Anyone familiar with William Shirer's spectacular and varied career as an international journalist, war correspondent, radio commentator, and best-selling author of such tomes as "Berlin Diary", "The Rise & Fall Of The Third Reich", "The Nightmare Years" and many others will appreciate this interesting and extremely well documented examination of the otherwise mind-boggling spectacle of the quick and effortless defeat of the French army at the hands of the Wehrmacht in a few short weeks in the summer of 1940. The world was stunned by the lack of resistance and quick capitulation of what had been the single strongest and most awesome fighting force in Europe almost without a struggle. Shirer has masterfully sifted through the wreckage of the Third Republic to discover the provocative and disturbing story behind the loss of heart and courage as well as the shocking and immoral betrayal involved in the subsequent collaboration with the Nazis under the notorious Vichy government.
Shirer arrived back in Paris shortly after the hostilities ceased, and was shocked by what he observed. As a longtime resident and reporter in the area, he understood the negative forces working to erode so fatefully away at what had once been the finest, largest, and best respected military force in Europe. This, then, is an absorbing, thoughtful, and compassionate look at how Germany came to defeat France's Third Republic so easily, at the tragic errors in tactical judgment and the continuing comedy of stupid military errors that constituted the French response to both the preparations for war as well as the invasion itself. It is also, perhaps much more importantly, a deep and detailed look at what went wrong in France in the years between the two world wars to so weaken the resolve, combativeness, and spirit of the nation in general and the army in particular.
This is fascinating stuff, a tale told as only someone with Shirer's intimate knowledge of French character, Parisian affairs and the political debacle that was the Third Republic could tell. It is at once quite detailed, compassionate, and entertaining, for as always Shirer brings a foreign correspondent's street-smart assessments to issues and events that a historian might not appreciate or understand. He notes, for example, the growing confusion, helplessness, and cynicism of the French people during the 1930s, as well as the ineptness and hopeless bureaucratization of the French army, and the ceaseless cycle of political and commercial corruption that sapped the strength and morale of the country.
I must confess to being a Shirer addict, having read just about everything he has published. Now that he is finally gone (having died within the last ten years), we are left with few of the brilliant cast of WWII alumni like John Toland, William Manchester, Cornelius Ryan, and William Shirer that so often illuminated us with their native intellect, writing skills, and sheer presence. But be of good cheer; they each have left us with a treasure trove of literary gifts we can enjoy at our leisure. This excellent tome discussing the otherwise inextricable mysteries of how the French could have been so easily defeated by a country that was less well manned, armed, and equipped than the French. Shirer may be gone, but this wonderful book still remains to remind us of his genius. Read this and remember.
on August 31, 2001
Although not as famous as Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", this book is just as important. The book gives a survey of the history of the French Third Republic from its founding in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, through its crisis in the Dreyfus Affair, victory in World War I and finally to the debacle of 1940. The author has the unique background of being both an accomplished journalist as well as a serious historian which gives the book a very readable style. What particularly appealed to me is his moral passion. He is no "objective, neutral observer". He is a Francophile who is willing to expose the terrible weaknesses that brought down the country he loves so much. The fact that he, as a newspaper correspondent, personally witnessed the horrors of Nazi Germany before the war gives a fervor to his writing that is refreshing in this day and age of viewing history as merely a comparison of the various "narratives" of the different sides in a conflict.
Shirer begins by pointing out the important fact that at the constituent assembly that wrote the constitution for the Third Republic, the majority of the delegates were, in fact, monarchists, but they could not decide if the king should be from the House of Bourbon or Orleans, so a republican form of government was chosen as a compromise. Thus, the new regime started out on the wrong foot as something no one really wanted. Throughout its 70 years history there were always strong anti-republican movements that threatened the very existence of the regime, chronic political instability and resistance to necessary reforms (for example, women were given the vote only after World War 2). In the military realm, the exhaustion resulting from the terrible losses in World War 1 combined with a reluctance to change the strategies that worked then and obliviousness to major technological changes in armored and aerial warfare led to the ossification of the army high command and the development of the "Maginot mentality".
