The Rise of the Phoenix

The Collapse Of The Third Republic, by William L. Shirer, Simon and Schuster, $12.50

“Where is France? What became of the French?” Mr. Shirer’s remarkable new book opens with this quotation, which is ascribed to Clemenceau at the time of the hysterical Dreyfus Affair, but the same questions ring through the reader’s mind at intervals throughout the seventy-year story, reaching an insistent climax with the tragic ending of France’s capitulation to Hitler and the election of Pétain. How could a country of such civilization and subtlety have such aberrations with so little dissension, and yet come out of them with such a powerful nationhood? How many of the flaws were to be found in the leadership and institutions, or how many were reflected in the whole people? Mr. Shirer does not give us all the answers, but it is a measure of his achievement that we end the book seeing the questions more sympathetically, having lived with the main characters for so long, and so closely. We even begin to feel that we might, in those conditions, have reacted in the same way.

It is this sense of compassionate involvement, of genuine tragedy, which makes this a more moving book than its great predecessor, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. To be sure, the earlier book had a much stronger and simpler theme, being constructed around a twelveyear period of horror and a single vivid personality; and through its masterly use of the captured German documents, it threw sharp new evidence on its subject. By comparison, Mr, Shirer’s new book begins with some sketchy nineteenth-century history, without much original interpretation, and with some rather facile generalizations; and instead of a single villain, it has a large cast of half villains, making their exits and entrances in the confusing fashion of French politics. The Third Republic, which covered such a stretch of time and such a variety of policies and peoples, cannot be compared with the Third Reich. But as the story approaches the Second World War and comes into the author’s own recollections, it quickly gains conviction and direction, and we are swept into a drama that is all the more gripping because there are no real villains, and because decent, well-intentioned men are corrupted and wrecked by the pressures ol their position. Shirer’s style is not particularly distinguished; it sometimes falls into cliches and recurring stock descriptions of idyllic spring days or darkening clouds. But he has the good sense and the scholarship to let his sources take over and to keep himself in the background, like Florentine painters who would only occasionally paint themselves in the midst of a crowd. An example of Shirer’s technique is seen in the terrible climax to his story, when the French armistice team in 1940, after a long journey through lines of retreating troops, is taken to the old railway carriage where twenty years earlier Foch had extracted his terms from the Germans; Shirer is able to describe the whole background to the scene, from French and German historical sources, and then quietly to slip in the fact that lie watched Hitler himself: “Standing a few feet away, I saw his face light up, successively, with hate, scorn, revenge, triumph, as he strode to the little marble block that marked the spot where Foch’s wagon-lit had stood in 1918. . .”

The most tense and tragic scenes come just before that fateful armistice, when the battered and bewildered French Cabinet, fleeing from Paris first to the Loire and then to Bordeaux in the face of the relentless German advance, is desperately arguing whether or how to plead for a cease-fire. These scenes have been written about by most of the main participants, many of them anxiously trying to justify themselves afterward when they were on trial for treason; but Shirer is able to weigh the conflicting accounts and recriminations, to provide the most complete and dispassionate narrative of those agonizing days, which were the making of the history of the subsequent twenty years. The bitterness of Anglo-French relations, the resentment of America, the great rift in French politics, the making of De Gaulle and the breaking of Pétain can all be traced back to a few days on the Loire.

The arguments took place, as Shirer records them, in an atmosphere between melodrama and high farce, like an Anglo-Saxon caricature of French behavior. In the center was Paul Reynaud, the tiny embattled Premier, trying to maintain the dignity of France against the defeatism of the old Marshal Pétain and his sly henchman, Pierre Laval; around them were the generals, exhausted, weeping, disobeying, under the ordeal of the collapse of their armies; flitting in and out was the preposterous figure of Reyna ud’s reactionary mistress, the Countess de Portes, trying to dominate the Cabinet and press for a settlement; in the wings was De Gaulle, now broadcasting from London, disowned and cashiered by his generals; and arriving in the midst of the pandemonium was Churchill, putting forward undeterred his own views on strategy, and amazing French officers by appearing next morning in a red silk kimono, asking “Uh ay ma bain?”

