A Neglected but Significant Anniversary

(rerun, with updates)

‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

(A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.

If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.

France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

The French plan was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to some of the things that are going on in America today.


In her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir reflects on the attitude of the French Left (of which she was a part) toward the rise of Nazi Germany…”there was no threat to peace; the only danger was the panic that the Right was attempting to spread in France with the aim of dragging us into war.” (Horne) A constant thread that runs through France in the 1930s is the extreme factionalism, often resulting in more fear and distrust of other Frenchmen than of the rising external enemy.

This was not only a phenomenon of the Left. Among conservative elites, for example, the phrase Better Hitler than Blum was popular. Leon Blum (Premier 1936-37) was a fairly mild Socialist, best known for his advocacy of the 5-day week. Something about him inspired crazed hatred on the part of French Conservatives and Rightists. “A man to shoot in the back,” wrote Charles Maurras, and he was by no means alone in such sentiments. As Julian Jackson puts it in his book The Fall of France: “Politics in France in the 1930s had reached a pitch of violence that had something of the atmosphere of civil war.”

Leon Blum and George W Bush are, of course, two very different men, believing in very different kinds of things. But it is hard not to hear an echo of the insane Blum-hatred of the late 1930s in the insane Bush-hatred of today.  (update 5/10/18: add also insane Trump-hatred)

Nor did the factionalism stop on May 10, 1940. Georges Mandel, the courageous Minister of the Interior, observed a Deputy (legislator) whose district had been bombed by the enemy…he went about the lobbies (of the Chamber of Deputies), screaming “I will interpellate the government on this outrage as soon as the Chamber meets!”Mandel remarked to his friend, the English General Edward Spears, about the disconnect of this behavior from reality. “Paris is bombed by the Germans? Let’s shake our fists at our own Government.”

It is virtually impossible to win a war when politics is being conducted in such a manner…when the “enemy” across the aisle is hated more than the enemy in the bombers overhead. And, again, it is hard not to hear the echo of that Deputy of 1940 in the way that every reverse in Iraq or Afghanistan is used as a platform for vicious attacks on President Bush.  (update: all foreign affairs and President Trump)

The tendency to view everything through the lens of domestic politics certainly had a malign influence on French military preparedness. Consider, for example, the matter of aircraft production. When the aggressive Guy La Chambre took over as Air Minister (in January 1938), he reputedly “found nothing but a disheartened industry of small workshops of which only one factory alone was equipped for mass production. As war approached and the production gap with the Luftwaffe appeared hopelessly wide, he tried to fill it by means of large-scale purchases from the United States; but even this measure of desperation met with intense opposition from the French aircraft manufacturers lobby.” (Horne) At roughly the same time, the Left was objecting to the restoration of a longer work week in order to increase armaments production. (In the event, some aircraft orders were placed in the US, but not nearly on the scale needed, and the work week was lengthened, but not without an epidemic of disruptive strikes.)

The 1930s were a time of frequent financial/political scandals. The most famous of these was the Stavisky affair: Serge Alexander Stavisky was able to sell bonds worth 200 million francs based on the assets of Bayonne’s municipal pawnshop. His political connections assisted him both in pulling off the scam and in getting his trial postponed 19 times. The result was a considerable weakening of confidence in France’s governing institutions.

Update 5/10/18:  It is worth noting that there were divisions in France that has originated at the time of the Revolution, and had persisted.  The hostility between anti-Clericals and Catholics was one of the most significant of these.  See Lead and Gold for a discussion of how this played out in the First World War:  “As absurd as it sounds, the political and intellectual classes in France feared the Catholic church more than the armies of the Kaiser.”

There was rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism. With onset of the Depression (which came later in France than in the US and Britain), immigrants were viewed as competitors for jobs (even though France was in a demographic crisis, with both a low birth rate and the effects of the horrendous casualties of 1914-1918), and became targets of violence. France was faced with half a million refugees from Spain following Franco’s defeat of Republican forces in that country, and there were also refugees from other Nazi and Fascist countries. (Despite the xenophobia, “it must be said that France was more generous in providing asylum than any other European country or than the United States.” (Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley))

In the period just before Munich, fears of war were very strong, and many people chose to blame the Czechs…and the Jews. In Paris, Strasbourg, Dijon and elsewhere mobs attacked Jews and looted their shops, shouting: “Down with the Jewish war.” (Brendon)

By 1939, many Frenchmen had had enough of Hitler’s threats, and support for resistance against further aggression was growing…but there were still strong voices for appeasement. And these was a pervasive sense that something was deeply wrong with French society. Jean Renoir’s film La Regle du Jeu, opened in July 1939 but banned as “too demoralizing” by September, portrayed, in Brendon’s words, “a corrupt and disintegrating society held together only by deception. ‘We live at a time when everyone lies,’ says one of the characters, ‘drug ads, governments, radio, movies, newspaper.’”

