On June 22, 1940, the French general Charles Huntziger sat opposite Adolf Hitler in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne. In 1918 that same French carriage and location had been the site of Germany’s capitulation in World War I. Little more than two decades later, the tables were turned. The contrast, however, was not only that the Germans had supplanted the French as victors but also that the military conflict between these powers had been very different.
In the grim trench warfare of World War I, French and German forces had battled each other for four years. In 1940, the violence was often intense, but the fall of France came in six weeks. The sudden French defeat has been controversial ever since. Weighing into that debate, historian Julian Jackson provides a detailed and lucid account, which focuses on the May-June battle. He shows that the political and military circumstances were more complex than previous interpreters have said. That complexity, he urges, also helps to account for the multiple ways in which the 1940 defeat continues to mark French identity and culture.
World War II began with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Having spent several months consolidating their gains in Eastern Europe, German military forces made quick and successful strikes in the West. Following the invasions of Denmark and Norway in early April, 1940, the Germans attacked France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands on May 10. Just ten days later, German tanks had reached France’s Atlantic coast. Only the massive sea evacuation of 340,000 British and French forces from Dunkirk at the end of the month prevented the Germans from destroying the main military forces that opposed them in the western parts of the European continent.
The Germans launched their final assault against France on June 5. Paris fell on June 14. Two days later, Marshal Philippe Pétain, the aging French hero of World War I, became head of the French government. He quickly asked for an armistice, which resulted in a two-zone division of the country. The Germans occupied the north, including Paris, and the western seaboard. Central and southern France, with governmental headquarters at the resort town of Vichy, remained unoccupied until November, 1942. Under these arrangements, the Germans allowed a collaborationist French government, led by Pétain and then by Pierre Laval, to remain in place in exchange for its cooperation, which included financial exploitation that benefited Germany, labor brigades sent to work in German industry, and punitive measures against Jews.
Meanwhile, Jackson reports, on June 17, 1940, the day after becoming prime minister, Pétain addressed the French people in a midday radio speech that praised the “magnificent resistance” of the French military “against an enemy superior in numbers and in arms.” It was with “a heavy heart,” he continued, “that I say to you today that it is necessary to cease fighting.” Jackson does not deny that Pétain’s judgments were widely shared in France, but he questions their factual status and unavoidability.
First, were the German forces overwhelmingly superior? To some extent they were but, Jackson argues, not necessarily in decisive ways. Although German tanks were bigger and faster than those commanded by the French, the French army still had its strengths, but they were compromised by more than German power alone. Jackson finds that French planning was inept, the execution of existing plans slow and uncoordinated, and there were failures to take advantage of exposed German lines as the enemy’s Blitzkrieg tactics stretched its forces thin. With better leadership, more thorough troop preparation, swifter coordination of resources, and more aggressive plans, the French collapse need not have happened so suddenly, and its unavoidability was not a foregone conclusion.
Furthermore, France’s situation might have been much stronger if the Allied response to Hitler had been different, especially in regard to support for France. Jackson, however, does not press his counterfactual hypotheses too far. Instead, he sheds helpful light on the complexity of international relations at the time. European states had good reason to be fearful of renewed German power under Hitler, not least because the memory of World War I’s devastation remained vivid.
France explored alliance possibilities with the Soviet Union and Italy as well as with Poland, but the viability of those prospects went from dim to nonexistent. The 1939 nonaggression pact between Hitler and Joseph Stalin enabled the partition of Poland between them. No help was...
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