How Republics Die: William Shirer’s “The Collapse of the Third Republic” and its Relevance 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 book is very pertinent for our time. Today, the American Republic faces a crisis that will determine if it will survive without becoming a totalitarian state in which the legislative and judicial branches are subordinated to the executive branch and an imperial presidency, and the overwhelming power of an elite oligarchy of industrialists, land owners, and bankers. The parallels between the Third Republic and the United States are many, especially in the attitudes of the economic elites and their responsibility to the Nation. On Tuesday there will be an election which most probably will determine the fate of the American experiment.

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?


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

8 responses to “How Republics Die: William Shirer’s “The Collapse of the Third Republic” and its Relevance Today

  1. Terry Murphy

    I think you are a bit late on your observation of an executive dominated state. Congress started surrendering it’s power and perogitives with the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution and it continues to cede power to the executive and the unelected bureaucracy.
    I see the threats more from the radical, progressive violent Left and their suppression of free speech and thought and socialist agenda.
    Just my humble opinion. I always enjoy your thoughts

  2. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    The Secular Jurist recommends this as MUST READ.

  3. I certainly agree with “The Secular Jurist” and also reblogging. The writing has been on the wall for a while and I agree with your interpretation.

  4. Reblogged this on ~Burning Woman~ and commented:
    As “The Secular Jurist” says, this is a must read. I don’t think I need to add anything to that, it’s all too obvious and self explanatory.

  5. Woebegone but Hopeful

    I have read ‘The Rise and Fall’ several times.Thank you for enlightening me as to the merits of this particular book.

  6. Hyperion

    I agree. You have covered a complex subject in a clear and concise way. History repeats itself. It is cyclic and we should embrace the cycles and in each recurrance seek to right the wrongs but this isn’t our natural instinct to do. The American Republic will evolve or fall as has every empire before it. The root causes are many and are fundamentally the same that toppled Rome, Greece, the Persians, Egyptians and the great tribes of Africa. The real question is how will the world compensate with war, government, and economics? I dare say there will be a difficult but necessary sorting out.

  7. D P

    late entry: found this post while looking for a review to send to someone. It’s spot on and after finally reading Shirer’s book on France (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is an invaluable reference) I was literally stunned at the parallels with the US. Even after nearly 50 years of decline, not unlike neoliberalism’s impacts today, the bickering and maneuvering at the highest levels of French government, as the Wehrmacht was already moving through the Low Countries and only a few weeks away from victory, was astonishing. In the modern US the emergencies are greater: public health, inequality, and the ecosphere. Perhaps calamity is averted, but either way history won’t be kind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s