The most splendid Parisian ball of the 1939 season took place on a warm July night at the Polish embassy. Brendon describes the scene:

Ministers and diplomats sipped champagne while an orchestra played and beautiful women in frothy gowns waltzed with military officers. “In the gardens white marble sphinxes gleamed beneath the stars…and pots of red fire threw on the scene the glow of a conflagration.’ The polish Ambassador, Julius Lukasziewicz, believed that Bonnet was “definitely seeking some legally valid escape” from French obligations, news of which accounted for increased “blustering” in Berlin. The shadows quivered. All thought war imminent and some were reminded of the ball “given by Wellington on the eve of Waterloo.” Watching a mazurka, Reynaud (who became Prime Minister just before the attack of 1940-ed)  remarked: “it is scarcely enough to say that they are dancing on a volcano. For what is an eruption of Vesuvius compared to the cataclysm which is forming under our feet?”

24 thoughts on “A Neglected but Significant Anniversary”

  1. “The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.”
    I dunno. Seems to me that the fact that France held against the initial German advance in 1914 is way more important. If France falls immediately then a la the Franco-Prussian War, the Western spirit isn’t murdered in the trenches, Russia never goes Communist, Hitler never rises with his “stabbed in the back” thesis, etc.

    That’s the thing about alternative histories–you can always go further back…

  2. Brian, I once startled an English friend who is a retired colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, with the comment that we should not have entered WWI. I added, “You should not have entered, either.”

    I’m reading “The Sleepwalkers” about the origins of WWI. It is more sympathetic to the Germans than others I have read. I’m still in the middle of it but there was blame on all sides, including France which was funding Serbia with large loans spent on military equipment.

    There is a good book about the French Collapse, whose title I forget.

    Victor D Hanson’s book on WWII points out that French tanks were superior to the Mark I and II panzers but had no radios and bad tactics.

    Hitler is also quoted as saying if he had known about the T 34, he would not have invaded Russia.

  3. This analysis misses what I consider to be one of the key factors: The Soviet COMINTERN commandments to the French Communists to sabotage and “go slow” everywhere in the defense industry and government of France, in service of “helping along” the German National Socialists who they saw as their allies. Not to mention, all the material aid given to the Germans under the Molotov-Ribbentrop “deal”.

    The more reading I do of history from this era, the more I’m certain that the Soviets got everything they deserved at the hands of the Nazis; as well, the less sympathy I have for them. The Soviets enabled early Nazi aggression with military resources, training grounds, and we still don’t know how much intelligence and other important things. And, when the Germans managed to defeat France in such short order, they were gleeful at the results.

    The hypothesis that Stalin intended his own invasion of Western Europe is a tantalizing one; there is more than enough circumstantial evidence that he had some such thing in mind, and that the Germans screwed up his machinations by first defeating France in such short order that the hoped-for exhaustion of the Germans and French didn’t actually happen, and when “the bear blew first” during Barbarossa.

    There is a lot we just don’t know, being as the actual history of what went on in the background has been deliberately obscured, but I think you can discern the bare bones of a far different history which would have resulted from a somewhat-less-militarily-competent Germany. We shouldn’t forget that the Ardennes attack only happened because the original operational orders for the very conventional German attack on the West were lost; what happened historically is down to a fluke of poor staff discipline and bad aircraft maintenance on the German side.

    Imagine a WWII where the original German plans were followed, which the French and British were both positioned to effectively resist; imagine further an exhausted Germany, France, and Britain recapping WWI with WWII-era weapons, and having the Soviets come in the back door once they were all three ground down, as it were. You have to wonder where it would have stopped, had Stalin been able to do what he wanted with regards to whatever his overall grand strategy had been, prior to Barbarossa kicking off.

  4. Kirk…indeed, the French Communist Party was an obstacle both to re-armament and to the successsful prosecution of the war.

    In the outstanding French TV series A French Village (review here), this is accurately reflected by a Communist character’s comment that the war is just about “the London bankers versus the Berlin bankers”

  5. Similar to American communists. They were a large part of the Isolationist movement up until Hitler invaded Russia, when they then flip flopped. We now know that Soviet agents had significantly infiltrated FDR’s administration. If Germany and Stalin had remained neutral, it’s possible we might never have entered the war in Europe.

  6. We shouldn’t forget that the Ardennes attack only happened because the original operational orders for the very conventional German attack on the West were lost

    Yes, but I:m not sure the 1940 French Army could have won anyway. I wish I could find that book I had about the French defeat.

