May 1940: The Defeat and Vichy France

On 10 May 1940, Germany launched its attack on the Western countries of Europe.  By 22 June, France had fallen and Hitler was planning to land a knock-out blow on Britain.  It is difficult to overstate the sense of shock that the defeat of France provoked throughout the world.  In his book, France 1940: Defending the Republic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), Philip Nord describes the event as being ‘among the most momentous in Europe’s history’ (xi).  For many at the time, such a catastrophe could not be explained simply in military terms; there must have been something deeply wrong in French society itself.  The idea that French decadence led to the disaster took hold not only in France, where Vichy energetically promoted such an explanation, but also over the post-war historiography of May-June 1940.

Nord’s 2015 book

In the first chapter, Nord re-examines France’s strategic position in Europe.  Long-standing assessments of France’s behaviour on the international stage have characterised the country as relatively short-sighted, unable to determine Hitler’s endgame, and weak, kowtowing to the British.  However, the blame must not lie solely with the French.  France was persistently disappointed by its allies, from Belgium, which repudiated a mutual defence treaty in 1936, to Britain, who sought to deal bilaterally with Germany and hung the French out to dry over the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.  What about an alliance with the Soviet Union?  Opposition from France’s English and eastern European allies scuppered this option.

With France’s apparent isolation in mind, the Czechoslovakian crisis in mid-1938 was not such a disaster for it sharpened British and French minds, and set in motion a serious process of planning for co-operation in the event of war.  Nord demonstrates well the fact that though France may have been late to appreciate Hitler’s real objectives, it was not alone in making this mistake, and in fact turned away from appeasement earlier than the other Great Powers.  Furthermore, the containment of Hitler – and subsequently French defence – rested on the strategic priorities not simply of France, but on those of her neighbours and friends.  And these priorities were not all geared to the line of defence at the Rhine.

A victorious Hitler

The second chapter concerns the preparedness of France for combat, in terms of its armaments and the state of national morale.  Despite Pétain’s claims that the Popular Front government left France with ‘too few arms’, the rearmament programme after 1936 was ‘rapid and massive’ according to Nord, built on huge government investment and intervention in the industry, along with purchases from abroad.  French arms production was on course to better that of Germany by 1941 and, when one takes into account the forces of France’s Western European allies, the German war machine faced a formidable foe in spring 1940.

As for the US and the Soviet Union, the defeat of France snapped them out of their lethargy – at the time of the Battle of France, the American army was the twentieth largest in the world, outstripped even by the Netherlands.  Even the Wehrmacht was not the highly-mechanised force that would later invade the Soviet Union.  In light of Nord’s international comparison, France does seem to have been far more prepared for war than often thought.

If France and its allies were equipped to fight the war, did the cause of the defeat lay in the poor state of national morale?  Vichy drew in part on the alleged decadence, breakdown in moral fibre, and lack of patriotism fostered by the Third Republic to argue that what was needed was a ‘National Revolution’, based on ‘traditional’ Catholic values.  While there were elements in French society who were horrified at the supposed decline of the nation during the 1930s (and doubtless agreed that Vichy’s round of self-flagellation was overdue), by 1938 the French were beginning to reassert themselves.  Nord writes of the emergence of a tentative ‘patriotic consensus’ under Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, in the face of foreign fascism.  Furthermore, the peoples of France’s allies and enemies were no more enthusiastic about the prospect of armed conflict than the French.

Chapter three examines French planning for the coming war.  France’s plans for battle in 1940 have become a cliché of the historical literature: the French counted on re-fighting the war of 1914 against the Nazis, a static war in which the defence of France would take place on a Belgian battlefield.  Despite the perceived importance placed on mobile armour by Colonel Charles de Gaulle, the aged and sclerotic high command would not – could not – conceive of anything different.  When the Germans attacked through the Ardennes forest, circumventing the Maginot Line network of forts, the French and their allies were left unable to adapt to the fluid and unprepared-for situation.  The French government, along with 8 million civilians, fled the Nazi onslaught.

German troops in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe

Nord believes that historians have been too ready to condemn France’s apparent naivety.  He examines the reasoning behind French plans for defence.  The Maginot Line, for example, was not the costly folly it appears to have been at first glance, and the Germans did not succeed in taking any of the major forts in the network.  The French, knowing that offensives could entail huge losses, planned to stop the initial German attack and then move on to a more aggressive footing.

Amongst France’s allies, there were few better ideas, a point made in Julian Jackson’s work on the defeat; the Fall of France was an Allied reversal, not just a French one.  Later in the war, Operation Barbarossa demonstrated that France was not alone in being caught unawares by the Wehrmacht.  Nord therefore does not accept that there was any fatal flaw in France’s long-developed defensive plan.  Rather, it was military decisions on both sides after September 1939 that proved decisive: Hitler and General Erich von Manstein’s move, after some prevaricating, to concentrate the German attack on the Ardennes forest, and French General Maurice Gamelin’s plan to leave this forest relatively poorly defended in favour of shifting France’s best forces northward.

