“The Power of a Small Elite…” The Collapse of the Third Republic and its Lessons for Americans Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s Word,

As most of my readers know I am a historian who specializes in both the American Civil War as well as the years between the First World War and the end of the Second World War. On of my favorite authors whose works specialize in the latter is the late William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Berlin Diary, The Nightmare Years, and maybe most importantly for Americans and Western Europeans today, The Collapse of he Third Republic: an Inquiry into the Fall of France 1940. 

The Collapse of the Third Repubic is a massive work, and Shirer was one of the first to gain access to the records of the Third Republic and to interview its political and military leaders in the years after the Second World War. For me, the most interesting part of this work is how many parallels there are between the French Third Republic in the 1920s and 1930s as there are in contemporary American life, culture, and politics. Those comparisons are too many to discuss in a short article like this, but there was  one point that struck me as particularly important was the attitude of wealthy to the existence of the Republic itself. The Hobbesian attitude of the wealthy conservative classes in the Third  Republic was not terribly different than many in the United States today, men and women who value their wealth and privilege above the very country that they call home and which helps to subsidize their existence.

Shirer wrote about the wealthy French citizens who had been saved by the sacrifice of four out of every ten French men in the First World War, the physical destruction of much of the country, and the debt incurred by nation during the which often benefited the people and the  businesses which profited during, who in turn abandoned the Republic during its hour of need. Shirer wrote:

“The power of a small elite which possessed most of the wealth was greater than the power of the republican government elected by the people, presumably to run the country in the interest of all the citizens. This group was determined to preserve its privileged position and thus its money. In effect, since the triumph of the Republic over President MacMahon there had been a virtual alliance between the possessor class and the Republic, which it manipulated through its control of the Press, the financing of political parties, and the handling of its vast funds to influence the fiscal policies of government.”

While the attitude and actions of the wealthy French business leaders became apparent in the 1870s and 1880s, it appeared full bloom after the First World War.  Shirer wrote:

“And more and more, as the last years of the Third Republic ticked off, the wealthy found it difficult to put the interest of the nation above that of their class. Faced with specific obligations to the country if the state were not to flounder in a financial morass, they shrank from meeting them. The Republic might go under but their valuables would be preserved. In the meantime they would not help keep it afloat by paying a fair share of the taxes. The tax burden was for others to shoulder. If that were understood by the politicians, the Republic could continue. If not… were there not other forms of government possible which promised more security for entrenched wealth? The thoughts of some of the biggest entrepreneurs began to turn to the Fascist “experiment” in Italy and to the growing success of the Nazi Party in Germany.”

The French business elites, as well as their conservative allies hated the Republic so much that they were unwilling to support it and worked to destroy it, even if that meant overthrowing it and establishing an authoritarian state. When the Germans defeated the French in 1940, many of these political and business leaders embraced the Nazis and supported the Vichy state. They were even willing to surrender true freedom and independence, becoming subservient to the Nazis in order to destroy the Republic.

I believe that the French example serves as warning for us today when we see government and business leaders working to destroy the institutions that define our republic and are there to protect its citizens. Thus, Shirer’s book is an important and timely read for Americans today.

Marshal Petain warmly greets Hitler

There is much more in the book, including justified criticism of the French left of the time, but I will finish with this today. General Weygand, who led the French armies during the final phase of the German campaign against France despised the Republic. When it fell he said. “I didn’t get the Boches, but I got the regime.” A more traitorous comment could not have been uttered by a soldier.

One of the few dissenting legislators to the dissolution of the Third Republic by Marshal Petain and Prime Mister Laval, Senator Boivin-Champeaux noted:

“It is not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution of 1875. It made France a free country…. It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men who were charged with guarding it and making it work.” 

Will that be said of us someday?

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Political Commentary

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