The Fall of France in 1940 to the Wehrmacht and the huge, seemingly intractible academic argument that one man is single-handedly trying to trigger over it, and occasionally succeeding:

It is generally agreed among historians that the French military collapse of 1940 was one of the greatest military disasters of modern European history. The background to the collapse, the short-term decisions involved and the way it reflects upon the French nation itself are all subject to debate. The varying views have in many cases been influenced strongly by the nationality of the historians involved, and in others by lack of information, until fairly recently, caused by the restriction of government documents on the grounds of secrecy. The background of the defeat is uniformly agreed on but its role in the disaster is given different significance by various historians.

In France during the late 1930s serious political divisions existed, the country polarising between extremes of left and right in a similar manner to most other European nations. The divisions were also between the pacifists who opposed war and those who said the Nazis had to be resisted, with leading government and military figures also involved in the split between these opinions. The significance of these divisions is a subject of debate, but all acknowledge that it lead to policy confusion. Added to this confusion the French Prime Minister, Daladier, was forced out of office the day before the attack. “…when Germany’s attack commenced, France was technically without a government”(May, Ernest: ‘Strange Victory: Hitler’s conquest of France’:: USA: 2000: pg 330)

From the first attack through the Ardennes on the 10th of May it took just six weeks for the French army to be crushed. German tank divisions, backed up by mechanised forces & infantry and covered by an impressive air force, swept across France to the coast, cutting off Allied forces and severing supply lines in what was dubbed ‘The Cut of the Sickle’. The French army was routed and organised resistance to Germany collapsed.

Many historians stated the German forces outnumbered those of the Allies and Neutrals: “The size of the German attacking force was in itself an indicator of a rapid victory: 136 German divisions were advancing against half that number of British , French, Belgian and Dutch troops” (interesting, that Britain be placed first on that list ( by a British historian of course) when its troop numbers were far lower than those of the other Allied and Neutral powers on the continent in 1940. - Gilbert, Martin: ‘History of the Twentieth Century: Volume Two: 1933-51’ 1998; page 302) This impression for some time was reinforced by the lack of accurate information from Germany: while military records were still secret, the actual strength of the attacking German forces was clouded by German propaganda and the claims of Allied commanders attempting to excuse their humiliating defeat. These factors combined to produce the accepted theory of the defeat believed by most writers, historians and the public. It did not permeate universally, however, for as early as 1959 William Shirer was citing equally matched forces on the Western Front. (Shirer, William; ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’; 1959; London; pg 862)

The defeat was also explained as a terrible indication of the state of the French nation. “Many writers… portray France’s defeats on the battlefield as the last gasps of a nation already doomed” {May: USA: 2000: pg 448). This view was fostered after the conflict by French military leaders and politicians who claimed during investigations into the disaster that they had done their best to defend France but it was decayed to a degree that made their task an impossible one. This is the account given by most general histories (eg: Craig, Gordon; Europe Since 1815; 1966 and Taylor, A.J.P.; English History 1914-1945; 1965) which devote a page or so to the defeat, and so it is the most widely held view.

One of the earliest and most important works about the defeat was written in 1940 by Marc Bloch, an internationally respected historian and French patriot who fought in both world wars and, after the defeat, in the French Resistance. His impressive book ‘Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940’ is, as its title suggests and its introduction insists, not an historical analysis. He stresses that he does not have access to any of the documentation, wide-scale information or particularly the view of the other side needed to formulate a balanced historical theory.

Bloch could however write a short but insightful book on what he had been able to see as flaws leading to the collapse of the army in which he served. Nobody is spared criticism: the Intelligence services, in which he himself served, are attacked particularly. He criticises the system of the Army not the individuals within it; Bloch’s accounts of many soldiers and junior field commanders show worthy men working hard against the impossible challenges created by poor strategy, confusion and lack of communication.

These men made up the French army that ought to have won the [WWII|war}. Bloch reinforces this crucial fact: he, like most Frenchmen, was shocked at the collapse, and this is reflected in his title: it is after all a strange defeat.

Bloch tries to demolish rumours of a culture of cowardice in the French army, but is prepared to admit that there were embarrassing instances of chaotic flight in the face of the German advance. “ Let us admit, (as I fear we must do) that such stories are not wholly groundless, that, as I have often heard my friends on the staff say, discipline at the front did break down. If that is so, then I think that the High Command was very largely to blame… I am inclined to believe that these cases of cowardice in high places were not as rare as we would like to think – after, that is, it became obvious that we had been beaten.” (Bloch, Marc; ‘Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence given in 1940’; translated Gerard Hopkins 1968; Oxford; 1999; pg 105)

The fact that defeat was a terrible shock to the French was missed by many writers after the war, who leapt on to the suggestions of French military leaders and politicians that the defeat had been inevitable. Bloch himself added ammunition to this cause with his last chapter, fully a third of the book: ‘A Frenchman Examines his Conscience’, in which he laid many difficult challenges at the door of the national psyche. However this chapter examines more material factors than its heading suggests: unionism and capitalism undermining war production being a major theme.

