Springtime of peoples


The images, vocabulary and above all the political lessons of 1848 have found re-employment in recent weeks.

Here’s Flaubert, in Sentimental Education, describing popular delirium amid the February storming of the Tuileries Palace:

Suddenly the “Marseillaise” resounded. Hussonnet and Frédéric bent over the balusters. It was the people. They rushed up the stairs, shaking with a dizzying, wave-like motion bare heads, or helmets, or red caps, or else bayonets or human shoulders with such impetuosity that some people disappeared every now and then in this swarming mass, which was mounting up without a moment’s pause, like a river compressed by an equinoctial tide, with a continuous roar under an irresistible impulse. When they got to the top of the stairs, they were scattered, and their chant died away. Nothing could any longer be heard but the tram of all the shoes intermingled with the chopping sound of many voices. The crowd, not being in a mischievous mood, contented themselves with looking about them. But, from time to time, an elbow, by pressing too hard, broke through a pane of glass, or else a vase or a statue rolled from a bracket down on the floor. The wainscotings cracked under the pressure of people against them. Every face was flushed; the perspiration was rolling down their features in a large bead. Hussonnet made this remark:

“Heroes have not a good smell.”

“Ah! you are provoking,” returned Frédéric.

And, pushed forward in spite of themselves, they entered an apartment in which a dais of red velvet rose as far as the ceiling. On the throne below sat a representative of the proletariat in effigy with a black beard, his shirt gaping open, a jolly air, and the stupid look of a baboon. Others climbed up the platform to sit in his place.

“What a myth!” said Hussonnet. “There you see the sovereign people!”

The armchair was lifted up on the hands of a number of persons and passed across the hall, swaying from one side to the other.

“By Jove, ’tis like a boat! The Ship of State is tossing about in a stormy sea! Let it dance the cancan! Let it dance the cancan!”

They had drawn it towards a window, and in the midst of hisses, they launched it out.

“Poor old chap!” said Hussonet, as he saw the effigy falling into the garden, where it was speedily picked up in order to be afterwards carried to the Bastille and burned.

Then a frantic joy burst forth, as if, instead of the throne, a future of boundless happiness had appeared; and the the people, less through a spirit of vindictiveness than to to assert their right of possession, broke or tore the glasses, the curtains, the lustres, the tapers, the tables, the chairs, the stools, the entire furniture, including the very albums and engravings, and the corbels of the tapestry. Since they had triumphed, they must needs amuse themselves! The common herd ironically wrapped themselves up in laces and cashmeres. Gold fringes were rolled round the sleeves of blouses. Hats with ostriches; feathers adorned blacksmiths’ heads, and ribbons of the Legion of Honour supplied waistbands for prostitutes. Each person satisfied his or her caprice; some danced, others drank. In the queen’s apartment a woman gave a gloss to her hair with pomatum. Behind a folding-screen two lovers were playing cards. Hussonnet pointed out to Frédéric an individual who has smoking a dirty pipe with his elbows resting on a balcony; and the popular frenzy redoubled with a continuous crash of broken porcelain and pieces of crystal, which, as they rebounded, made sounds resembling those produced by the plates of musical glasses.

Then their fury was overshadowed. A nauseous curiosity made them rummage all the dressing-rooms, all the recesses. Returned convicts thrust their arms into the beds in which princesses had slept, and rolled themselves on the top of them, to console themselves for not being able to embrace their owners. Others, with sinister faces, roamed about silently, looking for something to steal, but too great a multitude was there. Through the bays of the doors could be seen in the suite of apartments only the dark mass of people between the gilding of the walls under a cloud of dust. Every breast was panting. The heat became more and more suffocating; and the two friends, afraid of being stifled, seized the opportunity of making their way out.

In the antechamber, standing on a heap of garments, appeared a girl of the town as a statue of Liberty, motionless, her grey eyes wide open – a fearful sight…

They were filled with ardour. They went back to the Palais-Royal. In front of the Rue Fromanteau, soldiers’ corpses were heaped up on the straw. They passed close to the dead without a single quiver of emotion, feeling a certain pride in being able to keep their countenance.

The Palais overflowed with people. In the inner courtyard seven piles of wood were flaming. Pianos, chests of drawers, and clocks were hurled out through the windows. Fire-engines sent streams of water up to the roofs. Some vagabonds tried to cut the hose with the sabres. Frédéric urged a pupil of the Polytechnic School to interfere. The latter did not understand him, and moreover, appeared to be an idiot. All around, in the two galleries, the populace, having got possession of the cellars, gave themselves up to a horrible carouse. Wine flowed in streams and wetted people’s feet; the mudlarks drank out of the tail-ends of the bottles, and shouted as they staggered along.

