To Lose a Country: Loss of France
Dr. John Tierney
Consider the case of France, which “lost” itself in 1940, an event some feel was the most critical one in modern history. The British historian, Alistair Horne, has three volumes on French-German relations, ending with To Lose a Battle, France 1940. The phrase is taken from Charles de Gaulle’s notice after the fall, that “we have lost a battle, we have not lost the war.” Of course de Gaulle was wrong and Horne’s title mocks that crucial error.
Between 1870 and 1940 France fought Germany on three occasions France lost two but won the middle (1918) but the in the last (1940) France, in effect, lost itself, i.e.. its “country.” What does the loss of “country” imply and does it occur every time a war is lost?
Many countries absorb losses quite well. Britain lost the American colonies in 1781 but went on to a greater naval and colonial empire. The US lost Vietnam in 1975; a few years later it was the world’s “sole remaining superpower.” Then why did France lose itself in 1940 and not earlier? Horne’s actual title for the third book is To Lose a Battle: France 1940. Substitute “country” for Battle and that is what he really means. And that is what really happened.
As British Prime Minister, Churchill made several trips to France in order to stave off defeat, as he knew what that would mean. He even proposed a Franco-British political union to hold them together. Even de Gaulle agreed but insisted that it be “immediate.” Still, nothing worked and the Parliament refused. After the surrender on June 24 Churchill told the British people, “the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
These, indeed, were “dark” days.
Words are deceptive. France “won” in 1918 but the effects of that trauma paralyzed the country until the final blow in 1940. The same army that held Germany at bay for four devastating years came apart in six weeks before surrender, June 24, 1940.
World War II was “total” war, which means that victory and defeat were also total. To “lose” a country, therefore, is to lose heart and soul. Territory, army, colonies, casualties and other tangible manifestations can be recovered or compensated over time, but a country’s nature, purpose and being, once lost, cannot be recovered.
Total defeat, in this case, meant the end of France in the global strategic balance; replacing historic grandeur with a more modest and restrained worldview. This meant the priority of domestic versus global ambitions; the threat of immigration as potentially fatal, acceptance of status rather than leadership.
Sound familiar? For France, 1940, the realities of occupation were manifest when the German Army marched down in parade on the Champs de Elysees.
Finally, the personality of Charles de Gaulle, in this perspective, is more nostalgic than substantive, almost pure memory. In his attempt to revive France as a great power as president in 1964 he demanded the removal of all American troops from French soil. At the press conference he was asked this question: “Does that include the ones buried here”?
Rubbing it in, yes, but that’s what “loss of country” means, “Dependence.”
Does this case have any bearing upon the United States today? Clinton’s foreign policy was called “Assertive Multilateralism.” Obama’s “Leading From Behind.” “MEGA” was, basically, isolationism.
Is anything missing? (like “foreign policy”)
France was defeated in battle by a neighbor but faced decades of internal erosion before the defeat. The experience of World War I was so traumatic that France simply could not bear a repetition. Germany profited from the same experience, improvised, and won in a few weeks a victory which escaped them through four years earlier. What occurred internally, thus, decided the difference between victory and defeat. Germany (Nazis) were eventually defeated (1945) but solely fromwithout (should anyone doubt this, just examine pictures of post-war Berlin).
In the final analysis it makes little difference whether “loss” comes from military defeat or political/cultural erosion. ln either case, the result is the same. Just as boxers past their prime retire, countries, also, reach a “peak” before final decline.
Where does the US stand today? After the experience of wining two world wars and the Cold War, former UN Ambassador under Reagan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, declared it was time for America to “become a normal country in a normal time” (1990). By the end of the Cold War the US was already embarked on a “new normalcy,” and it has only gained steam since.
It is instructive to say that World War I was a “turning point” in history. That much is without argument, especially about temporary but singular events, such as US isolation, British appeasement, League of Nations, The Pact of Paris outlawing war (1928) etc. But the major events that actually shaped the Twentieth Century, Pearl Harbor, the Nazis, Operation Barbarossa (invasion of the USSR), Cold War, Communist China etc. were all products of the greatest war in human history which, in turn, was belatedly the product of the First one as well.
Nowhere was this phenomenon more valid than the Fall of France.
