The Paris Commune: Louise Michel

Anarchy is not a new idea; writers long before Saint-Just believed that a person who makes himself a leader commits a crime.

Louise Michel

It is not possible to read Louise Michel’s memoires without being swept away by the passion with which she wrote them. The years that separate her words and the events of the Commune from us seem to vanish, as she herself said of her own act of writing years after the revolution.

In my mind I feel the soft darkness of a spring night. It is May 1871, and I see the red reflection of flames. It is Paris afire. That fire is a dawn, and I see it still as I sit here writing. Memory crowds in on me, and I keep forgetting that I am writing my memoirs.

If revolutions live on in the embers of futures yet to come, because there present is lived outside time, it is because, we believe, they are moments of poetic-ethical intensity. Louise Michel lived this and expressed it as perhaps few others have.

Some people say I’m brave. Not really. There is no heroism; people are simply entranced by events. What happens is that in the face of danger my perceptions are submerged in my artistic sense, which is seized and charmed. Tableaux of the dangers overwhelm my thoughts, and the horrors of the struggle become poetry.

It wasn’t bravery when, charmed by the sight, I looked at the dismantled fort of Issy, all white against the shadows, and watched my comrades filing out in night sallies, moving away over the little slopes of Clamart or toward the Hautes Bruyeres, with the red teeth of chattering machine guns showing on the horizon against the night sky. It was beautiful, that’s all. Barbarian that I am, I love cannon, the smell of powder, machine-gun bullets in the air.

I am not the only person caught up by situations from which the poetry of the unknown emerges. I remember a student who didn’t agree with our ideas (although he agreed even less with the other side’s), who came to shoot with us at Clamart and at the Moulin de Pierre. He had a volume of Baudelaire in his pocket, and we read a few pages with great pleasure—when we had time to read. What fate held for him I don’t know, but we tested our luck together. It was interesting. We drank some coffee in the teeth of death, choosing the same spot where three of our people, one after another, had been killed. Our comrades, anxious about seeing us there at what seemed to be a deadly place, made us withdraw. Just after we left a shell fell, breaking the empty cups. Above all else, our action was simply one of a poet’s nature, not bravery on either his part or mine.

What could remain of a life, of her life, after the Commune, except to testify to it, for all to see.

The Commune, surrounded from every direction, had only death on its horizon. It could only be brave, and it was. And in dying it opened wide the door to the future. That was its destiny.

What follows are selections from Louise Michel’s, The Memoires (1886), focusing upon the Paris Commune and closing with her “final thoughts”.

Chapter 8. The Siege of Paris

Despite overwhelming support given Napoleon III in a plebiscite held in May 1870, the emperor was coming under increasing political pressure, and his government tried to win public support through an adventurous foreign policy. Conflict with Prussia over the nomination of a German princeling to the empty throne of Spain led the French government to decide for war against Germany on 14 July 1870. Two weeks later Napoleon left Paris to join the French military forces. The Germans defeated the French army decisively at Sedan on 1 September 1870, and captured the emperor.

Crowds in Paris began to demonstrate two days later, and on September 4, amidst severe disorder, the Paris mob proclaimed the Republic. A Government of National Defense headed by Napoleon’s military governor of Paris, General Trochu, took power in the name of the Republic. Two weeks later German forces surrounded Paris.

During the terrible year of the war and the Siege, when I saw our people die while they were so full of life, I suddenly recalled an impression from my childhood. I saw an oak standing tall and solid with its shadow falling over the long grass full of white daisies and buttercups. It was the oak of my legend, and it had an axe embedded in its heart; in its trunk was a wide gash, and the iron of the axe was damp with sap. These impressions come back like dead leaves driven by the wind.

Paris was quivering from the Empire’s crimes. In spite of the blandishments of the imperial gang, we true republicans were not eager for the war with Prussia. To befuddle the people, the Bonapartists had torn the wings off the Marseillaise, and when we cheered for the Republic in August, Paris should have risen in remembrance of its proud and heroic tradition. The city should have cleansed itself by bathing in the blood of the Empire. Instead, revolutionary Paris stood silent. I can still see the city amid a quiet haze: Every shutter was closed, leaving the boulevard La Villette deserted. Around the carriage in which Eudes and Brideau were prisoners, people cried out: “Attack the Prussians!”

After September 4 there was too little change, for the people didn’t insist on it. Some wanted to undertake desperate sorties to drive back the Prussians, but they were forbidden to try. Even after the encirclement of Paris, people waited for an army to liberate the city, for they claimed that a city had never raised a siege without outside help. That something has never happened before certainly does not mean it is impossible.

When several of our friends were condemned to death for having tried to proclaim the Republic in August before Bonaparte was overthrown, Andre Leo, Adele Esquiros, and I were appointed to carry to General Trochu a protest against their sentences signed by thousands of people. Some people had signed that protest from momentary indignation and then had become timid, and wanted their names taken off the lists because of second thoughts. Our friends’ lives were at stake, and I certainly did not want to erase a single name.

To get our protest to General Trochu was not easy. It took all my feminine stubbornness to get into his office. By almost a direct assault, we got to some kind of antechamber. The people there wanted us to leave before we had seen the governor of Paris.

“We come on behalf of the people,” we said, and the words sounded ominous to them in those surroundings. There was only one red sash of the Revolution being worn at the Hôtel de Ville, and that was worn by Henri Rochefort. And yet the Parisians were saying to themselves, “The people are now ruling.” We were invited to leave Trochu’s office, but we went over and sat on a bench against the wall, declaring that we should not leave without an answer.

Tired of seeing us wait, a secretary went to look for some personage who was said to represent Trochu. That person came over to us, and when we decided it was impossible to see the general personally, we presented our protest to this aide. He weighed the voluminous petition covered with thousands of signatures (which seemed to upset him) in his hand, and he declared that the petition would be taken under consideration because of the number of signatures. That promise would have meant little if the Empire hadn’t been collapsing. Rotten as the Empire was, the hammer blow of Sedan killed it.

Shortly after the encirclement of Paris, I was arrested for the first time. Because the city of Strasbourg was in great danger from the Prussian armies, Mme André Léo and I had rounded up a large number of volunteers, determined to make one last great effort or die with Strasbourg. We were crossing Paris in long columns, crying out, “To Strasbourg, to Strasbourg.” We were going to sign our names in the register placed on the lap of the statue of Our Lady of Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde, and from there go to the Hôtel de Ville and demand arms. There we were arrested, Mme Léo, me, and a poor, little old woman who had been crossing the square to get some kerosene while the demonstration was going on. She kept clutching her oil can while she was being accused of intending to commit arson. We testified in her behalf, but the most eloquent witness for her innocence was the way she continued to grip her can, and the authorities let her go. As she left, her oil can dribbled oil on her dress because her hands were trembling so badly.

A fat old jackass came in later, egged on by his curiosity. I tried to tell him what was going on. “What does Strasbourg matter to you?” this insensitive, bedecked functionary asked. “Do you think that Strasbourg will perish simply because you aren’t there?”

Finally a member of the Provisional Government got us released, but at that very moment, September 27, Strasbourg surrendered to the Prussians.

In Montmartre, in the Eighteenth Arrondissement, we organized the Montmartre Vigilance Committee. Few of its members still survive, but during the Siege the committee made the reactionaries tremble. Every evening, we would burst out onto the streets from our headquarters at 41, chaussee Clignancourt, sometimes simply to talk up the Revolution, because the time for duplicity had passed. We knew how little the reactionary regime, in its death throes, valued its promises and the lives of its citizens, and the people had to be warned.

Actually there were two vigilance committees in Montmartre, the men’s and the women’s. Although I presided over the women’s committee, I was always at the men’s, because its members included some Russian revolutionaries. I still have an old map of Paris that hung on the wall of our meeting room; I carried it back and forth across the ocean with me as a souvenir. With ink we had blotted out the Empire’s coat of arms, which desecrated it and which would have dirtied our headquarters.

The members of the men’s Montmartre Vigilance Committee were remarkable persons. Never have I seen minds so direct, so unpretentious, and so elevated. Never have I seen individuals so clearheaded. I don’t know how this group managed to do it. There were no weaknesses. Something good and strong supported people.

The women were courageous also, and among them, too, there were some remarkable minds. I belonged to both committees, and the leanings of the two groups were the same. Sometime in the future the women’s committee should have its own history told. Or perhaps the two should be mingled, because people didn’t worry about which sex they were before they did their duty. That stupid question was settled.

In the evenings I often was able to be at meetings of both groups, since the women’s, which met at the office of the Justice of the Peace on the rue de la Chapelle, began an hour earlier than the men’s. Thus after the women’s meeting was over I could go to the last half of the men’s meeting, and sometimes other women and I could go to the entire men’s meeting.

The Montmartre Vigilance Committees left no one without shelter and no one without food. Anyone could eat at the meeting halls, although as the Siege continued and food supplies became shorter, it might only be one herring divided between five or six people. For people who were really in need we didn’t hesitate to dip into our resources or to use revolutionary requisitioning. The Eighteenth Arrondissement was the terror of profiteers. When the reactionaries heard the phrase, “Montmartre is going to come down on you,” they hid in their holes; we chased them down anyway, and like hunted beasts they fled, leaving behind the hiding places where provisions were rotting while Paris starved.

Ultimately the Montmartre Vigilance Committees were mowed down, like all revolutionary groups. The rare members still alive know how proud we were there and how fervently we flew the flag of the Revolution. Little did it matter to those who were there whether they were beaten to the ground unnoticed in battle or died alone in the sunlight. It makes no difference how the millstone moves so long as the bread is made.

Everything was beginning, or rather, beginning again, after the long lethargy of the Empire. The first organization of the Rights of Women had begun to meet on the rue Thevenot with Mmes Jules Simon, André Léo, and Maria Deraismes. At the meetings of the Rights of Women group, and at other meetings, the most advanced men applauded the idea of equality. I noticed—I had seen it before, and I saw it later—that men, their declarations notwithstanding, although they appeared to help us, were always content with just the appearance. This was the result of custom and the force of old prejudices, and it convinced me that we women must simply take our place without begging for it. The issue of political rights is dead. Equal education, equal trades, so that prostitution would not be the only lucrative profession open to a woman—that is what was real in our program. The Russian revolutionaries are right; evolution is ended and now revolution is necessary or the butterfly will die in its cocoon.

Heroic women were found in all social positions. At the professional school of Mme Poulin, women of all social levels organized the Society for the Victims of the War. They would have preferred to die rather than surrender, and dispensed their efforts the best way they could, while demanding ceaselessly that Paris continue to resist the Prussian siege.