“Come away out of this,” said Hussonnet; “I am disgusted with the people.”

All over the Orléans Gallery the wounded lay on mattresses on the ground, with purple curtains folded round them as coverlets; and the small shopkeepers’ wives and daughters from the quarter brought them broth and linen.

“No matter!” said Frédéric; “for my part, I consider the people sublime.”

The overthrow of Louis Phillippe, and creation of the Second Republic, thus prompts an upswell of shared democratic feelings and faith in the unity of the non-aristocratic classes:

The attention of Frédéric and Hussonnet was distracted by a tall fellow who was walking quickly between the trees with a musket on his shoulder. A cartridge-box was pressed against his pea-jacket; a handkerchief was wound round his cap. He turned his head to one side. It was Dussardier; and casting himself into their arms:

“Ah! what good fortune, my poor friends!” without being able to say another word, so much out of breath was he with fatigue.

He had been on his legs for the last twenty-four hours. He had been engaged at the barricades of the Latin Quarter, had fought in the Rue Rabuteau, had saved three dragoons’ lives, had entered the Tuileries with Colonel Dunoyer and, after that, had repaired to the Chamber, and then to the Hôtel de Ville.

“I have come from it! all goes well! the people are victorious! the workmen and the employers are embracing one another. Ha! if you knew what I have seen! what brave fellows! what a fine sight it was!”

And without noticing that they had no arms:

“I was quite certain of finding you there! This has been a bit rough – no matter!”

A drop of blood ran down his cheek, and in answer to the questions put to him by the two others:

“Oh! ’tis nothing! a slight scratch from a bayonet!”

“However, you really ought to take care of yourself.”

“Pooh! I am substantial! What does this signify? The Republic is proclaimed! We’ll be happy henceforth! Some journalists, who were talking just now in front of me, said they were going to liberate Poland and Italy! No more kings! You understand? The entire land free! the entire land free!”


Frédéric, though he was not a warrior, felt the Gallic blood leaping his veins. The magnetism of the public enthusiasm had seized hold of him. He inhaled with a voluptuous delight the stormy atmosphere filled with the odour of gunpowder; and, in the meantime, he quivered under the effluvium of an immense love, a supreme and universal tenderness, as if the heart of all humanity were throbbing in his breast…

After this Frédéric went to see the Maréchale… All was quite now. There was no reason to be afraid. He kissed her, and she declared herself in favour of the Republic, as his lordship the Archbishop of Paris had already done, and the magistracy, the Council of State, the Institute, the marshals of France, Changarnier, M. de Falloux, all the Bonapartists, all the Legitimists, and a considerable number of Orléanists were about to do with a swiftness indicative of marvellous zeal.

The fall of the Monarchy had been so rapid that, as soon as the first stupefaction that succeeded it had passed away, there was amongst the middle class a feeling of astonishment at the fact that they were still alive. The summary execution of some thieves, who were shot without a trial, was regarded as an act of signal justice. For a month Lamartine’s phrase was repeated with reference to the red flag, “which had only gone the round of the Champ de Mars, while the tricoloured flag,” etc.; and all ranged themselves under its shade, each party seeing amongst the three colours only its own, and firmly determined, as soon as it would be the most powerful, to tear away the two others.

As business was suspended, anxiety and love of gaping drove everyone into the open air. The careless style of costume generally adopted attenuated differences of social position. Hatred masked itself; expectations were openly indulged in; the multitude seemed full of good nature. The pride of having gained their rights shone in the people’s faces. They displayed the gaiety of a carnival, the manners of a bivouac. Nothing could be more amusing than the aspect of Paris during the first days that followed the Revolution.

The despatched Orléanist regime had found its social base exclusively among the financial aristocracy. This layer, according to Flaubert, ‘would have sold France or the human race in order to preserve their own incomes, to save themselves from any discomfort or embarrassment, or even through sheer baseness, through worship of force.’

But these disoriented bankers now scramble to proclaim their amity, not just with their fellows in the possessing class, but with the employed and downtrodden population:

Of all Frenchmen, M. Dambreuse was the most alarmed. The new condition of things threatened his fortune, but, more than anything else, it deceived his experience. A system so good! a king so wise! was it possible? The ground was tottering beneath their feet! Next morning he dismissed three of his servants, sold his horses, bought a soft hat to go out into the streets, considered even letting his beard grow; and he remained at home, prostrated, reading over and over again newspapers most hostile to his own ideas; he was plunged into such gloomy reflections that even the jokes about the pipe of Flocon had not the power to make him smile.

