Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Collapse of the Third Republic

By William L. Shirer
Simon & Schuster, 1969
John D. Beatty, Reviewer

Author William Shirer (rt) with Edward R. Murrow

In just under 600 pages (hardbound; Kindle edition reviewed), William L. Shirer shares his meticulous research and personal insights on this pivotal period in French—and European—history, covering the years 1871–1940. While this book is primarily about the beginning of World War Two, it contains insights into France before 1914, and it starkly shows the devastating effects of the 1914–18 war on France.

The author should be no stranger to readers of 20th-century history. Shirer was a correspondent in Europe from 1920 to 1941, covering WWII from England, then returning to Germany after the war in 1945. His best-known book is Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960, Simon & Schuster, New York), which won a National Book Award while selling over a million copies in hardback and paperback. He also penned a multi-volume autobiography, a history of the Bismarck chase in 1941, and a juvenile biography of Adolph Hitler, and many others on WWII.

Collapse is in five parts, called “books.” The Prologue is a familiar recap of the events of the summer of 1940, when the French armies fell apart in the face of the German blitzkrieg. This familiar story contains a disturbing undertone not of betrayal, but of anticipation, as if this disintegration of the French Army was, if not expected, welcomed.

Occupying Paris, 1940

Book One, The Rise of the First Republic 1871-1919, covers the period from 1871 and the end of the Paris Commune, to 1919 and Versailles. While most readers recognize these waypoints, they may not recognize much of what happened to France in this time, save the chapter on the Dreyfus affair. The France that Shirer describes is a nation in chaos, of communists and socialists, of monarchists (yes) and anarchists, of lonely Republicans and the entire nation in economic turmoil most of the time. The Dreyfus scandal only emphasized the state of unrest that France suffered most of the time. When the country came together in 1914 to fight off the German invaders, the reader might be surprised, because there is nothing in the preceding text that suggests that France would unite over anything. Shirer covers the Great War itself in a paragraph or two, but Versailles gets its own chapter in Book Two.

Book Two, Illusions and Realities of Victory 1919-1934, includes everything from Versailles to the global depression. Shirer cannot help but express a deep sadness for the country that he loved so much, describing the devastating effects of the million French war dead, the industrial-scale almost mechanized erosion of French morale during and after the war, and the most remarkable refusal of most in the French Army to recognize the changes that the internal combustion engine and the radio had wrought on warfare. They were aware of the writings of Rommel, Liddell Hart, and Douhet, but most of them, especially in the higher echelons, didn’t care. They firmly believed that the combat methods that “won” the Great War for France were good enough and could not be dissuaded. While we howl at such blindness today, the country that they defended agreed with them…when they thought about it, which wasn’t often. They were mostly concerned with economic survival, which, given the state of the economy, was never assured. Nor was the safety of the Republic, which seemed to lack broad-consensus support even in the government.

French Premier Pierre Laval (Executed 1945) with
the German Police Chief of Paris

Book Three, The Last Years of the Third Republic 1934-1939, covers the struggles for France to survive while watching Germany and Italy appear to thrive under fascism. Governments came and went in the Third Republic—over a hundred of them. Yet, it seemed as if it was always the same men in different offices, a situation that some described as a game of musical chairs. Yet, to be French before WWII was to be a political chameleon, as politicians went from Right to Left and back again while never changing their supposed political affiliations. Book Three also describes the French responses to Germany’s aggressions, from the Rhineland crisis in 1936 to the beginning of WWII in 1939, each viewed with confusion, fear, some panic, yet forced calm. Shirer gives the Munich crisis and the agony of Czechoslovakia three entire chapters; the Spanish Civil War, one.

Collapse was frankly something of a surprise. It contains personal interjections by Shirer about the events he actually witnessed, and about a country and a people he clearly loved. As a historian, I have to disdain these personal interludes; in Collapse I can see their value.

Book Four, The War and the Defeat 1939-40, describes a French response to the war in terms I could barely recognize. There were those high-placed in the French government who openly admired fascism, others who were avowed monarchists, and there were those who regarded the Republic and the Constitution of 1875 as a tragic mistake. There were also those who believed that France had no business fighting this war alongside Great Britain, that Britain dragged them into the war for unknown—or unstated—purposes. The surprise of the German advance through the Ardennes was familiar; French insistence that Britain was doing less than all it could to save France was not. Shirer describes the rush to surrender in the highest halls of the French government in painful detail and the role of Philippe Pétain in pushing the disillusion of the Republic.

Book Five, The Collapse of the Third Republic June-July 1945, is anticlimactic. The problem we have in reading history is we already know the ending, where the story ends up. In Collapse, that the French Republic ended in the summer of 1940 is plain, but how is no less surprising than much of the rest of the book. When liberated in 1944, the French people took some pains to investigate just who was responsible and meted out punishment to those most guilty of truly betraying the idea of France. Book Five shows why France put Pierre Laval up against a wall and shot him in 1945, while handing out the same fate to Pétain (though the courts commuted his sentence to life imprisonment), and why France tried Charles De Gaulle in absentia and sentenced him to death in 1941.

While Collapse of the Third Republic is not a WWI book, it is about the long-term effects of that war on one of the “victors,” and provides insights into why Georges Clemenceau was so adamant to punish Germany at Versailles. I highly recommended it to any student of the Great War to provide a complete picture of why winning is often nothing more than surviving.

John D. Beatty


  1. 'Collapse of the Third Republic' is relevant to me because the leaders of WWI grew up and honed their professional skills in the post 1871 defeat of France and took those skills as senior leaders into WWII.

  2. Great review. Thank you.
    Joe Unger