Although I knew some of them well, I don’t know who is still living, but during the Siege no one failed. They didn’t become like those harpies the following May who dug out the eyes of our fallen comrades with the tips of their parasols.

Later, when I was a prisoner, the first visitor I had was Mme Meurice from the Society for the Victims of the War. At my last trial, behind the hand-picked spectators, among those who had to wedge themselves in, were two other former members of the Society, the large woman, Jeanne B-and the petite Mme F-.

I salute all those brave women of the vanguard who were drawn from group to group: the Committee of Vigilance, the Society for the Victims of the War, and later the League of Women. The old world ought to fear the day when those women finally decide they have had enough. Those women will not slack off. Strength finds refuge in them. Beware of them! Beware of those who, like Paule Minck, go across Europe waving the flag of liberty, and beware of the most peaceful daughter of Gaul now asleep in the deep resignation of the fields. Beware of the women when they are sickened by all that is around them and rise up against the old world. On that day the new world will begin.

The Prussian siege continued; the days became dark and the trees lost their leaves. Hunger and cold reached more deeply into the houses of Paris.

On October 31, at the Hôtel de Ville the people proclaimed the Commune. The Committees of Vigilance from all over Paris organized the demonstration, and the people no longer cried out “Long live the Republic”; they cried out “Long live the Commune!” The Government of National Defense promised to hold meetings and elections and promised to take no reprisals against these demonstrators. It broke both promises. The word Commune was hushed up as effectively as some conjurer’s trick, but experiences like that are necessary, for they let you see who the real enemy is. If we are implacable in the coming fight, who is to blame?

Another month went by and conditions became increasingly bad. The National Guard [best described as a half-trained Parisian popular militia] could have saved the city, but the Government of National Defense feared supporting the armed force of the people.

Early in December I was arrested a second time. That second arrest came when several women who had more courage than clairvoyance wanted to propose some unknown means of defense to the government. Their zeal was so great that they came to the Women’s Vigilance Committee in Montmartre, using the name of a woman and of a group whom they had neglected to receive permission from, but if they had come to us with no recommendation at all to introduce them, it would not have mattered. We agreed to join them the next day in a demonstration in front of the Hôtel de Ville, but we made one reservation. We told them we would go as women to share their danger; we would not go as citizens because we no longer recognized the Government of National Defense. It had proved itself incapable even of letting Paris defend itself.

The next day we went to the rendezvous at the Hôtel de Ville, and we expected what happened: I was arrested for having organized the demonstration. I answered their charges by saying that I couldn’t have organized any demonstration to speak to the government, because I no longer recognized that government. I added that when I came on my own behalf to the Hôtel de Ville, it would be with an armed uprising behind me. That explanation appeared unsatisfactory to them, and they locked me up.

The next day four citizens—Théophile Ferre, Avronsart, Christ, and Burlot—came to claim me “in the name of the Eighteenth Arrondissement.” At this declaration, the reactionaries became frightened. “Montmartre is going to descend on us,” they whispered to each other, and they released me.

Mme Meurice also came to claim me in the name of the Society for the Victims of the War, but she arrived after I had already left the prefecture.

It wasn’t until January 19, when the struggle was almost over, that the Government of National Defense finally agreed to let the National Guard effect a sortie to try to retake Montretout and Buzenval. At first the National Guard swept the Prussians before them, but the mud defeated the brave sons of the people. They sank into the wet earth up to their ankles, and unable to get their artillery up on the hills, they had to retreat.

Hundreds stayed behind, lying quietly in death; these men of the National Guard—men of the people, artists, young persons—died with no regrets for their lost lives. The earth drank the blood of this first Parisian carnage; soon it would drink more.

Paris still did not wish to surrender to the Prussians. On January 22, the people gathered in front of the Hôtel de Ville, where General Chaudey, who commanded the soldiers, now had his headquarters. The people sensed that the members of the government were lying when they declared they were not thinking of surrendering.

We prepared a peaceful demonstration, with Razoua commanding our battalions from Montmartre. Because our friends who were armed were determined for the demonstration to be peaceful, they withdrew with their weapons, even though peaceful demonstrations are always crushed.

When only a disarmed multitude remained, soldiers in the buildings around the square opened fire on us. No shot was fired by the people before the Breton Mobiles fired their volleys. We could see the pale faces of the Bretons behind the windows, as a noise like hail sounded in our ears. Yes, you fired on us, you untamed Celts, but at least it was your faith that made you fanatics for the Counterrevolution. You weren’t bought by the reactionaries. You killed us, but you believed you were doing your duty, and some day we will convert you to our ideals of liberty. You will bring to liberty the same fierce convictions you now are bringing to the reaction, and with us you will assault the old world.

The Breton Mobiles fired first; the people around the square of the Tour Saint Jacques became indignant as the bullets began to rain down on them, and they began to throw up barricades. Malézieux, his cloak riddled with bullet holes, took over as our leader. He was an old man now, a hero of June 1848. He remembered bygone days and bravely took command of the situation as if he had been draped in his June flag.

I stood in the middle of the square lost in thought. I looked at the accursed windows from which the Bretons continued to fire on us and thought, “One day you will be on our side, you brigands.”

The bullets continued to make their hail-like noise. The square became deserted while the projectiles coming from the Hôtel de Ville dug into the ground haphazardly or killed people here and there.

Near me, a woman of my build, who was dressed in black and who resembled me, was struck down by a bullet. A young man who had come with her was also killed. We never found out who they were, but the young man had the intrepid profile of the Midi.

Gradually the square emptied. Many people did not want it to end like that, but we decided that this was not the time to attempt to overthrow the government.

On this January 22, Sapia was killed along with many others. P- of the Blanqui Group had his arm broken. Passersby were killed like our own people, and over the fallen we swore an oath of vengeance and liberty. As a token of defiance, I took off my red scarf and threw it on a grave. A comrade picked it up and knotted it in the branches of a willow.

Six days after that January 22, the people having been raked by machine-gun fire and then raked with assurances that the government did not intend to surrender, the government surrendered to the Prussians. This time the shudder of anger that went through Paris did not abate; it prepared Paris for the coming months.

Chapter 9. The Commune of Paris

After Paris surrendered to the Prussians in January 1871, the other French forces agreed to an armistice, during which the Prussians allowed the French to elect a national government, there being some doubt whether the self-proclaimed Parisian government could speak for France as a whole. Expected to decide on the terms of the peace, that new government met first at Bordeaux and then moved to Versailles, just outside Paris. Monarchists dominated the new Versailles government, and until the divisions between those who supported rival pretenders to the throne became evident, it seemed likely that the Versailles government would reestablish a monarchy in which the dreams of republicans and revolutionaries would dissolve.

On January [.sic; February] 22, the Committees of Vigilance were closed down, and newspaper publication was suspended. The Versailles reactionaries decided they had to disarm Paris. Napoleon III was still alive, and with Montmartre disarmed, the entrance of a sovereign, either Bonaparte or an Orleanist, would have favored the army, which was either an accomplice of the reactionaries or was allowing itself to be deceived. With Montmartre disarmed, the Prussian army, which was sitting in the surrendered forts around Paris while the armistice continued, would have been protected.

The cannon paid for by the National Guard had been left on some vacant land in the middle of the zone abandoned by the Prussians. Paris objected to that, and the cannon were taken to the Parc Wagram. The idea was in the air that each battalion should recapture its own cannon. A battalion of the National Guard from the Sixth Arrondissement gave us our impetus. With the flag in front, men and women and children hauled the cannon by hand down the boulevards, and although the cannon were loaded, no accidents occurred. Montmartre, like Belleville and Batignolles, had its own cannon. Those that had been placed in the Place des Vosges were moved to the faubourg Saint Antoine. Some sailors proposed our recapturing the Prussian-occupied forts around the city by boarding them like ships, and this idea intoxicated us.

Then before dawn on March 18 the Versailles reactionaries sent in troops to seize the cannon now held by the National Guard. One of the points they moved toward was the Butte of Montmartre, where our cannon had been taken. The soldiers of the reactionaries captured our artillery by surprise, but they were unable to haul them away as they had intended, because they had neglected to bring horses with them.

Learning that the Versailles soldiers were trying to seize the cannon, men and women of Montmartre swarmed up the Butte in a surprise maneuver. Those people who were climbing believed they would die, but they were prepared to pay the price.

The Butte of Montmartre was bathed in the first light of day, through which things were glimpsed as if they were hidden behind a thin veil of water. Gradually the crowd increased. The other districts of Paris, hearing of the events taking place on the Butte of Montmartre, came to our assistance.

The women of Paris covered the cannon with their bodies. When their officers ordered the soldiers to fire, the men refused. The same army that would be used to crush Paris two months later decided now that it did not want to be an accomplice of the reaction. They gave up their attempt to seize the cannon from the National Guard. They understood that the people were defending the Republic by defending the arms that the royalists and imperialists would have turned on Paris in agreement with the Prussians. When we had won our victory, I looked around and noticed my poor mother, who had followed me to the Butte of Montmartre, believing that I was going to die.

On this day, the eighteenth of March, the people wakened. If they had not, it would have been the triumph of some king; instead it was a triumph of the people. The eighteenth of March could have belonged to the allies of kings, or to foreigners, or to the people. It was the people’s.

The people arrested General Lecomte, who commanded the soldiers that had moved against Montmartre, as well as General Clement Thomas, whose curiosity had led him to watch what he thought would be the degradation of Paris. Their very acts had convicted both of them a long time before. Clement Thomas’s crimes extended as far back as the June Days of 1848, and he had reminded the people of his earlier actions when he insulted the National Guard. Lecomte, like Clement Thomas, owed an old debt he had to pay. His soldiers remembered, and vengeance came out of the past. The hour struck for them.

It will strike for many others, without the Revolution pausing in its course. The old world takes note of the reactionaries who die because of popular reprisals. It does not count our side’s losses; it is not able to, because the sons of the people who fall are only stubble under sickles, only grass mowed in the summer sun.

Several of our side perished. Turpin, who was wounded near me on the eighteenth in the predawn attack on 6, rue des Rosiers, died at Lariboisiere several days later. He told me to commend his wife to Georges Clemenceau, the mayor of the Eighteenth Arrondissement, and I carried out his dying wish.

