YEARS OF TURMOIL AND TRAGEDY (1914–1945)
War followed quickly in August 1914, once Europe’s interlocking alliance system had been set in motion. World War I, the “Great War,” as the French still call it, tested the nation in unprecedented ways, both material and moral. Poised for defeat, France fought dog-gedly back to secure a stalemate, which endured through four long, miserable years. In a war of attrition, of man versus machine,
France and its allies—their staying power superior to that of their oppo-nents—emerged victorious, but the triumph proved at once both sweet and bittersweet. The cost had been horrific. No other nation suffered such high proportionate manpower losses, and the scars left as deep a psychic impression as the physical destruction that marred the land-scape—turned to moonscape—of the battle-ravaged regions.
The Third Republic had shown sufficient flexibility to weather the war-time crisis, but it proved much less resilient in facing the domestic and for-eign problems of the postwar years. Though prosperity marked the 1920s and national security remained not too worrisome with Germany weak and unstable through most of the decade, the calm facade only masked deep divisions within society, which the onset of the Great Depression and then the rise of Nazism in the country next door brought to the fore in the 1930s. Chronic political instability paralyzed the ability to act, fatally weakening the nation’s capacity to meet the new challenges.
Cabinets both on the right and on the left fell with dismal regular-ity while Europe edged toward war. When it came in September 1939, France tragically lacked both the will and the means to fight effectively. Because never before in modern French history had defeat come so quickly—in a mere six weeks—and so completely, so never before was France so broken in spirit and so utterly humiliated.
The shock of capitulation reopened old debates, some of which dated back to 1789, about liberty versus order and church versus state. The country was divided between occupied and unoccupied zones. Support for the pup-pet regime at Vichy, at first widespread, gradually shifted as the oppres-sion of German rule grew increasingly onerous and the forces of the Allies—Free French units battling at their side—made steady headway. Resisters fought collaborators in brutal fratricidal fighting.
By the time Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944–45, most of the French rallied around liberation as cause for cel-ebration. Unlike after past wars that were lost, the choice of the ruling regime—a republic—was easy. This time the hard task would be not only to rebuild the physical devastation left by unprecedented destruction but also to heal the wounds to the national spirit left by so much division.