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…

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