The case against France in 1940 has concentrated almost exclusively on its internal erosion since the end of World War I (1918). This is a strong case and explains much, but leaves out entirely the other side of the equation: Germany. It takes “two to fight,” true, and it likewise takes two to “lose,” a winner and a loser. One is never enough.
The most telling statement on the internal explanation came from Marc Bloch, a French Jew, and Sorbonne Professor, who was a soldier in the first war and with the resistance in the second. His book, Strange Defeat, written monthsafter the Fall, is still considered definitive in explaining the loss of France. Typical are his assessment of the reasons “why.”
After his critique of the deficiencies in the military High Command (Maginot Line, defensive positions, outdated strategies) he concluded that “at this point I leave the purely military field. The roots of a misunderstanding so grave that we cannot but rank it among the main causes of our disaster, must be sought elsewhere and at a much deeper level.”
At bottom, Bloch cites the root cause of the Fall of France to a whole series of fault- lines within French society, many direct effects of the experience of the First World War. They can be grouped under a spectrum of headings, as follows.
Fatigue, “There was a feeling that it would be better to accept any humiliation rather than undergo a second time this twin impoverishment.”
Labor, “Their vision was limited to immediate issues of petty profit, and I am afraid that this blindness marked the conduct of most of the big unions.”
War-wariness, “Then, too, there was the ideology of international pacifism. … They maintained that war is the concern of the rich and powerful, that the poor should have nothing to do with it.”
Ideologies, “This vague lack of purpose was bad enough: it was made far worse by the incredible contradictions of French Communism. … It was not only in the field that intellectual causes lay at the root of our defeat. As a nation we had been content with incomplete knowledge and imperfectly thought-out ideas. Such an attitude is not a good preparation for military success.”
Media, “Far graver is the fact that our national Press, claiming to provide an impartial news-service, was sailing under false colors. Many newspapers, even those which openly wore the livery of party beliefs, were secretly enslaved to unavowed and, often, squalid, interests.”
Intellectual, “Thepoverty of our municipal libraries has often been a matter of scandal. Look at the balance sheet of any of our city administrations, and you will admit that indigence is a better word. … The intellectual efficiency of this powerful association of interests was hopelessly inadequate. … But the worst of this mental laziness is that, almost inevitably, it leads to a sort of gloomy mood of self-satisfaction.”
Ambivalence, “We must, too, recover that coherence of thought of which, in recent years, a strange sickness seems to have deprived all those in France who have been active in politics, whether on a large or a small scale.”
Reason, “We French have always enjoyed the reputation … of being solid, sensible and logical. It does seem that if ever our people are to be subjected to what Renan, after an earlier defeat, called an intellectual and moral reform, the first thing they will have to learn is that old axiom of classical logic, A is A, B is B, A is not B.”
Marxism, “I have a very great admiration for the works of Karl Marx. … But is that any reason for establishing his teaching as the touchstone of all knowledge? … Schools that formerly preached the doctrine of the mutability of economic forms have been known to excommunicate such ill-advised scholars as refuse to swear on the Gospel of the master.”
Education, “Our system of secondary education has been continuously oscillating … But it is neither capable of preserving the aesthetic and moral standards of classical culture, nor of creating fresh ones to take their place. Consequently, it has done little to develop the intellectual vitality of the nation.”
History, “As a historian I am naturally inclined to be especially hard on the teaching of history. … those who drew up our school curricula had, almost all of them, a marked affection for all recent manifestations of national life, no matter how superficial, simply because they were recent, and easy to grasp. Consequently, they were obsessed by politics. They recoiled with a sense of outraged modesty from any suggestion of sociological analysis, and therefore failed to develop a taste for it in their pupils.”
Politics, “Every conceivable sin is laid at the door of the political regime which governed France in the years before the war. I have only to look about me to feel convinced that the parliamentary system has too often favored intrigue at the cost of intelligence and true loyalty. … The monstrously swollen assemblies which, in recent years, have claimed to rule us were one of the more absurd legacies of history.”
Class, “Old resentments drew fresh vigor from an exacerbated sense of inequality. … The value of discipline, of docile good nature, of a ready acceptance of social differences by the less fortunate, had formed the basis of their [bourgeois] timid and unadventurous education. And now it looked as though all these things were to be swept away for good and all.”