I have never heard Clemenceau’s testimony at the inquiry into the events of March 18; we weren’t able to read newspapers when he gave his evidence. Clemenceau’s indecisiveness, for which people reproach him, comes from the illusion he holds that he should wait for parliamentarianism to bring progress. But parliamentarianism is dead, and Clemenceau’s illusion is some kind of infection he caught from the Bordeaux Assembly. When that assembly became the Versailles government, he fled from it. Properly, his place is in the streets, and when his anger is finally roused, he will go there. That is what remains of his revolutionary temperament. His indignation at some infamy will bring him out of his illusions, as he came out of the Bordeaux Assembly.

Wouldn’t it be better for the last parliamentarians who remain honest to follow the example of the great Jacobin, Delescluze? The attempt to work through parliaments has been going on for a long while, but parliaments, standing as they do in the midst of rottenness, can no longer produce anything worthwhile.

In the provinces people believed the stories Versailles spread about the Commune. After all, statecraft requires a government to create discord among the common people. The bosses give the common people enough to allow them to work, but too little to revolt. And between each periodic pruning they grow back as numerous and as strong as Gallic oaks. At any rate, some of our most committed supporters went from Paris to the provinces to explain the situation. Among those who went were women like Paule Minck. They worked as hard as they could. If the provinces had only understood the true situation, they would have sided with us, but they listened to the lies of the Versailles government. We in Paris even tried launching balloons filled with letters to the provinces. Some of them came down in the right places, but they were not enough.

Nevertheless, not everyone was fooled by the lies of Versailles. Lyon, Marseille, Narbonne, all had their own Communes, and like ours, theirs too were drowned in the blood of revolutionaries. That is why our flags are red. Why are our red banners so terribly frightening to those persons who have caused them to be stained that color?

Some people say I’m brave. Not really. There is no heroism; people are simply entranced by events. What happens is that in the face of danger my perceptions are submerged in my artistic sense, which is seized and charmed. Tableaux of the dangers overwhelm my thoughts, and the horrors of the struggle become poetry.

It wasn’t bravery when, charmed by the sight, I looked at the dismantled fort of Issy, all white against the shadows, and watched my comrades filing out in night sallies, moving away over the little slopes of Clamart or toward the Hautes Bruyeres, with the red teeth of chattering machine guns showing on the horizon against the night sky. It was beautiful, that’s all. Barbarian that I am, I love cannon, the smell of powder, machine-gun bullets in the air.

I am not the only person caught up by situations from which the poetry of the unknown emerges. I remember a student who didn’t agree with our ideas (although he agreed even less with the other side’s), who came to shoot with us at Clamart and at the Moulin de Pierre. He had a volume of Baudelaire in his pocket, and we read a few pages with great pleasure—when we had time to read. What fate held for him I don’t know, but we tested our luck together. It was interesting. We drank some coffee in the teeth of death, choosing the same spot where three of our people, one after another, had been killed. Our comrades, anxious about seeing us there at what seemed to be a deadly place, made us withdraw. Just after we left a shell fell, breaking the empty cups. Above all else, our action was simply one of a poet’s nature, not bravery on either his part or mine.

During the entire time of the Commune, I only spent one night at my poor mother’s. I never really went to bed during that time; I just napped a little whenever there was nothing better to do, and many other people lived the same way. Everybody who wanted deliverance gave himself totally to the cause.

During the Commune I went unhurt except for a bullet that grazed my wrist, although my hat was literally riddled with bullet holes. I did twist my ankle, which had been sprained for a long time, and because I couldn’t walk for three or four days, I had to requisition a carriage.

It was a little two-wheeled buggy that looked fairly attractive. We harnessed it to a horse which, unfortunately, was used to the whip. The rotten beast refused to move when we treated him nicely. Everything was all right when we were only following a funeral cortege to a Montmartre cemetery at a walking pace, but after the funeral it was a different story. That damned animal wouldn’t keep up even the slow jog which allowed him practically to go to sleep standing up. He simply stopped, which gave time for a group of imbeciles to gather around us and begin whispering to each other, “Ah. Here are some people who have a buggy. They’re filthy rich. The upkeep of that buggy must cost a lot.”

“Wait,” said a friend who was riding with me. “Don’t get down. I’ll make the horse move.” He gave a piece of bread and other encouragements to that monster, who began to munch on the bread while he rolled back his lips as if he were laughing in our faces. And he didn’t budge an inch. At that point, with all due respect to those who, like me, are slaves to beasts, I applied the law of necessity and hit him with the whip, and he took off, shaking his ears, for the Perronnet barricade at Neuilly.

While I was going to Montmartre for the funeral, I hadn’t dared to stop off at my mother’s, because she would have seen that I had a sprain. Several days before the funeral, though, I had come face to face with her in the trenches near the railroad station of Clamart. She had come to see if all the lies I had written her to soothe her were true. Fortunately, she always ended up believing me.

If the reaction had had as many enemies among women as it did among men, the Versailles government would have had a more difficult task subduing us. Our male friends are more susceptible to faintheartedness than we women are. A supposedly weak woman knows better than any man how to say: “It must be done.” She may feel ripped open to her very womb, but she remains unmoved. Without hate, without anger, without pity for herself or others, whether her heart bleeds or not, she can say, “It must be done.” Such were the women of the Commune. During Bloody Week, women erected and defended the barricade at the Place Blanche—and held it till they died.

In my mind I feel the soft darkness of a spring night. It is May 1871, and I see the red reflection of flames. It is Paris afire. That fire is a dawn, and I see it still as I sit here writing. Memory crowds in on me, and I keep forgetting that I am writing my memoirs.

In the night of May 22 or 23, I believe, we were at the Montmartre cemetery, which we were trying to defend with too few fighters. We had crenelated the walls as best we could, and, except for the battery on the Butte of Montmartre—now in the hands of the reactionaries, and whose fire raked us—and the shells that were coming at regular intervals from the side, where tall houses commanded our defenses, the position wasn’t bad. Shells tore the air, marking time like a clock. It was magnificent in the clear night, where the marble statues on the tombs seemed to be alive.

When I went on reconnaissance it pleased me to walk in the solitude that shells were scouring. In spite of my comrades’ advice, I chose to walk there several times; always the shells arrived too early or too late for me. One shell falling across the trees covered me with flowered branches, which I divided up between two tombs, that of Mille Poulin and that of Murget, whose spirit seemed to throw us flowers. My comrades caught me, and one ordered me not to move about. They made me sit down on a bench near the tomb of Cavaignac. But nothing is as stubborn as a woman.

In the midst of all this Jaroslav Dombrowski passed in front of us sadly on his way to be killed. “It’s over,” he told me.

“No, no,” I said to him, and he held out both his hands to me.

But he was right.

Three hundred thousand voices had elected the Commune. Fifteen thousand stood up to the clash with the army during Bloody Week.

We’ve counted about thirty-five thousand people who were executed, but how many were there that we know nothing of? From time to time the earth disgorges its corpses. If we are implacable in the coming fight, who is to blame?

The Commune, surrounded from every direction, had only death on its horizon. It could only be brave, and it was. And in dying it opened wide the door to the future. That was its destiny.

Chapter 10. After the Commune

Somehow I managed to escape from the soldiers trying to arrest me. Finally the victorious reactionaries took my mother and threatened to shoot her if I wasn’t found. To set her free I went to take her place, although she didn’t want me to do it, the poor, dear woman. I had to tell her a lot of lies to convince her, and as always she ended up believing me. Thus I saw to it that she returned home.

They took me to the detention camp in the 37th [sic: 43rd] Bastion, near the Montmartre railroad. Even that far out, fragments of paper ash coming from the burning of Paris blew like black butterflies. Above us the lights of the fire floated like red crepe. And always we could hear the cannon. We heard them until May 28, and right up to that day we said to each other:

“The Revolution will take its revenge.”

At the 37th Bastion, in front of the dust-filled square where we were penned up, there are casemates under a mound of green lawn. There, as soon as General de Gallifet arrived, the soldiers shot two unfortunate people in front of us. They resembled each other and must have been brothers. They both struggled until the shots rang out, for they did not want to die. They hadn’t even been on our side. They had come out into the street, perhaps to insult us, and had been arrested. Before they were shot, they had said they weren’t worried, because they were sure they’d be freed. Then General de Gallifet gave an order to shoot into the crowd if anyone moved. The two brothers were terrified and tried to flee. We cried out:

“We don’t know them. They’re not ours.”

But it did no good. They were shot anyway. They weren’t even able to stand up for the volley. They were so frightened that all they could say was that they were Montmartre merchants; they couldn’t even remember their addresses so that they could commend their children to those of us who remained. We didn’t think we could figure out who they were either. People thought that one of them was saying “Alas.” I have always guessed that he said “Anne,” and that she was his daughter. How many people were seized like this, how many who really were enemies of the Commune, like those two unfortunate men of Bastion 37?

After this execution we were lined up and marched off toward Versailles. As we arrived there, a bunch of bullies threw rocks at us as if we were rabbits, and a member of the National Guard had his jaw broken. One thing I owe to the cavalry who were guarding us: They pushed back the ruffians and their girl friends who had come to the prisoner-baiting. We didn’t stop at Versailles, however; we were led beyond, south to Satory.

The prisoners filing past from Montmartre to Satory are present now in my mind. We were marching between the lines of a cavalry escort. It was night. Nothing could have been more horribly beautiful than the place where they made us climb down into the ravines near the Chateau de la Muette. The gloom, barely lit by the wan moon, transformed the ravines into walls. The shadows of the horsemen on either side of our long file formed a black fringe that made the path seem lighter. The sky, hovering with the promise of heavy rains on the morrow, seemed to press down on us. Everything became blurred and appeared dreamlike—except for the horsemen who led the column and the first groups of prisoners. A sudden flash of light filtered from below between the hooves of the horses and lit them up; scattered red reflections seemed to bleed on us and on the uniforms. The rest of the file stretched out in a long trail of ink, ending in the murky depths of the night.

People said they were going to shoot us in those ravines, but the soldiers had us climb out, although I didn’t know why. I felt no fear, for I was wrapped up in the picture I saw and no longer thought of where we were. Thrilled by my perceptions, I earned no merit at all for despising a danger I wasn’t thinking about. Gripped by the tableau I only looked, and now I remember.

Satory! As we got there during a downpour which made the slope slippery, we were told: “Move! Climb as if you were charging up the Butte of Montmartre.” And everybody climbed at full charge, and then we had to walk in front of some machine guns that they rolled after us. We told an old woman who was on the verge of hysterics, and who was in our group only because her husband had been shot, that the machine guns were only a formality they went through each time new prisoners arrived. We weren’t so sure of this, but at least the woman fell silent. We believed the soldiers were going to kill us, and there would only be time enough for us to yell, “Long live the Commune” before we died. But then they pulled back the machine guns.

