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.

Hitler originally wanted to strike against France in the late fall of 1939, following the success of his Blitzkrieg in Poland. The weather proved unfavorable and the attack was postponed. But had it taken place as planned it would not have been southwest, through the Ardennes, but west, through central Belgium and into the plains of northern France. This is significant, because Gamelin’s own strategy for a war with Germany was also to push hard into Belgium, to meet the Germans as far north and east of France as possible; with France’s borders with Germany and eastern Belgium secure, the army’s premier divisions would take the offensive. In such a scenario the finest front-line units of both armies would thus have clashed in Flanders and the French, backed by the British, the Belgians, and perhaps the Dutch, would have had a reasonable chance of success.

The German general staff anticipated the direction of French thinking and it was this knowledge that made them skeptical of Hitler’s plans, which they did their best to oppose. However, in January 1940, information about German invasion plans had fallen by chance into Belgian hands. This confirmed Gamelin in his al-ready unshakable conviction that the Belgian route (the so-called Dyle-Breda variant, named after the Belgian river and Dutch town that were its initial objectives; see map below) was the one to take. But in view of the security breach, the Germans decided to make a crucial adjustment to their own scheme and strike down through the Ardennes instead, sending weaker troops into central Belgium as a decoy.

To the untutored eye the tightly forested Ardennes hills around Sedan, where the Germans broke through in May 1940, look quite impenetrable—an unpropitious place through which to advance a modern army. Even today, with more and better roads and bridges, the woods and the Meuse River form a significant impediment. The French general staff, from Pétain to Gamelin, was presumably far from untutored, but it had long since come to the same conclusion. When five Panzer divisions smashed through the forests and seized the bridges, they were faced by one of the weakest units in the French order of battle, General André Corap’s Ninth Army, much of which consisted of elderly reserves and barely trained recruits.

No one seems to have noticed the long columns of German troops approaching Sedan from the north. No strategic reserve was moved up when the Meuse front collapsed and Corap’s army disintegrated—there was none (it had been sent to Belgium with the rest of the French armies). General Charles Huntziger, whose Second Army was defending the unthreatened frontier to the east and who was in overall charge of the sector, refused to send reinforcements; he did not understand the extent of the disaster and had anyway fallen for Goebbels’s bluff about an imminent attack near Switzerland.

By the time the French high command understood what was happening it was too late. Guderian and Rommel cut a swathe through northern France, heading for the English Channel. Caught in a trap, the main French army and the British Expeditionary Force desperately retreated to the coast while on May 28 the Belgian king precipitately surrendered—a betrayal of his allies that would cost him his throne after the war. Gamelin and his officers gave up the struggle after some half-hearted and ill-coordinated efforts to engage the Germans, and France collapsed.4

In May’s view, only once Hitler gained the initial advantage in the Ardennes did France’s structural weaknesses come into play. Rigid and pessimistic—victims of their pre-war overestimation of German prowess and resources—the French generals had no contingency plans for a German breakthrough. At best they could only imagine plugging holes to maintain a continuous front. The French could no more envisage a rapid war of maneuver than they could believe that the Maginot Line might prove irrelevant. Gamelin had been so deeply committed to a “cut-price war on the peripheries” that neither he nor his political masters had anything to offer when the war came to France itself.5

Above all, the French were desperately weak in intelligence. May is particularly strong on this and shows how and why French generals either did not know what the Germans were planning or else could make no sense of what knowledge they had. They discounted all evidence that should have led them to shift their focus from the Low Countries to the Ardennes, and unlike the Germans they had no staff structure for analyzing, filtering, or sharing their data. In any case, the quality of that data left everything to be desired: in early October one report to the intelligence arm of the French air force advised, “According to intelligence from good sources, the Hitler regime will continue to hold power until the spring of 1940 [and] then will be replaced by communism.”

In this context we can better appreciate Gamelin’s disarming confession to a postwar commission of inquiry, when questioned about his incompetent disposition of French tanks: “Personally, I envisaged a group of four tank divisions around Chalons. How was I to know it would get broken up? We had no advance knowledge of where and how the Germans would attack.”6

Professor May has written an accessible and impeccably scholarly account of a major moment of the century. There are some wonderful vignettes (e.g., of Neville Chamberlain writing to his sister on March 12, 1939, three days before Hitler seized Czechoslovakia: “Like Chatham, ‘I know that I can save this country and I do not believe that anyone else can'”), and the detail, especially for Germany, is copious and illuminating.