While these cover most (not all) of the core explanations for the Fall of France in 1940, Bloch summarized the essential, final “nail in the coffin” with a reflection of a lack of purpose in the country’s culture; indeed, a total loss of anything positive to believe in and a final sense of blame and guilt.
For its sins, France “deserved” to die:
“Our leaders not only let themselves be beaten, but too soon decided that they should be beaten. …They accepted the disaster with rage in their hearts. … They were ready to find consolation in the thought that beneath the ruins of France a shameful regime might be crushed to death and that, if they yielded it was to a punishment meted out by Destiny to a guilty nation.”
(Marc Bloch was executed in 1944 by the Gestapo. His Memoir was found and published first in 1948.)
Few wars last only six weeks. The Battle of France, between powerful countries that fought one another on more than thirty times over centuries, is a true anomaly of history. The political/cultural conditions noted by Marc Bloch explain much of the phenomenon but not all of it. Not by a long shot!
While it’s fair to cite World War I as the background for the Fall of France (and almost everything important since) it is equally important to remember that the effects of 1918 were shared universally, not just by France. For its part Germany had to sign the ignominious Versailles Treaty that deprived it of almost all armed forces, took away all overseas possessions, forced financial reparations on it which crippled the economy, blamed it singularly for the origins of the war and all implications therein and forced on it a parliamentary democracy (“Weimar”) that had to sustain an occupation army from France and Belgium that stayed for twelve years.
While France was, technically, a “victor” in 1918 its home territory was occupied by the German Army for four, long years, its economy shattered by destruction, its people forced to host foreign occupation, most of its cities, towns and farms confiscated or destroyed and, as seen above, the national morale embittered and shattered by such an unprecedented experience.
If possible it might be instructive to at least appreciate some of the French experience in the “Great” War by going to the diary of the American novelist, Edith Wharton, who traveled through the country early in the war. Wharton observed France at war and wrote Memoirs on her observations, Fighting France (1915). Her prose captured the essence of occupied France which explains much of its Fall years later:
“There was never much doubt about the army. … but behind the army were the waiting millions to whom that long motionless line in the trenches might gradually have become a mere condition of thought, an accepted limitation to all sorts of activities and pleasures. The danger was that such a war – static, dogged, uneventful- might gradually cramp instead of enlarging the mood of the lookers-on. … So there was reason to fear, in the long run, a gradual but irresistible disintegration, not of public opinion, but of something subtler and more fundamental: public sentiment. It was possible that civilian France, while collectively seeming to remain at the same height, might individually deteriorate and diminish in its attitude toward the war.”
This was in 1915. The war had three more long and bitter years to proceed, years that witnessed the human tragedies of Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres, Gallipoli, Cambria, Amiens, Meuse-Argonne, Flanders; years that saw French and all other nations’ young men disappear in the mud inside the trenches of the Western Front.
France had the highest death toll of all combatants in the war: 1.3 million or 27 % of the 18 to 27 year male population. Compare this to American deaths, about 115,000 (within about six months combat). And the US had over 100 million, France about 40 million.
In the end, all for nothing, to be repeated, and even worse, soon afterward. As Marshall Foch himself said of the Versailles Treaty, “This is not peace, It is an armistice for twenty years.”
To Lose a Battle
While backgrounds can provide a setting and circumstantial causation they cannot, by definition, provide causation when it comes time for decisions, or lack thereof, in events of history. Slavery, for example, is often cited as the “cause” of the American Civil War. But can institutions cause things to happen? If so, why did the Civil War start in 1861 rather than earlier, as slavery was present from the beginning?
Similarly, why did France fall in 1940 as opposed to earlier? Certainly, if Germany’s Weimar Republic, created at Versailles in 1919, had lasted through the 1930’s there would have never been another world war, as Weimar was determined to fulfill the verdict of Versailles and accommodate Germany to the postwar world order. Nor without Versailles would there have been an Adolf Hitler, who would have had no reason to challenge that order nor the political culture within Germany.
While internal French cultural shock from the first war can be cited as causation for the Fall of France in the second, none of this could possibly have happened without the revolution in political/military culture created by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. By taking power in 1933 and by eliminating all opposition Hitler created a revolution in mental attitudes that must be recorded as one of the most important in world history.
Not only did the Nazis cause France to fall in six weeks, they, almost by themselves, created the most tragic man-made event in history: World War II that took about 76 million lives, military and civilian, before it was over.