The image of France’s weakness on entering the war was also reinforced on the other side of the Atlantic by the views of the advisors to President Roosevelt, and later Truman, who felt that France was “ a nation divided and diffident, terrified of war and uncertain of the course to follow in the face of its approach” (Weinberg, Gerhard; ‘A World at Arms: A Global History of World War Two’; Cambridge University Press; 1994; pg 85) . This is the view that has been, and indeed still seems to be shared by many writers and historians. That such an idea is still presented as recently as 1994 in a book as recent and authoritative as ‘A World at Arms’ suggests that there is still truth behind it.

Some writers, mainly non-historians, carried this idea to extremes. In an account of life in occupied France American journalist Siseley Huddlestone writes a scathing report of the state of French ‘moral laxness’. The introduction to the book gives a neat illustration of the negativity towards France and its military competence in 1940: “ It is a foregone conclusion that she (France) would succumb in 1940 unless England made a substantial contribution” (Huddlestone, Siseley; ‘France: The Tragic Years’; USA; 1955). This attitude is also reflected in major historical works, primarily by British authors, in such details as the listing of British units before French and Belgian ones and overemphasising the role of the tiny British force present on the continent.

In mid 2000 a new book was published by Professor Ernest R. May (Ernest May is Emeritus Professor of American history, Harvard University) that takes issue with many of the assumptions prominent in histories of the Battle of France. In his review, Tony Judt refers to May’s impressive and thorough research, coming from extensive secondary sources as well as painstaking examination of British, French, German, Belgian and American government archives. May argues quite convincingly that the French defeat was in no part a foregone conclusion and that it is more the German victory that the French defeat that needs explaining. The title of the book, “Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France is a deliberate allusion to Bloch’s work, a fact which May again acknowledges in his introduction. “My book is intended as a complement Bloch’s, not to challenge it, for the only serious defects in Bloch’s analysis were due to his understandable lack of awareness of the weaknesses of the German side” (May; Strange Victory; 2000; pg 8)

Several historians, for example Gunsberg , Warner and Shirer, have acknowledged Allied equality on the ground but no other work in English could be found claims that they had air superiority as well. May uses extensive statistics to attempt to dispel the idea that Germany had forces far outweighing those of the Allies and Neutrals, including, and this information is unique, those of the air forces. May includes a section of graphs at the end of the book to illustrate his argument: in medium tanks the French alone had far more available than the Germans. In terms of infantry divisions and aircraft however the French and British totals have been added together, implying that there was some form of uniform command in charge of using them as a coordinated force. There wasn’t, and in the case of planes, hardly any of the French air force so much as got off the ground.

The fact still seems to be that historians must look somewhere other than pure troop numbers to explain the collapse. “Germany did not have superiority in manpower and had an inferior number of tanks. What they did have was high morale and clear-cut plans.” (Warner, Phillip; ‘The Battle of France: 1940’; Simon & Schuster; London; 1990; pg 234) Another aspect, hinted at by Marc Bloch, was production rates. This was raised again in the 1960s by American military historian A. Gunsberg. “Gunsberg considered the essential cause of France’s defeat to be that Germany had twice the population and three times the industry of France. However, this hardly explains the ineptitude of the French high command, an ineptitude which astonished Germany.” (Ibid, pg 234)

The article ‘Could the French have Won?’ (Judt, Tony: ‘Could the French have Won?’ appeared in the New York Review of Books, February 22 2001) by Tony Judt (Tony Judt is Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies; Professor of History; Director, Remarque Institute, Ph.D. 1972 (history), B.A. 1969 (history), Cambridge.) is a review of ‘Strange Victory’. Like all other reviews of this book it acknowledges the impressive nature of the work and the scholarship that went into it, but its more in-depth nature allows it to make greater criticisms. Judt is not impressed by parts of May’s logic, quoting the final chapter of May’s book: “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.” (May, Ernest: ‘Strange Victory’: 2000: cited in Judt: ‘Could the French have Won?’: 2001: pg 39) to which Judt simply adds “Well, yes.” (Judt: ‘Could the French have Won?’: NY Review of Books: 22/22001: pg 39)

To some degree Judt is missing the point. May makes a great deal in his introduction and conclusion about his interest in Intelligence, its analysis and efficient application to military operations. The point of the seemingly ridiculous statement is his entire philosophy: the French should have known where to expect the war. Had the ample warning signs been processed efficiently by Intelligence services and passed rapidly on to commanders the course of the war would have been staggeringly different.