In spite of all the disadvantages, when the German invasion began in 1940, the French stood a good chance of halting the invader. It has been repeatedly demostrated in modern warfare that the defense is very strong and that the attacker usually needs to have a clear superiority in order to prevail. Shirer demolishes the myths propagated by French Commander Weygand and others that the Germans had overwhelming superiority. In numbers of men and tanks the two sides were pretty evenly matched and the French tanks were of superior quality. The French officer corps was also much more experienced than that of the Germans because of the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. The Germans took unbelievably huge risks in mounting their main attack through the Ardennes where there were few roads and some well-aimed air or artillery attacks could have upset the whole German plan. It is true that the Luftwaffe had aerial superiority but the author shows that large numbers of French aircraft were inexplicably never sent into battle (the French Air Force had more aircraft available at the end of the campaign than at the beginning!) French troops fought valiantly in many engagements, especially in holding the perimeter at Dunkirk allowing many more men to escape back to England. This disproves the claim that all French felt resentment to the British or were not willing to fight to save their country.
So, the question remains, what brought about the sudden collapse? Once Petain started talking about an armistice, resistance collapsed. The military setbacks were exploited by unscrupulous anti-republican leaders like Petain, Laval and Weygand in order to overthrow the hated republican regime.
The disgrace of France in 1940 was not that they were defeated on the battlefield in metropolitan France. The British, Russians and Americans also suffered grievous setbacks early in the war before turning things around. The disgrace is that (1) they refused to continue the war from their colonies in North Africa where they could be protected by their powerful navy, (2) they accepted humiliating, immoral armistice terms that forced 1.5 million French POW's to remain interned for the duration of the war and agreeing to hand over refugees who had found haven from the Nazis in democratic France, many of whom were subsequently murdered and (3) the pro-republican leaders (especially the Socialists) allowed themselves to be meekly stampeded into voting the republican regime out of existence and granted unlimited dictatorial powers to Petain who then set up a new regime called the "French State" (instead of "Republic") which instituted a totalitarian regime that ultimately arrested the former leaders of the republic and other opponents (even murdering some of them like Mandel and Zay), handed Jews over to the Nazis to be annihilated and, finally, openly collaborating with them to the point of even agreeing to supplying the Germans with forced labor. Shirer mentions at the end of the book that many patriotic Frenchmen, years after the war, felt that their leaders were right in capitulating because "it saved another bloodbath like that of 1914-1918". Shirer points out that France's freedom was restored by the sacrifice of millions of Russian, British and American lives (among others). I think this obtuseness, or, alternately, a strong feeling of shame, explains why many Frenchmen have such a prickly attitude to Americans.
The lesson of this book is that a nation can have all the material, technological and military advantages but without internal solidarity, a sense of national dignity and a will to make sacrifices for its freedom, it can fall in an instant. This should serve as a warning for future generations.
on May 15, 2002
...this book is not as well known as The Rise & Fall. It is, however, a better book.
The stark contrast of good and evil in Rise & Fall is indeed gripping, and the Rise & Fall is an excellent book. Although Shirer never says so directly, there can be no doubt that he loathed the Nazis with every fiber of his being. (And rightly so). But he did not let that loathing turn into blind rage. Instead, he harnessed it with rigorous scholarship and intellectual discipline to contruct, brick by unyielding brick, a brilliant, undeniable, unchallengable, beacon of truth. Each brick is anchored in place by a supporting footnote. It is a blazing testament.
As a work of literature though, The Collapse is a far more subtle human canvas - it has good and evil, and much between, brought out in many shades, and interwoven. History can be complex, subtle, confusing, and susceptible to different interpretations. The Collapse demonstrates this.
While Rise & Fall is to be recommended to all high school students (i.e., there would be no harm in making it a part of the compulsory core curriculum)because its specific factual content is essential to an understanding of the 20th century, and because it is a story of brutal totalitarianism that must not be forgotten, The Collapse is to be recommended for entirely different reasons.
