Having watched the collapse of France in a mere six weeks, Shirer set out to find out how it was possible that one of the victors of the First World War imploded in face of the German onslaught. This is quite a daunting task, if only because it is hard to avoid many of the stereotypes based on this event. Historically, the French army has not been weak or prone to surrender without a fight. Moreover, only 26 years earlier the French army had been strong enough to keep the Germans at bay, with less support from the British at first, until the Americans could save the day. In the coming weeks, I will be reading this book, updating this book review along the way.
“On June 17, 1940, William L. Shirer stood in the streets of Paris and watched the unending flow of gray German uniforms along its boulevards.”
The French Third Republic was born in 1870. In the previous 80 years, France had been a kingdom, a republic, an empire, a kingdom, another kingdom, a republic, and an empire. The Third republic emerged after the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian war had led to the fall of Emperor Napoleon III. As this constitutional mess suggests, France was a divided nation, with many political faultlines allowing for many potential coalitions. An increasingly powerful bourgeois was fighting the aristocracy over the constitutional course the country ought to pursue. The aristocracy (having returned from exile after the revolution) wanted to restore the monarchy, while the bourgeois wanted constitutional democracy and the rule of law. Elements of both might support an Emperor if this Emperor executed the right policies. Secularists were fighting the church over control of the educational system and the government at large. The working class tried to obtain protection from unpredictable markets and poverty and might back any form of government which promised them these.
These different faultlines allowed different coalitions to emerge. A person with charisma might convince sufficiently many people to back him in founding an empire or monarchy. Republicans had to always be on their guard against potential coups d’état by some highly ranked general or Bonaparte offspring. This constant bickering between groups in society weakened the Third Republic until its very end.
Meanwhile, the military situation of France was far from perfect either. While being preoccupied with symbolic and constitutional fights, France had forgotten about its economy. Especially the economy of its neighbour to the east, Germany, had fastly outpaced the French economy on a per capita basis. The German population had grown much faster too. This was coupled with a bad strategic and tactical plans and outdated arms. Refusing to see that taking the offence against the Germans would be suicide, and refusing to update its weaponry, the French army based its plans of rushing to the enemy without modern machine guns or heavy canonry. High command even refused to update the bright and attention-grabbing colour of the uniforms.
Jamais! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!
So what did go well in France that allowed it to survive the First World War? The answer provided by Shirer is a combination of luck, the defensive advantages of early 20th century armaments, a ‘rally ’round the flag’ effect due to the German invasion, and American and British support. The element of luck played a role when the Germans thought they had won already, became overconfident, and left their flank open to attacks. This led to the battle of the Marne, in which the French army and the British expeditionary force repelled the Germans. After the front had settled, the use of artillery and machine guns prevented the front from becoming dynamic again. Having repelled the attack on Paris, the French people gained a massive boost in morale, which allowed the Army to withstand further German attacks until the USA joined the Entente in 1917. In 1918 the French army was actually on top of its game, and used the most advanced weaponry, such as tanks and planes, to defeat the Germans.
Strangely, the successes in the final year of the war and the near disaster at the beginning of the war were quickly forgotten by the French high command. Instead of further developing tank and aerial, and especially the integration of the two, the French high command believed that modern weaponry would not fundamentally change the military game. Infantry, perhaps supported by heavy tanks, would win battles. After all, that’s how France defended itself in the first war, so didn’t that prove that defensive infantry deployments sufficed? Together with the Maginot line, the string of fortifications on the Franco-German border built between 1930 and 1938, France would be safe forevermore! Meanwhile, the Germans were inventing the Blitzkrieg, which we will hear about soon enough.
The interbellum had not brought more stability to French politics. French governments still fell faster than Stuka bombers from the air, and the country was plagued by corruption scandals. The total inability of subsequent French governments to change the economic situation of France during the 1930s crisis further reduced the support for democracy among the lower middle class. Meanwhile, some members of the upper class were looking towards Italy and Germany for models of government which provided more stability and more protection against socialist ‘rebel-rousers’. Combined with radical right veteran unions, there were considerable forces lined up against democracy. The agitation against the Third Republic reached its temporary climax in February 1934, when a right-wing uprising caused the government to resign and almost led to the overthrow of the Republic.