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The French Defeat of 1940

The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments

Edited by Joel Blatt
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    The French Defeat of 1940
    Book Description:

    Why France, the major European continental victor in 1918, suffered total defeat in six weeks at the hands of the vanquished power of 1918 only two decades later remains moot. Why the stunning reversal of fortunes? In this volume thirteen prominent scholars reexamine the French debacle of 1940 in interwar perspectives, utilizing fresh analysis, original approaches, and new sources. Although the tenor of the volume is critical, the contributors also suggest that French preparations for war knew successes as well as failures, that French defeat was not inevitable, and that the Battle of France might have turned out differently if different choices had been made and other paths been followed.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-717-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Joel Blatt
  4. Introduction The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments
    (pp. 1-12)
    Joel Blatt

    After months of waiting, on 10 May 1940, Hitler hurled the German armed forces against France and its ally, Great Britain. The French divided their defensive system essentially into three regions. The southeastern part of their defense system, the famous Maginot line, contained heavy fortifications that fulfilled their function. From the northwest, prime French troops and tanks rushed pell-mell northeastward toward Breda in Holland; from the western sector, too, other allied units moved north and east toward the Dyle River in Belgium. French strategy attempted to establish a northern defensive line outside France against the presumed main German thrust.¹ Assuming...

  5. I Strategy and Scapegoatism: Reflections on the French National Catastrophe, 1940
    (pp. 13-38)
    Nicole Jordan

    The French military collapse in 1940 was one of the great military catastrophes in world history. A striking image of the defeat dates from 16-17 May: a sea of some ten thousand French prisoners, captured at a cost of one German officer and forty enlisted men, as Rommel’sPanzerkorpsdrove deeply through the French lines.¹ Yet the French rout has been consigned to virtual oblivion by much of the recent literature, which presents Maurice Gamelin, the French Commander, as almost entirely disconnected from the events of May 1940. The defeat appears then as strangely diffuse, disembodied, the product of an...

  6. II Marc Bloch and the drôle de guerre: Prelude to the “Strange Defeat”
    (pp. 39-53)
    Carole Fink

    Shortly after the Pétain government signed the armistice with Nazi Germany in the forest of Rethondes near Compiègne, an outraged demobilized officer surreptitiously took up his pen and bore witness to “the most terrible collapse” in France’s history.¹Strange Defeat, the title given to the historian Marc Bloch’s unfinished book published after his heroic death as a resistance leader, has remained a compelling work for over a half century. It is the outpouring of a brilliant, anguished patriot who analyzed a calamity that exceeded Waterloo, Sedan, and even Dien Bien Phu, in its consequences for France, Europe, and the world.²...

  7. III Martyrs’ Vengeance: Memory, Trauma, and Fear of War in France, 1918-1940
    (pp. 54-84)
    Omer Bartov

    On 13 December 1927 at 10:15 AM, Mme Marie-Pauline Murati, a war widow, attempted to kill the mayor of Toulon, M. Emile Claude, in the course of an interview in his office at the town hall. According to the account given by M. Berry, the head clerk (commis principal) at the mayor’s office, Mme Murati was the last of three ladies to have been shown into M. Claude’s office that morning. The widow Delort, 35 years old, resident of 9, rue Hippolyte-Duprat, entered the office leaving the door ajar. M. Berry, however, who was still on the landing, pushed the...

  8. IV Domestic Politics and the Fall of France in 1940
    (pp. 85-99)
    William D. Irvine

    Ever since Marc Bloch’sStrange Defeathistorians have believed that the military defeat of France in May-June 1940 can only be understood in terms of the social and political crises of the last years of the Third Republic. Serge Berstein’s recent textbook on the 1930s is typical in this respect. He concludes:

    The long crisis which marked the 1930s – a crisis both economic but also moral, social and political – therefore led to what appeared to be a total collapse. If, in the short run, one can invoke the strategic errors of the general staff rather than that inferiority in material...

  9. V Edouard Daladier: The Conduct of the War and the Beginnings of Defeat
    (pp. 100-125)
    Elisabeth du Réau

    In April 1938 Edouard Daladier, the Popular Front’s National Defense Minister since June 1936, became the President of the Council. In September 1938 he signed the Munich Pact, reckoning on a reprieve that would allow France to speed up its rearmament program. Yet France, one year later, was at war with the Third Reich.

    On 22 October 1939, while France and its citizens were settling into the “phoney war,” Colonel de Gaulle wrote these words to Paul Reynaud: “In my humble opinion, there is nothing more urgent nor more necessary than galvanizing the French people, instead of cradling them with...

  10. VI The Missed Opportunity: French Refugee Policy in Wartime, 1939-1940
    (pp. 126-170)
    Vicki Caron

    Throughout the 1930s, France’s treatment of Central and East European refugees fluctuated between a hard-line policy that sought to get rid of them and a more liberal one that allowed at least some to remain in order to strengthen the country economically and militarily. When war was declared on 3 September 1939, the tension between these alternatives did not disappear, but instead became sharper. Already in the spring of 1939, despite the harsh anti-immigrant decree laws of the previous year,³ the government passed a series of measures that indicated a willingness to use the country’s 3,000,000 immigrants to prepare for...