Some of the story seems to be almost too hysterical and highly colored to be true, yet many of the French sources and diaries can confirm Shirer’s account. Following the crumbling Cabinet and Parliament from the Loire to Bordeaux, and from there to Clermont-Ferrand and finally to Vichy, one wonders how France could ever recover from that disintegration. After all, it was not only the politicians and generals who came around so quickly and even enthusiastically to Vichy; such great writers as Claudel, Valéry, Gide, and even Mauriac, the later eulogist of De Gaulle, hastened to pay tribute to Petain.

And behind the actual fall of France lay the whole extraordinary prelude of incompetence and bungling, dating back to the prewar strategy and complacency of General Gamelin and his refusal to move into the tank age, which the young Colonel de Gaulle had tried so hard to impress on him. The succession of blunders is so consistent —there were so many points at which the Germans might have been stopped, or delayed, yet were not—that it is hard to resist the common Anglo-Saxon interpretation, which Shirer follows, that the French simply had not the will to fight, and that the defeatism went into the very bones of the generals.

But at the same time Shirer is fair enough to give us, through the records of the French generals and journalists, the real feeling of how different the war looked from France. For the British and Americans it is salutary—and highly necessary, in view of what happened in the subsequent thirty years—to be reminded of the French view of events: how the prewar appeasement policy was led by the British; how slow the British were to commit troops and planes to the mainland of France; how the evacuation to Dunkirk seemed like a betrayal of the French armies, and how French troops were embarked, under pressure, only after the British, and some of them actually were pushed back into the sea; how the British kept back most of their planes from the French fight; how the American Ambassador Bullitt encouraged the French Anglophobia, and how Roosevelt responded coldly to Reynaud’s final appeal for help; and how, after the British had sunk the French fleet at Mers el Kebir, Churchill seemed to most of the French to be a greater enemy than Hitler. “Monsieur Winston Churchill,” wrote Mauriac, “has arrayed against England—for how many years?—a unanimous France.” Shirer is able to clear the British of many of the French accusations, and he shows that even if the British had sent over more planes, they would not have been properly deployed; but there were plenty of plausible grounds for French suspicions at the time.

Behind the bitter cross-purposes of 1940 there were not just the deep differences in national traditions and interests; there were the crucial differences in geography. It was not really surprising that the French with the almost solitary exception of De Gaulle—should have found it impossible to visualize that a global war could continue after the continental war had been lost. “You have no Army,” said Marshal Petain to General Spears, Churchill’s representative, soon before the armistice. “What could you achieve where the French Army has failed?” And Shirer comments:

How could the old soldier, for whom the tiny sector of the planet that lay at the western corner of the European continent constituted the oidy world he knew, the only one in which he had lived and fought, possibly foresee, though the signs were already beginning to appear, that within eighteen months the two most powerful military and industrial powers on the globe would be engaged against the German foe?

Pétain and Weygand were convinced that once the Battle of France was lost, the war was lost, and that therefore there was no point in asking lor a cease-fire (as Reynaud wanted) without an armistice: “In three weeks’ time,” said Weygand just before the surrender, “England’s neck will be wrung like a chicken’s.” Against the background of collapsing French armies, the occupation of Paris, and a government retreating from one town to the next, it must have been hard to believe otherwise.

To the English, and later to the Americans, the position looked different, partly because wars had never meant the invasion of their national territory; and there was no great psychological difficulty in imagining the war shifting from one continent to another. It is this vast difference of perspective, of course, which underlies the awkward relations between Britain and the Continent thirty years later on the question of the Common Market; the memories that Shirer evokes will not make it any easier for Britain to settle down with its neighbors.

