Written by Vladimir Moss



     Napoleon III’s Second French Empire, born as a result of the 1848 revolution, had greatly increased the prosperity of its bourgeois citizens while increasing the poverty of the proletariat. Not that the emperor did not want to help the poor: he tried to introduce various reforms, which, however, were ineffective; hence his nickname, “the Well-Intentioned”. As he told the English politician Richard Cobden, “It is very difficult in France to make reforms; we make revolutions in France, not reforms”.[1]


     And yet in the fateful year of 1870 Napoleon’s popularity and his future seemed assured. In a plebiscite, as Roger Price writes, "7,350,000 voters registered their approval, 1,538,000 voted 'no', and a further 1,900,000 abstained. To one senior official it represented 'a new baptism of the Napoleonic dynasty'. It had escaped from the threat of political isolation. The liberal empire offered greater political liberty but also order and renewed prosperity. It had considerable appeal. The centres of opposition remained the cities, with 59 per cent of the votes in Paris negative and this rising to over 70 per cent in the predominantly workers arrondissements of the north-east. In comparison with the 1869 elections, however, opposition appeared to be waning. Republicans were bitterly disappointed. Even Gambetta felt bound to admit that 'the empire is stronger than ever'. The only viable prospect seemed to be a long campaign to persuade the middle classes and peasants that the republic did not mean revolution" [2]


     However, another revolution was in the offing. For the Grand Orient of France decided to overthrow him. The reason for this may have been the fact that Napoleon’s troops in Rome had protected the papacy from final destruction…


     “In Germany,” writes Sir Richard Evans, “the Prussian victory [over the Austrians in 1866] marginalized the separatist politicians of the south German states, led by Bavaria, where the National Liberals were now generating an almost unstoppable enthusiasm for a final act of unification through the extension of the North German Confederation to the south. But France stood in the way. Following the Prussian victory, Napoleon III began to search for ways of limiting the threat to France that he saw in the emergence of a new strong power on the right bank of the Rhine. But he was unable to find any new allies to back him up; the Italians were irritated by the continuing French military defence of the Pope’s remaining territories in and around Rome, Britain stood aloof, and Russia still valued the Prussians’ role in Poland. Nevertheless, war fever began to grip the French political elite. As early as February 1869 the Minister of War told the Council of Ministers in Paris that ‘war with Prussia is inevitable and imminent. We are armed as never before.’ Thus the French emperor felt unable to remain inactive when on 2 July 1870 a member of a cadet branch of the Prussian royal family, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1835-1905), was offered the throne of Spain, which had become vacant through the enforced abdication of Queen Isabella. France considered Spain part of its own sphere of influence, and thought that Bismarck and Wilhelm were behind the candidacy. The result, French public opinion feared, would be a Prussian threat from the south as well as the east.


     “Bismarck won international sympathy by claiming at the time, and later, that Prince Leopold’s candidature had come as a complete surprise to him. It was not until after the Second World War that documents from the Sigmaringen archive came to light showing that Leopold’s father had consulted Wilhelm I as soon as the first tentative approach was made from Spain, and that Bismarck had advised the king to encourage the candidacy. This was not because Bismarck wanted a war; it was for him just another lever of diplomatic pressure. Indeed, when the French ambassador Count Vincent Benedetti (1817-1900) met Wilhelm at his spa retreat in Bad Ems, the king agreed to withdraw his support for Leopold, who retired to his estate and never did become a monarch, although his brother and his son both became rulers of Romania. The matter seemed to be settled. However, the Prussian king was waylaid by the French ambassador during a walk and confronted with fresh demands. Wilhelm ‘sternly’ rejected Benedetti’s ‘importunate’ demand that France should support a candidature like Leopold’s neither in the present nor at any time in the future, and he sent his aide-de-camp to tell Benedetti that he was not willing to receive him again. Wilhelm’s staff sent a telegram to Bismarck reporting the outcome. Bismarck’s published brief summary of the telegram left out the polite phrases with which Wilhelm had gilded his conversation with Benedetti. But the key lay in the mistranslation of the French term aide-de-camp as ‘adjutant of the day’, which made it seem as if a very lowly non-commissioned officer, not a close personal assistant, had been sent to give Benedetti the brush-off. This apparent insult was enough for Napoleon III, already seeking another foreign success to bolster his fading popularity, to issue a declaration of war.”[3]


     And so French national vanity in relation to the “barbaric” Germans[4], combined with Bismarckian cunning and German military superiority, led to a war in which the Germans decisively defeated the French at Sedan, laying the foundations for the unification of Germany and the Second German Reich – and that Franco-German hatred which led to the First World War.