Satory! In the middle of the night the soldiers would call out groups of prisoners. They’d get up from the mud where they had lain down in the rain, and follow the soldier’s lantern that led their way. They’d be given a pick and shovel to dig their own graves, and then they’d be shot. The echoes of volleys shattered the silence of the night.

Satory! The prisoners drank from their hands at the little pond when they were too thirsty and when the heavy rain which was falling on them had swept away the pink foam. There the victors washed their hands, which were often redder than those of butchers.

Who will record the crimes that power commits, and the monstrous manner in which power transforms men? Those crimes can be ended forever by spreading power out to the entire human race. To spread the feeling of the homeland to the entire world, to extend well-being to all people, to give science to all humanity—that will save humanity.

When I arrived at Satory the soldiers said they were going to shoot me the next day, in the evening; then the next day they said they would shoot me the day after. I don’t know why they didn’t, for I was insolent to them, as insolent as one is in defeat to ferocious victors.

Shortly thereafter, a group of us was sent to the prison of Chantiers at Versailles. As we were marching, a strange thing happened. A furious woman dashed in front of us, crying out that we had killed her sister, that she knew it, that there were witnesses. A cry rose up from our midst. It was her sister, who had been arrested by the Versailles government.

When we arrived at the prison of Chantiers, we were kept in a huge square room on the second floor, sitting on the floor by day and stretching out any way we could at night. At the end of two weeks they gave us bundles of straw, each of which had to do for two people. At night two lamps lit our morgue, where we hung up our rags and tatters on strings above our sleeping bodies. Above the room was a hole through which we climbed to the interrogation room; another hole led to the ground floor, where they kept the children who were prisoners, the children whose fathers they couldn’t find. Some of those children, like Ranvier, were courageous and we were proud of them.

For a long time I was forbidden to see my mother, who came often from Montmartre without being able to speak to me. One day she was pushed back while she was offering me a bottle of coffee, and I threw the bottle at the gendarme who had pushed her. A nearby officer rebuked me, and I told him my only regret was that I had thrown the bottle at a tool of the government rather than at the head of it. They finally did allow my mother to see me, but it was a long time later.

At the prison of Chantiers I saw grotesque things…

A deaf and dumb woman spent several weeks there, charged with having cried out, “Long live the Commune!” An old woman, both of whose legs were paralyzed, was charged with having built barricades. For three days, another woman just walked around the room, her basket under one arm and her umbrella under the other. In her basket were some poems that her employer had written in praise of the victors. Ironically, the soldiers believed those poems were in praise of the Commune, even one with a line that ran:

Good gentlemen of Versailles Enter into Paris.

But laughter quickly dies. The cries of the insane, uncertainty about relatives and friends whose fate was unknown, mothers left alone—all that I feel even now.

We were proud in defeat, and the ruffians and their girl friends who came out to see the vanquished as if they were going to look at animals in the Jardin des Plantes didn’t see our tears. Instead, we sneered at their idiotic faces.

On the floor of our prison room there were so many lice they made little silver nets as they meandered about, going to their nests that resembled anthills. They were enormous lice, with bristling backs that were a little bit round-shouldered, so many lice that you believed you could hear the noise of their swarming.

Constantly guarded by soldiers, we women couldn’t change our underwear easily (those of us who had any to change into). I was finally able to get some from my mother, who pushed it through the openwork gate in the courtyard.

I spent my nights looking at the tableau of this morgue. I have always been taken by views like that, so much so that I often forget people in the face of the horrible eloquence of things. Sometimes this morgue looked like dusk or dawn playing on a field where the crop had been harvested. I could see the empty stalks, thin bundles of straw, gilded like wheat. At other times, light mirrored off them. When daybreak paled the lamps, it looked like a harvest of stars.

On 15 June 1871, the worst forty of us were sent from the prison to the reformatory at Versailles. Mme Cadolle and Mme Hardouin have related what happened at Chantiers after we left.

Of course I was one of the worst forty sent to Versailles. We had to wait in the courtyard under a beating rain, and an officer said he was sorry. I couldn’t keep myself from saying that making us stand in the drenching rain fitted in with all their other acts, and anyway I liked it better that way.

At the reformatory of Versailles, conditions for us forty were strangely eased. To get ready for the trial of the members of the Commune, the government tried a number of unfortunate women and sentenced them to death, although they had only been ambulance nurses. Because of her name, Eulalie Papavoine was sentenced to forced labor and was sent to Cayenne, even though she was not related to the legendary Papavoine. The Versailles government carefully kept from sentencing the boldest women to death; they didn’t execute either Elisabeth Retif or Marchais, although they proved the two had conspired with each other, in spite of the fact that they had never met.

On the third of September, the eve of the first anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic, the sentencing of the chief members of the Commune was drawing to a close. By decree the governor general of Paris had established the Third Military Court-Martial. Colonel Merlin was president and the members were Major Gaulet, Captain de Guibert, M. Mariguet, Lieutenant Caissaigne, Second Lieutenant Leger, Warrant Officer Labbat, Major Gaveau, and Captain Senart. The Third Military Court-Martial tried eighteen persons, among them Theophile Ferre.

Théophile Ferré, who once had been Clemenceau’s deputy mayor, was the brother of my great friend Marie. In the Dossier [sic: Cahiers] de la magistrature by Odysse Barot I found an account of Théophile Ferré’s arrest, and I quote those pages which were written under the vivid emotion of the horrible scene. People will understand why, when I am discussing these terrible sorrows, I quote friends who have related the events of those sad days instead of telling about them myself. Courage has limits, and one doesn’t pass them unless duty demands it.

There is a detail about which people do not know and which has not been written about until now: the manner in which Ferré’s arrest took place and the way the authorities discovered his hiding place.

All enquiries had been fruitless. The authorities had arrested five or six pseudo-Ferrés, just as they had shot five or six pseudo-Billiorays and five or six pseudo-Valles.

What did they do then? They went to the little house on the rue Fazilleau in the suburb of Levallois-Perret, where the former member of the Commune used to live with his parents.

Théophile Ferré was not at the house, but the authorities had known when they went to Levallois-Perret that there was no chance of finding Ferré at his parents’ home. Why did they go there? How naive you are! He lived there with his family, and what good is a family if it does not inform on and surrender its own?

Needless to say, the authorities pushed their way brutally into the little cottage surrounded by its garden. Ah! Wait, I do not know if my pen will have the courage to finish. The other day business took me to Levallois, and when I passed down that street and came to that house, whose number suddenly came back to mind, I was forced to stop for a few minutes. Blood rushed to my head and sweat ran down my forehead; a simple memory caused waves of anger and rage to overwhelm me. Please excuse me for this involuntary emotion, but you will share that indignation, that anger, and that rage.

The authorities entered the house. The father had left for his daily job, and only two women were there, the old mother and the young sister of the man they were looking for. The sister, Mille Marie Ferré, was in bed, dangerously sick with a high fever.

The authorities fell on Mme Ferré and questioned her harshly. They ordered her to reveal the hiding place of her son. She swore she didn’t know it and that, if she did, it was terrible to tell a mother to betray her own son.

They increased their pressure and used both gentleness and threats.

“Arrest me if you want to,” Mme Ferré said, “but I can’t tell you what I don’t know and you will not be so cruel as to tear me away from my daughter’s sickbed.”

The poor woman trembled all over just thinking about that. One of the men smiled fleetingly, for her words had given him a diabolical idea.

“Since you won’t tell us where your son is, we are going to take your daughter away.”

Mme Ferré cried out in despair and anguish, but her prayers and tears were unavailing. The men set about getting her sick daughter up and dressing her, at the risk of killing her.

“Courage, mother,” said Mille Ferré. “Don’t worry, I’ll be strong. It will be nothing. They will have to let me go.”

They were going to take her away.

Mme Ferré was faced with the horrible alternative of sending her son to his death or killing her daughter by allowing her to be taken off. In spite of desperate signs which the heroic Marie made to her, the hapless mother in a frenzy of grief lost her head in her anguish, hesitated…

“Be silent, mother! Be silent!” murmured the sick girl.

The authorities were taking Marie off…

It was too much for her mother to bear. She broke down. Her reason became dark, and incoherent phrases escaped from her lips. The executioners listened for a clue.

In her hysteria the tormented mother let the address “rue Saint-Sauveur” slip several times.

Alas! No more was needed. While two of the men kept the Ferré home under observation, the others ran to finish the job. The rue Saint-Sauveur was sealed off and searched, and Théophile Ferré was arrested.

A week after the horrible scene at the rue Fazilleau, the courageous Marie was freed. But they didn’t free her mother, who had become insane, and soon died in the asylum of Sainte-Anne.

At the court-martial, Théophile Ferré refused to have a defense lawyer, but the president of the court, according to law, appointed Maitre Marchand to defend him. Ferré explained the role of the Commune, after having discussed the coup d’état prepared by the enemies of the Republic, who had gone so far as to deny Paris the right to elect its municipal council.

“Honest and sincere newspapers were suppressed,” Ferré said to the court-martial. “The most patriotic among us were condemned to death while Royalists were preparing to divide France. Finally, during the night of March 18, they believed they were ready, and they tried to disarm the National Guard and arrest all republicans. Their attempt failed because it was faced with the complete opposition of Paris and even the mutiny of their own soldiers. The royalists fled and took refuge at Versailles.

“Paris was now free, and some vigorous and courageous citizens tried to reestablish order and safety at the risk of their lives. A few days later the population voted and created the Commune of Paris.

“It was the duty of the Versailles government to recognize the validity of the vote of Paris and to confer with the Commune about restoring tranquility. On the contrary, as if foreign war had not already given France enough misery and ruin, the government added a civil war. Breathing hate and vengeance against the people, the Versailles government attacked Paris and subjected it to a new siege.

“Paris resisted for two months, and then it was conquered. For ten days, without making any pretense at legality, the Versailles government authorized the massacre of citizens. Those terrible days remind us of St. Bartholomew’s Massacre and surpassed the atrocities of June and December. When will the machine-gunning of people stop?

“Because I am a member of the Paris Commune, I am in the hands of the victors. They want my head. Let them take it. Free I have lived, and free I expect to die.

“I add only one word: Fortune is capricious. I entrust to the future my memory and my revenge.”