Whereas the Rise & Fall is about the stark evil of a particular time and place, The Collapse is timeless. The Collapse is about the broad range of human strengths and weaknesses - love, hate, jealousy, greed, envy, corruption, loyalty, treachery, perfidy, zeal, venality, flabbiness, laziness, selfishness and selflessness, cowardice and courage, foolishness and wisdom, failure and redemption, defeat and vindication. It shows that persons in positions of political power are as human as the rest of us, and are subject to the same pressures that beset us all. It teaches one to appreciate, and be tolerant of, the conflicting pressures and difficulties of public office, and, at the same time teaches a healthy skepticism of political leaders.
The Collapse leads the reader to develop critical thinking skills in studying history generally, and in thinking about the acts of politicians and government in our own times. This is a superb book.
on December 6, 1999
My second time through the book and I find the books holds up extremely well and recent revelations only deepens the tragedy that Shirer unfolds. He either missed or prefered to go lightly on the religous war that unlayed the collapse but expounds brilliantly on the Dreyfus affair that so fissured the French nation.
Shirer book is not only a good read and good history but a cautionary tale for our own times of vicious politics and deepening division between haves and have nots.
on February 14, 2003
It's a curious thing, but nobody yet seems to have written a really satisfying book about the collapse of France in the spring of 1940. Shirer wrote well, and he certainly did his homework. Plus the fact that he was there to witness at least part of the drama in person adds to the value of the book. Nevertheless, I still don't get the impression that he fully fathomed the central question of why the French collapsed in 1940. I think Ernest May has done a somewhat better job in his book "Strange Victory". Of course, in all fairness, May had the benefit of some 30 years more research and perspective than Shirer did. The French and British should have won, they had all the prerequisites for victory; and yet they suffered a disastrous defeat. I don't know if we will ever have the answer. Clearly Shirer did not have one.
on July 17, 2000
Shirer begins by posing the following question: how could France, which had defeated the Kaiser in 1918 and stood as the strongest military power in Europe, be crushed by the Nazi's in May 1940 (a mere 22 years later) and install Marshall Petain, a hero of the first war, as the dictator of the collaborationist government at Vichy? He then meticulously lays out the sad story, month-by-month, year-by year. In the end, the reader is left shaking her head and wondering how such a brilliant culture could have fallen so far so fast. The facts scream from the pages and even if you discount the 20-20 hindsight of 60 years, it is still amazing that the military and political leaders of that great country could not see where they were headed. This is a "must read" for anyone with an interest in the Second World War of in France.
on December 28, 1998
In the opinion of this reader, Shirer has coupled his splendid evocative power of language with a subject worthy of it; the fall of France in 1940 remains one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by the champions of liberty. If you wish you understand the Third Republic with all the depth of complexity that Shirer intended, reading the whole of this admittedly corpulent history will be well worth the effort. However, with a familiarity with the history of France, reading the prologue and the last 50 pages or so will transport you to Paris in spring of 1940, as the government split and the Petain decided that this time, unlike Verdun, "they shall... pass." While typing my tenth-grade history report at 4 in the morning, last May, I can still remember being moved to the depths of my soul by Shirer's eloquent and tragically beautiful portrayal of the fall of Liberty. If you love France, the war between freedom and oppression, or simply the erudite potency of Shirer's writing, "The Collapse of the Third Republic" is utterly indispensable.
on August 21, 2000
This book is wonderful and its great story not well known among Americans. Shirer's ambition and diligence are truly staggering - trace the evolution over 70 years of the causes of the French collapse in 1940, then vividly reveal the step by step collapse in the military, economy and politics from 1939 through June 1940.
Shirer succeeds masterfully. He pulls no punches. He adeptly uses statistics to bolster his points. He is fascinating in his descriptions of the personal sides of the politicians, victims, statemen, rebels, politically oriented writers - their jealousies, their corruption, their mistresses. This is a majestic book.
If I have any quibble, it is that Shirer "calls them as he sees them" (with lots of supporting evidence to be sure). This is all to the good, but to this conservative Catholic reader, it is a bit tough going to keep reading the moral pounding conservative Catholics take! Shirer also repeatedly condemns the Communists for their pacifism, their opting out of the system (and their defeatism after the Nazi-Soviet Pact) - any reader feels they are very much the secondary targets of Shirer's wrath. However, one would most suspect those on the right of sympathy toward a Fascist enemy - so perhaps I just don't like the truth!
