The Collapse of the Third Republic – William Shirer

Subtitled ‘An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940′, this book is one of the classics of WWII history.  It is well written and researched, and the author himself was close to being on the scene, as he was a correspondent in Berlin during the build up and early part of the war.

The book winds back to the Franco-Prussian war to show the fault lines in the country between various factions, many of whom did not really support the idea of republican government and wanted a monarchy or a dictatorship.  The state was undermined by periodic huge scandals and new governments had to be formed and reformed more or less annually.

They pulled themselves together to fight WWI and win, but in the interwar period things began to all apart.  France wanted to act as a major power in Europe, imposing penalties on Germany and acting to limit them after that, but since France knew that her own strength was low, she needed other countries to back her up.  When they did not, she felt compelled to give in, thus emboldening the extreme elements in Europe.

By the time of the war, it really looks like France was almost doomed to lose.  The army had so little confidence that it preferred to hide behind the Maginot line even when it knew the Germans were all off in Poland, and was so afraid of bombing afterward that it did nothing to upset the German plans or deployments.

The campaign itself was a debacle, partly because of the impact of the German ‘Sickle Cut Plan and Armor’, but mostly because the unreadiness of the government and high command seemed to be replicated all the way down the line.  Yes, the new armor tactics were a shock, but that doesn’t explain why about half of the rail moves of reserve armor divisions went so badly that the unit never was able to reform afterward. Or why the high command never really gave any orders for good or bad during that month.

After that disaster, and the fall of Paris, there is a small closing act where the same feckless government officials meet in Bordeaux to decide whether to fight on with their ally or destroy the Republic and turn the rump of France into a Fascist state.  We all know what they decided to do then.

By 1940 it was too late to save the situation, as the Germans probably could have won eventually even without the Panzers.  At least then you could be said to have gone down fighting.  France in 1940 never really got coordinated enough to say that it fought as a nation – while individual units had their moments, the high command and government never seemed to leave the starting block.


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