Ferré was condemned to death. Of the eighteen defendants at that court-martial only he and Lullier were sentenced to death. Urbain and Trinquet were sentenced to life at hard labor. Sentenced to deportation to a fortification were Assi, Bilhoray, Champy, Régère, Ferrat, Verdure, and Grousset. Jourde and Rastoul were sentenced to simple deportation. Courbet was sentenced to six months and fined 500 francs, and Deschamp, Parent, and Clement were acquitted.

Another murder took place, too. Flourens was killed in an outpost as punishment for letting some men escape on October 31. They slipped away through windows, doors, and water closets, and he didn’t join the hunt for the vanquished.

The Board of Pardons reviewed the verdicts of the court-martial, and that board is guilty of the volleys at the execution stakes. The fifteen members of the Board of Pardons were only fifteen executioners. If the soldiers were drunk with blood up to their ankles, the Board of Pardons had blood up to its belly.

Théophile Ferré and I were able to exchange a few letters from our prisons while we were both at Versailles. I still have some of them, and some of the poetry I wrote for him. The year of seventy-one! I have a notebook of black-bordered mourning paper in which Marie copied down some of my poems, a number of which she copied in red ink, red like blood. Marie had given this notebook to her brother Hippolyte, who lent it to me, but he won’t get it back until I’m dead and the pages that are now blank are written upon.

I think I still have Ferré’s last letter to me from his cell at Versailles. None of the house searches took those papers away from me, and my friends didn’t want to disturb them because the people mentioned were either dead or prisoners. It is too painful to quote his letter; I will say only that Ferré, instead of being moved by his own fate, looked at liberty rising on the faraway horizon across the blood of 1871.

I do have a copy of the last letter Ferre sent to my dear Marie. This fragment came to me on May 24 of this year; I did not need to see the accompanying letter to guess that it came from you, my dear Avronsart.

Prison of Versailles, no. 6 Tuesday, 28 November 1871, 5:30 a.m.

My beloved sister,

In a few moments I am going to die. At the last instant, thoughts of you will be in my mind. I beg you to ask for my body so that it may be reunited with that of our unfortunate mother. If you can, have the hour of my burial put in the newspapers, so that friends can accompany me. Of course, no religious ceremony: I die a materialist, as I have lived.

Place a wreath on the tomb of our mother.

Try to cure my brother and to console our father. Tell them both how much I loved them.

I give you a thousand kisses and thank you for the attention you have never ceased to lavish on me. You must overcome your sorrow and, as you have often promised me, be equal to events. As for me, I am happy. I am going away to be done with my sufferings, and there is no reason to feel pity for me.

All yours,

Your devoted brother,

Th. Ferré

All my papers, my clothing, and other objects are to be returned, except for the money in the clerk’s office which I leave to more unfortunate prisoners.

Th. Ferré

At seven o’clock on the morning of 28 November 1871, Ferré was assassinated on the plain of Satory along with Rossel and Bourgeois, who had been condemned to death in another trial. Here are the terms in which a reactionary newspaper related the heroic death of Ferré :

The condemned are very firm. Ferré, backed up to his post, throws his hat on the ground. A sergeant comes forward to place a blindfold over his eyes; Ferré takes the blindfold and throws it on his hat… The three condemned remain alone. The three firing squads, which have just advanced, fire.

Rossel and Bourgeois fall immediately; as for Ferré, he stays standing for a moment and then falls on his right side. The surgeon-major of the camp, M. Dejardin, hurries over to the cadavers. He signals that Rossel is quite dead and calls the soldiers who are to give the coup de grace to Ferré and to Bourgeois.

Finally the march past begins.

Marie recovered somewhat, and being the only member of the family who was free, she proved her courage by going from prison to prison as long as her brothers and her father were locked up, and she came to claim Théophile’s body for burial.

Because of the letters Théophile and I had exchanged, the Prefect of Police sent me to Arras. By a maneuver of the prefect, a name was crossed off the list of those who were being sent to wait in faraway prisons, and mine was put in its place. I must say that the Military Tribunal didn’t know about this, let alone approve it. I protested not against the prison, where we found much better treatment than at Satory or in the temporary prison camps, but against the squalid maneuvering of this transfer. I was under the jurisdiction of the Military Tribunal and not that of the Prefect of Police, who wanted to delay my trial indefinitely, while insulting me by trying the other women, Retif and Marchais, first.

On the day of Ferré’s execution I was recalled from Arras. At the railroad station of Versailles I saw Marie, who had come to claim her brother’s body. I was able to speak to her for only a moment. She was dressed entirely in black, and her thick brown curls stood out as if her skin was marble, for she was very pale. She showed neither tears nor weakness, but she looked like a corpse, and she was so cold to the touch! She was as cold as she was years later when I arranged her in her coffin.

The execution of Ferré prompted me to write to General Appert, under whose authority the trials were taking place.

Prison of Versailles 2 December 1871


I finally believe that the triple assassination of Tuesday morning really happened.

If you don’t want to go through the legal formalities, you already know enough about me to shoot me. I’m ready, and the plain of Satory is nearby.

You and all your accomplices know very well that if I get out of here alive I will avenge the martyrs.

Long live the Commune.

Louise Michel

But they didn’t want to put me in front of a firing squad at Satory, and I am still here, seeing death mow people down all around me. No one who hasn’t experienced this kind of emptiness can know what courage it took to live.

But no weakness! None! Long live the dead Commune! Long live the living Revolution!

In May 1871 the streets of Paris were dappled white as if by apple blossoms in the spring. But no trees had cast down that mantle of white; it was chlorine that covered the corpses. Now, the ground was all white again, this time with snow. On 28 November 1871, six months after the hot-blooded butchery had ended, the cold-blooded assassinations began.

The soldiers had become tired and perhaps their machine guns were breaking down. Now there would be an end to scenes of limbs half-covered with earth, an end to cries of agony coming from heaps of persons who had been summarily executed, an end to swallows dying poisoned by the flies that had been feeding in that enormous charnel house. Henceforth, murder would be done cold-bloodedly, in an orderly fashion.

We do not know the names of all those who died in the hunt and after. The enormous number of missing persons proves how minimal the official figures of the slaughter are. Sometimes now, in the corners of cellars, skeletons are found, and no one knows where they came from. People claim it is mysterious, but every out-of-the-way spot became a charnel house to the victory of the Versailles royalists.

And the plain of Satory. If it were excavated, corpses would be found there too. The royalists covered them with quicklime in vain, because plows will uncover them, and every stone upturned will reveal them.

As I write these pages, those places are only boneyards. Fifteen years ago they were slaughterhouses. And down in the catacombs under Paris, where the government chased the Communards with torches and dogs as if they were animals, there must be many modern skeletons among the ancient bones. Betrayals so numerous they were nauseating, stupid fear, disgust, the horror—all this was the aftermath of the Commune.

The trial of the members of the Commune was riddled with errors, but the main purpose of the appeal our lawyers filed with the Court of Cassation had been to test Versailles’s justice to its end. None of the condemned counted on it, although the legal flaws were numerous. The prosecutor, Major Gaveau, insulted Ferré in the course of the trial by saying “the memory of a murderer.” That same Gaveau twice vacated his seat as public prosecutor, did not appear even for a moment at the session of September 2, and did not attend the reading of the sentence, a sentence in which false documents appeared.

The members of the Commune did not conceal their acts. It was not easy to be found innocent, even when one had committed no crime, when people felt responsible for their own actions. Ferré carried his acts proudly and bore responsibility for them to the execution post at Satory. The others carried theirs to prison or to exile. Yet in order to convict the defendants, the authorities thought they needed to add forgeries that were established as false, forgeries that were so patently false that some were not even written in French.

By June 1872 the Versailles “justice” had delivered 32,905 verdicts. They had already condemned 72 persons to death, and sentenced another 33 to death in absentia. That made a total of 105 sentenced to capital punishment, and the Versailles “justice” kept on operating.

Forty-six children under the age of sixteen were put in reformatories. No doubt it was to punish them for what their fathers had been shot for. Small children, in the orgy of the fighting, had had their heads smashed against walls.

In the summer of 1873 they were still shooting prisoners at Satory. After a mockery of a trial in which I made no attempt to defend myself, I was sentenced to deportation to a fortification for life.

Chapter 11. The Trial of 1871

This chapter consists of an account of the trial as reported in the Gazette des Tribunaux that Louise Michel included as an appendix to her memoirs.

Sixth Court-Martial Board (Versailles) President of the Court: Delaporte, Colonel, Twelfth Cavalry

Session of 16 December 1871

The Background of the Case against Louise Michel

The Commune had an insufficient number of men for protection against the loyal members of the National Guard, so it established companies of children known as Wards of the Commune. It also tried to organize a battalion of amazons. This group was never formed, but women wearing fanciful uniforms and carrying carbines at their shoulders could be seen preceding the battalions that went to the ramparts. Among those women who seem to have exercised considerable influence in certain quarters was Louise Michel, ex-schoolmistress at Batignolles, who never stopped displaying boundless devotion to the insurrectionary government.

Louise Michel is thirty-six years old, petite, brunette, with a very developed forehead which recedes abruptly. Her nose, mouth, and chin are very prominent, and her features reveal an extreme severity. She dresses entirely in black. Her temperament is as excitable as it was during the first days of her captivity. When she was first brought in front of the court-martial, she suddenly raised her veil and stared at her judges fixedly.

Captain Dailly was the public prosecutor for the Sixth Court-Martial. According to regulations, Maitre Haussman was appointed to assist the accused in her defense, but she declared she would refuse the help of any lawyer.

The clerk of the court-martial, M. Duplan, read the following report:

Statement by the Clerk of the Court-Martial

In 1870, at the occasion of Victor Noir’s death, Louise Michel began to display her revolutionary ideas. Because Michel was an obscure schoolmistress with almost no pupils, it was not possible for our investigators to find out what her previous revolutionary activity had been or what her part was in the events leading up to the monstrous offense which terrified our unfortunate country.

To retrace the incidents of 18 March 1871 in their entirety would be useless, and this court, as its point of departure in the prosecution of Mille Michel, will limit itself to determining precisely the part she took in the bloody drama whose theater was the Butte of Montmartre and the rue des Rosiers.

Louise Michel was an accomplice in the arrest of the two unfortunate generals, Lecomte and Clement Thomas. She was fearful that the two victims might escape. “Don’t let them go,” she cried out with all her might to the scoundrels who surrounded the generals. Later, when the murder had been committed, she showed her joy at the spilled blood, and dared to exclaim in the presence of the mutilated bodies, “It serves them right.” Then, radiant and satisfied with her good day, she went to Belleville and La Villette to assure herself “that these neighborhoods were still armed.”