     ”Seeing that the game was up,” writes Evans, “Napoleon III sent a message of surrender to Wilhelm, Moltke and Bismarck. Offered a flask of brandy, Bismarck toasted everyone in English, ‘Here’s to the unification of Germany’, and drank the entire flask. In an attempt to gain mild terms, Napoleon III rode out in person from Sedan, and was met by Bismarck, who sat him down on a bench by an inn. The conversation was held in the German the emperor had learned as a child. Bismarck informed Napoleon that the entire French army would be taken into captivity, and the siege of Metz would continue. ‘Then everything is lost,’ the emperor mumbled. ‘Yes, quite right,’ replied Bismarck brutally: ‘everything really is lost’. Some 100,000 French troops were made to lay down their arms and were taken to prison camps. As the news reached Paris, on 3 September 1870, riots broke out. About 60,000 people gathered on the Place de la Concorde, shouting ‘Death to the Bonapartes! Long live the nation!’ On 4 September the Assembly proclaimed the deposition of the dynasty and the creation of the Third Republic. Napoleon III was taken to Kassel, where he was eventually allowed to into exile in England.”[5]


     Napoleon's sudden fall from grace was caused by a sudden withdrawal of support by the Freemasons. Thus Archpriest Lev Lebedev writes: "N[icholas]  K[arlovich] Gris, who was at that time Russian consul in Berne (Switzerland), and later minister of foreign affairs (chancellor) of Alexander III, in accordance with the duties of his office observed and carefully studied the activity of the Masonic centre in Berne. To it came encoded dispatches from French Masons with exact dates about the movements, deployment and military plans of the French armies. These were immediately transferred through Masonic channels to the Prussian command. The information came from Masonic officers of the French army. And so France was doomed! No strategy and tactics, no military heroism could save her. It turned out that international Masonry had 'sentenced' France to defeat beforehand, and that the French 'brother-stone-masons' had obediently carried out the sentence on their own country (fatherland!). Here is a vivid example of Masonic cooperation with the defeat of their own government with the aim of overthrowing it and establishing an authority pleasing to the Masons."[6]


     Sedan was an historic milestone in more ways than one. Not only did it reverse the decision and the result of the French victory over the Prussians at Valmy in 1792, when the Masons had supported the French against the Prussians. The protector-client relationship between France and the Roman papacy, which had begun when Pope Stephen had crossed the Alps to seek to anoint the Frankish King Pippin in the eighth century, and which had been profoundly shaken by the first Napoleon, was also now coming to an end…


     As the victorious Germans closed in on Paris,” writesMark Almond, "The Third Republic, proclaimed on 4 September, tried to rally the defence of France, looking back to the example of the First Republic, eighty years earlier: 'The Republic was victorious over the invasion of 1793. The Republic is declared.' But the dearth of trained soldiers and equipment made resistance to the Germans very difficult, and by 19 September the German army had surrounded and laid siege to Paris.


     "The siege was the essential ingredient in the radicalisation of the city's population. The famine and other burdens reduced many of the recently prosperous to penury, even prostitution...


     "Some 350,000 men formed a National Guard to defend the city; most of them depended on their soldier's pay for their livelihood because the economy had collapsed during the siege. Attempts to break out of the city failed on 27 October 1870 and 19 January 1871, and provoked demonstrations at the Hôtel de Ville. Already the suspicion was spreading that politicians outside Paris were less devoted to resistance than the people of the capital...


