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___________________________________________________________________ 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 ____________________________________________________________________________ Review by Sam Goodfellow Westminster College goodfels@JAYNET.WCMO.EDU John Charmley recently made the absurd revisionist argument that Britain should not have fought World War II and should have cut a deal with Hitler. A moment's reflection yields the conclusion that the French had no such option. Whereas the British could theoretically have retired to their island to nurture their fraying empire, the French could not remain isolated from the expansion of Nazi Germany. The mystery, of course, is why, given France's antipathy to the resurgence of Germany, it performed so disastrously in 1940. By titling this book _The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments_ and not _The German Victory of 1940_, the discussion focuses on the mistakes of the losers leading up to the war rather than on the actions of the victors. Inevitably, the question revolves around the role of the so-called "hollow years" of the 1930s. This collection of articles reassesses the traditional view that the decadence of the 1930s was the key factor leading to defeat. William Keylor advances the position that the case for the disintegration of a Republican consensus remains unproven. Instead he sensibly suggests that the defeat was a military one. This is a point that Nicole Jordan makes quite persuasively when she argues that the general staff's strategic concept was flawed. Under General Gamelin, the army committed itself to the odd notion of fighting the Germans on non-French (Belgian) soil without apparently considering an offensive into German territory. Naturally, the Great War weighed down the memories of all Frenchmen who had no desire to wage another extended war on French farms and villages. The urge to distance the fighting from France, however understandable, did not reflect the reality of Franco-German conflict, which involved fighting a Blitzkrieg on a shared border. Once the defeat became obvious, Gamelin courageously placed the blame on the Popular Front. Keylor goes on, however, to argue that the military defeat can be traced to the inadequacy of interwar Franco-American relations which contributed to France's military unpreparedness. The American failure to ratify Versailles and the distrust of American economic clout and growing cultural influence alienated the French. Nevertheless, they hoped for greater support from the United States. Robert Young points out that, at least in the realm of cultural representation, the French worked hard at projecting a positive image of France in the United States. French success in promoting French culture implicitly raised hopes for greater American support which was not directly forthcoming. Both sides were ambivalent: the French wanted American backing but resented American power, while the Americans loved French culture but resisted involvement. The result was a paralysis in the pursuit of joint effective anti-Nazi policies. Only after the Munich crisis when war was imminent did Daladier move more decisively to utilize the United States by ordering a large shipment of airplanes. By then, however, it was too late. Bill Irvine argues in his article "Domestic Politics and the Fall of France in 1940" that "it was not decadence that led to 1940; it is 1940 that has led us to view the late third Republic as decadent"(99). He provides an important corrective to the commonly held view that the Right was completely unwilling to defend France against its ideological soulmate across the Rhine. However attractive Nazi Germany might have been to many French intellectuals and to the growing Right, the Munich crisis was a splash of cold water. Many Alsatians, for example, were evacuated in 1938, not only disrupting an important industrial center, but also bringing home the imminence of war to those interior provinces which absorbed the evacuees. In Alsace, where there had been substantial pro-German sentiment, the support for pro-Nazi movements dwindled after 1938 in the face of popular disenchantment with Nazi rhetoric and governmental crackdowns. Certainly 1938 was a watershed year in which attitudes shifted in favor of defending France. Yet surely this was too little too late. The 1930s were polarized years with a number of converging political, economic, and social crises. Further, the inept decisions of the French military staff, the political leaders, and diplomats resulted from a discourse that shaped their options. It is all well and good to argue that the 1930s were not decadent, but the period before 1938 clearly generated deep ambivalence as some of the articles demonstrate. The experience of the war, as Omer Bartov's article "Martyr's Vengeance: Memory, Trauma, and Fear of War in France, 1918-1940" suggests, permeated the conscience of the entire interwar generation. With memorials in every village, tours of the battlefields, and most importantly, the everyday consequences of the loss of 1.3 million Frenchmen, the French were not only constantly reminded of the horror, but did not seem to want to forget it. Memory of the war seemed to flow in channels, best illustrated by Jean Renoir's 1937 film "The Grand Illusion" which depicted a domestic class conflict inadvertently fought in an international context. Nobody wanted a repeat of the sort of losses caused by the Great War, in part because it might trigger a potentially even more violent civil war. The fear of civil war was not a fantasy. Interwar politics careened between left and right with extreme right-wing, pro-fascist surges in the mid-1920s and 1934 alternating with leftist surges in 1936 and 