On the nineteenth she returned home, after having taken the precaution of removing the National Guard uniform that could incriminate her. She felt the need to talk a bit about the events with her concierge. “Ah,” she cried. “If Clemenceau had gotten to the rue des Rosiers a few instants sooner, they wouldn’t have shot the generals. He would have been against it because he was on the side of the Versailles government.”

Paris, in the hands of foreigners and rascals who had come from every corner of the world, proclaimed the Commune. Louise Michel, as secretary of the society called Improvement of Working Women through Their Work, organized the famous Central Committee of the Union of Women, as well as the Committees of Vigilance charged with recruiting stretcher-bearers—and, at the height of the struggle, women—to serve on the barricades and perhaps even some to be arsonists.

A copy of a manifesto found in the Town Hall of the Tenth Arrondissement indicates the role she played in the aforementioned committees during the last days of the struggle. The text of that manifesto reads:

In the name of the Social Revolution that we acclaim, in the name of the demand for the right to work and the rights of equality and justice, the Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and the Care of the Wounded challenges with all its strength the shameful proclamation addressed to women which a group of reactionaries posted the day before yesterday.

That proclamation stated that the women of Paris are appealing to the generosity of Versailles and are requesting peace at any price.

No. The women workers of Paris have come to demand not peace but war to the death.

Today, reconciliation would be treason. It would be to deny all the aspirations of women workers who acclaim complete social change, the annihilation of all existing social and legal relations, the suppression of all special privileges, the end of all exploitation, the substitution of the reign of work for the reign of capital. In a word, they demand the emancipation of the worker through his own efforts.

Six months of suffering and treason during the Siege, six weeks of titanic fights against the united exploiters, waves of blood spilled for the cause of liberty—these are our warrant for glory and vengeance.

The present struggle can have only one result—the triumph of the popular cause. Paris will not pull back, for it carries the flag of the future. The final hour has struck! Give way to the workers! Enough of their executioners! Acts! Energy!

The tree of liberty grows tall, watered with the blood of its enemies! . . .

United and resolute, the women of Paris are matured and enlightened by the suffering that social crises bring. The women of Paris are deeply convinced that the Commune, representing the international and revolutionary principles of peoples, carries in itself the germ of Social Revolution. When the moment of greatest danger comes, the women of Paris will prove to France and to the world that they know how, at the barricades and on the ramparts of Paris, if the reactionaries force the gates, to give their blood like their brothers, to give their lives for the defense and triumph of the Commune—for the people.

Then, victorious, able to unite and agree on their common interests, working men and working women, interdependent and made one for a final effort . . . [The last phrase is incomplete.]

Long live the Republic of all persons! Long live the Commune!

Holding the positions cited above, Louise Michel directed a school at 24, rue Oudot. There, from her lectern in her rare spare moments, she professed the doctrines of free thought and made her young pupils sing poems she had written, among which was the song entitled “The Avengers.”

As President of the Club of the Revolution which met in the church of Saint-Bernard, Louise Michel is responsible for the vote at the session on May 18 (21 Floreal, year 79). That vote was for:

The suppression of magistrates and the annihilation of the legal Codes, with their replacement by a commission of justice;

The suppression of religions, the immediate arrest of priests, and the sale of their goods and the goods of those fugitives and traitors who supported the scoundrels of Versailles;

The execution of an important hostage every twenty-four hours until Citizen Blanqui, an appointed member of the Commune, is freed and arrives in Paris.

It was not enough for this “passionate spirit,” as the author of an imaginative account included in her dossier calls her, to stir up the people, to applaud assassination, to corrupt children, to preach fratricide, and to encourage crime; she still had to set an example and commit crimes herself.

Thus we find her at Issy, Clamart, and Montmartre fighting in the front line, shooting at government forces or rallying retreating rebels. The April 14 issue of the Cri dupeuple proves this charge. “Citizen Louise Michel, who fought so valiantly at Moulineaux, was wounded at the fort of Issy.” Fortunately for her, we add, the heroine of Jules Vallès came out of that notorious action with a simple sprain.

What was the motive that pushed Louise Michel down this irrevocable path of politics and revolution?

Clearly, it was arrogance.

Louise Michel was an illegitimate child reared by charity. Instead of thanking Providence for giving her the means to live happily with her mother, she surrendered to her heated imagination and excitable character. Breaking with her benefactors, she ran to Paris for adventure.

The wind of revolution began to blow. Victor Noir died. It was the moment for Louise Michel to enter on stage, but an anonymous role was repugnant to her. Her name had to draw public attention and be in the headlines of false proclamations and posters.

In conclusion, we must give a legal classification to the acts this devil-ridden fanatic committed during the period from the beginning of the frightful crisis that France has just undergone to the end of the blasphemous struggle in which the accused took part amid the tombs of the Montmartre cemetery.

She assisted, knowingly, the persons who apprehended the generals Lecomte and Clement Thomas. She assisted, knowingly, in the deeds that followed their apprehension: the torture and death of those two unlucky individuals.

Intimately linked with the members of the Commune, she knew all their plans in advance. She helped them with all her might and will. Moreover, she assisted them and even surpassed them when she volunteered to go to Versailles and assassinate the President of the Republic with the intention of terrifying the Assembly and, according to her, ending the fighting.

She is as guilty as “Ferré, the proud republican,” whom she defended in such a strange fashion and whose head, to use her own words, “is a challenge thrown at your consciences—the answer to which is revolution.”

She excited the passions of the crowd and preached war without mercy or truce. A she-wolf eager for blood, she brought about the death of hostages through her hellish plots.

Therefore, it is our opinion that there is sufficient cause to bring Louise Michel to trial for:

  1. A crime, having the overthrow of the government as its goal.
  2. A crime, having for its purpose the instigation of civil war through encouraging citizens to arm themselves against each other.
  3. For having, during an insurrection, carried visible weapons and worn a military uniform and for having made use of those weapons.
  4. Forgery of documents.
  5. Use of a false document.
  6. Complicity through provocation and planning in the assassination of persons held as hostages by the Commune.
  7. Complicity in illegal arrests, followed by torture and death, and knowingly assisting the perpetrators of those deeds in the acts they committed.

These crimes are provided for in articles 87, 91, 150, 151, 59, 60, 302, 341, and 344 of the Penal Code, and article 5 of the Law of 24 May 1834.

The Testimony of Louise Michel

President of the Court: You have heard the acts you are accused of. What do you have to say in your defense?

The Accused: I don’t want to defend myself, nor do I want to be defended. I belong completely to the Social Revolution, and I declare that I accept responsibility for all my actions. I accept it entirely and without reservations.

You accuse me of having participated in the assassination of Generals Clement Thomas and Lecomte. To that charge, I would answer yes—if I had been at Montmartre when those generals wanted to fire on the people. I would have had no hesitation about shooting people who gave orders like those. But once they were prisoners, I do not understand why they were shot, and I look at that act as a villainous one.

As for the burning of Paris, yes, I participated in it. I wanted to block the Versailles invaders with a barrier of flames. I had no accomplices in that. I acted on my own.

I am also charged with being an accomplice of the Commune. That is quite true, since above everything else the Commune wanted to bring about the Social Revolution, and Social Revolution is my dearest wish. Moreover, I am honored to be singled out as one of the promoters of the Commune. It had absolutely nothing to do with assassinations or burning. I attended all the sessions at the Hôtel de Ville, and I affirm that there never was any talk of assassinations or burnings.

Do you want to know who the real guilty parties are? The police. Later, perhaps, the light of truth will fall on all those events. Now people naturally place responsibility on the partisans of Social Revolution.

One day I did propose to Théophile Ferre that I go to Versailles. I wanted two victims: M. Thiers and myself, for I had already sacrificed my life, and I had decided to kill him.

Question: Did you say in a proclamation that a hostage should be shot every twenty-four hours?

Answer: No, I only wanted to threaten. But why should I defend myself? I have already told you I refuse to do it. You are the men who are going to judge me. You are in front of me publicly. You are men, and I, I am only a woman. Nevertheless, I am looking you straight in the face. I know quite well that anything I tell you will not change my sentence in the slightest. Thus I have only one last word before I sit down.

We never wanted anything but the triumph of the great principles of Revolution. I swear it by our martyrs who fell on the field of Satory, by our martyrs I still acclaim here, by our martyrs who some day will find their avenger.

I am in your power. Do whatever you please with me. Take my life if you want it. I am not a woman who would dispute your wishes for a moment.

Question: You claim you didn’t approve of the generals’ assassinations. On the contrary, people say that when you were told about it, you cried out: “They shot them. It serves them right.”

Answer: Yes, I said that. I admit it. In fact, I remember that I said it in the presence of Citizens Le Moussu and Ferré.

Question: Then you do approve of the assassinations?

Answer: Let me point out that my statement is not proof. I said those words with the intention of spurring on revolutionary zeal.

Question: You also wrote for newspapers, the Cri du peuple, for example.

Answer: Yes, I’ve made no effort to conceal that.

Question: In each issue, those newspapers demanded the confiscation of the clergy’s property and suggested other similar revolutionary measures. Were those opinions yours?

Answer: Indeed yes, but note that we never wanted to take those goods for ourselves. We thought only of giving them to the people for their well-being.

Question: You asked for the suppression of the court system?

Answer: Because I had in front of me examples of its errors. I remembered the Lesurques affair and so many more.

Question: Do you confess to having resolved to assassinate M. Thiers?

Answer: Of course. I have already said that, and I claim it now.

Question: It seems that you wore various uniforms during the Commune.

Answer: I was dressed as usual. I only added a red sash over my clothes.

Question: Didn’t you wear a man’s uniform several times?

Answer: Once. On March 18. I dressed as a National Guardsman so I wouldn’t attract attention.

Few witnesses had been subpoenaed, because Louise Michel had not disputed the acts she was charged with. . . .


Captain Dailly, the prosecutor, spoke. He asked the court-martial to excise the accused from society, because the accused was a continuing danger to it. He withdrew all charges except that of carrying visible or hidden arms in an insurrectionary movement.

Maître Haussman, appointed to defend the accused, spoke. He declared that because of the formal wish of the accused not to be defended, he would simply put his faith in the wisdom of the court-martial.

President of the Court: Accused, do you have anything to say in your defense?