The main direction of the argument is not perhaps altogether new: Don-ald Cameron Watt and others have described the diplomatic and domes-tic background to Hitler’s attack on France; the French setting in 1940 was exhaustively charted by Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac; and the story of the battle has already been told more than once.7 But May gives his predecessors full and due credit, and his own interpretation would for the most part be accepted by them in turn. It is generally agreed that Hitler was a successful gambler who had to overcome the caution of his own staff, just as it is now thought that France could have forced and fought a long war had she had better generals. Nothing needed to be as it was.

Professor May’s emphasis upon the element of chance in the outcome of the battle of France leads him to some rather ambitious counterfactual hypotheses. If the French had anticipated the Ardennes offensive, he writes in his introduction, “it is more than conceivable that the outcome would have been not France’s defeat but Germany’s and, possibly, a French victory parade on the Unter den Linden in Berlin.” This is no casual aside. Four hundred pages later May stakes an even greater claim: “Absent defeats in battle in May 1940, France was in no more danger of moral collapse than Britain, it seems to me, and in less danger than Germany.” If her armies had been set back in 1940, Nazi Germany “might have imploded.” I think some of these claims are exaggerated and ill-conceived, but the insistence upon contingency is salutary. It isn’t enough to point to Vichy or even to interwar French domestic squabbling if one wants to explain the distinctively fortuitous actions of May 1940. And if things had gone differently, then much else would be changed too.

Here, however, the problems begin. May writes, “If the war had been fought where the French expected it to be fought, it would have gone much more as they expected it to go.” Well, yes. As evidence he cites the brief success of one of France’s better generals, Georges Blanchard. On May 13 at Hannut, southeast of Brussels, some of his armored units under General René Prioux met and briefly overcame their German opposite numbers. This leads May to speculate on what might have been if Blanchard’s First Army had been in the right place at the right time: French tanks could beat German Panzer units.

But I can add “ifs” of my own. Blanchard’s armored divisions were France’s best soldiers, and in Belgium they overcame not Rommel’s Panzer IVs but smaller, weaker Panzer Is and IIs. If they had faced more than a secondary German force they might have fared a lot worse. And even if they had done well, all the other factors would still be in place. May asks what might have happened if Blanchard’s forces had pressed ahead with their initial success. But they didn’t. Would they have done so even if they had beaten the main German army? It wasn’t part of Gamelin’s “plan,” and like the ill-fated Marshall Bazaine in 1870 he stuck to it unwaveringly. And if Prioux had been defeated the French would still have had no strategic reserve, poor supplies, an inefficient chain of command, etc. A rout would probably have ensued.

It thus requires a long chain of one-directional “ifs” to reach a point at which a decisive French victory becomes not only possible but likely. One would have to unravel not just one or two chance outcomes but the complex sequence of decisions and personalities and practices that put chance on the side of the Germans and not the French. I have nothing against the Cleopatra’s Nose approach to crucial historical choices: if Lenin had not been shipped across Germany to the Petrograd Finland Station in 1917, then twentieth-century history would indeed look very different. But although Germany’s victory undoubtedly hinged on Hitler’s insights into French weakness, the failings that he detected (and that his generals missed) can only be explained in their broader context. That is the trouble with much counterfactual speculation: it takes the last move in a sequence, correctly observes that it might have been very different, and then deduces either that all the other moves could also have been different or else that they don’t count.

But for all the other moves to have been different in the required way we need a parallel universe. And for them not to count we need to distort the historical context. Professor May is intensely sensitive to the crosscurrents and pressures of German domestic affairs, which made Hitler vulnerable; he all but ignores political turbulence in France. This bolsters his assertion that Hitler could have been brought down by defeat and that France could easily have won, but it is hardly a balanced treatment. Whenever Nazi generals express doubts or dissent, May takes their anxiety at face value; when French generals show comparable apprehension or pessimism he interprets it as instrumental rhetoric, designed to pad the military budget. When French generals or politicians are optimistic about their situation, however, he takes this for good coin. He emphasizes French technical strengths and downplays or dismisses talk of cynicism or social division.

