Last Updated on September 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357
Julian Jackson's The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 covers the period from May through June 1940, when France swiftly and ignominiously fell to the Nazi incursion.
At the outset of their conflict, the two armies seemed more closely matched than subsequent events would suggest; the French army was considered to be better armed than the German Wehrmacht, which was not yet as fully mechanized as it would soon become and was forced to depend heavily on small infantry units.
Jackson cites three of the most common theories for this event. One was that France was still suffering from the aftershock of World War I trench warfare and had withdrawn into a pacifism from which an archaic military leadership was unable to rouse it. Another theory held that the loss was caused by serious errors in French strategy. Yet a third theory attributed the collapse of the French to sheer decadence.
Jackson takes the position that France fell as quickly as it did due to poor communications, faulty intelligence, and an excessively bureaucratic structure of military command that was slow in responding to the speed of an early prototype of the Nazi blitzkrieg.
The dramatic collapse of France had important ramifications: it permitted the Nazis to begin to contemplate an offensive against Stalin and forced the British to employ its navy in defending the Caribbean and Atlantic against the Germans rather than against Japan in the Pacific, thus encouraging Japan's nascent aggression.
Despite the precipitate nature of France's fall, Jackson says, the common notion that it was somehow a failure of morale or national character on the part of the French is badly mistaken. The British, he says, fought no better than their allies against the Wehrmacht; in fact, at that early point in the war and with powerful members of the Tory party favoring a negotiated peace, British troops tended toward a lackluster morale.
In conclusion, Jackson speculates on the effect of the fall of France in shaping the geopolitical outlook of Charles de Gaulle and de Gaulle's insistence on acting as though France was still a world power, rather than a nation in slow decline.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1895
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 available to France from Eastern Europe, nor was assistance from Italy in the cards, as Hitler and Benito Mussolini increasingly embraced each other.
Closer to home, the French counted on support from Belgium, but the French knew they faced problems when Belgium declared neutrality in 1936. Great Britain was France’s best hope for a reliable ally, but relations between the two countries remained problematic after World War I and reached low points in the mid-1930’s, when cooperation could have been extremely helpful. When the German onslaught came, France and Great Britain did not benefit each other as much as they could have. The Germans were not invincible when they invaded France, but strained relationships between Great Britain and France helped to give them the upper hand.
What about the “magnificent resistance” that Pétain emphasized in his June 17 radio address? By showing the situation’s complexity, Jackson again sheds light on an important question. First, while memories of World War I did not make France a pacifistic nation, Jackson stresses that there was little enthusiasm for more military conflict. In the earlier war, 1.3 million Frenchmen had fallen; the bodies of 300,000 were never recovered or identified. More than a million veterans were invalids. War widows and orphans numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, most of the French people hoped that armed conflict could be avoided and reconciliation with Germany could be achieved. At the same time, and especially after Hitler invaded Poland, the French understood, however reluctantly, that the nation must be prepared to defend itself. Already in the second half of the 1930’s, French rearmament had advanced, but it was hampered by production lags and inefficiencies, some of them caused by disagreements among the nation’s military leaders, whose strategy preferences clashed. Nevertheless, by 1940 the French were fairly well equipped to do battle against the Germans—only fairly well equipped, however, because Jackson argues convincingly that “the French army was not a monolithic organization.”
The French-German border was heavily fortified by France’s Maginot Line, which was intended to ensure that, if war came, it would not be fought primarily on French soil. Instead, even after the Belgians declared neutrality, the French anticipated that a German invasion would take place through Belgium. That judgment proved correct, but the French miscalculated by thinking that the German attack would repeat the strategy of 1914 by coming through central Belgium. Instead, the primary German offensive went further south, taking routes through the Ardennes forest. It was evident to both sides that a thrust through the Ardennes was risky for the Germans, but the French did not overlook the possibility that the German advance would emerge from the forest. The French, however, did not regard that route as the most likely. Given that some French units were better equipped than others, the French generals committed the best forces to central and northern Belgium, leaving the weakest to cover the Ardennes.
Led by generals Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel, the Germans penetrated the Ardennes and then crossed the Meuse River on May 13, overcoming French resistance and establishing the bridgeheads that enabled German armor to flow into the breach. Prompt reinforcement could have slowed, if not stopped, the German advance, but that response did not materialize. Within days, it was too late for the French to recover. Civilians took flight to the south, while French forces found themselves increasingly on the losing side. Jackson reports that German losses in the battle against France “were remarkably light—27,074 killed, 111,034 wounded, 18,384 missing.” He contends that the high number of French casualties, including between fifty thousand and ninety thousand dead, disproves charges that the French failed to fight. Although Jackson acknowledges that 1.5 million French prisoners of war might qualify that assessment, he notes mitigating circumstances by observing that half of the French troops “were captured in the six days between Pétain’s 17 June broadcast, announcing that the government would be seeking an armistice, and the actual signing of the armistice itself on 22 June.”
Pétain’s claim that France resisted Nazi Germany magnificently in 1940 does not stand scrutiny. On the contrary, that French resistance, heroic though it was at times, proved insufficient to prevent what Jackson identifies as “the most humiliating military disaster in French history.” Jackson also agrees with those who regard the fall of France as a pivotal point in twentieth century history. The French capitulation, which came earlier than necessary and at a relatively low cost to Nazi Germany thanks to the collaborationist policies of Pétain and his followers, turned a European conflict into a global war. Stiffer Allied and French resistance in 1940, Jackson thinks, might have resulted in “some kind of negotiated peace” with Germany. Nothing ensures that such a vague and counterfactual outcome would have been preferable to the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May, 1945, but the fall of France remains a contender if one seeks to identify the twentieth century’s most crucial events.
As for the French themselves, Jackson’s summary is sound: “If 1940 figures less prominently in France’s memory wars than one might expect,” he writes, “this may be because it was an event too painful to contemplate.” France’s defeat led to the demoralizing experiences of occupation, collaboration, and deportation, including the destruction of eighty thousand Jews, mostly immigrants and refugees, who perished in Nazi death camps after being rounded up by French police who did the Germans’ bidding. According to Jackson, Pétain and his Vichy regime enjoyed “moral authority” for a time because their “language of rootedness and authority, family and security, resonated with a nation traumatized by its recent experience of upheaval and dislocation.” In retrospect, however, the Vichy regime gave France no reason for pride and joy.
After the war, when Pétain and Laval were convicted of treason and condemned to death, those actions were necessary to restore French honor but not enough to remove the stains of collaboration with the Nazis. When French sensibilities required Charles de Gaulle to commute Pétain’s sentence to life imprisonment, that result inadvertently created a symbol for one legacy of the fall of France: A French hero from World War I, later compromised through defeat by and collaboration with Nazi Germany, became imprisoned for life by those events from World War II.
Jackson thinks that France deserves, and to a large measure has obtained, a better fate than that. What strikes him most about France in the second half of the twentieth century is “its capacity for survival and reinvention, its resilience, the continuing attraction of its culture.” Nevertheless, debate about the fall of France and its consequences may never achieve closure. Even with the twenty-first century’s arrival, Jackson concludes, it is too early to tell.
The Atlantic Monthly 291, no. 3 (April, 2003): 92.
History Today 53, no. 9 (September, 2003): 58.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 5 (March 1, 2003): 362.
Library Journal 128, no. 6 (April 1, 2003): 113.
Maclean’s 116, nos. 26/27 (July 1, 2003): 95.
New Statesman 132, no. 4628 (March 10, 2003): 54.
The Times Literary Supplement, May 16, 2003, p. 27.
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