The reporter went to the City of Light in the summer of 1925. He found himself in the capital of a nation at the height of its military, economic, and cultural power. The continental empires that had been threats to France—Germany, the Hapsburgs, Russia—were smoldering wrecks. France’s economy seemed to have recovered from the destruction of the First World War. Modern culture flourished in the city. A visit to the Left Bank brought encounters with writers, artists, and philosophers; with the giants of the French avant-garde; with bankers, newspapermen, and politicians fluent in literary debate.
The reporter was struck by the equanimity of his surroundings. “The country was prosperous,” he wrote, “the people relaxed, the Continent at last at peace.” What the young William L. Shirer did not understand at the time, though, was that the apparent wealth and order rested on weak foundations. Part of the problem was demographic: The French population was shrinking. Birthrates had been falling before the war and continued to plunge after it ended. More than a million Frenchmen were permanently disabled from injuries in battle. Average family size had withered. Mass immigration alone “enabled the country to function.”
Inflation, meanwhile, was robbing the franc of its purchasing power. A franc in 1939 would be worth only one-seventieth of its value in 1913. The rising cost of living made it difficult for families and businesses to plan. Taxes were indirect, inefficient, and regressive. Government finances were a mess. Cronyism was rampant.
Politics was a font of instability. Since 1871 France had been a democracy, the Third Republic. Defenders of the liberal regime were besieged by ultranationalists on the right and Popular Front socialists on the left. “Governments rose and fell with dizzy rapidity,” wrote Shirer, “some lasting but a few months, the most durable of them but two or three years.” The turbulence and polarization led to widespread cynicism. The attitude of the day was Je m’en foutisme—not giving a damn.
Reality finds ways to dispel illusions. By the time Shirer left Paris in the fall of 1938, the Third Republic was in disarray, “its strength gradually sapped by dissension and division, by an incomprehensible blindness in foreign, domestic, and military policy, by the ineptness of its leaders, the corruption of its press, and by a feeling of growing confusion, hopelessness, and cynicism.” The global economy was in depression. Another war was just around the bend.
The Third Republic proved incapable of dealing with the crises of its time. Its elites were too self-absorbed, its society too fractured, its culture too decadent to oppose the threats arrayed against France. The nation’s military defenses quickly fell apart when the Nazis invaded in May 1940. “Public discipline and order disappeared,” Soviet ambassador to London Ivan Maisky recalled in his memoirs. “A great country, with so many centuries of glorious history behind it, was seized with political, military, and psychological paralysis.”
The Wehrmacht entered Paris on June 14, 1940. William Shirer returned to the city several days later. The glorious metropolis, now occupied by foreign soldiers, seemed to him cold, lifeless, abandoned. Millions of refugees were fleeing southward and westward. The French Army was defeated. The secretary of war, Charles de Gaulle, had fled to England.
On July 10 the National Assembly voted to establish the Nazi puppet state of Vichy, ruled by Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval. The Third Republic was gone.
By the standards of modern France, the American government has been remarkably stable. Since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, by which the American people assumed our “separate and equal station” among the powers of the world, we have lived under just two constitutions: the short-lived Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789, and the U.S. Constitution ever since. No enumerated “republics” for us. No lurching from democracy to anarchy to tyranny and back. No foreign invasion and usurpation. Only one (incredibly bloody) civil war has been fought—to uphold the Constitution and vindicate the principles of the Declaration. Nothing like the fall of the Third Republic has happened here.