Thus, a recommendation of balance - covering different time periods - read Shirer, then read (the much shorter) "Past Imperfect" (a study of France's intellectuals' capitulation to, and self-abnegation before communism from 1944 through 1956). You will finish the two books appreciating the phlegmatic common sense of Anglo-Saxons!
on September 20, 2003
This book is simply superb, and in the best tradition of William Shirer. No pictures, a few maps, and over 800 pages of simply excellent historical prose. In my mind, this book is more important than Shirer's more renowned "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (which two books should be read as companions.).
The text begins in 1870, with French suffering their overwhelming defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. A non-monarchical, democratic form of government was established, but was weak from its inception. A preview of Fascism of fascism called Boulangism very neary toppled before 1000 was even reached. The shameful Dreyfus affair is carefully chronicled, as are the numerous other French failings leading up to World War I.
Shirer covers this war masterfully, showing the French barely avoided catastrophe, with special emphasis being placed upon the immense casualties the French Army suffered. Luck and perhaps, Providence overcame mutinies, influenza, and occasional inept strategy, and the French and their allies won over the Central Powers The Versailles Treaty, ending the war, was heavily punitive, at French insistence, leading to German resentment and extremism, and, ultimately, to World War II. The French never saw it coming.
Now begins the most fascinating part of the book;, the time between the end of World War I and 1940. The French government was headed by a succession of Premiers who were either pathetically weak /oblivious to reality, or both. An excellent case in point is Eduoard Daladier, who was primarily responsible for the state of the vaunted French Army, and who took part in appeasing Hitler at Munich in 1938.
Although Daladier definitely should have known that Maurice Gamelin, the Generalissmo of the Army, was manifestly unfit for the job, he, as with Leon Blum, and numerous others, kept this vacillating coward, who would not accept the urgency of German actions, on the job. Shirer carefully shows how Gamelin, and many of his subordinates lived in the past, refusing to study new tactics dictated by fast moving masses of armor, refusing to accept the role of air power, refusing to accept intelligence reports showing a German invasion was coming and where, etc. The result was inevitable.
While Gamelin enjoyed dinners, and puttered in a post far back from the front, the French Army was decimated at Sedan, and in Flanders, and, five days into the war, Gamelin calmly accepted defeat. Time and again, a little planning could have avoided this outcome. Shirer's well-researched narrative leads the reader to wonder why Gamelin wasn't executed or imprisoned for dereliction of duty after the war.
Eventually, the French capitulated, and the sorry chapter of the Vichy Armistice began. After the Allies finally drove the Germans out, a different government was instituted, but the consequences of Third Republic's failures live with us yet.
If there is a hero in thie sorry batch of leaders after WW I, it is Paul Reynaud, a Churchillian figure, who became Premier far too late to alter what his predecessors had allowed to lapse. Reynaud wanted to fire Gamelin, but Daladier would not have it.
If this book shows anything, above all else, it shows that strong leadership is needed to preserve a democracy, and that the consequence of weakness and vacillation in the face of a determined enemy leads to appalling catstrophe. These lessons are relevant even in our own time.
The text is well-orgainized, and painfully explict in terms of the ebb of the Third Republic. I found Shirer to be very objective. The book is very long, but well worth the read. I recommend it very highly
on January 30, 2015
This book is full of fascinating personalities and gripping events. However beware....the book is VERY detailed. The narrative spans a tremendous amount of French history...from 1870 - 1940, chronicling the rise and fall of the Third Republic. This ambitious effort might have been a complex confusing and jumbled story in the hands of a lesser author. Fortunately for the reader, William L. Shirer was a master storyteller, a serious historian and a brilliant craftsman. These qualities allow the reader to be engrossed into a compelling narrative that both entertainers and informs. The events themselves are fascinating, surprising and astonishing made comprehensible in the hands of a Master Author.
However..understand...this book is VERY detailed and requires a substantial commitment from the reader. I personally found some parts laboriously drawn out and submerged in myopic detail which I thought was either overkill or irrelevant.
BUT most of the book had straightforward prose, combined with actual history that resulted in a gripping narrative which both entertainers and informs. Excellent maps are sprinkled throughout the book which enhance the readers ability to follow the swift moving military aspects of the story.