Louise Michel: What I demand from you, you who claim you are a court-martial, you who pass yourselves off as my judges, you who don’t hide the way the Board of Pardons behaves, you who are from the military and who judge me publicly—what I call for is the field of Satory, where our revolutionary brothers have already fallen.

I must be cut off from society. You have been told that, and the prosecutor is right. Since it seems that any heart which beats for liberty has the right only to a small lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I will not stop crying for vengeance, and I will denounce the assassins on the Board of Pardons to the vengeance of my brothers.

President of the Court: I cannot allow you to continue speaking if you continue in this tone.

Louise Michel: I have finished. … If you are not cowards, kill me. . . .

The Sentence

After these words, which caused a great stir in the courtroom, the court-martial withdrew to deliberate. After a time, it returned and announced its sentence: that Louise Michel be sentenced to deportation to a fortified place.

Louise Michel was brought back into the courtroom and informed of the verdict. When the clerk told her she had twenty-four hours to petition for reviews, she cried out: “No, there is nothing to appeal. But I would have preferred death.”

[This speech ends the excerpt from the Gazette des tribunaux reprinted in the Memoirs. Louise Michel later appended a short note.]


I shall limit myself to pointing out a few errors.

  1. I was not reared by charity but by my grandparents, who thought it proper to do so. I left Vroncourt only after their deaths, and I left to prepare for my schoolmistress’s diploma. I believed that in this fashion I could be useful to my mother.
  2. The number of my pupils in Montmartre was 150. That was stated by the authorities during the Siege.
  3. Perhaps there is some use in noting that contrary to the description of my person given at the beginning of the account in the Gazette des tribunaux, I am tall, not short. In the times in which we live, it is proper to pass only for oneself.

Chapter 24. Final Thoughts

I come to the end. Now that the black bird of the fallow field has sung for me, I want to explain what it means when a person no longer has anything to fear, when a person no longer has anything to suffer from. From the other side of sorrow, I can watch events coldly, feeling nothing more than the indifference a trash man feels as he turns over rags and tatters with his spiked stick.

People wonder how all these things could have happened during the fifteen years which have just passed. When we are crushed, it only removes the last obstacle to our being useful in the revolutionary struggle. When we are beaten down, we become free. When we are no longer suffering because of what happens to us, we are invincible.

I have reached that point, and it is better for the cause. What does it matter now to my heart, which has already been torn bleeding from my chest, if pen nibs dig into it like the beaks of crows? With my mother dead, no one remains to suffer calumnies. If I had been able to spend these last two years near my mother and feel her happiness, I, too, would have been happy. But there is no reason now for my enemies to fear that I will ever find happiness, for she is dead.

My mother’s death was the signal for both my friends and enemies to seek my release, as if her death was some sort of certificate. Freedom—as if they could pay me for her corpse. I’m grateful to the present government for having understood how odious an insult was the pardon they would have inflicted on me. The government behaved properly when it allowed me to go to my dying mother, and it must not tarnish this generosity by a pardon after her death. Why do I merit a pardon more than other people?

I don’t have a copy of the letter I wrote to refuse that insulting offer of a pardon, but I do have a few lines summarizing my feelings in a letter that I wrote to Lissagaray, who had protested against the government’s plan to pardon me. I seems that other friends had also protested. Not being allowed to read the newspapers, I was unaware of their efforts, and I take the opportunity here to thank them.

4 May 1885

Citizen Lissagaray,

I thank you. It seems that you felt I wasn’t able, without being disgraced, to accept a pardon to which I have no more right than others.

All or nothing.

I don’t want them to pay me for the corpse of my mother. May the friends who warned me in time be thanked also.

I accept completely the responsibility for refusing the pardon. If my friends think about it, they will come to feel that if they can’t do anything more for me, at least they shouldn’t insult me.

My adversaries felt that way.

I clasp your hand.

Louise Michel

P.S. If the government hadn’t listened to me and refused the pardon, I would have left France immediately and gone to Russia or Germany. In those countries they kill revolutionaries; they don’t besmirch them.

May I just be left alone.


“All or nothing.” That’s the way I hope I always feel. I also hope that they won’t repeat the insult that I didn’t merit and which they were kind enough to take away.

A man who is a prisoner has to fight only against the situation which his adversaries make for him. A woman who is a prisoner has not only that same struggle but also the complications caused by her friends intervening in her behalf. They come to aid her because they attribute to her every weakness, every stupidity, every folly.

A woman must be a thousand times calmer than a man, even facing the most horrible events. Although pain may be digging into her heart, she cannot let one word that is not “normal” escape her. If she does, her friends, fooled by pity, and her enemies, motivated by hate, will push her into a mental institution where, with all her faculties intact, she will be buried near madwomen, madwomen who perhaps weren’t mad when they were locked up.

Comrades, you have been very good to my poor mother and me. My dear friends, you have to get used to not passing it off as madness if the thought of my mother’s death rushes up in front of me and bewilders me. Remember that once the poor woman was no longer suffering, I buried her without shedding a tear. Returning to Saint-Lazare, I started back to work the day after her death without anyone ever seeing me cry or stop being calm, even for an instant. What more does anyone want? I shall live for the fight, but I do not wish to live under shameful circumstances.

During the May Days of 1885 the dead went quickly: Hugo, Cournet, Amouroux. All three remind us of 1871. Amouroux dragged the ball of penal servitude in New Caledonia. Cournet was exiled, and exile was the unhappiest fate of the vanquished. Victor Hugo offered his house at Brussels to the fugitives from the slaughterhouse.

Three others were mowed down along with the century that is ending—Louis Blanc, Père Malézieux, and Louis Auguste Blanqui. I remember Blanqui’s last speech. The hall was bedecked with the Tricolor. The brave old man stood up to curse the colors of Sedan and Versailles waving in front of him, the symbols of surrender and murder. The howls of the reactionaries often covered the words of the old man, but then his dying chest filled up with the immense breath of the future and dominated the hall in its turn. After the meeting he went to bed and never got up again.

Malézieux was a man of both June and of Seventy-one, and when, upon his return from exile, the bosses found him too old to work, he lost the will to live. The facial resemblance between him and Victor Hugo was striking and complete. Their faces had the same nobility, proud in the old fighter’s, gentle in the poet’s. Their nobility lit up those two old Homers, and they looked like two old lions lying down observing you.

Hugo was the last of the old bards who sang alone, like Homer. The new bards will sing from one end of the earth to the other when we finally drag down the wreck of the old world, and they will have us as their chorus.

In New Caledonia on an enormous rock that opened its petals of granite like a rose, a granite rose that was spotted with little black streams of cold lava like trickles of black blood, I engraved one of Hugo’s poems for the cyclones:

To the People

Paris bleeding by moonlight

Dreams over the common grave.

Give honor to mass murderers.

More conscription, more tribunes:

Eighty-nine is wearing a gag.

The Revolution, terrible to those it touches,

Is buried, a robber-chief doing

What no Titan could do,

And a Jesuit logician laughs crookedly.

Unsheathed against the great Republic

Are all the Lilliputian sabers.

The judge, a merchant clothed

In legal vestments, sells the law.

Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus

Rise up.

—Victor Hugo

As a child and all through my later life I kept sending poetry to Victor Hugo. But I sent him none after I returned from New Caledonia, because then it was unnecessary to do anything more to honor him. Everyone was celebrating the master, even those who had been far from feting him in the past, and there was no need for me to assist in those joyful days. That is why I was so horrified to learn that Maxime du Camp planned to speak to the crowd from the top of Hugo’s tomb.

It was Maxime du Camp—du Camp of Satory—who betrayed himself and us to the Versailles criminals. He was a purveyor of hot and cold massacres, besliming all those he pointed out. His forehead is marked with blood from the six years he spent flushing out citizens for the courts-martial, and he did it for pleasure. For him to speak under the blooming trees on the red anniversary would insult our sleeping dead. Master Hugo, on you shall fall no single word of his voice, nor any noise of his steps.

We revolutionaries aren’t just chasing a scarlet flag. What we pursue is an awakening of liberty, old or new. It is the ancient communes of France; it is 1793; it is June 1848; it is 1871. Most especially it is the next revolution, which is advancing under this dawn. That is all that we are defending.

We wish that all the people of the world might be revenged for all the Sedans to which despots and fools have dragged humanity. Revenge is the Revolution, which will sow liberty and peace over the entire earth. When the people gain their full vigor, every person will have to line up on one side or the other. People will have to choose either to crowd with their castes into the ruts that moving wheels have left behind or to shake off the absurd limitations of class and take their places on the human stage under the light of the rising sun.

At the burial of Vallès there was an emotional multitude over which the red and black banners waved. Was that the whole revolutionary army? The advance guard? It was hardly a battalion. When the hour comes, which ferocious and stupid governments are pushing forward, it will not be a boulevard that quivers under the steps of a crowd. It will be the entire earth trembling under the march of the human race.

In the meantime, the wider the river of blood flowing from the scaffold where our people are being assassinated, the more crowded the prisons, the greater the poverty, the more tyrannical the governments, the more quickly the hour will come and the more numerous the combatants will be. How many wrathful people, young people, will be with us when the red and black banners wave in the wind of anger! What a tidal wave it will be when the red and black banners rise around the old wreck!

The red banner, which has always stood for liberty, frightens the executioners because it is so red with our blood. The black flag, with layers of blood upon it from those who wanted to live by working or die by fighting, frightens those who want to live off the work of others. Those red and black banners wave over us mourning our dead and wave over our hopes for the dawn that is breaking.

If we were free to fly our banners wherever we wanted in some country, it would show better than any vote can show on which side the crowd was lining up. No longer could men be put in the pockets of the authorities the way fistfuls of bulletins are stuffed there now. It would be a good way to assure each other of our unfalsified true majority, which this time would be that of the people. But we are allowed to fly our flags only over our dead.

People must continue to fight against the masters who oppress them. In England, the gallows will probably greet them, but that does not spoil the vision. They should fight anyway. There was a time when I found the idea of some poor person grimacing at the end of a rope disagreeable. Since than I have learned that in Russia they put you in a sack first. Germany had the headsman’s block, as Reinsdorff and others saw. These various techniques are only different forms of the same death, and the more mournful the setting, the more it is wrapped in the red light of dawn.

At the time when I had a preference, I imagined a scaffold from which I could address the crowd. Then I saw the execution post on the plain of Satory, and as far as the manner of my execution was concerned, the white wall of Père Lachaise cemetery or even some angle of the walls of Paris would have suited me. Today I don’t care. I don’t care how, and I don’t care where. What does it matter to me whether I’m killed in broad daylight or in a woods at night?