Put simply, the Nazis turned everything around because they profited from the experience of the first war and moved out from there to the second. France and the allies, on the other hand, stay wedded to the past. In short, Hitler changed the past; the others stayed within it.
No better illustration of this can be found in the distinctions between the two opposing strategic inventions that each party created for their own security. For France it was defense and the Maginot Line. For Germany it was offense, Blitzkrieg and the future (“Lightening War”).
It was that distinction, as opposed to decisions and circumstance that caused France to fall.
Comparison of the distinctive political systems of the opponents between the world wars, by itself, is instructive. From 1919 to 1940 France had a grand total of 35 (yes, 35) separate governments, each with respective leadership and programs, in the near-anarchy of an ideological country almost always torn apart by extremes. The notorious Popular Front government, led by Leon Blum in the mid-thirties, stands out as a forlorn attempt to unite the many left-right factions.
By comparison both Germany and the US each had, essentially, two separate systems, Germany: Weimar (1920’s, early 30’) and Nazi (until 1945), the US: Republican (1920’s) and the Democrats (1930’s). Italy had (mostly) one: Fascist (Mussolini), Japan two: civilian (1920’s), the Army (1930’s, 40’s).
Similarly, the French effort to surround Germany with an alliance system was, equally, a disaster. From the beginning, 1919, the wartime alliance between Britain and France turned abruptly into separation as the British government, until 1939, behaved as though no geopolitical threat could emerge from a defeated Germany. This brought Germany into the League of Nations in 1926 (Locarno Treaty) but turned into “appeasement” after Hitler took control (1933).
British acquiescence in Hitler’s rearmament and in his occupation of the Rhineland (1936) left France alone to face the Nazi resurgence. Efforts in the 1920’s to tie French security with the so-called “Little Entente” (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania) collapsed while France actually participated in the 1938 Munich agreement which severed the Sudetenland from the Czechs.
A security treaty with Belgium in 1920 was ended in 1936, with Belgium declaring for “neutrality.” The following year Belgium signed a mutual neutrality treaty with Hitler.
In 1935 France formally aligned with Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, in an effort to force any potential German attack with a second front in the east. Like all else, this too came apart, as Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939, took the eastern half of Poland in September and was still aligned with Hitler when Germany attacked France in May 1940.
By this time French security was almost completely absorbed by British interests. As they supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin at Munich in 1938 they did the same the following year. After Hitler completed his conquest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 the British government gave a blanket security guarantee to Poland, Hitler’s logical next victim. France, immediately, followed suit.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and both Britain and France declared war on the third. World War II was now a reality but few could foresee the consequences. Hitler himself couldn’t quite believe it, given the history of appeasement. When his Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, told him the news he looked up, startled, and asked “now what?”
Neither Britain nor France were in any position to assist Poland, which became “lost” itself to both Hitler and Stalin in a few weeks. The next several months saw a so-called “Phony” war as both sides flew over each other without any sign of aggression or attack. That ended in April 1940 when Hitler broke out against western Europe, Norway and, in May, against France.
As befitting their near-total acquiescence to the behavior and circumstances of other countries and their equal absorption with the First World War, France was almost a “bystander” in the run-up to its own demise. It was they, not Hitler, who declared war and they, along with Britain, who watched helplessly as both Hitler’s Panzers and the Red Army destroyed their new-found ally Poland.
So when the attack on them began formally on May 10, 1940 they tried to put up some form of resistance but, as before, shared equally in the disaster which they, themselves, had originated so very many years before.
By then they were completely alone, with little help from Britain, none from the USA, a dormant League of Nations in a war that, quite literally, would foretell the future of the political world.
But de Gaulle was still wrong, France had not only lost the battle it had also lost the war. And hasn’t been the same since.
The consequences and realities of Loss cannot detain us here. They involve military occupation, political control, mass executions, resistance, worldview, sovereignty, status. But, as Alistair Horne has noted in his treatise, the strategic mindset between the two, one from the past, the other for the future, sealed the fate of each. One was static, the other mobile, in turn:
The Maginot Line
Named after French Minister of War, Andre Maginot, this string of concrete fortifications, defensive obstacles and weapon installations stretched 280 miles along the French border with Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg but did not cover Belgium or reach the English Channel.