  7. Some relevant books include:

    To Lose a Battle, Alastair Horne

    1940: The Fall of France, Andre Beaufre

    A Strange Defeat, Marc Bloch

    The Dark Valley: a Panorama of the 1930s, Piers Brendon

  8. With regards to the whole counterfactual WWII where the Soviets invade the West after the Germans, British, and French exhaust themselves: This is a scenario I’ve often wondered about, in regards to its final play-out. Supposing that this did happen, and then the Germans were able to pull a Democratic Party-like socio-historic ju jitsu move, and make themselves the heroes of the situation, actually defending the West against the Godless Communist horde…?

    How the heck would that have gone over, and what would the resulting world look like, with a hallowed Nazi Party being seen as the saviors of Western Civilization that they’d always projected themselves as? How much could they have gotten away with, in terms of genocidal policy, in the aftermath of a Stalinist assault on the West?

    Sad to say, I think it might have gotten uglier than how it all went in our actual history–The “Jewish Question” might have been answered emphatically, and permanently, with the Jews taking the blame for Marxist Bolshevism and Stalin, and then who would have cared to look too hard at the aftermath? “Oh, the kikes? We sent them East, to relocation camps, and they mostly died… Bad hygiene, you know… Typhus, same as those filthy Slavs…”.

    I don’t doubt but that the whole thing would have gone a lot easier on the Germans than it did in our history, had the cards been played carefully and with an eye towards justifying and covering everything up. In all the confusion of a Soviet attack from the East, and the resulting counter-attack, lots could have been swept under the carpet. And, were the plains of Ukraine and Belorussia left under the German yoke for a generation or two…? “Jews? What Jews…? Slavs? Who cares… Backstabbing bastards…”.

    Were you to want, for some un-Godly reason, to write an alternate history where the Germans managed to pull off being on the side of the angels (at least in PR terms) during WWII? That’s how I’d do it.

  9. Kirk @ May 10th, 2018 at 12:18 pm Says:

    We shouldn’t forget that the Ardennes attack only happened because the original operational orders for the very conventional German attack on the West were lost…

    More precisely, the plans fell into Allied hands (the Mechelen Incident). Allied strategists expected the Germans to repeat their WW I plan of a grand “Left wheel” across northern Belgium and south into France. Their defense plan was designed to meet such an attack: rush the best Allied troops (the BEF and French 1st Army) into western Belgium to meet the Germans beside the Belgians.

    The plans seized at Mechelen were exactly what the Allies expected, confirming their plan. But the capture pushed the Germans to do something different, which happened to be just what would shatter the Allied position.

    So the Germans were lucky even when they screwed up…

  10. One of the best books I ever read on 1930s Europe was The Last Lion, the biography on Churchill, by William Manchester. Britain and France had easily 1/2 dozen chances to stop Hitler, but after I have seen (and read) a bit on the WW1 centenary I can understand why they had no stomach for it.

    A program that really opened my eyes was a BBC program on Edward VIII. Edward the Nazi King was the title IIRC. I had rumors of how he was a Nazi sympathizer, but in this program (and declassified FBI files) I did not realize how much.

    To address your contention in this post, David, there was a German courier who crash landed in his small plane with the original invasion plans. The Nazis did not know if this plan fell into allied hands until Edward told them. And they changed the plans.

    I don’t picture Edward as some super double agent but who, with a martini or 2, would blurt out the most secret of things. Like telling the Italian ambassador at a party that the Americans had cracked their diplomatic code.

    In line with this I did not realize, until a few years ago, that when Churchill became PM, he was, for a week or so, under tremendous pressure with the fall of France to seek peace with Hitler. Had he done so I am sure one of Hitler’s demands would have been the removal of George VI and reinstallation of Edward.

    And Wallis Simpson was in large part the power behind Edward.

    A British historian on the BBC program made the contention that Walis Simpson did more to secure victory for Britain than anyone else. If you think of the implications of Edward remaining King through this precarious time (of course he abdicated so he could marry Simpson) , I am not so sure he is wrong.

  11. Truely enlightening discussion. Thanks to all for the stimulation of the little gray cell!


  12. Mike K Says:
    May 10th, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    I think you’re right. Wherever the invasion was coming from, the Allies were too poorly coordinated and incapable of advancing. This was apparent in their feeble counterattacks in France.

    The heart of the problem was not so much where the invasion was coming from. Britain and France were prepared for a pitched battle of attrition just like in World War I while the Germans were keen on maneuver and mission-type tactics. Even if the Germans had stuck to the original plan, their air superiority and Panzer divisions would’ve quickly overrun fixed positions.

    Remember von Manstein’s plan was mostly innovative for the location of forces. Once inside France, the plan was then to secure river crossings and consolidate tanks so the infantry could mass a frontal attack. Rommel and Guderian disobeyed orders and continued the advance until they were out of radio range. There’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have done the same in Belgium. The mismatch in mobility would’ve still driven the course of battle.