This asymmetrical treatment sets the scene for a narrative in which the German victory is a surprise and the French defeat a chapter of accidents. But it misses much of the relevant story. Why, after all, were most French generals such bunglers? Why, for example, did Gamelin restore normal leave for the French army on May 7, 1940—a transcendently incompetent move? Why did Huntziger refuse air cover to his troops at Sedan, leaving an open target for the morale-destroying attacks of the Stukas? If good generals could have done better by their country, it is their absence that needs explaining.

A clue is to be found in a Septem-ber 1940 photograph of the council of ministers at Vichy. There sits General Huntziger, two places away from Pétain and wearing the same self-satisfied look as his master (see photograph on page 37).8 Three months after the worst defeat in French history, the men directly responsible for it were comfortably ensconced in a regime that their defeat helped to install. General Maxime Weygand, who replaced Gamelin in command for the last days of the debacle, was the first minister of national defense at Vichy. His primary concern in the waning hours of the battle was not the German army but a possible Communist uprising in Paris upon the heels of a defeat. Such men may not have expected to lose the war, but they resigned themselves to defeat all the quicker because they did not regard the Germans as the greatest threat.

Weygand, like Pétain, was old enough to remember the Paris Commune of 1871, and it haunted his generation of reactionary and monarchist officers. The France that they were sworn to defend did not, in their eyes, include the political left, successors to the Communards whose martyrdom was commemorated in eastern Paris every spring. Even Gamelin, an apolitical general by prevailing French standards, was not immune. As early as May 16, with the battle not yet lost, he was preparing his excuses. The army, he told the politicians, had collapsed because of Communist penetration.9

May misses this because he is unconcerned with domestic disputes, believing that by the late 1930s the corrosive hatreds of earlier years had been set aside and France was as stable and united as Britain, if not more so. But it was in October 1937 that the eminently respectable Nouvelles économiques et financières was sneering at the “Jew Blum,” “our ex-prime minister whose real name is Karfunkelstein.” In April 1938, after the Anschluss, Pierre Gaxotte (later of the Académie Française) was still describing Blum as “a disjointed un-French puppet with the sad head of a Palestinian mare…. Between France and this cursed man, we must choose. He is the very incarnation of everything that sickens our flesh and our blood. He is evil. He is death.”10

In Scum of the Earth Arthur Koestler wrote of the vicious nationalist hatreds and threats swirling around France in the months preceding the battle of France. And from no less a source than Charles de Gaulle we have contemporary testimony to the partisan, paranoid, hate-filled atmosphere of the French parliament during the installation of Paul Reynaud’s government on March 21, two months before the German invasion. If Ernest May believes that France in May 1940 was a nation resolute, united, and in a condition to face the German threat he is deeply mistaken.11

The Communists had not forgiven Blum for his failure to intervene on behalf of the Spanish loyalists in 1936; for his insistence on compromise in the Popular Front legislation of that year; and perhaps above all for his success in preserving the French Socialist Party following the schism with the Communists in December 1920. In December 1940 they approached the Vichy authorities with an informal offer to testify against Blum at his forthcoming show trial. (Fortunately for the French Communist Party’s future standing, their proposal was ignored). The unions were still seething in resentment at Daladier’s November 1938 laws abrogating the labor reforms of 1936. Anti-fascism, which might once have been an effective motive for unity, had been undermined and corroded by successive governments’ obsession with not alienating Mussolini, to whom France continued to look for support until the very eve of defeat. The army was riddled with conspirators—May makes no mention of the Cagoule, the shadowy officers’ plot scotched by Interior Minister Marx Dormoy (for which he was later murdered by the Vichy Milice). Anti-foreign and anti-Communist legislation was in place by September 1939, long before Pétain came to office.