1938. The right-wing surges were not simply a question of legitimate parliamentary opposition, but represented extra-parliamentary and even violent populist action. Pitched battles such as the massacre of Clichy on March 17, 1937 between communists and assorted radical right-wing supporters were fairly common, if not as endemic as in Weimar Germany. Every time the left showed success, as did the Cartel des Gauches in 1924 and the Popular Front in 1936, the right reacted strongly. As Marc Bloch put it, the "bourgeois proceeded, naturally, to condemn the nation which had produced it [the Popular Front]." The reverse was also true as the left reacted strongly to increased right-wing activity, tending to reject the nation in favor of a universal idea. International events merely reinforced the polarization; Hitler's seizure of power and the Spanish Civil War provided an additional forum for the two sides to disagree. The political system proved unable to reconcile these diametrically opposed ideologies. Vicki Caron's article, " The Missed Opportunity: French Refugee Policy in Wartime, 1939-1940," draws attention to another source of anxiety: the influx of 3 million refugees. Despite the fact that these refugees, many of whom emigrated from Central Europe, were willing, and even eager, to combat fascism, the French government waffled and failed to prioritize. Instead, a faint whiff of the fascist/communist divide led many to fear that arming the anti-fascist refugees might exacerbate the conflict within French society. Although one can argue that the Munich crisis stiffened the spines of the nationalist right and marginalized the radical right, the government's refugee policy shows that this did not translate into decisive or even coherent wartime preparation. The specific governmental blunders of 1939 and 1940 suggest that it was either too late to reverse a decade of polarization in such a short period of time, or that some of the divisive features of the period lingered on. The failure, for example, to conclude a military pact with the Soviet Union (described by Michael Carley) and thereby force a two front war on Germany was a logical outgrowth of the anti-communism of the 1930s. As with the inability to utilize the military potential of the refugees effectively, the biases of the men in the French government led them to reject an alliance that would have radically changed the military balance at the onset of the war. Imagine the situation if Germany faced the undivided opposition in the east of the Polish army as well as the Soviet Union and the Franco-British alliance in the west. In addition, Martin Alexander describes a strained relationship between France and Britain over the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force. The British proved unwilling to provide air power to the defense of France, fueling French suspicions that the British were all too willing to fight to the last Frenchman. The government seemed in disarray in other ways, as both Elisabeth du Reau and John Cairns suggest. Du Reau concludes that "neither the military nor the civilian authorities took advantage of the reprieve granted them [by the phony war] in order to try and adapt the military apparatus and the civilian structures to the adversary's strategy."(125) A sense of urgency seemed absent, which may be why the Blitzkrieg came as such a shock. Similarly, the amateurish scheme to take the war to Finland called into question Daladier's competence. The Winter War reminded everyone that the Soviets, and by extension the French communists, were the enemy just as much as the Germans were. Stanley Hoffman accurately points out that no "debacle syndrome" has emerged in the post-war era to compete with Henri Rousso's "Vichy syndrome."(357) Nevertheless, a history of blame does exist. General Gamelin argued that the Popular Front weakened French resolve, a hypothesis that Vichy unsuccessfully followed up in the Riom trial against Leon Blum. The left responded that defeat was the fault of the fascist right, which favored Hitler over any form of socialism. Both of these explanations share the hebertiste assumption that war is not won by technology or numbers, but by elan. Despite the obvious experience of World War I, the interwar military leadership relied too much on this notion. Charles de Gaulle's treatise on tank warfare was ignored, not because the general staff thought it was wrong, but because the idea that sheer patriotic determination would carry the day was a convenient fiction. The pernicious idea that France lacked elan, that the troops were spiritually demoralized before the conflict even started, obviously underpins the idea that France lost the war because of the decadence of the 1930s. Collectively these articles identify a number of specific failures in the period from 1938 to 1940 that contributed to the defeat. The litany of mistakes in military strategy, governmental performance, and diplomatic initiatives, while more pedestrian than the idea that Third Republic was rotten, is a more persuasive explanation for the debacle. We cannot completely dismiss, however, the earlier context of the 1930s. When we ask why the French failed to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union, why the French government failed to utilize the refugees, why it failed to constructively utilize the phony war, why the military had its particular strategic vision, why France's relationships with the United States and Britain vacillated, and why the government was marred by so much in-fighting, the common factor is the experience of the 1930s. The 1930s were by no means an apocalypse, but they did shape the thinking of all the actors leading up to the war. This book is a reassessment and not a revision, and a valuable addition indeed to the literature.