As an international war correspondent and radio commentator, William L. Shirer didn’t just research the fall of France. He was there. In just six weeks, he watched the Third Reich topple one of the world’s oldest military powers—and institute a rule of terror and paranoia. Based on in-person conversation with the leaders, diplomats, generals, and ordinary citizens who both shaped the events of this time and lived through them on a daily basis, Shirer shapes a compelling account of historical events—without losing sight of the personal experience.
From the heroic efforts of the Freedom Fighters to the tactical military misjudgments that caused the fall and the daily realities of life for French citizens under Nazi rule, this fascinating and exhaustively documented account from one of the twentieth Century’s most important historians makes the events of the fall accessible to a younger audience in vivid and memorable style.
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DEBACLE! SUMMER 1940
The collapse of the French Third Republic in the balmy May-June- July days of 1940 was an awesome spectacle.
In the span of six weeks during that spring and early summer of weather more lovely than anyone in France could remember since the end of the previous war, this old parliamentary democracy, the world's second largest empire, one of Europe's principal powers and perhaps its most civilized, and reputedly possessing one of the finest armies in the world, went down to utter military defeat, leaving its citizens, who had been heirs to a long and glorious history, dazed and then completely demoralized.
Before they could recover their senses an eighty-four-year-old, nearly senile Marshal, a legendary hero of the First World War, aided and indeed prodded by a handful of defeated generals and defeatist politicians, completed the debacle by jettisoning in mid-July, with the approval of a stampeded parliament, the Third Republic and its democratic way of life, and replacing it with a fascist dictatorship that attempted to ape a good many aspects, though not all, of the totalitarian regime of the Nazi German conquerors.
By this means these Frenchmen hoped not only to alleviate the bitter consequences of defeat but to wipe out their country's admittedly imperfect democracy, which, though it had heaped honors and favors on them and afforded them vast opportunities to further their professional careers and enrich their lives and, more often than not, their pocketbooks, they had long despised, and which now, in its agony, they scorned, claiming that it was responsible for the terrible defeat.
The twentieth century, strewn as it was with the wrecks of many a mighty empire, had not previously seen such a sudden cataclysm. One had to go back to the previous century to find even the faintest parallel. In 1806 the France of Napoleon I had quickly brought Prussia to heel. In 1870 the France of Napoleon III had been crushed by Prussia in forty-two days. But in the First World War, France, with the help of her allies, not only had held out for four years against the onslaught of the ancient foe but had emerged victorious in 1918. Little wonder that in June 1940 the swift annihilation of France by Hitler's Germany stunned the minds of vanquished and victor alike and of most men who had followed the course of battle from near or from far. It seemed beyond the power of the mind to grasp.
"It was the most terrible collapse," a French historian sadly recounted, "in all the long story of our national life." To the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain it was an "unprecedented humiliation of a great nation."
In Paris, the fallen capital, I noted in my diary on June 17: "I have a feeling that what we're seeing here is the complete breakdown of French society — a collapse of the army, of government, of the morale of the people. It is almost too tremendous to believe."
How, I wondered, had it come about? How was it possible? What were the terrible weaknesses, the defects, the blindness and the stumblings that had brought this gifted people to such a low and pitiful state? Sometimes in history, I tried to remember, a nation went down not so much because of its own flaws as because of the attacking nation's unexpectedly tremendous strength. Was this but the latest example? For years from Berlin I had watched Nazi Germany's mercurial rise in military might, which the sleeping democracies in the West did little to match. I had followed too at first hand Hitler's cynical but amazingly successful diplomacy, which had so easily duped the West and which had paved the way for one quick military conquest after another. But still — and notwithstanding — the French debacle in the midst of which I now found myself was quite incomprehensible. Not even the German generals I had talked with in Berlin had expected it. Though they knew some of its weaknesses and had planned to take advantage of them, they had had a decent respect for the French army, acquired by personal experience in the 1914–1918 war and by their remembrance of history that went back to the Napoleonic wars.