Above all, the French lacked confidence. For twenty years they had been reminded by politicians and generals of the failure of the French population to grow, of the trauma of the Great War, of the need to avoid another conflict. When it came time in 1940 to assure the French that they were as brave, as well-equipped, as strong, and as confident as their foes, these same politicians and generals sounded understandably hollow. A collective fear and self-doubt had been instilled in the nation, adding an irrational dimension to the country’s all too real shortage of men.

May himself quotes the British ambassador in Paris in September 1938 claiming “all that is best in France is against war, almost at any price.” When war broke out a year later, Brigadier Edward Spears, bilingual and warmly Francophile, reported home that “many French people…argue…that…they have perhaps been duped and are fighting for England.”12 Did everything and everyone somehow come together in the next six months? Of course not.

None of this sufficiently explains what happened when the Panzers crashed through the woods at Sedan. But without it we don’t have any explanation at all. Is it necessary to abandon the constraints of the political and cultural setting in order to engage in fruitful counterfactual speculation? I don’t think so. Nor do I see why good military history need ignore the political and social background in order to keep faith with the fortunes of war. As it happens, there is a classic work of military history which encompasses all these concerns, and it is highly germane to Professor May’s theme.

In Michael Howard’s account of the Franco-Prussian War, first published in 1961, the events of 1870–1871 closely anticipate those of May 1940.13 On both occasions the French displayed strategic confusion, planning for an offensive but waiting to be attacked; as Friedrich Engels observed in July 1870, when the war began, if the French didn’t take the offensive their declaration of war made no sense. Yet in 1870 as in 1939, the generals made a pointless advance into the neighboring Saarland, then retreated and waited upon events. The tactical and administrative failings were also strikingly similar: at seventy years’ distance French generals twice failed to understand railway timetables, put men and supplies in the right place, concentrate troops effectively, organize retreats, or communicate among themselves—mistakes their predecessors had already made in the Emperor Napoleon III’s Italian campaign of 1859. Both Michael Howard and Marc Bloch write of the “chaos” of mobilization. And in 1870 as in 1940 German officers proved more flexible, took more initiative, and adapted better to changing circumstances.

On neither occasion were the French at a significant technical disadvantage. Indeed, in 1870 they had the new chassepot breech-loading rifles, superior to anything the Germans could field. But French soldiers weren’t trained in the use of the new weapon (one is reminded of Sartre’s description of the “respectful terror” with which French reservists in 1939 handled weapons they had never even seen before being mobilized). Thousands of the guns were left forgotten in obscure and poorly sited arms dumps. The French were as deficient in intelligence-gathering in 1870 as they would be in 1940, with the result that they were constantly wrong-footed by German movements. Moltke, like his successors in Hitler’s general staff, believed in bypassing French defensive positions whenever possible; together with the French habit of exaggerating enemy numbers, this led the static French armies to surrender even before giving battle.

The outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, when huge French armies were surrounded and captured at Sedan and Metz, was as much a shock to the French and the rest of Europe as was the battle of 1940: “The completeness of the Prussian success in 1870 thus astounded the world,” Michael Howard writes. Meanwhile the nineteenth-century generals were as determined as their successors to avoid a social revolution even at the cost of national surrender. But some of them appreciated the scale of their humiliation and tried, like General Bourbaki, to salvage their honor by taking their lives (no comparable sense of shame is recorded for the men of 1940).

Howard is cuttingly dismissive of these failed generals, writing of their “incompetence and paralysis,” and he shows time and again how they might have acted differently. But throughout the narrative he restrains his speculation about what might have been to the limits of what was plausible, in view of the broader context. Thus of the demoralizing impact on soldiers of a badly organized mobilization he writes, “They might yet, with brilliant leadership, win victories; but they were in no condition to stand up to the shock of defeat.”

Howard’s general conclusion (which can be applied virtually unchanged to the collapse of 1940) is tellingly different from May’s:

The incompetence of the French high command explained much: but the basic reasons for the catastrophe lay deeper, as the French themselves, in their humiliation, were to discern. The collapse at Sedan, like that of the Prussians at Jena sixty-four years earlier, was the result not simply of faulty command but of a faulty military system; and the military system of a nation is not an independent section of the social system but an aspect of it in its totality. The French had good reason to look on their disasters as a judgment.

Pace Ernest May, we should do likewise.

This Issue

February 22, 2001