62: The Shadow of Victory


After their victory during the First World War the French had some very real problems. Those problems and their possible solutions would shape French policy during the interwar years.



  • Fortress France: The Maginot Line and French Defenses in World War II by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann
  • The Maginot Line 1928-1945 by William Allcorn Illustrated** by Jeff Vanelle and Vincent Boulanger
  • Unusual Aspects of a Unique Fortification: The Maginot Line by J.E. Kaufmann
  • Beyond Left and Right, and the Politics of the Third Republic: A Conversation by William D. Irvine
  • The Comintern and the Origins of the Popular Front 1934-1935 by Jonathan Haslam
  • Democracy and War: Political Regime, Industrial Relations, and Economic Preparations for War in France and Britain up to 1940 by Talbot Imlay
  • European Crisis, Colonial Crisis? Signs of Francture in the French Empire from Munich to the Outbreak of War by Martin Thomas
  • “As far as numbers are concerned, we are beat” Finis Galliae and the Nexus between Fears of Depopulation, Welfare Reform, and the Military in France during the Third Republic, 1870-1940 by Nikolas Dorr
  • Fellow Travellers: Communist Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations on the French Railways by Thomas Beaumont
  • “Fortress France”: Protecting the Nation and its Bodies, 1918-1940 by Roxanne Panchasi
  • A Work That Is Still the Authoritative Study Half a Century Later: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Piotr S. Wandycz’s Book: France and Her Eastern Allies 1919-1925: French- Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from the Paris Peace Conference to Locarno by Anna M. Cienciała
  • France in the Era of Global War, 1914-1945: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements Edited by Ludivine Broch and Alison Carrol
  • Money in Wartime: France’s Financial Preparations for Two World Wars by Martin Horn and Talbot Imlay
  • French Economic Affairs and Rearmament: The First Crucial Months, June-September 1936 by Martin Thomas
  • French Empire and Elites and the Politics of Economic Obligation in the Interwar Years by Martin Thomas
  • French Foreign and Defence Policy 1918-1940: The Decline and Fall of a Great Power Edited by Robert Boyce
  • Closing the Door: The French Government and Refugee Policy, 1033-1939 by Timothy P. Maga
  • The French Navy and the Appeasement of Italy, 1937-9 by Reynolds M. Salerno
  • In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933-1940 by Robert J. Young
  • Economic Conditions and the Limits to Mobilization in the French Empire, 1936-1939 by Martin Thomas
  • The Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy, 1934-38 by Julian Jackson
  • The Resignation of the First Popular Front Government of Leon Blum, June 1937 by Irwin M. Wall (1970)
  • Albert Sarraut and Republican Racial Thought by Clifford Rosenberg
  • The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939 by Robert Allan Doughty
  • Teaching the French Popular Front by Irwin M. Wall
  • The Fabric of Gender: Working-Class Culture in Third Republic France by Helen Harden Chenut
  • The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s by Eugen Weber
  • The Republic in Danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the politics of French defense, 1933-1940 by Martin S. Alexander
  • The Right in France: From the Third Republic to Vichy by Kevin Passmore
  • The Third Republic in France 1870 - 1940: Conflicts and Continuities by William Forescue
  • The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 1926-1936: French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland by Piotr S. Wandycz
  • To the Maginot Line: The Politics of French Military Preparation in the 1920s by Judith H. Hughes


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 62 - The Third Republic Part 2 - The Shadow of Victory. This week a big thank you goes out to Edwin for their donation and to Ido, Gary, Luke, and John for choosing to support the podcast, where they get access to ad free episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. I know at this point it is almost a joke on this podcast, but when discussing events in interwar France you have to start with the First World War. In France anybody who was over 30 years old in 1939 remembered the First World War, most of their fathers had fought in the war, and those men who had fought in it were still in the prime of the economic and political power. To say that the war influenced French political, economic, military, and social development during the 20s the 30s is to understate its impact. Along with the impact of the war was also the consequences of the peace that had been signed, with the devastating understanding that it was very likely that another war with Germany or some other power was very likely. When looking back at interwar France today there is also another almost impossible complication. WE know that France completely fails in its defense of the German attack in 1940, we know that it would be a devastating French defeat. This makes it very tempting to look at interwar France and search for not for the what happened and why but instead to simply search for reasons for the later failure. In this search it can be easy to lose the actual course of events, it makes it easy to read too much into certain decision and not others, and to judge those decisions based on future events. Last episode I dove really deep into that with the Maginot Line, and I will almost certainly mention it again, but for now we are going to discuss the political and social developments in France during the 1920s and 1930s. These developments are important in and of themselves, but also play a role in understanding why France made the decisions that it made during the 1930s which then led to the events of the 1940 and beyond. Over the next five episodes we will track the course of those developments from the end of the First World WAr to the beginning of the Second, at which point we will take a few episodes to focus strictly on the evolution of French military thought during this period, a crucial topic not just for the events after 1939 but before 1939 as well as the French military was an essential piece of any active resistance to Germany’s actions during the 1930s.