As a supporter of the late reign, he was dreading the vengeance of the people on his estates in Champagne, when Frédéric’s lucubration fell into his hands. Then it occurred to his mind that his young friend was a very useful personage, and that he might be able, if not to serve him, at least to protect him; so, one morning, M. Dambreuse presented himself at Frédéric’s residence, accompanied by Martinon.

This visit, he said, had no purpose save that of seeing him for a little while, and having a chat. He rejoiced at the events that had happened, and with his whole heart adopted “our sublime motto, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” having always been at heart a Republican. If he voted under the other regime with the Ministry, it was simply in order to accelerate an inevitable downfall. He even inveighed against M. Guizot, “who has got us into a nice hobble, we must admit!” By way of retaliation, he spoke enthusiastically about Lamartine, who had shown himself  “magnificent, upon my word of honour, when, with reference to the red flag-”

“Yes, I know,” said Frédéric. After which he declared that his sympathies were on the side of the working-men.

“For, in fact, more or less, we are all working-men!” And he carried his impartiality so far as to admit that Proudhon had a certain amount of logic in his views. “Oh, a great deal of logic, deuce take it!”

The period of Provisional Government — and Europe’s Springtime of Peoples — henceforth allows a flourishing of opinion and revolutionary fervour:

The mummer, from the moment that his future colleague aspired to represent the province, declared himself his servant, and offered to be his guide to the various clubs.

They visited them, or nearly all, the red and the blue, the furious and the tranquil, the puritanical and the licentiousness, the mystical and the intemperate, those that had voted for the deaths of kings, and those in which the frauds in the grocery trade had been denounced; and everywhere the tenants cursed the landlords; the blouse was full of spite against broadcloth; and the rich conspired against the poor. Many wanted indemnities on the ground that they had formerly been martyrs of the police; others appealed for money in order to carry out certain inventions, or else there were plans of phalansteria, projects for cantonal bazaars, systems of public felicity; then, here and there a flash of genius amid these clouds of folly, sudden as splashes, the law formulated by an oath, and flowers of eloquence on the lips of some soldier-boy, with a shoulder-belt strapped over his bare, shirtless chest. Sometimes, too, a gentleman made his appearance – an aristocrat of humble demeanour, talking in a plebeian strain, and with his hands unwashed, so as to make them look hard. A patriot recognised him; the most virtuous mobbed him; and he went off with rage in his soul. On the pretext of good sense, it was desirable to be always disparaging the advocates, and to make use as often as possible of these expression: “To carry his stone to the building”, “social problem,” “workshop.”

Flaubert finds much drollery in this radicalisation — such as a picture by the failed artist Pellerin, which depicts ‘the Republic, or Progress, or Civilisation, under the form of Jesus Christ driving a locomotive, which was passing through a virgin forest.’

Especially suspicious is the political “commitment” of his aimless protagonist. Frédéric attends a meeting of the “Club of Intellect”, where he witnesses speeches by assorted cranks, bores, non-French speakers, and Sénécal, the club’s Robespierre-aping, Socialist president:

It was necessary to take a level which be above the heads of the wealthy. And he represented them as gorging themselves with crimes under their gilded ceiling, while the poor, writhing in their garrets with famine, cultivated every virtue. The applause became so vehement that he interrupted his discourse. For several minutes he remained with his eyes closed, his head thrown back, and, as it were, lulling himself to sleep over the fury which he had aroused.

Then he began to talk in a dogmatic fashion, in phrases as imperious as laws. The State should take possession of the banks and of the insurance offices. Inheritances should be abolished. A social fund should be established for the workers. Many other measures were desirable in the future.

But the author reserves much of the mockery for his old target, that narrow-minded mercantile and commercial class, which grows uneasy with Louis Blanc, the National Workshops, progressive income tax and the forces of Socialism:

[All] the excesses and all the grievances, were just now being exaggerated by having superadded to them Ledru-Rollin’s circular, the forced currency of bank notes, the fall of the funds to sixty francs, and, to crown all, as the supreme iniquity, a final blow, a culminating horror, the duty of forty-five centimes! And over and above all these things, there was again Socialism! Although these theories, as new as the game of goose, had been discussed sufficiently for forty years to fill a number of libraries, they terrified the wealthier citizens, as if they had been a hailstorm of aerolites; and they expressed indignation at them by virtue of that hatred which the advent of every idea provokes, simply because it is an idea – an odium from which it derives subsequently its glory, and which causes its enemies to be always beneath it, however lowly it may be.