* * *
About noon that day, June 17, I had come into Paris on the heels of the rapidly advancing German army, with which I was an accredited, neutral, American correspondent, the United States not yet having been shoved into the war by the Japanese and by Hitler. It was one of those lovely June days, bright and sunny under a cloudless sky and not too warm, that had often made life seem so wondrous in this ancient and beautiful metropolis, where I had worked and lived for some years between the wars before moving on to other European capitals and eventually to Berlin — though there never was a year that I did not return to Paris on some kind of assignment or pretext and thus was able to follow at first hand, to some extent, the troubled affairs of a country that had become, spiritually, my second home.
On this June day the usually teeming streets were empty of the French. On the sidewalks there was scarcely a human being to be seen except for an occasional group of strolling German soldiers in their dark-gray uniforms gaping like tourists at the familiar landmarks of the great city. The stores were closed, the iron shutters drawn tight over the shop windows, the blinds closed snugly on the windows in the residential quarters, much as they would be in an ordinary August when half the Parisians deserted the city for vacations at the seashore or in the countryside or up in the mountains.
Now, most of them had fled. According to police estimates, only 700,000 — out of five million — inhabitants were left in the city by June 14, the day the Germans entered. Two days before, when a great pall of smoke from burning oil depots in the suburbs hung over the nearly deserted capital, a stray herd of cows from a dairy farm at Auteuil could be seen meandering about the Place de l'Alma in the center of Paris almost under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine.
There was now, in this third week of June, a horde of more than eight million panic-stricken refugees strung out for hundreds of miles on the roads south of Paris between the rivers Seine and Loire and beyond. Before the Parisians fled en masse on the approach of the Germans, six million others, including two million from Belgium, had abandoned their homes and farms in the north and northeast and lit out by any means available toward the south to keep from being captured by the enemy. Many of them had experienced life under German occupation in the first war and were determined to spare themselves and their children that fate this time. Since almost all roads in France led to Paris, many of these refugees had passed through the capital during the last fortnight of May, a considerable number in the relative comfort of packed railroad trains. Their passing had been quite orderly and some had remained in the city in the belief that Paris, as in 1914, would be held. Their arrival, however, increased the feeling of uneasiness among the Parisians, who, without accurate news of the collapsing front from their government and army chiefs, fed on mounting rumor and began to fear the worst.
There had been a bad scare toward the end of the first week of battle, on May 15, when it was learned that the Germans had broken through at the Meuse river crossings at Sedan and north of that ill-fated city, whose fall had doomed France in 1870. The High Command had informed the government — to its amazement — that there was nothing to stop the enemy armored columns from reaching Paris within twenty-four hours.
"Last night," Premier Paul Reynaud had wired the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, urgently, "we lost the battle. The route to Paris is open."
Seized by panic, high officials at the French Foreign Office began dumping secret state documents out of the windows to bonfires in the yard below, and the smoke had drifted up the Seine to the nearby Chamber of Deputies, giving its members pause for thoughts about getting away in time. Word spread over Paris, and many citizens hastily departed. But the German panzer columns had bypassed Paris and raced unimpeded westward to the Channel, cutting off the flower of the French army, all of the Belgian army, and nine of ten divisions of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders. This had given Paris a respite.
On Sunday, May 19, the day after Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, eighty-four, the hero of Verdun, had joined the government as Vice-Premier, and the very day General Maxime Weygand, seventy-three, the aide of Foch in the first war, replaced the faltering Generalissimo Maurice Gamelin, sixty-eight, a former aide of Joffre, as Commander in Chief, the members of the government and Parliament, led by the President of the Republic and the Premier, had gone to pray at Notre Dame for the miracle of deliverance. No doubt they were thinking of the "miracle" of the Marne that had stopped the onrushing Germans before Paris in the second month of battle in 1914 and turned the tide of the whole war. But now on barely the tenth day of battle there was neither a Joffre nor a Foch nor a Galliéni to lead and inspire the French army. Their successors, Gamelin and Weygand and Georges, were of a different stripe.
The prayers, led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, had not been answered. The Germans, after rounding up the trapped French forces which had not been able, or willing, to get away by sea with the British at Dunkirk — the Belgian army had surrendered unconditionally on May 28 — resumed their offensive on the Somme and Aisne on June 5. The French defenders, now outnumbered two to one and assisted by only one British division, quickly gave way. By June 9 the enemy armor was close enough to Paris to prompt the government to decide to depart the next evening. When the Parisians learned of the government's flight they joined it.