Head of State of Vichy France

Nord concludes that the defeat was due to military error on the battlefield: ‘It was the army command that lost the Battle of France, not civilian error or a disinclination to fight, let alone faults, real or imagined, in French society as a whole’ (86)  The effectiveness of the attack surprised even the German high command; it was equalled only by ‘French bungling’, which included an absence of a reserve, a slowness to react to news, and an inability to break out of the defensive Maginot-mentality.

By 15 May, with General Heinz Guderian speeding toward the Channel, the Battle for France was lost.  Yet the fight dragged on for six weeks, with France losing 90,000 troops along the way (99).

Nord’s fifth chapter concerns the end of the Third Republic and how the regime ‘…did not just self-destruct but was cornered into self-destruction’, to the benefit of ‘well-placed power-grabbers, gleeful at the chance to finish off the Third Republic’ (111).  The author’s point here is to examine the cabinet machinations that saw premier Paul Reynaud unseated on 16 June and replaced by Philippe Pétain.  Nord provides a stimulating account of this ‘palace coup’, and one that, according to him, revealed the fatal flaw in the Third Republic: it had never resolved its relationship with the army, an army that, ‘had its own, non-democratic ethos’, an army that was a ‘refuge for royalists and Catholics who wanted to serve France but had a hard time making peace with a secular Republic’ (131).  This ‘inadequately republicanized’ military caste would only be reconciled to French democracy during the 1960s, when de Gaulle himself assumed the presidency of the Fifth Republic.

Fateful meeting at Montoire, October 1940

Still, it was the parliament of the Republic that committed suicide.  The climate at Vichy in the run up to the vote of the National Assembly was poisonous and fearful.  Former prime minister Pierre Laval operated to persuade and cow reluctant deputies into voting full powers to the Marshal.  However, when the decision to bring an end to the Republic was taken, not a few strident Republicans were missing from the debate, some having made for North Africa; furthermore, one hundred deputies expressed opposition or abstained.

Nevertheless, circumstances – and the pressure from anti-Republicans – weighed heavy on the meeting at Vichy’s casino and the result is well known: ‘a crushing majority of the Republic’s parliamentarians did cast the fatal ballots in the end’ (148).  Nord follows up this point with the question, ‘What more proof is needed of the bankruptcy of the regime’s political class?’(148).

But he is not tempted to side with the decadence school of thought altogether; the problems with the Republic were, ‘…just one piece of the puzzle’ (154).  The narrative of national decline, however, has proved remarkably durable, perhaps because it served political ends for both the Vichy regime – who sought to regenerate France after the rottenness of the Republic – and de Gaulle, who attempted to draw a line under events and begin his own process of post-war renewal (155-6).

The conclusion to the book contains Nord’s most contentious argument concerning the durability of Republicanism in France.  While the Vichy regime enjoyed a honeymoon period with the French public, this was over by 1942.  The public had been prepared to follow the Marshall in the aftermath of the defeat and as willing as anyone to heap blame on the Republic.  However, as the Occupation progressed, resistance swelled into a mass phenomenon, evident in all the little acts of defiance of the French people, as well as in the resistance movements themselves.

‘Come to me with confidence!’

In Nord’s words, ‘[t]here was a moral awakening over the course of the Occupation, and it took place under the sign of the Republic’ (165).  He cites as evidence the Free French’s adoption of the Republic’s Liberté Egalité Fraternité motto, as well as the fact that the consultative assembly established in 1943 counted many representatives of the old parties.  Add to this the fact that the post-war Fourth Republic resembled to a great extent its predecessor, and ‘it is fair to speak of an enduring, public commitment to republican values and institutions that was interrupted by the defeat and the exodus but that reknit itself, like a broken bone, in the first years of the Occupation’ (165).  Nord is careful not to echo the once widely-held idea that Vichy was an aberration in French history; he states rightly that it drew on established right-wing anti-Republican currents in society.  However, this Vichy moment did not last long; it was a blip in a longer Republican history, little more than a flirtation or, to adapt Irène Némirovsky’s words (used by Nord), an adulterous affair at France’s darkest hour.

Nord reduces anti-Republican sentiment in French society to a small group of right-wingers in government and the French civil service who capitalised on the defeat and led the French people astray.  However, anti-Republican sentiment was a good deal more widespread than that even before the defeat of 1940.  One need look only to the hundreds of thousands of French men and women who joined the extreme right-wing leagues of the 1920s and 1930s to understand that many in French society had little sympathy for Republican democracy.  Furthermore, Nord’s attempt to give the Resistance a Republican whitewash seems to simplify a movement that was not easy to define politically.  How committed to re-establishing democracy during and after the war was the French communist party, for example?  The point is that for many in France, Republicanism was not an automatic choice.

While this final argument is not entirely convincing, France 1940 is an enjoyable read.  The style in which it is written is rather informal, aimed at the general reader.  It would be suitable, too, as an introductory text on the subject for undergraduate students.