Then Property rose in their regard to the level of Religion, and was confounded with God. The attacks made on its appeared to them a sacrilege; almost a species of cannibalism. In spite of the most humane legislation that ever existed, the spectre of ’93 reappeared, and the chopper of the guillotine vibrated in every syllable of the word “Republic,” which did not prevent them from despising it for its weakness. France, no longer feeling herself mistress of the situation, was beginning to shriek with terror, like a blind man without his stick or an infant that had lost its nurse.

The bitterness of the possessing classes is expressed by the banker Dambreuse:

One could scarcely recognise in him the same man. For the past three months he had been crying, “Long live the Republic!” and he had even voted in favour of the banishment of Orléans. But there should be an end of concessions. He exhibited his indignation so far as to carry a tomahawk in his pocket.

Martinon had one, too. The magistracy not being any longer irremovable, he had withdrawn from Parquet, so that he surpassed M. Dambreuse in his display of violence.

The banker had a special antipathy to Lamartine (for having supported Ledru-Rollin) and, at the same time, to Pierre Leroux, Proudhon, Considérant, Lamennais, and all the cranks, all the Socialists.

“For, in fact, what is it they want? The duty on meat and arrest for debt have been abolished. Now the project of a bank for mortgages is under consideration; the other day it was a national bank; and there are five millions in the Budget for the working-men! But luckily, it is over, thanks to Monsieur de Falloux! Good-bye to them! let them go!”

Not knowing how to maintain the three hundred thousand men in the national workshops, the Minister of Public Works had that very day signed an order inviting all citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty to take service as soldiers, or else to go to the provinces and cultivate the ground there.

They were indignant at the alternative thus put before them, convinced that the object was to destroythe Republic. They were aggrieved at having to live at a distance from the capital, as if it were a kind of exile. They pictured themselves dying of fevers in desolate parts of the country. To many of them, moreover, who had been accustomed to work of a refined description, agriculture seemed a degradation; it was, in short, a mockery, a decisive breach of all the promises which had been made to them. If they offered any resistance, force would be employed against them. They had no doubt of this, and made preparations to anticipate it.

About nine o’clock the riotous assemblies which had gathered at the Bastille and at the Chatelet ebbed back toward the boulevard. From the Porte Saint-Denis to the Porte Saint-Martin nothing could be discerned save an enormous swarm of people, a single mass of a dark blue shade, nearly black. The men of whom one caught a glimpse all had glowing eyes, pale complexions, faces emaciated with hunger and excited with a sense of injustice.

Meanwhile, some clouds had gathered. The tempestuous sky roused the electricity that was in the people, and they kept whirling about of their own accord with the great swaying movements of a swelling sea, and one felt that there was an incalculable force in the depths of this excited throng, and as it were, the energy of an element. Then they all began shouting: “Lamps! lamps! ” Many windows had no illumination, and stones were flung at the panes. M. Dambreuse deemed it prudent to withdraw from the scene.

These conflicts finally issue in the uprising and massacres of the June Days, ‘a terrible battle [that] stained Paris with blood’:

Four barricades formed at the ends of four different ways enormous sloping ramparts of paving-stones.

Torches glimmered here and there. In spite of the rising clouds of dust he could distinguish foot-soldiers of the Line and National Guards, all with their faces blackened, their chests uncovered, and an appearance of wild excitement. They had just captured the square, and had shot down a number of men. Their rage had not yet cooled….

The Rue Saint-Victor was quite dark, without a gaslamp or a light at any window to relieve the gloom. Every ten minutes could be heard the words:

“Sentinels! mind yourselves!”

And this exclamation, cast into the midst of the silence, was prolonged like the repeated striking of a stone against the side of a chasm as it falls through space.

Every now and then the stamp of heavy footsteps could be heard coming nearer. This was nothing less than a patrol consisting of about a hundred men. From this confused mass escaped whisperings and the dull clanking of iron; and, moving along with a rhythmic swing, it melted into the darkness.

In the middle of the crossing, where several streets met, a dragoon sat motionless on his horse. From time to time an express rider passed at a rapid gallop; then the silence was renewed. Cannons, which were being drawn along the streets, made, on the pavement, a heavy rolling sound that seemed full of menace – a sound different from every ordinary sound – which oppressed the heart. These interruptions served to intensify the silence, which was profound, unlimited – a black abyss. Men in white blouses accosted the soldiers, spoke one or two words to them, and then vanished like phantoms.

