Those who actually managed to read this captivating and meticulously documented narrative history of Hitler's climb to power (and all the subsequent events right up to the end of the European part of World War Two) were admittedly few, but millions at least knew of the books existence. However, very few ever saw, or even heard of another of his comprehensive descriptions of the events of that time; a story just as enthralling and compelling as that of Nazi Germany, and closely linked to it.
France - 1940
The Collapse of the Third Republic was published in 1969, and it depicts the long and detailed history of the French governmental system established in the aftermath of the 1871 loss of a war to Germany, and that government's eventual collapse in 1940 after suffering a more disasterous repeat of that earlier catastrophe. Yet, while it is little known outside of academic circles in the USA, for those willing to invest the time and energy to work their way through its 948 pages, this magnificent book is more exciting and intriguing than even the best historical fiction, and leaves the reader with an account of modern French history up to 1940 that is unequalled in any other single volume of which I am aware.
Subtitled ...An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940, it is the telling of one of those events in world history which most well read people think they already know a good deal about, and wind-up stunned at the end to realize how little they actually understood. This book is not only absolutely riveting, but will utterly transform most people's view of how it was that France lost to Germany in 1940, and wound-up an occupied country for the next four years.
What makes this book particularly engaging is that Shirer himself was a close first-hand witness to most of the key events from 1925 on. Mr. Shirer was not only the European news correspondent for several news agencies during those turbulent years, but he is one of those rare Americans who actually made himself fluent in all of the languages of the countries he reported on.
First stationed in Paris, and later in Berlin, his special access to all of the key figures and events afforded by his press credentials and language skills results in a telling of events that is rich with the type of nuance no outside observer can ever hope to convey. Yet the work itself - like its more famous counterpart on Germany - is extensively and meticulously documented. Everything here is carefully supported by original source documents and first hand knowledge that convey the highest degree of fidelity to historical integrity.
In Part 2 of this post I will outline the key events and conclusions conveyed in Shirer's history of how France, with an army every bit the equal of Nazi Germany's, was so quickly and totally crushed in the spring of 1940. It is a surprising tale of arrogance, ignorance, betrayal - and ultimately heroic redemption.