Tag Archives: Philippe Petain

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?

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

6 Comments

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

“Is it not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution…”

img_0327

Friends  of Padre Steve’s World,

President Trump has long established his love and admiration for despots. First it was Vladimir Putin of Russia, then Recip Erdogan the soon to be dictator of Turkey, then Rodrigo Duterte, the murderous President of the Philippines, and even praise for Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Let us not go into the list of draconian despots, dictators from history that the President has expressed his fondness. His favorite President is Andrew Jackson who defied a Supreme Court ruling and executed the Trail of Tears.

Honestly, if the President’s admiration, praise, and fondness for authoritarian and anti-democratic rulers remained just his opinion with no consequences it wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, it is much bigger than his personal opinions, but the nature his office of President, his words, his tweets, his opinions, become the policy of the United States, and end up staining the honor of the nation.

These actions have consequences. The first is the loss of moral authority of the nations who encourage and help dictators. Second, the loss of that moral authority makes it difficult when the chips are down to gain domestic or international support once a nation’s leaders determine that aggressive dictatorships must be stopped, finally it is the death of the Republic, its Constitution, and its founding principles. Just in the past few days the President has bowed to the wishes of the Chinese Communists on trade and the North Koreans on our alliance with South Korea. As he did these things he made more and ever more threatening attacks on the Department of Justice and the FBI in order to discredit them and end the investigation of his family and presidential campaign ties to Russia and other foreign enemies.

What the President and his administration since they took power is amoral and it is dragging the reputation of the United States into the sewer. Sadly, it will have real world consequences, as well as dangerous ramifications for our own system of Constitutional government and representative democracy.

This is not new, during the 1930s many leaders of struggling democracies caught up in the Great Depression, including the United States offered up praise for the accomplishments of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. By their encouragement, accommodation, and appeasement these leaders were complicit in some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever seen in the world. Some of these leaders, especially in France actively worked against their own democratic form of government in the hopes of overthrowing it and setting up a Fascist state. Once France was defeated by Germany the anti-democratic leaders of that country voted out the Republic and established a dictatorship at Vichy headed by Marshal Petain, the hero of the First World War.

Petain with Hitler

The Premier of France under Vichy, Pierre Laval, led the successful move to abolish the constitution of the Third Republic. He said: “Parliament must be dissolved. The Constitution must be reformed. It must align itself with the totalitarian states…” He told the Assembly: “We are going to destroy the totality of what was. We’re going to create something entirely different…. Henceforth there will be only one party, that of all the French.” He concluded “We are paying today for the fetish which chained us to democracy and led us to the worst excesses of capitalism, which all around us Europe was forging, without us, a new world.”

Another, Charles Spinasse, a Socialist who had come to believe in Fascism told the Assembly: “We must break from the past. It was full of illusions…. We believed in individual freedom, in the independence of man. It was but anticipation of the future which was beyond our grasp. We must have a new faith based on new values…. France abandoned itself. It must begin anew.”

One opponent rushed to Vichy to oppose the measures, Pierre-Etienne Flandin, told his colleagues: “Change the Constitution? But why? What need is there to change our institutions? The reproach is that we did not respect them.” However, Flandin too had no problem with giving the reigns of power to an authoritarian, Fascist regime that would cooperate with the Nazis, turn on its allies, and murder its own citizens. His words were absolutely correct, but he betrayed himself at the end.

Pierre Laval

In the end Laval won the day. He told the assembly: “Parliamentary democracy lost the war. It must give way to a new regime: audacious, authoritarian, social, and national.” In the end the vast majority of the delegates from across the political spectrum voted to end the Republic. Opponents who wished to continue to fight against Germany were condemned, jailed, and even killed. Leon Blum, a former Socialist leader who Laval despised wrote of Laval’s manner as the Republic was dissolved: “An unbelievable arrogance puffed up his small person. In a dry voice and with an irritated glacé he flung out verdicts and orders… “I do… I say… I refuse… that’s the way it is…”

President Trump has much the same attitude as he issues executive orders with abandon, even as others are struck down by the Courts. Last week he threatened to overturn and in effect destroy the Fourteenth Amendment by ending birthright citizenship by executive order. The threat is unconstitutional as hell but it is a threat to the civil rights of all Americans, but back to Vichy.

Likewise when questioned about allowing opposition newspapers to publish, Laval told Blum in words that one can almost hear President Trump say if he were granted the right to restrict the freedom of the press:

“When I decide, no newspaper will appear if it shows the slightest reticence about my policies. The press must follow me absolutely, without reserve—and I will not let myself be duped.”

But just as troubling on the domestic front is the President’s stated desire to crush the parts of our Constitutional system that inconvenience him, and with his malleable GOP majorities in the House and Senate he may eventually succeed in doing if not opposed by courageous Senators and Representatives, and the Courts. He has on a number of occasions threatened the independence of the judiciary, he has expressed a desire to amend the Constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. He has also urged Congress to end the Filibuster which is the last resort by which a minority party can prevent bare majority of Senators or Representatives of one party to impose its will on the entire nation, even if the majority of people in the nation voted against their party. As of now GOP Senate leaders have announced their opposition to such legislation realizing that they could once again be in the minority. However, for Trump that does not matter as he has no loyalty to the Republican Party; sadly, most Republicans do not seem to understand that fact, and I wonder how firm they will stand when push comes to shove. History shows us that all too often, even the opponents of authoritarianism can easily turn from defending their Constitutional liberties to supporting nationalist, racist, and authoritarian leaders.

That my friends should frighten any American who has not lost their belief in our system of government which for all of its inefficiencies guarantees more liberty than any other system in the world.  History shows that once those liberties are gone you do not get them back without the despot who has taken them away being defeated, often by military conquest.

The fact is that as Timothy Snyder wrote: “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Will our epitaph be like the words of French Senator Bovin-Champeaux who said: “Is it 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 charged with guarding it and making it work.”

Unlike Laval’s Vichy Government the United States has not been overrun and invaded by an enemy Army. We don’t have Russian Tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, or Vladimir Putin doing a jig at the Washington Monument, but the President’s surrender to Putin, and other despots and his attacks on our Constitution and legal systems will destroy us and all of our rights; and that means even the rights of those people who for whatever reason support him. If this continues, they too will become victims of an American version of the Night of the Long Knives. 

The mid-term elections are on Tuesday. One never knows but they could be the last we ever have, or that will matter? Certainly the Germans of 1932, the Czechoslovakians of 1946, or the newly free “Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history…” did not think it would be, but it was.

Take my warning for what it is. Trump’s opponents are already damned and doomed if he succeeds, but his supporters will have signed their own death sentences and they are too stupid to know it. But then, such is bliss of ignorance.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under History, laws and legislation, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe