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Could the French Have Won?

Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France

by Ernest R. May
Hill and Wang, 594 pp., $30.00


Europeans today live at peace with one another. They even like each other. In EU-sponsored “Eurobarometer” polls taken over the past decade, it is striking how far mutual suspi-cion has been diluted by closer acquaintance. There are exceptions of course: most of the small countries of Central and Eastern Europe retain some wariness of their immediate neighbors (thanks in part to forty years of enforced “fraternalism”); Italians esteem other Europeans but mistrust their fellow citizens (as do Greeks); the English popular press is alternately suspicious or contemptuous of the French, a sentiment warmly reciprocated. And then there are the Balkans. But by and large Europeans get on well together—the French and the Germans better than most.

The last of these is a very recent development. In 1946 in a speech in Zurich Winston Churchill observed that “the first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany.” The auspices were not promising. Between 1800 and 1940 the French and the Germans fought five major wars: in 1806, when Napoleon crushed the Prussians at Jena; in 1813–1815, when the Prussians got their revenge; in 1870–1871, a Prussian victory that led to the declaration of a German Empire in occupied Versailles; in 1914–1918; and again in 1940. In every case the military victory was followed by a settlement and an occupation deemed unjust and degrading by the losers. National memory on both sides of the Rhine was steeped in resentment. Prussians perceived the French after 1806 as harsh and humiliating victors, and the brutality of Prussian troops in occupied France after 1815 and again in 1871 was popularly regarded as just revenge—the wife of Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, notoriously suggested in the course of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 that the French should be “shot and stabbed to death, down to the little babies” (her husband demurred).

In the course of the First World War, when German troops once again occupied a segment of northern France, there were widespread rumors of atrocities against civilians. When the war ended and Germany was defeated, the French pressed more urgently than most for retribution. Alsace-Lorraine (annexed to the German Empire in 1871) was returned to the French, who also secured reparations considerably exceeding the large indemnity that the Germans had taken in the 1870s. When the Germans failed to pay up, the French premier Raymond Poincaré sent troops to occupy the Ruhr in 1923. This move secured little for France save widespread German antipathy and the long-remembered accusation that French soldiers had abused and mistreated unarmed civilians.

When Hitler’s armies attacked France on May 10, 1940, both the conduct of the war and the apprehensions of civilians were thus shaped by seven generations of mutual antagonism. In their planning, the French high command thought exclusively of a war against Germany. When war broke out, millions of French civilians fled before not just the armies of the Third Reich but the remembered and recounted exploits of the Kaiser at Verdun, General von Moltke at Sedan in 1870, and Marshal Blücher at Waterloo. German officers and their troops remembered the Ruhr, the Western Front, and Napoleon, preserved in cautionary tales for naughty children and hours of staff college lectures. Renewed hostilities between Germany and France would be a serious matter.

All of this was to be expected. What almost no one anticipated was the course of events in 1940 itself. It took the German armies just seven weeks to invade Luxembourg, break through the Ardennes forests into France, sweep the French before them, force the British, French, and Belgian armies into a pocket at Dunkirk, impose an armistice on the new French government of Marshal Pétain, occupy Paris, and stage a victory parade for Adolf Hitler on the Champs-Élysées. In six weeks of fighting, the French lost 124,000 dead, and a further 200,000 were wounded. At one point in the battle, on May 16–17, General Erwin Rommel took 10,000 French prisoners for the loss of one German officer and forty men. In the words of the historian Nicole Jordan, “The French military collapse in 1940 was one of the great military catastrophes in world history.”1

Hitler’s victory brought Mussolini into the war, seeking spoils before the dust settled. It shaped British and American attitudes toward France for the next generation. It precipitated the overthrow of France’s Third Republic and the establishment of an authoritarian, collaborationist regime at Vichy. It confirmed Hitler’s delusions of strategic genius, reinforced his dominion over his generals, and left him free to concentrate first on defeating Britain and then, when this proved awkward, to turn his attentions to southeast Europe and the Soviet Union. Most of all it led to profound soul-searching and self-questioning by the French. How could this have happened? Twenty years after Versailles, why had the most powerful army in continental Europe succumbed so utterly to its hereditary enemy?

This self-questioning produced at least one work of unsurpassed brilliance, Marc Bloch’s Étrange Défaite. France’s most distinguished historian, a reserve officer (the oldest in the French army) who volunteered for service in 1939, Bloch recorded his testimony in 1940; it was only published after the war, by which time its author, an active member of the Resistance, had been shot by the Germans. All subsequent commentators on 1940, including Ernest May, the most recent historian of the battle, pay due homage to Bloch’s essay, describing their own efforts as a mere footnote or amendment to his penetrating analysis. They are right to do so, for Bloch sketched out what is still the conventional explanation of the French disaster.2

In this account France labored under two self-imposed handicaps. First, its military leadership was incompetent. In anticipation of war with Germany the French had constructed from the Swiss border north to Luxembourg a defensive line named after the minister who oversaw its construction, André Maginot. The long frontier between France and Belgium was left unsecured. But French strategy, seeking to avoid war on French soil, presumed that any fighting would take place in Belgium or further east and was thus apparently geared to taking the offensive in spite of the Maginot forts. French foreign policy in turn reflected this wish to project a conflict with Germany away from the frontiers: between the wars France had sought out alliances, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe. But since the French high command was determined to avoid war at all costs, France could offer nothing of substance to its allies—a weakness revealed in 1938 at Munich and again in 1939, when the French, like the British, let Hitler destroy Poland with his western borders unthreatened.

French generals were not just strategically confused; they were also tactically and administratively incompetent. As Bloch and many subsequent historians have shown, the French high command proved chronically unable to devolve responsibility, react to changed circumstances, organize transport, maintain communications, stockpile fuel, or even record the whereabouts of its arms depots. French commanders let their conscripted soldiers sit idly around from September 1939 until May 1940 (when they might have been better employed in arms factories) and then expected them to fight a fast-moving, confusing battle against an incomparably better-led foe.

When the Germans attacked, the French general staff did not know what was happening to them, and even if they had they could not have responded. The contrast with their opponents is illuminating. Both sides had tanks but German generals like Rommel and Heinz Guderian knew how to exploit them. German officers were allowed to take the initiative when opportunities arose and they did so. The French were trained to follow orders and detailed plans, but when circumstances changed they could not get new orders because there was no radio communication between General Maurice Gamelin, the overall commander, and his officers at the front.

The other French handicap was political. The country was divided between left and right, a public scar that lay athwart a deeper wound, the memory of World War I and the desire to avoid a repetition. For much of the 1930s it had proved impossible to form a stable government. The Popular Front government of 1936, the only one with a clear program and a workable parliamentary majority, was resented by the right for its reformist projects and its Jewish socialist prime minister, Léon Blum, and by the left for its failure to pursue a revolutionary transformation. Left and right alike were too busy with internecine ideological quarrels to pay serious attention to the coming crisis and even though the French built better tanks and aircraft than is sometimes thought, they didn’t have enough of them.

Those few political leaders (Blum among them) who belatedly advocated a common front against the Nazi threat were accused of trying to drag France into a war for Danzig, for Britain, or for the Jews. The press, like the political parties, was venal and corrupt, often financed by foreign interests and governments. In such circumstances, the defeat of France might not have been anticipated but it was all too readily explicable in retrospect. A rotting, divided polity collapsed unprotesting when its incompetent military caste caved in before a magnificent German war machine. For millions of Frenchmen, like Mathieu in Sartre’s La Mort dans l’âme, the war ended before it had hardly begun.3


In his impressive new book, Ernest May takes issue with this account. In his view, the French defeat of 1940 was not just a shock; it need not have happened. Things might well have gone the other way, and they very nearly did. The French political situation was not as hopeless as later commentators have asserted, and anyway it played little part in the course of events. The French general staff was incompetent (here May brings new evidence in support of the conventional account), but it lost the battle through a handful of avoidable errors. Had things gone otherwise, history would have taken a very different path and we would not now be rummaging around in the French past to seek the deeper roots of the country’s debacle. According to May, it is not the French defeat but the German victory that needs explaining. What happened in May 1940, in his words, is “indicative of the condition of particular French military units, not of the French national soul.”

It is hard to do justice to his book in a brief summary. May has done thorough research in German, French, British, and American archives; he has examined a huge secondary literature and he makes a strong case. His argument, in essence, is this: Hitler was convinced that he could beat the French, but his generals were not. Like most contemporary commentators they took French military capacity at face value and wanted to avoid a confrontation as long as possible. As it turned out, Hitler was right; but had he been wrong his (in May’s view fragile) grip on Germany might well have been prised loose. And he was only right by a stroke of good fortune.

  1. 1

    Nicole Jordan, “Strategy and Scapegoatism: Reflections on the French National Catastrophe, 1940,” in Joel Blatt, editor, The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments (Berghahn Books, 1998), p. 13.

  2. 2

    Marc Bloch, Étrange Défaite: Témoignage écrit en 1940 (Paris: Société des Éditions Franc-tireurs, 1946).

  3. 3

    Raymond Aron later wrote that “I lived through the thirties in the despair of French decline…. In essence, France no longer existed. It existed only in the hatred of the French for one another.” See Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (University of California Press, 1992), p. 15.

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