     "Despite the efforts of the Parisians to hold out against the besieging army, the French government felt it was futile to continue the war and signed an armistice with Germany on 28 January 1871. This treaty brought an end to the siege but imposed humiliating terms on France, including the surrender of Alsace-Lorraine and a crippling war indemnity of 5 million francs.


     "France went to the polls on 8 February to vote for a new government that would (in accordance with the armistice) take responsibility for accepting or rejecting Germany's terms for peace. The results revealed how different Paris was from the rest of France. Paris elected a group of radicals to the Assembly, while monarchists dominated the elections elsewhere. The monarchist majority wanted peace with the Germans, whatever the humiliation.


    "To achieve this peace, the Prime Minister, Thiers, had to disarm the National Guard in Paris. He ordered the Guard to hand over its artillery to the regular army on 18 March 1871. But he had already antagonised the Guard by cutting its pay, which hit the poor much as the abolition of national workshops had done in 1848. The poor had also been hit when the new National Assembly voted to end the wartime moratorium on debts and rents. Thus the people of Montmartre, especially the women, rallied to stop their cannons being hauled away. Bloody clashes occurred between the army and the people. The mayor of Montmartre, Georges Clemenceau, was shocked by the violence of the outburst: 'The mob which filled the courtyard burst into the street in the grip of some kind of frenzy. Amongst them were chasseurs, soldiers of the line, National Guards, women and children. All were shrieking like wild beasts without realizing what they were doing. I observed then that pathological phenomenon which might be called blood lust. A breath of madness seemed to have passed over this mob...'


     "Several hours of fighting and rioting followed, at the end of which the government troops appeared to be no nearer to capturing the guns of Montmartre. Thiers decided to withdraw his forces and remove the Government from the capital city to Versailles. The rebels in Paris, meanwhile, voted to revive the Commune (on the model of 1792) in defiance of the government.


     "Only four members of the Commune represented the recently founded Marxist Workingman's International. Twenty-five out of the Commune's ninety members worked with their hands, but mainly as skilled artisans. They were outnumbered by professionals, such as journalists, radical doctors and teachers. But two-thirds or more of the Commune's members would have described themselves as the heirs of the Jacobins of 1793. Karl Marx himself did not at first recognise the Communards as the proletarian revolutionaries of his future Communist society, but his sympathy with their struggle against the French bourgeoisie encouraged the romanticization of the Communard as a premature Communist revolutionary...


     "Nationalism and popular local government rather than social revolution were the rallying cries of the Commune, but the flight from Paris of Thiers' government and most of the wealthy members of society created a new social situation. In the absence of many of the bourgeois elite, Paris fell into the hands of members of the lower orders, who had little experience of administration. Marx noted that the Communards lacked effective leadership. 'They should at once have marched on Versailles,' he wrote, before Thiers had time to complete amassing his army. But the Communards' revolutionary hostility to rank meant that their forces lacked an effective commander-in-chief who might have seized the moment. Spontaneity without strategy was bound to fail.


     "From March 1871, two rival authorities existed in France, the national government at Versailles and the Commune in Paris, each with its own armed force and each jockeying for political power. Half-hearted negotiations between the two authorities did take place, but when these broke down Thiers decided to attempt once more to retake the capital. He brought up an army of provincial Frenchmen, suspicious and resentful of what they saw as arrogant Parisians trying to dictate politics to France as so often before. Naturally the Germans looked favourably on any blood-letting among the French that would weaken them further.


     "On 2 April, government troops seized Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, and began a new siege of Paris. For several weeks Government troops bombarded the fortresses protecting the capital, taking them one by one, and by 21 May the army was able to force its way into Paris through an undefended point to the south-west of the city. Over the next seven days, known as the 'bloody week', the army methodically re-conquered the capital from west to east. Each quartier defended itself, giving the army the opportunity to pick off district after district. In the course of the struggle, the Communards set fire to ancient buildings like the Tuileries and the Hôtel de Ville. They also shot their hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy. Given the anti-clerical tradition of revolution in France he might have seemed an ideal reactionary scapegoat, but Darboy himself was disliked by French conservatives: he had voted against Papal Infallibility at the Vatican Council two years earlier and was something of a liberal. The Communards ensured that Paris would not have another liberal archbishop for almost a century...


