Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Collapse of the Third Republic - William L. Shirer

Reading history is often depressing, since history is seemingly an endless string of people behaving horribly to each other. Reading about 1930s Europe, though, is more like watching a horror movie. I spend a lot of time shouting at the characters to stop doing stupid things. The difference is, instead of telling them not to go running into the woods alone, at night, I'm telling them to stop trying to appease Hitler.

Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic is more a recounting of how it all fell apart, rather than postulating why it did so. To that end, he has an impressive array of information: interviews, testimony, correspondence, diaries, official minutes from cabinet meetings, and so on.

One of the problems seems to be that nobody in France really cared for the Third Republic. The aristocracy, army, and Catholic Church hated it because they hated democracy in general, feeling it had displaced them from their rightful place at the top of the pecking order. Which is why they were all too happy to throw it away and establish a dictatorship for the Vichy Regime. The working class didn't care about the Republic because they felt it didn't care about them, that their will was not heard even when the voted in overwhelming numbers. The government (with the exception of some reforms brought about under Leon Blum's Popular Front government in the early 1930s) was working against them. As for the middle class, those theoretically represented in the Republic, they had no reason to love it because it never got anything done. All of which sounds disturbingly similar to the United States these days.

Governments are constantly falling in the Third Republic, but nothing really changes. Some people serve as Premier two or even three times. People are given cabinet positions, and they keep them over the course of multiple governments. When Paul Reynaud takes over for Daladier on the eve of the real action of World War 2, Daladier remains Minister of Defense. And Reynaud was part of Daladier's cabinet, as Minister of Finance. How one expects to accomplish anything with the same people who had demonstrated they'd accomplish nothing, I don't know, but that's what the Third Republic tried.

Reading Eisenhower's Lieutenants, I was struck by how impatient some of the higher ranking generals were with their subordinates, how quick they were to sack someone they felt wasn't properly aggressive, often without regard for the particular circumstances that subordinate might face. Patton and Hodges, especially the latter, were often guilty of this. But at least I could appreciate their desire for commanding officers who seized the initiative. The French Army seemed to have none of that. Once they actually began fighting Germany, there was no energy to it. Some of that was doctrine, the High Command's belief war in the 1940s would be no different from war in the 1910s. Some of it was an understandable desire to avoid massive casualties, such as France suffered in the First World War. But there was simply no sense of urgency, even as the Germans presented opportunities to be hit. There was no coherence to the battle. The French were constantly demanding more fighters from Britain, when they had literally hundreds of modern planes they weren't using. Shirer has a quote from an base commander, stating that he had over 70 planes just sitting on an airfield, and he would call to all the commanders asking if they had missions, and all the commanders said no. But they still needed more British airplanes. It was a mess.

It's still a thoroughly depressing book, if only for all the times when things go wrong because people withhold information, or miscommunicate, or fail to stand their ground. No one seems capable of sticking to their guns, except for sleazebags like Laval, and their only goal is the acquisition of power for themselves, preferably by destroying the Republic. I wasn't sorry to read he was executed after the war.

'In 1848, and even more in 1871 at the time of the Commune, the upper middle class turned against democracy and defended its privileges with the same pitiless brutality and egotism it had employed in wrenching them from the nobility. The rise of socialism and trade unionism toward the end of the nineteenth century further frightened the possessors, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the founding of Communist parties in western Europe, above all in France, in 1920 aggravated their fears.

They had subscribed to democracy, within limits, for more than a century because it had enabled them to procure and then to protect their rich holdings. Now in the mid-1920s democracy as it functioned in the wobbly Third Republic appeared to threaten their entrenched position and, worse, their property and pocketbooks. That the threat was largely a fantasy did not make it seem less real to them. It was in this uneasy state of mind that they began to join together to save, not France or even the Republic, but their class and its wealth.'


SallyP said...

I haven't read this, but it certainly sounds interesting.

CalvinPitt said...

It is, but it is looong. I was reading a paperback version, and the actual writing - ignoring notes and index - was 958 pages. He really goes into detail.