Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: The Collapse of the Third Republic, by William L. Shirer

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969, pp. 1082.

Discussing William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry Into the Fall of France in 1940, it is difficult to avoid comparing it to his better-known book on Nazi Germany. Indeed, the book's jacket encourages it, the hardcover edition describing Collapse as a work which "complements and completes the dramatic story of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."

In fairness, Shirer's focus here is narrower--not the rise and fall of an empire, however short-lived, but an examination of a single military defeat and its aftermath, that of the French in May and June 1940, an event now taken for granted, and even regarded as all too predictable, but which at the time staggered observers. (Indeed, one reason the Germans had no plan for invading Britain was that the speed and degree of Germany's success took Berlin completely by surprise.) However, as the sheer size of the book (1,082 pages) suggests, Shirer plunges fairly deeply into French history for his answer, The Collapse of the Third Republic actually beginning with the troubled birth of the Third Republic. Additionally, he devotes more time to the broader situation. While too good a historian to overlook the larger context, Shirer's account in Rise and Fall was tightly focused on the principal players, particularly Hitler and his collaborators, and their machinations. Here, one gets a broader vision of the seven-decade life of the Republic.

In Shirer's account the early decades of the Republic's history saw France emerge--or more properly, reemerge--as a modern industrial power, and leading light of world culture. However, they were also a period of bitter struggle between republican and royalist, state and Church, worker and bourgeois, which time and again pointed up the republic's weak foundations. Almost as if the Old Regime were only a recent memory, aristocrats and churchmen wished to see a king on the throne again, and for the religious orders to have the run of the schools. The great mass of working people had little say in political life, and little share in the country's material progress, the country a laggard in areas like the recognition of organized labor or the organization of a welfare state. (Indeed, Shirer terms the French working class the most alienated in Europe, which is really saying something.) And even the bourgeoisie which did so much to establish republicanism in France, and did very well for themselves out of the new order, were little more attached to it, certainly not enough to pay taxes for it, or make slight concessions to the less privileged majority, preferring instead to look to potential dictators as soon as the lower classes got troublesome. Thus the country went from crisis to crisis--Boulanger, Dreyfus, fiscal policies and financial scandals that even in this age can scarcely be believed--while getting new governments with alarming frequency. (In about seventy years there were eighty-five Prime Ministers, or about one every ten months.)

Still, important as events inside France were, there was also the importance of larger, thoroughly international events--World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, all of which reacted upon France's own internal politics, which in turn reacted upon those events. The wartime experience created widespread pacifist sentiment, and drove French military practice away from extreme fixation on the offensive to equally extreme fixation on the defensive. The Russian Revolution increased the right's anxieties about the left—and especially when the Depression deepened the clash of classes, made it more dubious about the Republic, more conciliatory toward Hitler, less willing to ally with the Soviets. For its part, the French Communist Party's adherence to Moscow's shifting line (especially after Molotov-Ribbentrop) put it in opposition to confrontation with Germany. And all of it combined to make consensus impossible year in, year out, helping to create the geo-strategic situation the country faced in 1939--as well as determining the way in which the French army ended up fighting its war, and the French polity dealt with the subsequent military defeat. Indeed, by page two hundred the worldwide economic and political crisis of the '30s already prevails over the more narrowly domestic developments, and the broader effort of the great powers to check Hitler is at the center of the narrative, the decisions taken in Britain, Belgium, Poland, the Soviet Union increasingly driving events.

This attention to three-quarters of a century of history, and the broader international scene, gives Collapse an undeniable sweep, combined with intricate detail--arguably a greater concern for the casual reader than it was in the case of the comparatively voluminous Rise and Fall. Where the essentials of Nazi Germany's history are likely to be well-known to even the general reader of history in the English language (that book is unlikely to be the first time they have heard of the name "Hitler," or even the Beer Hall Putsch or the Reichstag Fire), the history of France in these years is rather less likely to figure in their general knowledge--the names, the events comparatively unfamiliar. (I have to admit that my own knowledge of, for example, the February 1934 riots in Paris was fairly scanty.)

Of course, as Shirer leaves the more narrowly national history behind for the broader international situation, the outlines, at least, become more familiar. However, in the book's second half, as the war begins, we increasingly get densely written operational history--a torrent of names of commanders, units, sites of battles and movements, with much reference to "flanks" and plenty of maps with arrows on them pointing this way and that. This sort of thing can be difficult enough to follow when what is described is an eighteenth century battle fought over the course of a day in the space of a field between two armies numbering in the thousands. It is far more difficult when, as in the chapters describing the Battle of France (Chapters 29 to 32), what is discussed is a collision of millions of soldiers in hundreds of divisions organized in multiple armies in a weeks-long campaign ranging over a large portion of northwestern Europe--and when the situation is so confused on one side as it is on that of the Allies, French commanders time and again issuing orders to whole armies that had ceased to exist. Comprising a fifth of the book, it was at times overwhelming (even though I had read several accounts of this campaign before, if mainly from the British or German perspective, rather than the French). The final chapters, which turn back to the machinations at the very top of the French government after the rout of its army (the mismanagement of the final resistance, the decision to pursue an armistice rather than fight on from North Africa), are nearly as involved.

It all makes for a lengthy and demanding read, perhaps too much so to be an ideal introduction to this subject. Still, as much attention as Shirer gives to the international picture, particular corners of it get relatively short shrift. (The attitude of Belgium's King Leopold seemed to merit greater explanation.) There were also occasions when the same could be said of the domestic picture--not least, the economic context. (For instance, Shirer mentions the low rate of French aircraft production as the country rearmed, but does not discuss questions of industrial capacity, which seem to have played an important role.)

All the same, the author's focus on the conduct and interactions of the leading political figures is certainly a valid approach. This is especially the case because the account is never so narrow as to forget the background for the figure at the center, and because of Shirer's critical attitude toward his subject, seriously searching for answers in the available material. The result is that in the end he is able to present a fairly comprehensive picture of the factors (domestic division, strategic blunders, outdated military doctrine, etc.) that combined in France's, and the Allies', rapid, ignominious defeat, and the formation of the subsequent armistice. If the detail gets very thick in places (as in the more purely military history), it also enables Shirer to rise above vague generalities to offer the nuts and bolts of how the weaknesses of the Third Republic's strategic situation, internal composition and army led to cascading, concatenating failure. Along with the fact that Shirer writes not just as a historian sifting through archives and conducting interviews after the fact, but also as a journalist who covered many of the key events (he was there in Paris during the 1934 riots, there in the audience as Hitler speechified, there with the German Sixth Army as it rolled into Paris, there when the Armistice was signed), it also provides him many an opportunity to lend color, nuance and interest to the account that it might not otherwise have enjoyed.

Consequently, almost a half century after Shirer wrote the book, The Collapse of the Third Republic remains an illuminating account not just of a crucial period in French history, but a crucial juncture in world history. The fall of France, after all, by leaving Germany without continental opposition in the west, enabling it to besiege Britain and, later, turn east against the Soviet Union; by bringing Italy into the fight on Germany's side; by making the European empires in Asia appear vulnerable to Japan in a way they had not just a short time earlier; and compelling increasingly open and large-scale American intervention; was what made a limited European war the totalistic world war of 1939-1945, the consequences of which we are still sorting out today.

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