Specter in Europe

The new age of the “Cult of Reason” soon gave rise to the new ideologies of socialism and communism—terms that were, until Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, used mostly interchangeably.

The idea of destroying tradition in the name of socialist revolution was carried out by François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf, whom Karl Marx called the first revolutionary communist. This outlook was brought into the new ideas of “communism” by Filippo Buonarroti in 1828, which would lead to the League of Outlaws in 1834, which became the League of the Just in 1847. This would later merge with the German Worker’s Club, from which Marx would send his terror onto the world.

France, at the time, was still reeling from the aftermath of the French Revolution when, as Marx put it, the “specter” of communism had begun “haunting Europe.”

The French socialists had launched additional uprisings in 1789, 1830, and 1848 before Napoleon III launched his own movement with a coup d’etat in December 1851, which sought to end the chaos that had enveloped France and seeped through Europe. His law included a ban of organizations such as the Cult of Reason, and restrictions on bodies the socialists were using, including unions and news outlets.

Yet, in 1863, Napoleon III lightened these restrictions, and according to “The Terrible Year: The Paris Commune, 1871” by Alistair Horne, French unions sent their representatives to join the first meeting of the Communist International in 1863, which was being promoted by Marx.

This was followed by Marx’s Second International in 1867, along with his publication of “Das Kapital,” and the staging of a new revolt in Paris by Marx’s followers.

Terror in France

When Napoleon III again lightened restrictions, the socialists took full advantage. Their newspapers began pushing a new slogan that “moderation is death,” according to Horne, “and passions seemed to be mounting towards an explosion comparable to that of 1848.”

And explode these passions did, with the creation of the Paris Commune of 1871. Spurred by Marx’s ideas that united the socialist factions across Europe, groups including the Jacobins and the Blanquists took control of Paris, and launched a new terror that would in just over two months—between March 18 and May 28—kill innocents, desecrate temples, and destroy a large portion of the art and architecture that Paris was known for.

Regarding their persecutions of priests and their destruction of temples, the Commune leaders issued a notice at the church of St. Pierre that stated, “Priests are thieves, and churches are haunts where the masses have been morally assassinated,” according to “The Proletarian Revolt” by G.B. Benham.

What again began as a movement to replace traditions and belief with modernism and atheism, quickly led to the Commune leaders acting out the same terrors they claimed to oppose. And as it became obvious that their hold on power was coming to a rapid end, they acted against Paris with brazen acts of terror.

When Paris Burned

Amid their talk of confiscating all private property in true socialist fashion, they censored all rival newspapers and began arresting anyone suspected of opposing their aims. Then, they moved to destroy what they saw as symbols of the old world.

The destruction started with the tearing down of the 840-foot Vendome Column. Benham notes the Commune’s proclamation, which called the column “a monument of barbarism, a symbol of brute force and false glory.”

The remains of the Vendôme Column, after it was destroyed by Communards led by Gustave Courbet on May 16, 1871, in the Paris Commune. (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953)

Yet the destruction would not end there. On May 23, as government forces moved in to stop them, the Commune leaders would set fire to as much of Paris as they could reach.

Dozens of historic buildings were destroyed by them, with fires spreading along the Rue Saint-Florentin, Rue de Rivoli, Rue de Bac, and Rue de Lille, and burning the famed Tuileries Palace. When they gutted the Tuileries Palace, according to “The Paris Commune 1871” by Robert Tombs, a Commune leader named Bergeret declared: “The last vestiges of royalty have just disappeared. I wish that the same will happen to all the monuments of Paris.”

The ruins of the Tuileries Palace, burned by the communists in the Paris Commune of 1871. (Public Domain)

The Palais de Justice, the Prefecture de Police, the theaters of Châtelet and Porte-Saint-Martin would soon join the Tuileries in ruins. The Church of Saint-Eustache would be damaged, but would survive.

Their destruction also included the torching of the Richelieu library of the Louvre; the Louvre itself would have been lost were it not for the government soldiers who saved it. Among other buildings that would have been lost, but were saved by people who extinguished the flames, were the Palais-Royal and Notre Dame.

The Rue de Rivoli after the fights and the fires of the Paris Commune. (Public Domain)

Remembering the Past

The Commune leaders then destroyed their own headquarters on May 24 with the torching of the historic Hotel de Ville, before their reign of terror was finally brought to a brutal end by incoming forces.

Yet the terror and goals of the movement they began were far from over.

Passersby look at the remains of the Hotel de Ville after communists burned it during the Paris Commune of 1871. (Public Domain)

Marx used the Paris Commune of 1871 to further spread communism, and inspired by the Commune’s destruction, he laid a curse on France in his 1871 pamphlet “The Civil War in France,” saying there could be “neither peace nor truce” between the new factions in France, and “the battle must break out again and again in ever-growing dimensions.”

Communism’s desire to destroy history would continue under all its systems that would follow—including under the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a system, as Marx envisioned, to not only destroy belief, culture, and traditions, but even the memory of such things.

And now, Notre Dame has burned again, in an age when socialism has again enchanted many young people, and when calls are again being heard for the destruction of statues and monuments, using much of the same language as in the 19th century.

Yes, we watched as the flames slowly engulfed the roof of Notre Dame. But we also witnessed how people, moved by this disaster, joined—as mourners for a piece of their heritage that was nearly lost—to sing hymns.

And while Notre Dame again burned, its most important relics, left unharmed by the flames in its past, also survived the flames of today.

 

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