A decade and a half have elapsed since the struggle of the Commune. Of the living I say nothing. They are fighting hard in the struggle for life. They have days without work, which means days without food. When I speak of the survivors of the battle and the exile and the deportation to New Caledonia, I must speak of the courage of Mme Nathalie Lemel during all those events. It won’t hurt her, for where she is working now, all the employees are criminals of the Commune and convicts returned from the “justice” of Versailles. I shall name only those to whom an employer won’t say: “Ah, you come from being imprisoned for the Commune. Well, get out of here. There is no longer any work in my place for you.” That happened and still happens often.

The court, just for the sake of variety, had sentenced some of us to hard labor. Some were deemed too weak to stand the trip to New Caledonia, and several of them are now dead: Poirier, so courageous during the Siege and the Commune; Marie Boire; and many others who were no longer alive when we returned from New Caledonia. Mme Louise was sent to New Caledonia in spite of her age, and she died there calling for her children, whom she could not see one more time in he last hours. Of those who were sent to Cayenne, two are dead. One was Elisabeth Retif, a poor and simple girl, who did a magnificent job of carrying out the wounded under fire and who never understood how anyone could find her actions evil. Elisabeth de Ghi, who had married and become Mme Langlais, died on the ship during the voyage home from New Caledonia. She would have loved to see Paris again, but we were still far away from it when, between two cannon shots, her body was slid through a cargo port into the depths of the sea. Marie Schmidt, one of the bravest, died last year in the home for the destitute on the rue de Sevres. In 1871 she had been a stretcher bearer and a soldier, but work was hard to find upon our return and poverty kills quickly.

Sleep in peace, valiant ones, whether you be under the storms and waves, or lying in a common grave. You are the happy ones. Let us honor the obscure dead who suffered to aid those who will come after us. Let us honor the obscure dead who sensed only indistinctly the far-off horizon that will raise up their shades in sprays of stars and let them see the dazzling light of dawn.

As for the executioners, retribution wasn’t long in coming. The prosecutor, Major Gaveau, whose passionate indictments were known to everyone, died insane. It had been necessary to lock him up for some time before his death, and according to the newspapers of the time, he had the most terrible death agonies imaginable. During the whole day before his death he believed that he saw fantastic creatures tumble around in front of his eyes, and it seemed to him that someone was beating a hammer on his skull. The expert Delarue, who had testified to a falsehood against Ferre, was himself later condemned for giving false expert testimony that sent a man to prison for five years. The cost of sending one of our comrades to the execution post at Satory wasn’t as great. The farm of Donjeu, which belonged to M. Feltereau of Villeneuve, was burned by accident. I don’t know if any accident befell Colonel Merlin, who had been a judge in the trial of the members of the Commune and who had commanded the troops which oversaw the assassinations of November 28. Why do criminals escape the consequences of their acts more easily than other people? Doesn’t each act prepare its own destiny?

After the amnesty, I came home from ten years of exile in New Caledonia only to see my poor mother die. With my own hands I laid my mother down in her coffin, as I did Marie Ferré, the one in my red shawl, the other in a soft red coverlet which she liked. So they are for the eternal winter of the tomb, and people ask me if now I am turning my attention to liberty and the spring which makes the branches blossom out again. Am I giving up, now that I have shut my heart under the earth? No! I shall remain standing until the last moment. I returned from deportation faithful to the principles for which I shall die.

Yesterday was May 24. From a distance, I heard some kind of rapid bugle call whose brazen notes sent a chill through my heart. That call was like an echo of the May Days of 1871. Do they still lead soldiers against the people?

See the grains of sand and the piled-up hay and in the highest heavens the crowded stars. Where all that is seen is where we’re going. And here comes the great harvest, grown in the blood of our hearts. The heads of the wheat will be heavier because of that, and the harvest will be greater.

In this somber life, cradling sad days, some refrains come back again and again. They catch at your emotions and rip you apart at the same time.

Flow, flow, blood of the captive.

The Baguades, the Jacques, all of you who wear an iron collar, let’s talk while we wait for the hour to strike. The dream emerges from the scents of spring. It is the morning come of the new legend. Do you hear, peasant, the winds that pass in the air? They are the songs of your fathers, the old Gallic songs.

Flow, flow, blood of the captive.

See this red dew on the earth. It’s blood. The grass over the dead grows higher and greener. On this earth, the charnel house of the people’s dreams, the grass ought to grow thickly. As long as it pleases you to be the beef of the slaughterhouse, to be the ox that pulls the plow or the one dragged to the carnival, people will repeat the terrible refrain:

Flow, flow, blood of the captive.

I don’t know where the final struggle between the old world and the new will take place, but it doesn’t matter, because wherever it is—Rome, Berlin, Moscow—I’ll be there. And other revolutionaries will be there, too. Wherever it begins, the spark will unite the whole world. Everywhere the crowds will rise up. Meanwhile we wait and while we wait, speeches continue. Those speeches are the rumblings of a volcano, and when everybody least expects it, the lava will spill out.

The evening will come. They will still be dancing in the palace. Parliaments will say that discontent has been building up for a long time, but that the grumbling will go on without anyone being able to do anything about it.

Then the great uprising will come. The rising of the people will happen at its appointed moment, the same way that continents develop. It will happen because the human race is ready for it.

That uprising will come, and those whom I have loved will see it. O my beloved dead. I began this book when one of you was still living. Now I end it bent over the ground where you both are sleeping.

Dead, both of them. The stones of my home overturned. I’m alone in the room where my mother spent her last years. Friends have arranged my mother’s furniture and bed as it was when she was still alive. A little bird has slipped between the slats of the blinds to make its nest in the window, and the room is less forlorn because of it. My mother’s poor old furniture, which was like part of her clothing, has the wings of an innocent bird beating over it, and that bird alone hears the ticking of the old clock which marked her death.

Soon, my beloved mother, Myriam!

If she had lived a few more years, even a few more months, I would have spent all that time near her. Today, what do prisons, lies, all the rest matter? What could death do to me? It would be a deliverance because I’m already dead. Why do people speak of courage? I’m in a hurry to join Marie and my mother.

Memory crowds in on me. The cemetery at Vroncourt in the upper turning of the road under the pines. Audeloncourt. Clefmont. And my uncles’ little, low, dark houses. The little house of Aunt Apolline, dug into the ground. Uncle Georges’s up on top of the hill. The schoolhouse. Who hears the noise of the brook there now? Through the open window comes the smell of roses, of stubble, of hay in the summer sunlight. They all come to me now more than ever. I smell the bitter odor of the niaoulis mixed with the sharp freshness of the Pacific waves. Everything reappears in front of my eyes. Everything lives again, the dead and all those things that have vanished.

Who am I, Louise Michel? Don’t make me out to be better than I am—or than you are. I am capable of anything, love or hate, as you are. When the Revolution comes, you and I and all humanity will be transformed. Everything will be changed and better times will have joys that the people of today aren’t able to understand. Feeling for the arts and for liberty will surely become greater, and the harvest of that development will be marvelous. Beyond this cursed time will come a day when humanity, free and conscious of its powers, will no longer torture either man or beast. That hope is worth all the suffering we undergo as we move through the horrors of life.

Viro Major

Ayant vu le massacre immense, le combat

Le peuple sur sa croix, Paris sur son grabat,

La pitié formidable était dans tes paroles.

Tu faisais ce que font les grandes âmes folles

Et, lasse de lutter, de rêver de souffrir,

Tu disais : ” j’ai tué ! ” car tu voulais mourir.

Tu mentais contre toi, terrible et surhumaine.

Judith la sombre juive, Aria la romaine

Eussent battu des mains pendant que tu parlais.

Tu disais aux greniers : ” J’ai brûlé les palais !”

Tu glorifiait ceux qu’on écrase et qu’on foule.

Tu criais : ” J’ai tué ! Qu’on me tue ! – Et la foule

Ecoutait cette femme altière s’accuser.

Tu semblais envoyer au sépulcre un baiser ;

Ton oeil fixe pesait sur les juges livides ;

Et tu songeais pareille aux graves Euménides.

La pâle mort était debout derrière toi.

Toute la vaste salle était pleine d’effroi.

Car le peuple saignant hait la guerre civile.

Dehors on entendait la rumeur de la ville.

Cette femme écoutait la vie aux bruits confus

D’en haut, dans l’attitude austère du refus.

Elle n’avait pas l’air de comprendre autre chose

Qu’un pilori dressé pour une apothéose ;

Et, trouvant l’affront noble et le supplice beau

Sinistre, elle hatait le pas vers le tombeau

Les juges murmuraient : ” Qu’elle meure ! C’est juste

Elle est infâme – A moins qu’elle ne soit Auguste “

Disait leur conscience. Et les jugent, pensifs

Devant oui, devant non, comme entre deux récifs

Hésitaient, regardant la sévère coupable.

Et ceux qui, comme moi, te savent incapable

De tout ce qui n’est pas héroisme et vertu,

Qui savent que si l’on te disait : ” D’ou viens tu ? “

Tu répondrais : ” Je viens de la nuit où l’on souffre ;

Oui, je sors du devoir dont vous faites un gouffre !

Ceux qui savent tes vers mystérieux et doux,

Tes jours, tes nuits, tes soins, tes pleurs donnés à tous,

Ton oubli de toi-même à secourir les autres,

Ta parole semblable aux flammes des apôtres ;

Ceux qui savent le toit sans feu, sans air, sans pain

Le lit de sangle avec la table de sapin

Ta bonté, ta fierté de femme populaire.

L’âpre attendrissement qui dors sous ta colère

Ton long regard de haine à tous les inhumains

Et les pieds des enfants réchauffés dans tes mains ;

Ceux-la, femme, devant ta majesté farouche

Méditaient, et malgré l’amer pli de ta bouche

Malgré le maudisseur qui, s’acharnant sur toi

Te jetai tout les cris indignés de la loi

Malgré ta voix fatale et haute qui t’accuse

Voyaient resplendir l’ange à travers la méduse.

Tu fus haute, et semblas étrange en ces débats ;

Car, chétifs comme tous les vivants d’ici-bas,

Rien ne les trouble plus que deux âmes mêlées

Que le divin chaos des choses étoilées

Aperçu tout au fond d’un grand coeur inclément

Et qu’un rayonnement vu dans un flamboiement.

Victor Hugo

Décembre 1871

(Louise Michel’s Memoirs in french are available online. Our source from the above selections is the Anarchist Library. For a collection of writings on Louise Michel, click here.)

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