During the war the French political climate had changed as everyone sort of came together in this massive coalition in the search for victory. The Socialists and much of the left would officially exclude themselves from that coalition, but this in no way meant that they did not fully support the war and were very supporting of anything that would result in victroy. What this meant was that at the end of the war the Center and the Right, led by the Radical Party and Prime Minister Clemenceau, enjoyed massive support as the government that had led the nation to victory. This would also effect support for the parties after the war, because Radicals and members of their coalition were identified with victory and they would portray their political rivals on the left as pacifists and anti-French., But this simple political divide could not completely insulate the Center and the Right from the very real problems that France would face after the ar. The disappointing aspects of the peace agreement, which Clemenceau was assigned responsibility for. The economic problems that would be felt as the nation tried to rebuild, and just the general disunity that happens after a long war even for victorious nations, would all take their toll and cause political support on the right to fracture. Although there were still some areas where this was enough agreement to prevent certain societal reforms. For example, attempts to give French women the right to vote would fail in 1919 due to the conservative groups that found enough unity to vote it down in the Chamber of Deputies, delaying French women suffrage until after the Second World War. In some ways they were only saved by the even deeper fractures on the left, as the divide between the Socialists and Communists would deepen saa relations between the two groups in all nations were generally split in no small part due to events in Russia. The one similarity between all of these groups, from the Communists on the far left to the Proto-fascists on the far right, was that they were all faced with the same problem within French society. Economic problems, demographic problems, the questions of immigration, and then foreign relations were all critical topics upon which successive French governments would rise and fall during the 1920s and 30s. So it seems justified to start today by looking at these problems and their causes.

During the First World War the effort involved in winning the war had pushed the French economy to the edge of an abyss. As with many other nations the French government was forced to turn to its citizens and sell war bonds to help fund all of the various purchases that had to be made during the war, especially foreign imports. When this was done there was the understanding that they would be paid back, and this expectation would play a role in keeping the French government on the gold standard in the 1920s. If they devalued the franc, and let inflation occur, those war bonds would reduce in value, and with so many people having purchased the bonds, and in large numbers, this could have caused serious problems. How serious? Well, in other nations the end of the war brought revolution, or close to it, and economic problems were often a very important driving force in those revolutions. War bonds would not cause revolutions, just like they were not the sole economic problem that France had during the 1920s and 30s, but it was just one of a huge number of situations that would effect decision making. Then of course the Great Depression would hit the rest of the war, which France would stay partially isolated from for some but, until the British and American devalued their currencies. This would then cause problems for France, but they would refuse to devalue the franc until 1936, probably far after they should have and certainly after it would have had the greatest impact.

These economic concerns, and the long shadow cast by the First World war, then played a role in not just political decision making but also on the military side as well, an influence we discussed at some length last episode. To avoid such catastrophic economic problems in the next war French military leaders felt that they had to hold onto as much of the valuable northeastern territories as possible. Foreign trade was also a growing problem, with more French imports originating from the British Empire than from French Imperial holdings, which resulted in a slow drain on the French economy. One of the hidden reasons that France was tied so closely to Britain during the 1930s was this economic relationship that they could not risk breaking. There were also a whole host of other economic ties between the two nations, like the fact that more imports were offloaded from British ships in French ports than from French ships. These types of economic ties were not necessarily a bad thing, but from both sides its would put influence on politicians to make certain decisions. The French were importing a lot from the British empire, while the British empire was gaining a lot of benefits from being such an important part of the French economy. All of these items, and many more, would be a part of what were felt to be necessary economic preparations for war, especially due to the fact that the French firmly believed that whatever happened the next war would be a long one, years in length just like the last one, and such a lengthy conflict required a different and more all encompassing set of considerations when it came to being prepared.