  11. VII Prelude to Defeat: Franco-Soviet Relations, 1919-1939
    (pp. 171-203)
    Michael Jabara Carley

    Since the fall of France in May-June 1940 historians and others have advanced various explanations to account for the sudden, shocking collapse of the once powerful French army. Such reasons range from the “decadence” and corruption of the Third Republic to the ineptitude and cowardice of the French high command. “The French have no blood left in their veins … the French are funks,” spat out Jean-Paul Sartre’s fictional characters inLe Sursis.

    There is, nevertheless, another aspect of the French collapse in 1940 to which historians have devoted little attention. Franco-Russian relations were vital to French security before the...

  12. VIII France and the Illusion of American Support, 1919-1940
    (pp. 204-244)
    William R. Keylor

    France’s military collapse in May-June 1940 has prompted much retrospective speculation about both the short-term and long-term causes of that critical turning point in the history of the twentieth-century. From Marc Bloch to Eugen Weber the historiographical literature has focused on causal agents of a domestic character, notably the ideological polarization of French society in the 1930s.¹ It is now widely accepted that the Third Republic was gravely undermined by a host of political conflicts and social tensions in the decade before its ignominious demise. Robert Soucy has refuted René Rémond’s long-standing assertion that France lacked an indigenous fascist tradition...

  13. IX In the Eye of the Beholder: The Cultural Representation of France and Germany by The New York Times, 1939-1940
    (pp. 245-268)
    Robert J. Young

    The Franco-German military confrontation of May-June 1940 had been preceded by weeks, months, even years of guerrilla warfare between the image-makers of Paris and Berlin. In keeping with the dictates of their Führer, the latter had stressed their abhorrence of Communism, and the Nazi state’s triumph over unemployment. They had worked as well on the familiar theme of rectifying the international injustice which – they said – had been perpetrated against Germany in 1919; and a corollary to this, subtle but unmistakable, had been the Reich’s success in restoring Germany militarily to the ranks of a great power. Certainly from 1935 on,...

  14. X Reflections on France, Britain and the Winter War Prodrome, 1939-1940
    (pp. 269-295)
    John C. Cairns

    Historians with their “flickering lamp stumbling along the trail of the past” toward the European disaster of 1940 must pass through the thicket of the Russo-Finnish Winter War. Notoriously, the Finns fought almost alone. But the tangential Allied involvement had consequences for France and for the Franco-British alliance. In the course of three and a half months, this remote little war so focused and stressed French domestic, foreign and defence policies as to bring the government to the point of collapse. Overall, the intense political and military conflicts arising from a tangle of Allied promises to Finland and strategic commitments...

  15. XI “Fighting to the Last Frenchman”? Reflections on the BEF Deployment to France and the Strains in the Franco-British Alliance, 1939-1940
    (pp. 296-326)
    Martin S. Alexander

    “Between allies,” argued Colonel Charles de Gaulle in 1938, “the only means of forming a true solidarity in time of conflict is to make them interdependent in their entire means of waging war … to make them create an ‘entente of the democracies’ in the field of arms, not simply between general staff and general staff but between one government and the other.”¹ Yet it has generally been said that France’s military mood in the autumn of 1939 wedded strategic inactivity to a long-term confidence in the Anglo-French entente’s prospects for 1940 and beyond. That mood has appeared ludicrously unwarranted...

  16. XII French Defeat in 1940 and its Reversal in 1944-1945: The Deuxième Division Blindée
    (pp. 327-353)
    Philip Farwell Bankwitz

    From the abundant literature on the catastrophe of May-June 1940 in France, certain themes have emerged. It is my intention in this article to reflect and elaborate upon these themes as a witness attached to the G-2 (Deuxième Bureau) of the Deuxième Blindée Française, the élite unit of the Free French forces that surged across France from Normandy to Paris to Strasbourg between early August 1944 and the middle of February 1945.

    Certainly, the first theme in the defeat of 1940 is the strategic one. Due to appalling losses in French lives, property and monetary assets in the 1914-1918 conflict,...

  17. XIII The Trauma of 1940: A Disaster and its Traces
    (pp. 354-370)
    Stanley Hoffmann

    Is it really necessary, fifty or more years later, to remind people what a great disaster it was? In just seven weeks one of the great powers in a still Eurocentric international system collapsed and had to accept, in conditions that flagrantly insulted its pride and honor, the victor’s occupation of more than two-thirds of its territory. An army considered the world’s strongest was defeated in a matter of days by a swift, bold adversary. An almost unanimously accepted strategic doctrine proved itself out-of-date and calamitous: two million soldiers were taken prisoner. Once again a political regime failed to survive...

  18. Contributors
    (pp. 371-372)