  13. “Strange Defeat” was probably the book I was thinking of.

    I’ve been listening to Pat Buchanan’s book, “The Unnecessary Wars,” which is quite interesting.

    At the same time, I have been reading “The Sleepwalkers,” which is much more sympathetic to the Germans and resembles some of Buchanan’s arguments.

    I usually have five books going at different places. I think World War I should have been prevented. World War II, I’m not so sure.

    Buchanan is quite sympathetic and even apologetic for Hitler, not because he is a Nazi but because he is an isolationist.

    Some of his arguments are quite good. He hates Churchill but really blames Chamberlain for the war.

    He is on better ground blaming Edward Grey for WWI. A Grey biography is on my list for next to read.

  14. There was a bitter rivalry between Paul Reynaud, who became Prime Minister shortly before the German invasion, and Edouard Daladier, who had held that position at the time of Munich. (The relationship between the two men was not helped by the fact that their mistresses hated one another)

    The writer Andre Maurois records that he was discussing the conflict between the two men with Reynaud, and commented, “Nevertheless, you must admit that Daladier certainly a man who loves his country.”

    Yes,” Reynaud said, “I believe he desires the victory of France, but he desires my defeat even more.”

    I don’t know if this was fair to Daladier, but a similar remark could be made with accuracy about many American politicians today.

  15. As absurd as it sounds, the political and intellectual classes in France feared the Catholic church more than the armies of the Kaiser.

    Catholicism was defeated. Problem solved.

    Now it’s “As absurd as it sounds, the political and intellectual classes in France feared the Le Pen more than the immigrants from Arabia.”

  16. Here’s an alternate history I’ve never seen explored: The French and British win. Germany invaded. Hitler overthrown. A war started to save Poland ends with Poland half-occupied. By USSR. Now what: tough luck, Poles!?

  17. The fun thing about the T34 is that it was designed by an American who couldn’t get the US Army to show any interest, as I understand.

    Also, if you have not read it, I highly recommend

    What We Lost In The Great War
    by John Steele Gordon

    Great piece. I think the importance cannot be underestimated.

    The intellectuals of the day, most of them Classical Liberals, were so arrogant and proud of what the West had accomplished, and rightly so… Then they saw what they could do with it and, though justly horrified, they did not set out to “fix” or stop the root causes, they instead turned on The West with a vengeance. Classical Liberalism morphed into PostModern Liberalism, which is a social cancer out to destroy The West by attacking and undermining its foundations in Greek Thought and Ideal, along with the Judeo-Christian Ethos.

    The resukting abortion is the society we have today: multiculti, PC, moral relativism, deconstruction… All aimed at one or more of those foundational elements… With attacks against the church on “no religion!!” grounds (even as they promote Islam).

  18. BTW, rereading my comments above: in case it’s not clear… Gordon’s piece is a straightforward discussion about the war and its effects on people.

    The connection to PostModern Liberalism and its destructive goals is my own.

  19. OBH…yes, the Great War greatly contributed to a debunking attitude among intellectuals, and this thinking has propagated itself across the generations.

    See Paul Fussell, ‘The Great War and Modern Memory,’ for an analysis of effects of the war on literary forms.

    Remarque’s narrator, a returned German soldier, in ‘his novel The Road Back’, has accepted a job teaching school in a small village:

    There sit the little ones with folded arms. In their eyes is still all the shy astonishment of the childish years. They look up at me so trustingly, so believingly–and suddenly I get a spasm over the heart.

    Here I stand before you, one of the hundreds of thousands of bankrupt men in whom the war destroyed every belief and almost every strength…What should I teach you? Should I tell you that in twenty years you will be dried-up and crippled, maimed in your freest impulses, all pressed mercilessly into the selfsame mould? Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive, and fire?…Should I take you to the green-and-grey map there, move my finger across it, and tell you that here love was murdered? Should I explain to you that the books you hold in your hands are but nets in which men design to snare your simple souls, to entangle you in the undergrowth of fine phrases, and in the barbed wire of falsified ideas?

    …I feel a cramp begin to spread through me, as if I were turning to stone, as if I were crumbling away. I lower myself into the chair, and realize that I cannot stay here any longer. I try to take hold of something but cannot. Then after a time that has seemed to me endless, the catalepsy relaxes. I stand up. “Children,” I say with difficulty, “you may go now.”

    The little ones look at me to make sure I am not joking. I nod once again. “Yes, that is right–go and play today–go and play in the wood–or with your dogs and your cats–you need not come back till tomorrow–“

    See Sarah Hoyt’s analysis of the effects of the War and relevance to current sociopolitical beliefs:


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