Economic problems were just one problem facing France, another was around demographics. 1.2 million men had died either during the war or immediately afterwards. There was also a drastic drop in the birthrate during the war years, understandable with so many men at the front, and this meant that there were 1.4 million fewer births during the war years that might have otherwise been expected. This was very troubling to a French nation that had already had a pretty low birth rate before the war, and fuelled a push for French families to have more children, and quickly. Supporting these efforts to increase the size of French families would become and important part of many, if not most, political party platforms, a several parties would all portray themselves as the party of the French family. In 1920 the first official French Mother’s Day would be celebrated, and 50,000 mothers with five or more children were all given an official medal from the government. There would also be a law put into place that gave fathers more votes depending on how many children they had under the age of 16, which translated procreation directly into political power. All of these efforts had disappointing results, and after a very brief and small baby boom after the war was over, the French birthrate settled down to a disappointing number. This was a problem from a military perspective, but also from an economic one, it meant that the French population was aging, and there was the looming problem of the missing millions that should have been reaching their economic primes in the 1930s.

As the birthrate continued to not increase, a search for a cause, or somebody or something to blame, became an increasingly hot topic of conversation. Just like in other societies many religious and conservative groups placed the blame on the changes within society. The list of exact changes that had occurred that were blamed could be copy and pasted from many other nations: pornography, women’s rights movements, the decline of traditional family values, that kind of stuff. Along with all of these problems there was also the fact that many more women were working in some way. This could easily be hidden if you look at some of the statistics from this period because of how those statistics were skewed towards male workers and male dominated industries. The skew of the data would become far more important during the harsh economic years of the Depression when many government statistics were based on manufacturing and other heavily unionized professions, which neglected many professionals dominated by women, including the textile and garment industry. There would eventually be some recognition that part of the French birthrate problem was related to the economy, and this would prompt the Family Allowance Act in 1932 which essentially provided tax and economic benefits to families with at least 2 children, but this was really too little to late.

Instead of improving over the course of the 1930s the French birthrate would instead continue to decrease, with 1936 being one of the lowest years on record. This can partially be explained by the fact that it was in the years around 1936 that those missed births during the First World War were mostly heavily felt, because in 1936 those missing wartime babies would have been between the ages of 18, and 22. But there were also other changes, like the fact that by the late 1930 there was a trend for French couples to wait longer before having children. This would all culminate in the Code de la Famille in 1939, which provided even greater economic benefits to families that had large numbers of children, but it also contained some forced changes to society, with penalties for abortions increased and laws targeting the distribution of pornography. This law was far too late to influence French demographics during the war, and in fact between 1935 and 1945 there were more deaths than births in France almost every single year. From a military perspective, things got even worse, because France also had a problem whereby there were simply a smaller percentage of men fit for military service due to poor childhood nutrition and the scourge of childhood diseases. This meant that even of the smaller number of men that were of military age, less would be able to serve in time of war when compared ot Germany. To put all of this population talk into perspective. From 1900 to 1939 the German population increased by 36%, Italian 33%, British 23%, French 3%, yes that was 3 percent.

One of the ways that many nations might address a demographics problem around birthrates would be to import people, or more correctly to allow people to import themselves via immigration or as refugees. And the French did quite a bit of this, in fact the percentage of the French population made up of immigrants and refugees would double during the 1920s. They would have the highest immigration rate in the world for parts of that period, but such large numbers of immigrants and refugees caused the almost predictable backlash against them from certain groups within society. They began to be blamed for the problems that France was facing, and there was growing fear that they would cause things like more crime and a further decline of French society. These fears caused serious changes to occur in French immigration policy during the early 1930s, part of this was also driven by the sudden decline in French economic fortunes, with the belief that allowing further numbers of immigrants into France would put further strain on a French economy that was being hit hard by the Great Depression. Also during this time immigration policy would ebb and flow based on the political leadership at any given time. The Daladier government from the first part of 1933 began to put in place stronger restrictions on entry, but he was replaced in October 1933 by Albert Sarraut. Sarraut’s government would make immigration more difficult and reduce the rate at which refugees were allowed into the nation, at least partially due to some subtle, and not so subtle racism. During 1933 there were also large numbers of Germans who came into France fleeing from the new Nazi government, this caused concerns in the military about their loyalty to France. These concerns were voiced the strongest in those areas of Eastern France where those German immigrants and refugees were settling, along with others from elsewhere in Europe. When the Popular Front took power they were generally very open with their refugee and immigration policies, but when Daladier came back to power, he began implementing heavy restrictions both in the number of refugees allowed into the nation and the number given permanent residency. Behind these changes was the idea that France was reaching a saturation point particularly on refugees, and that the nation simply could not handle any more. In 1939 refugees would also be forced to enter military service if they planned to stay in France more than a few months, a more direct method of trying to capitalize on their presence in the country.

