Truth buried as Paris cemetery sculpture is mistaken for famous wall
A robed goddess, etched in stone, falls backwards against a wall after being fatally wounded. She’s surrounded by sunken figures, and handprints that float like ghosts. It’s a stunning monument, on the outside perimeter of Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, and one widely believed to commemorate perhaps the most anarchistic episode of French history – the Paris Commune.
But this claim is flatly rejected by the Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune, a group founded by survivors of the Commune. This is France’s oldest labour movement, whose creators helped rally the city to the world’s first rise to power by the working class.
“This (sculpture) is simply a monument to commemorate this period, but it has nothing at all to do with the authentic Mur des Fédérés (Communards’ Wall),” says the association’s secretary general, Jean-Claude Lieberman.
The “real wall” Lieberman is referring to is far less flamboyant, tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the cemetery. It bears a plaque whose inscription is simple: “Aux Morts de la Commune, 21-28 Mai, 1871”. To the Dead of the Commune.
It was during this fateful year – on the back of a turbulent century that saw France dither between republic, monarchy and empire – that the disgruntled hoards performed an extraordinary feat of unity. Mortified at the loss of the Franco-Prussian war, Parisians sought to drive out the Germans who’d laid siege to the city.
They refused to accept the surrender negotiated by French national government head Adolphe Thiers – and this new civil conflict went on to claim even more lives than the original battle.
Calling themselves Communards, the masses took advantage of the country’s weakened army to snatch the reins of government and establish the Paris Commune. For two months it held out against the forces of the French government, which had retreated to Versailles with the advance of the Prussians.
Communards fought battles from behind barricades across the city. But it was at a simple wall in the Père Lachaise Cemetery where the last 147 members resisted in the mud with their bare hands. They were lined up and executed, on 28 May, 1871, ending what has been dubbed the Semaine Sanglante, or the “Week of Bloodshed”. The uprising was crushed.
“The repression by the soldiers from Versailles was extremely ferocious because the deposed government was afraid that the Paris Commune’s political and economic progression would propagate all over France,” Lieberman says.
"There were many other communes – in Lyon, Narbonne, Marseille and Bordeaux. So Versailles was terrified the momentum would spread.
“So they chose to operate with the Prussians. They said: ‘You give us back the prisoners that you took during the war of 1870 and, in exchange, you can take the Communards off our hands’. This is why the battle in Paris was extremely significant.”
The Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune has long explained that the much-photographed bas-relief sculpture with the goddess is not the famous Communards’ Wall – nor is it accepted as a symbol of remembrance for the estimated 30,000 Commune members who fell.
Created by artist Paul Moreau-Vauthier 38 years after the demise of the Commune, the work, entitled Victimes des Révolutions pays tribute to those killed on both sides of such battles – whether revolutionary or enemy.
“The real wall can be found inside Père Lachaise Cemetery,” says Lieberman. “It is at this spot where, on 28 and 29 May every year, we perform a commemoration ceremony."
The ceremony is known as the Montée au Mur, explains Lieberman. “We leave from the rue des Rondeaux, which isn’t so well known, and then we climb the hill until the Mur des Fédérés, passing by all of the statues of the deportees of the 39-45 war.”
Lieberman says this tradition has been taking place since 1905. “The commemorations stopped during the Second World War, but the association continued them until the cusp of the war, around 1938,” he says. “In fact it was during these pre-war years that we saw the biggest turnout.”
The Paris Commune has interested communist thinkers the world over, who drew major theoretical lessons from its experience. Karl Marx said it was a living example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in his 1871 pamphlet The Civil War in France.
For all of its mistakes, said Marx, the Commune’s most important accomplishment was its very existence – because an abstract concept took a living form. It was the closest thing to a socialist revolution that he witnessed.
Over in China, revolutionary and communist leader Mao Zedong constantly made references to the Paris Commune during his spate of social-political reforms. Chinese essayist Xujun Eberlein says the Paris Commune was standard fare at her primary school in Chongqing.
“The teachers were always talking about it – and all the students learned the song, The International, whose author [Eugène Pottier] was a Paris Commune member,” she says. “We were told he wrote the song shortly after the Commune fell.
“We learned it in music class, so even when studying music, we were learning about history. We were also taught about the Commune in Chinese literature class, and of course in history class.”
Although the fervour died down after Mao’s Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the lessons of the Paris Commune would never be forgotten in Eberlein’s home. Its memory was sacred to her father.
“When I visited Paris a few years ago, my father insisted that I pay my respects to the Communards’ Wall,” says Eberlain. “For me the memory of the revolution had somewhat faded – though I still remembered a book about it sitting on my father’s shelf, and I could recall the sculpture.”
When she got to Père Lachaise, Eberlain was troubled to find there were two places marked on the cemetery’s official map that made reference to the Paris Commune.
“One was the sculpture that I remembered as a child, and the other was the actual location where the Commune members were killed,” she says. “So I did some research, and found out that the relief sculpture was not the site where they died, like we were all taught in China.”
Poland has also promoted the Victimes des Révolutions as the cemetery’s tribute to the fallen Communards. On its 200 zloty banknote, it printed an image of left-wing nationalist Jarosław Dabrowski, who died during the Commune. The back of the note, first printed in 1976, bears an image of Moreau-Vauthier’s sculpture with words “Monument to the Dead of the Paris Commune”.
In an essay on the Paris Commune, Eberlain explains that another Chinese national, before her, had sought to solve the mystery of the sculpture – and its relevance to the Commune.
In 1972 Chinese scholar and French expert Shen Dali, suspicious at the apparent etching of Versailles soldiers around the goddess, concluded that Moreau-Vauthier was a “fanatical Chauvinist” whose opinions “had nothing in common with the Paris Commune”.
It was a startling discovery for Eberlain, who after wrapping up her Paris trip was loathe to break the news to her father. He had long understood that the entire Père Lachaise Cemetery was, in fact, a dedication to the Paris Commune.
“My father is a firm believer in communism, and I didn’t want to break his heart,” she says.
English journalist Archibald Forbes recorded the aftermath of the Commune in an article in The Daily News, 26 May, 1871.
“When I returned, the communists were at their last gasp in the Château d'Eau, the Buttes de Chaumont and Père-Lachaise. I visited Père-Lachaise, where the very last shots had been fired … the ghastliest sight was in the south-eastern corner where, close to the boundary wall, there had been a natural hollow.
“The hollow was now filled up by dead. There they lay, tier above tier, each successive tier powdered over with a coating of chloride of lime - two hundred of them patent to the eye, besides those underneath hidden by the earth covering layer after layer.
“Among the dead were many women … faces distorted out of humanity with ferocity and agony combined. How died these men and women? Just yonder was where they were posted up against that section of pock-pitted wall … and were shot to death as they stood or crouched.”