The Fall of France

by Julian Jackson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

France's Lack of Military Preparation for War

Most historians have typically believed that France's strategy for the war was based on the Maginot Line. World War I (1914–1918) had demonstrated that fighting on the defensive was more effective than offensive action. Moreover, an offensive strategy is costly in manpower. In addition to the Maginot Line, French strategy included a movement of French troops into Belgium. Sending troops into Belgium required Belgium's cooperation, but Belgium had declared its neutrality in 1936. Belgium's neutrality complicated French planning and contributed to France's defeat.

Jackson accepts a great deal of traditional historical thinking on France's military unpreparedness. However, he stresses that France's army of 1940 was not in worse shape than its army of 1914. Jackson mentions, however, that many French officers started crying after the first few days of battle, indicating that they were psychologically unprepared for the exigencies demanded by the perilous situation. In addition, he criticizes the French for their poor intelligence: French military leaders had no idea that the Ardennes would be the focal point of the German attack.

France's Failure to Secure Military Alliances

Jackson argues that French defeat was partly caused by its inability to obtain diplomatic allies. Both Belgium and the Soviet Union refused French overtures before the war. France tried to make alliances with Czechoslovakia, Romania, and other eastern European nations, but these did not amount to much. Efforts to placate Mussolini's Italy failed, and even Anglo-French relations were problematic. At the start of the war, Poland was France's only continental ally, and the Polish surrendered after a month; France did nothing to help its Polish ally during that month. When the German attack hit France in May 1940, the country had only an unprepared Britain by its side.

France's Contentious Political Scene

Jackson looks at the unstable French political theater of the 1930s and how it may have led to its defeat in 1940. Indeed, French politics were extremely volatile and vitriolic during much of this decade. Jean-Louis Barthou, the French foreign minister, was assassinated in 1934. In 1936–1937, Leon Blum served as France's first Jewish and first Socialist premier. His rise was bitterly opposed by many segments of French society. This gave rise to the saying “Better Hitler than Blum.” Jackson admits that these divisions weakened the country but argues that France recovered its political cohesion in 1939–1940.

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