A HISTORY OF THE BARRICADE
By Eric Hazan
Verso. 132 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-78478-125-5
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Towards the end of this book Eric Hazan says that there are various places with a claim to being where the last barricade to fall during the 1871 Commune was located. The favourite one is, perhaps, the rue Ramponeau, where it is said that a single defender held off the troops for some time and then managed to slip away. It’s a romantic image and enhanced by the assertion that he was a good enough marksman to be able to break the staff on which their flag was hoisted.
If this story isn’t true, it ought to be. The barricade represents something special in the history of 19th century Paris, and conjures up ideas of insurrectionary workers fiercely defending their streets against overwhelming numbers of soldiers. And it’s a fact that very often barricades were erected on a local basis in the sense that there may not have been a planned distribution of them. This could lead to problems in terms of communications between defenders and enabling the army to outflank badly placed barricades. The revolutionary August Blanqui was critical of the way in which local often replaced larger considerations: “No point of leadership or overall command, not even consultation between the fighters. Each barricade has its particular group, more or less numerous but always isolated…..Often there is not even a leader to direct the defence.”
It is a fact that, especially in the first part of the 19th century, before Haussmann cleared many small streets, and pushed the broad boulevards through where they had been, the numerous barricades that sprang up (4,000 during the 1830 rising against Charles X, according to Hazan) could make it difficult for troops to function efficiently. They were often trapped between them, felt isolated from other units, and at the same time were fired on from the upper windows of adjoining houses. This may go some way towards explaining why soldiers in such circumstances tended to react savagely when involved in urban warfare. Frustration would be a mild way to describe how they felt. There was a lot of indiscriminate killing of participants, and sometimes innocent bystanders, during the various 19th century insurrections in Paris. We know what happened during and after the final days of the Commune, but it’s probably not as well-known that around 10,000 rebels and others were killed, many of them after surrendering, during the June days in 1848.
Hazan traces the use of barricades back to 1588 and their reappearance half a century later. They weren’t noticeable during the French Revolution, apart from in 1795 when popular discontent about the prices of essential goods led to a quickly-suppressed uprising. The threat and use of artillery could cause a barricade to be abandoned, especially if it was only flimsily constructed. It’s a mistake to assume that all barricades were like those sometimes seen in old photographs, solidly built and high and with depth. Many were simply thrown together with whatever was to hand. A requisitioned cart, material from building sites, domestic items, paving stones if available. They might provide some rudimentary cover for defenders, but a couple of rounds of artillery fire, or a determined charge by trained soldiers, would easily overcome them.
Barricades made their appearance again in 1827 and 1830. It’s from the latter date, when the reign of Charles X came to an end, that Delacroix’s famous painting, Liberty Guiding the People, took its inspiration: “alongside Liberty we see amid the smoke a worker, a student, and a youngster, three types who fought side by side, as all witnesses concur.” A somewhat different version of who the 1830 insurgents were can be found in Jill Harsin’s Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) where it’s said that they were “mostly respectable artisans and skilled workers,” and “There were relatively few students.” But as the title of her book indicates, barricades were of key importance, and Hazan claims that their use was more than defensive: “And the obstacle was used to maximum tactical effect: the army units, immobilised and cut off from one another in the tight network of barricades, were unable to either advance or retreat, hemmed in by an offensive movement in a perimeter that was reduced by the hour until restricted to the Louvre and the Tuileries.”
There were minor outbreaks of violence in Paris in the 1830s, sometimes limited to specific districts of the city. Lyon saw fighting in which barricades played a part. The next full-scale insurrection in Paris occurred in 1848 when a rising tide of discontent led to the overthrow of Louis-Phillipe in February of that year. It was a bourgeois revolution and did little for the working-class in the city. A system of work-creation programmes known as National Workshops were established, but many people saw them as hotbeds of discontent where radicals could preach the gospel of revolution, and a decision was taken to close them. Younger unemployed workers were to be drafted into the army and older ones sent to drain swamps in the provinces. It was clearly an attempt to break up workers’ organisations and the workers naturally resisted and armed themselves.
I mentioned earlier that Hazan gives a figure of 10,000 dead in the ensuing fighting. A fuller account of the events can be found in his The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps (Verso, 2011), and the way in which the authorities dealt with the insurgents was a foretaste of what would happen during and after the Commune in 1871. Summary executions of those involved in the fighting were the order of the day, and those suspected of supporting the rebels in any way were also liable to be shot. One aspect that does need to be mentioned is that among the government forces were units of the Garde Mobile. These had been formed from young, unemployed, working-class men who, when offered a chance to have some money and a uniform, eagerly volunteered. There is a book by Mark Tragoutt called Armies of the Poor (Princeton University Press, 1985) which looks in detail at who joined the Garde Mobile, and shows that they were often from the same districts and even the same streets as those behind the barricades.
The Commune saw the last significant application of the barricade, but as Hazan makes clear, too few of them were constructed in time to be of real use once the Versailles forces had entered Paris. And the ones that were in place were often of inferior quality: “Save four or five in the rue Saint-Honore and the rue de Rivoli, the barricades of May consisted of a few paving-stones hardly a man’s height.” The fact is that, from a military point of view, the Commune was a shambles. There was no real head of the army, and though arms and ammunition were available they were badly maintained and distributed. Individual units did what they wanted to do, and Hazan says that on the Butte Montmartre “eighty- five cannon and about twenty machine-guns were lying there, dirty, pell-mell, and no-one during those eight weeks had even thought of cleaning them.” In the face of such neglect and incompetence the bravery of the people who tried to oppose the soldiers was simply wasted in futile gestures.
I mentioned at the start of this review that the final shots of the Commune (apart from those as captured rebels were executed in their hundreds) were heard on the rue Ramponeau. The image of the lone fighter holding back a unit of the army is a romantic one, and in fact an aura of romanticism hangs over the Commune and the idea of barricades. I’m susceptible to it myself, and I’ve more than once stood before the Mur des Fédérés in Père Lachaise Cemetery and paid a quiet homage to the long-dead insurrectionists. Give flowers to the rebels failed. But it’s foolish to deny how and why the Commune came to an end in the way that it did.
Eric Hazan has written a short, but informative book about barricades and their practical and symbolic uses. He makes some brief references to the way in which barricades were used in the risings across Europe in 1848 – Budapest, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Milan, all saw them erected. They cropped up again in Petrograd in 1917, Berlin in 1919, Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and in 1944 in Paris when resistance fighters rose against the Germans. But these were isolated incidents and cannot be taken as typical. And Hazan notes that when, during the 1968 events in Paris, a barricade was erected it was purely a symbolic gesture that the historically minded used to indicate that they were aware of their links to earlier street fighters. With the kinds of technology now available to the police and the military it would be useless to try to make the building of barricades anything more than a temporary measure to hold up their advance. But Hazan thinks that other forms of obstruction can be found to stifle “the power of the state.”