     "As many as 20,000 Communards - including women and children - were killed as the army fought its way forward through the streets of Paris, while another 40,000 insurgents were taken prisoner. About half of these were released soon enough, but 10,000 were transported to the colonies, including the remote New Caledonia in the South Pacific."[7]


     "The lead in the revolt," writes E.P. Thompson, "with its echoes of 1793 and 1848, was taken by the few thousand followers of the veteran revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, idol of the Paris underworld of conspirators... But it was neither a mainly communist and Marxist movement, nor even closely connected with the recently formed First International. It was a peculiarly French and Parisian revolt, the apotheosis of the long French revolutionary tradition and an outburst of local pride and distress, fiercely patriotic and anti-German."[8]


     "These startling events, which brought an oriental barbarism into the most civilized and cosmopolitan capital of Europe, had decisive consequences for nascent socialism. Marx wrote his pamphlet on The Civil War in France, which hailed the Commune as the dawn of a new era of direct proletarian revolutionary action and a triumph for his own followers and for the International. Frightened property-owning classes everywhere in Europe took him at his word, and saw in the Commune the beginning of a fresh revolutionary menace. Even a confusion of words contributed to this widespread misinterpretation of the Commune. Communards were assumed to be communists. Capitulards (as the rebels called Thiers and his ministers who 'capitulated' and made peace with Germany) were confused with capitalists. The Marxist analysis of the event as a landmark in the class war was made to fit only by a distortion of both facts and words. It can be regarded more accurately as the last dying flicker of an old tradition, the tradition of the barricades of 1789 and 1848, rather than as the beginning of a new. Never again was Paris to impose her will upon the rest of France, as she had done before 1871. The aftermath of the Commune and of its repression was the exile or imprisonment of all the more revolutionary elements in France; and the new parliamentary republic was erected during their elimination from the scene. It was only after 1879, when the republican parties gained full control of the Republic, that amnesties were granted and more active socialist movements could again operate freely in France."[9]


     "All Europe," writes Jacques Barzun, "including many liberals and socialists disavowed the Commune, which was the name chosen by the insurgents to show their organic bond as citizens of the municipality. But Karl Marx in London, seeing the chance for a political stroke, and perhaps also the value of that name, issued a pamphlet that represented the insurgents as a foretaste of the class war to come - the proletariat aroused and about to establish Communism. This was a piece of big-lie propaganda. The Communards were neither proletariat nor Communists. The 'municipal republics' they wanted to set up in the rest of France were the opposite of the central dictatorship of Marx's program. But Marx had rightly judged that the event had given worldwide notoriety to workingmen in arms. The image could be a vivid myth for the Idea of the next revolution.”[10]


     In view of the strong influence exerted by Freemasonry on the Franco-Prussian war, it may be asked whether it exerted a similar influence on the struggle between the Third Republic and the Paris Commune that followed it… The evidence is ambiguous. According to Jasper Ridley, "several of the leaders of the Paris Commune were Freemasons. Benoit Halon, who was a member of Marx's International Working Men's Association (later known as the First International); Felix Pyat; the songwriter Jean Baptiste Clément, who wrote the song 'Le Temps des Cerises' (Cherry Time) about the Commune; Zéphian Camélinat, who survived to become a member of the Communist Party in 1920; and another songwriter, Eugène Pottier, who wrote, among other poems and songs, the words of L'Internationale. But there were Freemasons on the other side. Louis Blanc condemned the Paris Commune, and remained in the National Assembly at Versailles; and from Italy Mazzini strongly condemned the Commune, though Garibaldi supported it.