Between June 9 and 13, when the Germans arrived at the gates of the city, two million Parisians, men, women, and children, took off in utter panic toward the south, packing a few belongings on the roofs of their small cars or on the racks of motorcycles or bicycles or in baby carts, peddler's carts, wheelbarrows, or in any wheeled contrivance they could lay a hasty hand on, for many were on foot. They had no idea of their destination; they wanted only to keep out of the clutch of the Germans, who under Hitler's brutal rule were rumored to be even more barbarian than the Germans of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had shot so many hostages when they overran Belgium and northern France in 1914.
No provision for food, drink, and lodging had been made for so many suddenly uprooted millions. The authorities had not foreseen such a massive and pitiful exodus. At night these desperate people, when they were not on the move, slept in their cars or in the fields. By day they scrounged for food where they could find it and sometimes pillaged. The towns and villages through which they inched their way on the jammed roads were usually emptied of their own dwellers, who, in a sort of chain reaction, had joined the first column of refugees that appeared, so that the food stores and bakeries were closed or their shelves empty. A few peasants along the route dispensed food and even water, sometimes at a highly profitable price, but this was but a drop in the bucket.
In Paris we heard from returning correspondents of this frightened, leaderless swarm of citizenry fleeing down the roads so choked with traffic and so snarled that even when the gasoline held out and the overheated motors continued to revolve, a man was lucky to make twenty-five or thirty miles in twenty-four hours in a car packed tight with the members of his family and bulging with baggage roped down on the roof under a mattress to protect, it was somehow hoped, against bombs from the sky. For the German Luftwaffe, which first had terrorized the French troops, was now bombing civilian refugees, especially those crowding the approaches to bridges and crossroads, which might have been military objectives had they been defended by French soldiers. For a week the German aviators had been joined by the Italians, who seemed to the terror-stricken refugees to outdo the Germans in attacking them.
On June 10 Italy had entered the war on the side of Germany and had tried to assault what was left of a stricken France. The Italian army had not had any success for a week, nor would it to the end, against the handful of determined French troops defending the Alpine passes and the entrance to the Riviera. But against the logjams of terrified civilians on the roads the Italians, from the safety of the undefended air, were more successful.
Along the congested thoroughfares French soldiers were now enmeshed with civilians in the wild scramble to keep out of the reach of the pursuing enemy. Most of these troops, cut off from their units in the confusion of retreat, had thrown away their arms. They blended quickly into the columns of fleeing refugees. Units that were still intact and armed milled around in the towns or villages or at the approaches to bridges waiting for orders that never came. The President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, himself fleeing with the government from Tours to Bordeaux on June 14, noted that "the towns and villages are full of idle troops. What are they doing there, inert, when one needs them so badly elsewhere?" It was for him, he added, a "mystery."
By blocking the roads the refugees not only impeded the movement of those troops that did try to move forward to stem the German tide but often held up the retreat of units until they were overrun by enemy armored formations and captured. The General Staff of the French Seventh Army, drawing back from the Seine to the Loire, complained that its "movement has been rendered almost impossible by the afflux of refugees encumbering the roads with their cars and carts. The villages and crossroads are places of indescribable bottlenecks."
Most demoralizing of all to army units still trying to fight were the efforts of civilians to prevent them from offering further resistance that might damage their homes and shops. At one village on the River Indre the local inhabitants extinguished the fuses of explosives already lit by army engineers to blow the bridge there and slow down the German advance. French troops digging in at Poitiers were surprised to see the mayor driving out with a white flag to surrender the town to the Germans. He was backed by the inhabitants, who had threatened to tear down the barricades erected by the soldiers. French civilians, like so many of the troops, had no more stomach for the fighting that had started only a month before.
Perhaps it made little difference now. The remaining French armies that had tried to stand on the Somme and Aisne and then along the Seine and Marne had either been chewed to pieces by German tanks or were in disorderly retreat toward the Loire and upper Seine east of Paris. On June 11 General Alphonse Georges, commanding the collapsing front, estimated he had left the equivalent of only thirty divisions — out of sixty in line the week before — from the sea to the beginning of the Maginot Line, and they were exhausted from trying to fight by day and retreat by night. On June 12 the great Maginot Line of fortifications in the east, which had not been penetrated by the enemy, was abandoned on the orders of General Weygand. But the move came too late, and four days later the 400,000 retreating fortress troops were encircled by the Germans.
