Book Review: W. Shirer – The Collapse of the Third Republic

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’. Right-wing fanatics were egged on by a press owned by members of the elite, and which cared more for sensation and defamation of the political left than about functioning democracy. Combined with radical right veteran unions, there were considerable forces lined up against democracy. I must say I am surprised by the level of violence in French politics before the war. Although not as bad as Germany or Italy, there were multiple assassinations and multiple politicians were beaten up. 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.

However, what ultimately seems to have made the survival of the Third Republic was the defeatism in the army. In 1936 Hitler ordered his forces to occupy the Rheinland, i.e. between the river Rhein and the German border. According to the Versailles peace treaty, this area was supposed to be demilitarized. In the Great War, the Germans had used this area as the launching pad of their invasion into Belgium and France. Demilitarizing this zone would give the French a buffer zone, which would give the French more time to mobilize in case of a German attack. Moreover, much of Germany’s industry is in this area, keeping it demilitarized gave France the option to attack Germany in its weak underbelly.

Rheinland in Germany.

Instead of defending this area in 1936, when Hitler did not have the troops to defeat the French defenders, the French high command argued it would be too costly to defend the Rheinland. France wasted its last opportunity to save itself and Europe from a general war because it was too scared of that very war. Via the Anschluss, the Munich treaty, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, we eventually end up with the German invasion of Poland which led to the Second World War. From here on, I expect the book will go into more detail of the 6 weeks campaign in which France was defeated. As this is quite a familiar theme for me, I shall end the book review here.

This book taught me a lot about pre-war French politics. I was surprised by the utter inability to form stable governments and the high levels of violence. I am similarly surprised that I am surprised about that. Strangely, I had never heard about the deep divisions within French society at that time, or perhaps never realized how deep they actually were. I found the book very intelligible too, providing clear explanations of a confusing and difficult time for France. Although I am applying for grad schools, which takes a lot of time and energy, I still managed to read over 300 pages in the last two weeks. In other words, the book reads away quite pleasantly too.

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