The guard-house of the Polytechnic School was crowded. The threshold was blocked up with women, who had come to see their sons or their husbands. They were sent on to the Panthéon, which was being utilised as a dead-house ; and no attention was paid to Frédéric. He pressed forward resolutely, solemnly declaring that his friend Dussardier was waiting for him, that he was at death’s door. At last they sent a corporal to accompany him to the top of the Rue Saint-Jacques, to the Mayor’s office in the twelfth arrondissement.

The Place du Panthéon was filled with soldiers lying asleep on straw. The day was breaking; the bivouac-fires were extinguished.

The insurrection had left terrible traces in this quarter. The soil of the streets, from one end to the other, was covered with piles of various sizes. On the wrecked barricades had been piled up omnibuses, gas-pipes, and cart-wheels. In certain places there were little dark pools, which must have been blood. The houses were riddled with projectiles, and their framework could be seen under the plaster that was peeled off. Window-blinds, attached by a single nail, hung like rags. The staircases having fallen in, doors opened on vacancy. The interiors of rooms could be seen with their papers in strips. In some instances dainty objects had remained quite intact. Frédéric noticed a timepiece, a parrot-stick, and some engravings.

When he entered the Mayor’s office, the National Guards were chattering without a moment’s pause about the deaths of Bréa and Négrier, about the Deputy Charbonnel, and about the Archbishop of Paris. He heard them saying that the Due d’Aumale had landed at Boulogne, that Barbès had fled from Vincennes, that the artillery were due from Bourges, and that abundant aid was arriving from the provinces. About three o’clock some one brought good news.

Truce-bearers from the insurgents were in conference with the President of the Assembly. Thereupon they all made merry…

Flaubert then describes the consequences of defeat:

There were nine hundred men in the place [imprisoned in the Tuileries, under the terrace at the water’s edge], huddled together in the midst of filth, with no attempt at order, their faces blackened with powder and clotted blood, shivering with ague and breaking out into cries of rage; and those who were brought there to die were not separated from the rest. Sometimes, on hearing the sound of a detonation, they believed that they were all going to be shot. Then they dashed themselves against the walls, and after that fell back again into their places, so much stupefied by suffering that it seemed to them that they were living in a nightmare, an awful hallucination. The lamp, suspended from the arched roof, looked like a stain of blood, and little green and yellow flames fluttered about, caused by the emanations from the vault. Through fear of epidemics, a commission was appointed. When he had advanced a few steps, the President recoiled, frightened by the stench from the excrements and from the corpses.

As soon as the prisoners drew near a vent-hole, the National Guards who were on sentry, in order to prevent them from shaking the bars of the grating, prodded them indiscriminately with their bayonets.

As a rule they showed no pity. Those who were not beaten wished to signalise themselves. There was a regular panic of fear. They avenged themselves at the same time on newspapers, clubs, mobs, speech-making everything that had exasperated them during the last three months, and in spite of the victory that had been gained, equality (as if for the punishment of its defenders and the exposure of its enemies to ridicule) manifested itself in a triumphal fashion – an equality of brute beasts, a dead level of sanguinary vileness; for the fascination of self-interest equalled the madness of want, aristocracy had the same fits of fury as low debauchery, and the cotton cap did not show itself less hideous than the red cap. The public mind was agitated just as it would be after great convulsions of nature. Sensible men were rendered imbeciles by it for the rest of their lives.


Père Roque had become very courageous, almost foolhardy. Having arrived on the 26th at Paris with some of the inhabitants of Nogent, instead of returning with them, he had offered his assistance to the National Guard encamped at the Tuileries; and he was quite satisfied to be placed on sentry in front of the terrace at the water’s side. There, at any rate, he had these brigands under his feet! He was delighted to see them beaten and humiliated, and he could not refrain from uttering invectives against them.

One, a young lad with long fair hair, pressed his face to the bars, and asked for bread. M. Roque ordered him to hold his tongue. But the young man repeated in a mournful tone:


“Have I any to give you?”

Other prisoners presented themselves at the venthole, with their bristling beards, their burning eyeballs, all pushing forward, and yelling:


Père Roque was indignant at seeing his authority slighted. In order to frighten them he took aim at them; and, borne backward into the vault by the crush that nearly smothered him, the young man, with his eyes staring upward, once more exclaimed:


“Hold on! here it is!” said Père Roque, firing a shot from his gun. There was a fearful howl then, silence. At the side of the trough something white could be seen lying.


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2 Responses to “Springtime of peoples”

  1. A frightening abyss | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] His trembling evocation of the mob was common in nineteenth-century literature. […]

  2. At the victory banquet | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] is striking that the dissolution of European Stalinism, so often compared heroically to the revolutions of 1848, was for German literature a comparative dead letter. Where the original featured Heine, Manzoni, […]

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