How different does the perspective look now, after more than a quarter of a century, when the question of the unity of Europe is the paramount problem, and when the horrors of Hitler begin to recede and appear as a nightmare aberration, the end of the “European Civil War”? Shirer, at the end of his book, describes a conversation with a French historian in 1961, as they watched the cars speeding along the Seine. “If we had not surrendered so quickly in 1940,” said the historian, “most of the people in those cars would be dead today. Perhaps it was for the best. If we had stopped the Germans, as we did in 1914, and fought on, we would have had another terrible bloodletting. I doubt if France could have survived a second 011c.”

Shirer agrees that that was probably true, but adds the question: “How many times can a nation be rescued from defeat and collapse by other countries?” From the other side, there are some people in Britain now who look at the present predicament and ask:

What if we had been beaten in 1940? The Third Reich could not have survived for long, with Russia and America to contend with; Britain would have been forced into what she is now so painfully approaching —joining Europe; Britain would not have been financially ruined, and the insular pride, which has so often misled her in the subsequent years, would have been put in its place.

In this difficult game of “what-might-have-been,” apart from the question of how many more millions might have been murdered, there is the underlying question of how important and continuous is national pride—which has a new context in Europe today, where the nations are finding themselves eclipsed by the superpowers. Clemenceau’s “What became of the French?” has a new overtone in contemporary Europe, for it is not easy to be sure that what became of them, after an ignominious armistice, was more damaging than what became of the British, after a heroic victory.

Of course, the postwar history of France has been bound up with the history of De Gaulle, who personified the French national pride, and who, for a few months in 1940, could claim with some credibility that lie was France. And the French people themselves emphatically rejected their wartime appeasers by excluding anyone who had voted for Petain from subsequent political life. But the assumption made by many British and Americans in the years alter 1945, that France was so ruined, psychologically and physically, by the war experience that it would not recover for decades, proved to be absurdly wrong.

Even before De Gaulle came back to power in 1958, many of (he seeds of the French recovery had been sown by the planners of the maligned Fourth Republic; the humiliations of the war served as a huge incentive to new ambitions, and even the birthrate—that had worried the French for a century— took a sudden leap. Britain, regaled by war memoirs, war films, and Churchill-worship, had no such incentive to break into a new future; and there are some Frenchmen, including the new President, Pompidou, who maintain that Britain is now suffering the same kind of exhaustion that France experienced between the two wars. Of course there remains a hard core of pride inside the British mentality, which, in spite of devaluation and debts, reassures them that they are braver in battle; but that characteristic is less obviously valuable at a time when any European war is likely to be a nuclear one, and when the pressing need for the Europeans is to drop their national rivalries.

It is convenient and often convincing to ascribe to nations—as Shirer has tended to do, both in this book and in the Third Reich—the same continuous characteristics as individuals, and to talk about national self-respect, national shame, and national traumas as if they were stages in a man’s life. The structure and approach of this book have the underlying assumption that there is a close psychological link between the stages of the Third Republic, from the defeat at Sedan in 1870 which brought it into being, to the proud miseries of Verdun, to the defeat at Sedan in 1940 which brought about its downfall. Shirer writes as if there were a certain inevitability about his story, as if his central character had a flaw which is bound to reveal itself; and it is not surprising that he compares his narrative to a Greek tragedy.

Often, this anthropomorphic view of a nation can be convincing enough; it is hard to explain or understand the moments of irrationality or group hysteria in any other terms. But though nations may behave like individuals, they are also like families: generations succeed and react against each other, the defeats of the parents can become the challenges to the sons, the triumphs of old men can encourage the complacency and boredom of the young. And the difficulties of one generation can be the benefits of another (Shirer, like many historians, ascribes the French industrial failure in the nineteenth century partly to the strong hold of the state over industry; yet today, it is that étatist structure of industry to which many other planners look with envy) .

Shirer succeeds magnificently in the main talk he sets himself—to describe the fall of France in 1940 and the events that led up to it. He is fair, scholarly, and superbly dramatic. Few readers, at the end of these thousand pages, will not feel a new understanding of the French people and their past ordeals. But it would be a mistake for anyone, after overhearing the colossal incompetence of those generals and politicians, to generalize too far about the decadence of the French character. For there is clearly a good deal of fight left in it.