Although May’s scholarship is impressive, the accuracy of the argument of his book is possibly biased by his background. Professor May has, according to his introduction and his biography on the Harvard university webpage, worked as a consultant for several US government agencies including the CIA, training intelligence analysts. He declares that the Battle of France was his most important case study in what not to do. In his conclusion he makes several statements that go a long way to explaining the crucial deficiencies of the book. May consistently bends the evidence as far as he can towards supporting a scenario where the French defeat may be blamed on Intelligence deficiencies alone. Throughout his book the French political situation is all but ignored: no emphasis is placed on the massive divisions and political uncertainty permeating society and government. This is not because he is writing purely military history as he goes into extensive detail of the power struggles and compromises of Nazi government.

It seems he is attempting to present the France of 1939 as an equal to modern European nations or indeed the USA, and therefore provides a lesson to follow. He argues that this sort of catastrophe could happen to any of them today. His work as a consultant is advising against exactly the kind of scenario found in the Battle of France: it appears to be well worth his while to push the accepted view to one where the French defeat was not unique to its situation. In any case, May’s otherwise extremely impressive book is undermined by his attempt to push an interesting argument too far. “It requires a long chain of one-directional ‘ifs’ to reach a point where French victory becomes not only possible but likely” ( Judt: ‘Could the French have Won?’: NY Review of Books: 22/22001: pg 39) It is possible he has pushed the boundaries of logic in order to prove his personal agenda.

In other historians, different trends emerge. In many cases a degree of national bias is found; for example the French and British historians who cite the excuse of overwhelming German superiority to excuse the embarrassing Allied defeat, and those, mainly British but with a few Americans and French, who argue that the problem was in the French national spirit. This argument dates back to Bloch’s soul-searching but is carried to greater extremes. Interestingly no German historian discussing the conflict in any detail was found translated into English. Availability of government information appears to explain a good deal of the changes of view, but Gilbert’s account of the conflict published in 1998 still uses many of the figures and conclusions used by the historians of the 1960s.

The concrete factors are that France had a large and modern army at least the equal of Germany’s, and an air force at least adequate to defend the skies. The crisis arose from a cumbersome military system, woeful communication, incompetent Intelligence analysis and a confusion of strategy. France had planned for a war of attack, but then waited for Germany to make the first move and push them into a war of defence for which they had no real strategy.

This confusion could be linked to the political chaos and the divisions in the military command between so-called “Munichois” and “anti-Munichois”, those who wanted peace with Germany and those not prepared to compromise with the Nazis. The facts on the French side of the equation are fairly stable but the importance given to the strategic and political divisions in the conflict varies. Huddlestone claims they merely reflected the spirit of the nation which would have lost anyway, Gilbert states that they made the defeat inevitable, Bloch claims they weakened the French and could be seen as major problems with the benefit of hindsight and May argues they were not really crucial at all, the importance instead on communications and Intelligence.

Weaknesses in the German side have recently begun to emerge on a greater degree, in many cases due to the release of new government files. This is the side of the picture which is developing to a greater degree and which will determine the accuracy of current theories. May has claimed the Germans were far less powerful and far less confident than they are normally depicted, and has done very extensive research to back his claims, but as he is the only historian to have published this view so far (and bearing in mind his likely biases and reasons for defending the French chances of victory) his word is not enough to resolve any arguments yet.

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Sources:

  • Bloch, Marc Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940; Norton; 1968 (Translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins)
  • Bishop, Roger (review of Strange Victory) http://www.bookpage.com/allencolibrary/0008bp/nonfiction/strange_victory.html
  • Craig, Gordon A. Europe Since 1815 (Second Edition); Holt, Reinhart & Winston; 1966
  • Gilbert, Martin The Twentieth Century (Volume 2: 1933 - 1951) Harper Collins ; 1998
  • Horne, Alistair To Lose a Battle: France 1940; McMillian; 1969
  • Huddlestone, Siseley France: The Tragic Years; Devin-Adair Publishers, Incorporated; 1990
  • Hughes-Warrington, Marnie Fifty Key Thinkers On History; Routledge; 2000
  • Joll, James Europe Since 1870 ; Penguin Books ; 1976
  • Judt, Tony Could The French Have Won? ; New York Review Of Books ; February 22 2001
  • May, Earnest R. Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France; Hill & Wang ; 2000
  • Ousby, Ian Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944; Pimlico; 1999
  • Shirer, William The Collapse of the Third Republic; Secker & Warburg; 1970
  • Taylor, A J P English History 1914-1945; Oxford, 1965
  • Thomson, David Europe Since Napoleon ; Penguin Books ;
  • Warner, Phillip The Battle of France 1940: Six Weeks that Changed the World; Simon & Schuster; 1990
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World At Arms: A Global History of World War Two; Cambridge University Press 1994

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