The Line was begun in 1930 and was based on the experience of 1914 that any war would be long and costly and that a defensive perimeter would suffice to hold-out until France and allied countries could mount an offensive. Included in the expanse, which became the model for the whole world, were 142 concrete forts, 352 casements, 5,000 blockhouses, 150,000 tons of steel, 1.5 million cubic meters of concrete, hundreds of tunnels and rail guns, 78 hilltop fire decks, walls 12 to 16 feet deep. The entire project cost 3.3 billion dollars (today’s value) and was finished by 1939.
Unfortunately, Hitler had no intention to test such a monstrosity and sent his Blitzkrieg forces around and over the Wall, principally through the Ardennes Forest. A rapid advance through the forest and across the river Meuse encircled both the French and British armies, forcing the historic evacuation at Dunkirk and leaving the remaining French Army in the south vulnerable and soon surrounded.
Historian Alistair Horne summarized the final effects of the Maginot Line on France:
“Rapidly, the Maginot Line came to be not just a component of strategy but a way of life. Feeling secure behind it … the French Army allowed itself to atrophy into disuse. A massive combination of factors – complacency, lassitude, deficiencies of manpower and finance conspired to rust the superb weapon which the world had so admired.”
Although they had not invented it (the term in German means “lightening war”) both Hitler and his High Command improvised and implemented the idea to shock the world and France itself into what might be the most efficient military operation in history: the Fall of France 1940.
On paper, there was no special need for France to lose. From 1919 to 1935 French spending on defense was a greater percentage of GNP than any other country in the world. She was then surpassed by Germany but even until the war Hitler was still trying to catch-up. As late as 1939 French spending on defense was nearly three times more than it had been in 1914.
Nor was the army lacking in morale. As Douglas Porch, Naval Postgraduate School, has written, “Most of the French army fought with great bravery in 1940, just as they had a generation earlier.” Porch also noted the inevitable conclusion, “If the Germans had not taken unexpected actions, the outcome for the battle of France might have been very different.”
Such” actions” reflected the opposing theories of warfare that separated the sides. In short, one was defense, the other offense, and there’s no way on earth that a “defensive” strategy can win anything, from politics, to sport to war.
As adopted by Hitler, Blitzkrieg meant surprise attack using a rapid, overwhelming force concentration of armored, motorized or mechanized infantry with close air support. The purpose of such a mobile, striking force was to quickly break through the opponents defensive lines, dislocating them into confusion and retreat, surround and annihilate them.
The theory was much advanced by all sides in the interwar period, including British strategist Basil Liddle-Hart and especially Charles de Gaulle in this 1934 book The Future of the Army. While de Gaulle was considered an “outcast” in French defensive circles, the idea gained its greatest hold over the German military through the efforts of Generals Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel. In his 1950 book, Panzer Leader, Guderian reflected on how tanks, especially equipped with radios, would decide the future of war:
“… the tanks would never be able to produce their full effect until the other weapons on whose support they must inevitably rely were brought up to their standard of speed and of cross-country performance. In such formation of all arms, the tanks must play primary role, the other weapons being subordinated to the requirements of the armor.”
Actually, France had more tanks, 4,000, than Germany in 1940 but were decidedly inferior in planes, especially dive bombers (Stukas). But the difference was in deployment and mission. French tanks deployed across abroad fronts to support infantry, German tanks deployed in clusters on target fronts, supported from the air, to advance night and day.
There is now a chemical explanation for German rapid movements in 1940: the soldiers were stoned! In his 2015 book, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, Norman Ohler documented the widespread use of the methamphetamine, Pervitin (known as “crystal meth” here). This interpretation has gained wide support in reviews and suggests that the German soldier was able to proceed without rest for days and nights on end because of intoxication.
But military doctrine, stoned or not, proved decisive in 1940. As related by Alistair Horne, the final Army Instruction issued by the French High Command contained this definition of mission:
“Baldly, it stated its dogma that technical progress has not appreciably modified, in the tactical sphere, the essential rules laid down by its predecessors. As before, it was the infantry which was to be entrusted with the principal duty in battle …it conquers the ground, occupies it, organizes and holds it.”
No wonder that the British called the 1940 German air attack on their cities, “The Blitz.”
In the final analysis, when all is said and done, the outcome of the Battle of France was decided by the use of history. One side saw history as the end; the other saw it as a beginning.