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[Dear H-Diplo Members: Our H-Diplo roundtable on Joel Blatt (ed.), _The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments_, will be posted in five parts today. Please feel free to comment online. Many thanks to Sally Marks for her efforts as roundtable editor -- D. Labrosse] _________________________________________________ H-DIPLO ROUNDTABLE Joel Blatt, ed., _The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments_ (Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998). Roundtable Editor: Sally Marks Reviewers: Paul de Quenoy, Samuel Goodfellow, Sean Kennedy, Eugenia C. Kiesling ____________________________________________________________________________ Introduction by Sally Marks Providence, Rhode Island firstname.lastname@example.org Since I have reviewed this book elsewhere (as H-DIPLO knew when it asked me to edit the Roundtable), I shall not do so here. Rather, I shall provide a brief historiographic context and add my own view of why France fell. The question of what caused the French collapse has been central since 1940 to 20th century French historiography, especially outside France. France's civilian and military leaders have been excoriated for lack of wisdom and courage. From various angles, so have French interwar society (starting with Marc Bloch's _Strange Defeat_, written in 1940 and published in 1946) and the political system of the Third Republic. Defeatism, fatalism, prewar cynicism and appeasement, paralysis, and increasing dependence in the 1930s were all offered as explanations. In 1979, Jean- Baptiste Duroselle published _La Decadence, 1932-1939_, which dealt less with decadence than with mediocrity and weakness but which launched much discussion of decay and national decline. In time, a reaction set in, pointing to French revival in 1939, two decades of British efforts to weaken France, and lack of a Russian counterweight to Germany's east. In 1996 in _France and the Origins of the Second World War_, Robert Young opted for ambivalence born of the cruelly difficult choices facing France. The latest work, Ernest May's just published _Strange Victory_ (meaning Germany's), argues for a French failure of imagination and military intelligence affording Germany decisive surprise. Thus the debate continues. Some of these arguments undoubtedly have merit. For example, most French generals were geriatric and most politicians very ordinary. Weak British leadership in the late 1930s is explained in terms of the natural leaders having died in Flanders fields in 1914. This argument is not made as often about France, but surely the same factor applies. Moreover, very ordinary leaders made mistakes which made matters worse. The basis underlying situation, however, was that France had ceased to be a great power by 1919 at the latest. It was among the victors of 1918 but not really one of them, having barely hung on (with much Russian help) until rescue arrived as total exhaustion set in. Already, there was a level of fundamental weakness and dependency not usually associated with great powers. Both only worsened. Compared to Germany, France suffered a severe and deepening demographic disadvantage, a limited surviving national reservoir of energy and will, obsolete government organization, and an inadequate industrial structure. War debts and reconstruction costs (which German reparations did not begin to cover) created financial strains which in turn barred, for instance, naval construction. Return of Alsace-Lorraine caused dependency on Germany for coking coal and markets for semi-finished iron products. Very briefly, France was the continent's strongest power for lack of any competitor with a large professional army (the Red Army being in its infancy). Anglo-German propaganda, trying to strengthen Germany at French expense, seized on this situation to assure the world that France was too strong and too imperialistic; in fact, it was too weak, timid, and fearful as it faced the future when temporary Versailles treaty clauses to its benefit would lapse. Germany and Russia revived as France demobilized, cut its term of military service from 3 years to 1, and starved its army for funds, even though the demographic deficit would worsen after 1935. Eastern alliances were liabilities, not assets, and no substitute as a deterrent to Germany for a politically untouchable Soviet Union. France emerged from 1919-20 with the world's second largest empire, which kept it officially in the great power ranks, but it could neither defend nor even reach much of it in wartime. Naval weakness was made permanent by Anglo-American assault at the Washington naval conference of 1921-2, where France was reduced to humiliating parity with Italy, but French leaders emerged pleased that they could still build destroyers to use against Italy and reach North Africa, if not most of the empire. This is not the mentality of a great global power. Further, the one year military term, greater mechanization of war, and inadequacy of colonial education ensured that native troops would become less useful--even if one could get them to France. French weakness, combined with hostility to Bolshevism, meant dependence on Britain, valued for its navy, empire, and ties to America (especially Wall Street) in the long war thought to be ahead. After 1919, a frightened France tried to cling to a growling British bulldog which consistently misread the power balance and tried to weaken its probable future ally. Thus even in the 1920s, fear of offending Britain, the essential ally, dictated timidity--especially in the Ruhr, prolonging the struggle there and causing France to lose that war after winning the battle at last. And in French eyes the only redeeming feature of the Locarno treaties, which restored Germany to diplomatic respectability and parity with France, was the British tie, however tenuous. Every important French leader of the 1920s understood French weakness and dependence stemming from a fundamental lack of power, which is different from societal decay. Solutions were not easy, and they found none. Power is relative, and as Germany's grew, that of France declined. So did its independence. Of course, many mistakes were made in the 1930s, but even if French leaders had had the wisdom and courage of the gods, could they have kept France from being another somewhat stronger Italy, perhaps falling more slowly but defeated by greater, more effectively organized and utilized power?