On the abandonment of Paris, Supreme Headquarters had been moved temporarily to Briare, on the Loire east of Tours, where General Weygand, backed by Marshal Pétain, spent much time relaying the increasingly catastrophic news to the government and urging it to acknowledge defeat and give up the hopeless struggle.
The government itself was in disarray. After struggling all night to get their cars through the mass of refugees on the clogged roads, the cabinet members and their skeleton staffs had arrived from Paris at the Loire on the morning of June 11 and scattered to various châteaux in the region of Tours. There was only one antiquated telephone in each castle (usually in the downstairs toilet), none of them in good working order and each connected only with the nearest village, where the operator insisted on taking off the customary two hours for lunch and closing down at 6 P.M.
There was little communication between the cabinet ministers and none at all with the outside world. Paul Baudouin, Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, who was in charge of the displaced Foreign Office, found his only source of news in a portable field radio which the British Ambassador had thought to bring along. When Baudouin, on the afternoon of the 11th, went to see the President of the Republic at the Château de Cangé, he found the nation's chief magistrate "entirely isolated, without news from the Premier, without news from Supreme Headquarters, depressed, overwhelmed. He knows nothing."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Collapse of the Third Republic"
Copyright © 2014 William L. Shirer.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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Table of Contents
1. Debacle! Summer 1940,
Book One The Rise Of The Third Republic 1871–1919,
2. A Freakish Birth and Early Growing Pains 1871–1891,
3. The Dreyfus Affair 1894–1906,
4. The Consolidation of the Republic 1880–1914,
5. Classes and Conflict 1875–1914,
6. The Permanent Political Crisis 1875–1914,
7. The Achievements of the Third Republic 1875–1914,
8. The Coming of the First World War 1905–1914,
9. The Third Republic's Finest Hour 1914–1918,
Book Two Illusions And Realities Of Victory 1919–1934,
10. Victorious France — "The Greatest Power in Europe" 1919–1931,
11. Decline, I: Political and Financial Chaos, and the Poincaré Recovery 1924–1930,
12. Decline, II: The Erosion of Military Power 1925–1934,
13. Decline, III: The World Depression Shakes the Third Republic 1931–1934,
Book Three The Last Years Of The Third Republic 1934– 1939,
14. A Fateful Turning Point February 6, 1934,
15. Aftermath: Widening of the Gulf 1934–1936,
16. Coup in the Rhineland: The Last Chance to Stop Hitler and Avert a Major War March 1936,
17. France Further Divided — the Front Populaire and the Spanish Civil War 1936–1937,
18. Dissension and Disarray: France and the Anschluss March 1938,
19. The Road to Munich, I: April 27–September 13, 1938,
20. The Road to Munich, II: September 15–28, 1938,
21. The Conference at Munich September 29–30, 1938,
22. The Turn of Poland 1939,
23. A Summer's Interlude in Paris May–July 1939,
24. The Talks with Russia Summer 1939,
25. On the Eve of War August 23–31, 1939,
26. The Launching of World War II September 1–3, 1939,
Book Four The War And The Defeat 1939–1940,
27. La Drôle de Guerre September 3, 1939– April 9, 1940,
28. On the Eve: The War in Norway, the Threat to Belgium and the Crisis in Paris Spring 1940,
29. The Battle of France, I: The Armies Close In May 10–15, 1940,
30. The Battle of France, II: Disaster at Sedan. The Breakthrough at the Meuse May 13–16, 1940,
31. The Battle of France, III: Disaster in Flanders and the Surrender of Belgium May 16–June 4, 1940,
32. The Fall of Paris June 5–14, 1940,
33. The Flight to Bordeaux June 11–14, 1940,
34. The Agony of Bordeaux. The Fall of Reynaud. Pétain Takes Over June 14–16, 1940,
35. Armistice! June 17–29, 1940,
Book Five The Collapse Of The Third Republic,
36. The End at Vichy June–July 1940,