     "On 29 April 1871 some Paris Freemasons set out from Paris to go to Versailles to discuss with [the non-masonic] Thiers ways of ending the civil war between the government and the Commune. They carried their Masonic banners as they walked through the Porte Maillot. On this section of the battlefront the government army was commanded by General Montaudon, who was a Freemason. He ordered a ceasefire to allow the Freemasons from Paris to pass through his lines. They went on to Versailles, where their Masonic brother, Jules Simon, took them to see Thiers; but Thiers insisted that Paris must submit unconditionally to the government at Versailles."[11]




     The events of 1870 are a vivid example of the power of Freemasonry, both in the overthrow of Napoleon III and in the inspiration of the Commune. However, the Commune itself was divided between radicals and moderates, as the original French revolution had been in 1789-93. This is a phenomenon that we find in most revolutions: while the Masons may be in favour of the idea of revolution as such, when it comes to the actual bloody reality, in which they are likely to lose property if not their own lives, many of them hang back…


     And yet it is precisely at this time that we find the leading Masons of the world trying to create a unifying centre. Thus on January 22, 1870 Mazzini wrote to the famous American Mason Albert Pike: “We have to found a Super-Circle which must remain in complete secrecy and to which we will summon the Masons of the higher degrees at our own choice. Regarding our brothers, we have to bind these people by oath in the strictest secrecy. By means of this highest circle, we shall control all the movements of the Freemasons: it will become an international centre which will be the more powerful the fewer people know who rules it.” For Mazzini, in fact, the unification of Italy had never been his main aim, “but only the means to attaining world power”. In reply, on September 20, 1870 Pike signed an agreement with Mazzini, according to which the Supreme Masonic cult, uniting all the Masons of the world, between thirty and forty million throughout the world, would be established in Rome.”[12] For Rome now, thanks to the overthrow of Napoleon, was in the hands of the revolution…


     The career of Napoleon III, and his sudden, totally unexpected fall in 1870, is a vivid demonstration not only of the fragility of political power in general, but also of that specific form of power known as Bonapartism, which is brought to power by the revolution and supposedly accepts its ideals, but then attempts to ride the tiger of the revolution in a despotic manner. Some accuse the present President of France, Emmanuel Macron, of being a Bonapartist; a more convincing example is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in Russia…


     The end of Bonapartism is always the same. Having suffered defeat (usually of a military kind), the despot finds that the popularity he courted so assiduously deserts him in a moment. For when asked to choose between an unanointed despot they themselves have put in power and the survival of the nation, the people always choose the nation. As they shouted in 1870: “Death to the Bonapartes! Long live the nation!”


March 21 / April 3, 2018.


[1] Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, London: Pan Books, 2003, p. 277.

[2] Price, A Concise History of France, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 188-189.

[3] Evans, The Pursuit of Power. Europe 1815-1914, London: Penguin, pp. 260-261.

[4] Cf. Victor Hugo: "It is in Paris that the beating of Europe's heart is felt. Paris is the city of cities. Paris is the city of men. There has been an Athens, there has been a Rome, and now there is Paris... Is the nineteenth century to witness this frightful phenomenon? A nation fallen from polity, to barbarism, abolishing the city of nations; Germans extinguishing Paris... Can you give this spectacle to the world?" (Horne, op. cit., p. 287).

[5] Evans, op. cit., p. 263.

[6] Lebedev, Velikorossia (Great Russia), St. Petersburg, 1999, pp. 363-364. Cf. V. F. Ivanov, Russkaia Intelligentsia i Masonstvo: ot Petra I do nashikh dnej (The Russian Intelligentsia and Masonry: from Peter I to our days), Moscow, 1997, pp. 358-359.

[7] Almond, Revolution, London: De Agostini, 1996, pp. 112-113, 114-115.

[8] Thompson, Europe since Napoleon, London: Penguin Books, 1966, p. 395.

[9] Thompson, Europe since Napoleon, London: Penguin, 1966, pp. 395-396.

[10] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence,New York, 2000.

[11] Jasper Ridley, The Freemasons, London: Constable, 1999, p. 214.

[12] Yu.K. Begunov, A.D. Stepanov, K.Yu. Dushenov, Taina Bezzakonia (The Mystery of Iniquity), St. Petersburg, 2002, pp. 387-388.

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