Going through the quick list of immigration changes is a great example of the kind of flailing that the French government did for much of the interwar period. There were many different governments, and while they often just involved the same group of men cycling through different cabinet positions, there was often a lot of indecision or reversals of previous decisions. This complete instability in the executive positions of the French government were in some ways a design feature of the government, preventing one person or party from having too much power. But it was also indicative of the divided nature of French politics during this period. These divisions would prevent many of the reforms that were probably necessary to fix French economic and societal issues. Unfortunately, one of the pieces of French society that all of the political parties seemed to agree on, the adherence to the gold standard and a balanced government budget, proved to be an anchor around the French economy, even if for several years it appeared to be a benefit. But that does not meant that there was not positive movement in other areas, like in foreign policy. For example, the 1928 Kellog-Briand Peace Pact was seen as a major development as it was signed by 15 nations from around the world, and all of the major military powers, even if it would prove to be exceptionally hollow.

The early 1930s would see a string of different attempts to limit the proliferation of arms and military strength around Europe and the world. Some of these, lik the official League of Nations Disarmament Conference were simply the final stage of what had been agreed to back in 1919 with the Versailles treaty. When the Conference opened in 1932 there were instantly problems which in hindsight seem obvious. Nobody really wanted to commit to strong reductions of military strength, least of all the French. It did not help that the French had one of the stronger militaries during the years of the conference, and were constantly accused of being the problem in the process. But of course the French, seeing themselves as the victims of German aggression not once but twice in the preceding century, would refuse to agree to any form of disarmament without strong guarantees of security not just from friendly nations but also from Germany. There was also just too many differences in opinion between the nations involved, or as Robert Young would say in In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933-1940 “Thus it was that the fate of European disarmament rested from the start on the blameless notion of equality, a notion however, that was defined by the Germans as actuality and by the French and potentiality. The chasm was never bridged.” I really like that quote because it does a good job of explaining why there was this massive difference of opinion between the various nations at the disarmament conference, not just among German and France but everyone. How you defined military strength was just different depending on which nation you were and what your concerns were, and they were differences that were impossible to bridge because every nation was different. While it can be easy to blame the failure of the conference on the French, it was probably doomed to failure from the very beginning. Every nation just had different views of what should be included, and at the time of the conference they were already far from the war years that had been so important to agreements like the Washington Naval Treaty which was signed in 1921. Those earlier agreements had been signed in the shadow of the First World WAr, when economic and societal pressure was at its peak. By 1932 these pressures had dissipated and nations were instead looking to make themselves stronger, not agree to reduce their militaries. Back in Paris there was pressure from both sides, with the French Right demanding that no agreement be signed, while the French left demanded some level of concessions, it was not a recipe for stable political leadership. In Germany there were also moving towards a reintroduction of conscription shortly after Hitler took power, which killed the possibility of any future agreement. When he Hitler did take power the belief within the French intelligence services was that the Nazi party was simply too divided to survive, and that it would eventually tear itself apart due to the differences in beliefs between Hitler and Strasser. This would of course not be the case, but it is hard to blame the French for believing it, because plenty of German leaders also did.

1933, while seeing Hitler take power, would also see a meeting, at the behest of Mussolini, which saw France, Britain, Italy, and Germany all sign a Four Power Pact, a very welcome development which seemed good for peace in Europe. Initially Mussolini was aiming high with the conference, he wanted to essentially remake the concert of Europe which had, at least in Mussolini’s mind, ensured peace for almost a century after the defeat of Napoleon. However, during the discussions any possible real impact that the agreement may had had was slowly removed by all of the parties involved. Or as Jean-Baptiste Duroselle would say in France and the Nazi Threat ‘The vicissitudes of the Four Power Pact stemmed from the deeply contradictory goals each country had assigned it. In the first Italian draft, article 2 stated that “the four powers reaffirm the principle of revision of the peace treaties, according to the clauses of the covenant of the League of Nations, whenever situations arise that might lead to conflict between states.”76 Mussolini, who supported the “dissatisfied” central European countries—Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria—saw this as a means to eventually grant them compensation. For France, which was allied to the “satisfied” countries, the pact’s main goal was to “keep Germany in line".’ So many of these efforts of the 1930s, while agreed to in some way by many nations, were mostly participated in to solve domestic political concerns that their nation was not doing enough to maintain peace. However, pretty much all of the conference and agreements, those that were signed, were simply robbed of any real power because none of the political leaders involved wanted to make real actual concessions to others. By the time that they were ready to so in the late 1930s, it was already too late.