When A Great Democracy Politicized The Military

President Joe Biden has embarked on a revolutionary program to replace constitutional freedoms with a new social justice agenda. Supporting the radical agenda is his defense secretary Lloyd Austin, whose top priority is to politicize the military to eliminate “extremists.”

So, what happens when the hard left takes control of the government of a great democracy and decides that the desired social revolution requires the destruction of conservative institutions and leaders, and then institutes aggressive policies to expel conservatives from the military? We have a good answer when we look at France from 1899 to 1914 when hard-left governments were in power.

France was fairly evenly divided between left and right in the three decades after the demise of the Second Empire and the founding of the Third Republic during the Franco-Prussian War. The military officer corps was mostly from the conservative middle class with a considerable number coming from the old aristocracy. In 1890 more than 20% of the cadets at some of the elite military academies came from the old aristocracy and a high percentage of Army officers were educated in Catholic schools. However, the Army also had many liberal supporters of the Republic in the officer corps and republican reforms in the 1880s had greatly benefitted the French Army by setting higher officer education standards and funding unit training.

Through the 1890s the French left increased its position in the National Assembly and in 1899 the Left Bloc, a coalition dominated by the hard left, formed the government. Top leftist political leaders wanted to use their power to utterly break the power of the conservative half of France, which meant going after two key institutions: The Catholic Church and the military officer corps. The Church was the main target. Inspired by fanatically anti-clerical Émile Combes, French premier 1902-1905, the government passed new laws regulating the Church in 1901 that required all education to be secular. Ten thousand Catholic schools were shut down. Many churches were closed, and convents were closed on the order of the government. Combes had a staunch ally in the radical left General Louis André, who served as war minister from 1900 to 1904. André assembled a group of leftist anti-clerical officers in the war ministry and embarked on a program to purge conservative and religious officers from the army. (Douglas Porch, The March to the Marne: the French Army 1871-1914, 1981)

In their desire to remold France according to Jacobin principles, the Left Bloc decided that conservative officers had to go. The government announced in 1901 that promotions in the army would no longer be an internal matter of the military promotion boards but would be under the purview of the War Department, run by the political ministers.

Under General André, the War Ministry initiated a secret system of surveillance and informants to collect information on the political, social, and religious background of officers. A network of Freemasons, leftist government officials, and leftist officers send information on French officers directly to the War Ministry. A vast system of secret files was amassed, eventually amounting to files on 19,000 of the 25,000 regular officers. The War Ministry used the files to push the careers of officers known to favor the left, while adherence to Catholic practices or familial and social contacts with the old aristocracy, were enough to dead-end even the most competent officer’s career.

While most of the files were destroyed by a reform-minded minister just before World War I, some still survive. An example concerns an infantry captain, rated as intelligent, took good care of his soldiers, was very competent in all of his professional duties, and an effective troop trainer. He was not known for expressing any statements critical of the government. However, this officer was known to have encouraged his wife to attend Mass and saw to it that his children received a Catholic education. The War Minister deemed untrustworthy.

Morale plummeted when it was obvious the promotion system was rigged. The normal time in rank before promotion for a lieutenant colonel was 3.5 years, but some officers of known republican sympathies waited only 1.5 years. Ferdinand Foch and Emile Fayolle, who both later became marshals of France, served respectively five and eight years as lieutenant colonels before being promoted. Both were held back because they had Catholic educations. (Hew Strachan, The First World War, Vol. 1., Oxford, 2001)

The politicization of the army in the decade prior to World War I had an enormous effect. Many good officers left the French army as politically correct mediocrities were promoted. The officer education standards fell dramatically as applications to the elite military academies of France, which mostly consisted mainly of officer cadets from conservative and religious families, fell dramatically. In 1897 there had been 1,920 applications to École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, France’s West Point. By 1907, however, the number of applicants was halved. In 1900, 42% of the artillery officers were graduates of the elite École Polytechnique. In 1913, only 13% of artillery officers were graduates. The average scores on the academy entrance exams also fell in proportion to the decline in applications. And not only the officer corps was demoralized, but the professional NCO Corps also abandoned the military. In 1900 72,000 NCOs had re-enlisted. In 1911 only 41,000.

While the Left Bloc governments before World War I focused on the internal politics of the military and ensuring a politically loyal force, they forgot that France had a serious threat in the form of the German Empire. While French officer education standards dropped precipitously, the German states dramatically raised their education standards for joining the officer corps. German officer pay at all ranks was 50% higher than the French. While France starved its Army of training funds, the Germans generously funded training for both regular and reserve units.

More than a decade of politicization of the military resulted in a French army that went to war in August 1914 with appallingly poor leadership and training. The great social experiment of the Left Bloc was a bloodbath. In the first month of the war, the French army lost 250,000 casualties—20% of the field army. Faced with an existential crisis, the French government announced a truce between the left and the conservatives. For the duration of the war, with France’s survival at stake, meritocracy would be the only standard in the French army.

By 6 September 1914, General Joffre, French Commander-in-Chief, had relieved two army commanders, ten corps commanders, and thirty-three division commanders (half of the French Army divisional commanders) for incompetence. Some officers slated for retirement in 1914 and denied promotion for political and religious views, became full generals and army commanders within a year. France barely survived in 1914 thanks to the British Expeditionary Force and Russia’s invasion of East Prussia.

We see an interesting historical parallel today, with a leftist government under Biden behaving much like the French Premier Combes in trying to impose a radical leftist orthodoxy and crush the conservative half of the nation. In Defense Secretary Austin we see a man obsessed with the internal politics of the army, just like French General André, intent on purging the armed forces of “extremists” rather than focusing on foreign threats.

In France, the attempt to replace meritocracy with political loyalty resulted in military disaster. The moral of the story is simple. You can have armed forces that are completely loyal to the political leadership and rigidly follows its political ideology. Or you can have a military based on meritocracy and competence. You cannot have both.

James S. Corum Ph.D. is a military historian, author, and co-author of 14 books, and is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve.