Revisiting France's Strange Defeat

France today is a middle-sized power, resigned, perhaps too resigned, to play a diminished role in global, and even European, affairs. If the new Europe has a secret ruler it is undoubtedly Germany, a nation and political community that combines undoubted self-confidence with the trauma and guilt induced by the memory of the demonic crimes of the Third Reich. France, too, is riven by conflicting memories: She is at once the “eldest daughter of the Church;” the home of the “forty kings who made France;” a great modern nation inspired, energized, and repulsed by the glory and crimes of the French Revolution; and a people torn apart for the two centuries after 1789 by contentious divisions between believers and unbelievers, Left and Right, the party of Revolution and those committed to the search for ordered liberty and civic reconciliation. Today, the dominant ethos of its governing class, like the European political class as a whole, is committed to leaving behind the legacy of the old nation and the old religion, too, even if the present resident of the Elysée Palace puts on Gaullist airs at the service of something that falls dramatically short of an intransigent Gaullist defense of the liberty and independence of France. 

Two dates stand out in the history of contemporary France, 1940 and 1968. I have previously written for Law & Liberty about the “May events” of 1968 that combined a “revolutionary psychodrama,” in the fitting words of Raymond Aron, of middle-class students posturing at militant revolution, committed to a broadly “subversive” cultural project to emancipate the individual from bourgeois decorum, traditional moral constraints, respect for authoritative institutions from the army to the university, and a decent respect for the achievements of French and European civilization. That legacy has largely been institutionalized, and is inseparable from the “culture of repudiation,” the debilitating Western self-hatred of which the late Roger Scruton has so forcefully spoken. The late Michel Foucault, an ubiquitous presence in all our humanities departments, perfectly embodied the spirit of 1968 in his willful refusal to acknowledge the all-important distinction between authority and “domination,” and in his deeply perverse identification of freedom with contempt for law and self-restraint. 

Let us return to 1940, a date that represents both national humiliation at the hands of the Nazi invader, and the liberating act of General Charles de Gaulle in refusing to accept that France’s defeat in the Battle of France entailed a final and definitive victory for a Nazi imperium. In the spring of 1940, France had the largest army in the world and was the bedrock of Western self-defense. Germany’s crushing defeat and conquest of France was thus a shock to everyone involved. That France capitulated to Hitler’s regime in just six weeks after the beginning of armed conflict on May 10, 1940, was nothing less than a traumatizing event for the French people, for its governing elites, and for how the world would henceforth judge the spirit and capacities of the French nation. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, wrote off France after its rapid defeat and its surrender to the German invader. For him, France was finished, and irrevocably so. The American president showed far more sympathy and forbearance for the increasingly collaborationist regime at Vichy (headed by Maréchal Pétain), than he did for the noble and honorable efforts of de Gaulle and his “Free French” movement. Roosevelt could see in de Gaulle only an aspiring despot. He was equally blind to the fact that a French resistance headed by de Gaulle was infinitely preferable to one spearheaded by the French Communist party. Roosevelt preferred a liberated North Africa in the hands of the Vichyite Admiral François Darlan, and later supported the weak and visionless General Henri Giraud against de Gaulle, even though de Gaulle clearly commanded the support of the full range of the French Resistance. Such blindness on Roosevelt’s part is unthinkable without the trauma occasioned by the precipitous collapse of the French army, and French democracy, in May-June 1940. But nothing excuses the American president’s increasingly willful refusal to see things as they were, a refusal that deeply harmed Franco-American relations for two generations or more. 

Men Matter More than Technology

What were the principal sources, or causes, of the French calamity? In the English historian Julian Jackson’s thoughtful, informative, and competent account in The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, a serious effort is made to put the death throes of the French Third Republic in some perspective. Jackson argues, for example, that the English political elite was deeply corrupt in its own ways, and had supported appeasement of the Nazi regime, partly out of cowardice, and partly because the appeasers preferred to deal with an anti-Bolshevik Nazi Germany rather than attempt a defensive alliance with a Soviet Union they (rightly) abhorred. Because of this, the majority in Churchill’s own party still distrusted him for months after he became Prime Minister of Great Britain on May 10, 1940.

Jackson also argues that France had made serious progress in rearming by the time the Second World War broke out in September 1939. In some sense, Jackson argues, France was “ready for war,” at least in terms of the requisite number of tanks and guns. Jackson acknowledges the eloquence and forcefulness of Charles de Gaulle’s critique (in his 1934 book Vers l’armée de métier, published in English in 1941 as Army of the Future) of an outmoded approach to national defense that left all initiative to the enemy, hid behind the series of defensive fortifications known as the Maginot Line, and that gave France little or no ability to strike the enemy if and when war broke out. France massively, and unwisely, over-relied on short-term conscripts and reservists. The French had better tanks than the Germans but could only conceive them as supports of infantry. But despite de Gaulle’s discernment, Jackson faults him for combining a “prescient” technical argument for the use of tank formations in a dynamic and offensive manner, with “the politically sensitive issue of the professional army.”

Memorials to the dead could be found in every French village, town, and city. A pacifist reaction to such bloodletting, and such losses, was surely to be expected. But pacifism soon took on a disturbing ideological cast

But de Gaulle’s argument was never an essentially “technical” one. In Vers l’armée de métier the French military intellectual was calling for nothing less than a renewal of France and her army. The old republican and revolutionary dogmas, the ideological reliance on civilian armed forces at all costs, were inadequate to confronting the needs of the time or the immense danger posed by Berlin after Hitler’s ascendance to power in January 1933. This was indeed a moment “that changed everything,” as we are too keen to say today. Jackson faults de Gaulle for having written a book “suffused with a romantic and almost mystical celebration of the military vocation and the role it could play in national regeneration.” “This,” he adds, “was not the best way to win converts.” 

Something more than a technical solution was needed to address the grave moral and political crisis facing France. Pacifism was rampant on the Left. And the Right, which had largely supported Président du conseil Raymond Poincairé’s hardline policies towards Germany in the 1920s, now increasingly supported active efforts to accommodate a revolutionary regime under Hitler that could not be appeased. The best witnesses of that period—de Gaulle, the liberal conservative philosopher and sociologist Raymond Aron, the distinguished historian Marc Bloch—all testify to the spirit of palpable decadence and decline that permeated the atmosphere of public life in France during the 1930s.

De Gaulle’s efforts were thus necessarily more radical and fundamental than the prosaic technical efforts that Jackson is more comfortable with. France needed a statesman with Churchillian resolve, and de Gaulle thought he had found one in the center-right statesman Paul Reynaud, who took up de Gaulle’s calls for military reform and political renewal in the years between 1935 and 1940. In Vers l’armée de métier, de Gaulle suggested that military renewal demanded a warrior-statesman with the vision and fortitude of great men of the past such as Louvois or Carnot. France needed a “national recasting,” military reform coupled with a renewal of statesmanship, and the firmest rejection of pacifist illusions. Against those who combined “anti-Fascism” with a call for the laying down of arms, de Gaulle reminded his contemporaries that “the sword is the axis of the world, and greatness is not divisible.”

Despite his less visionary approach to the crisis of the French political order, Jackson fully acknowledges that France had for all intents and purposes become a pacifist nation on the eve of the Second World War. He points out the pertinent facts: 1.3 million Frenchmen had died during the Great War of 1914-1918, and “over 1 million survivors had been left as invalids.” “There were over 600,000 widows and over 750,000 orphans.” In addition, the bodies of 300,000 soldiers “had never been found or identified.” Memorials to the dead could be found in every French village, town, and city. A pacifist reaction to such bloodletting, and such losses, was surely to be expected. But pacifism soon took on a disturbing ideological cast.

In socialist and left-wing circles patriotism was often mocked, and many intellectuals “subscribed to a philosophical rejection of war in any circumstances.” The novelist Jean Giono wrote an influential book, Refus d’obéissance, which “advocated desertion if war broke out.” The newspaper of the teachers’ union argued for “rather servitude than war.” As Jackson points out, one of the most influential and famous pacifists was Émile Chartier, better known by his pen name Alain. A teacher of philosophy at the famous Parisian lycée Henri IV, Alain urged citizens to resist “les pouvoirs,” to oppose the efforts of legitimately constituted authorities. This fashionable antipolitical moralism was hardly helpful in preparing France to come to terms with the deadly menace posed by the totalitarianism and aggressive militarism of Hitler and the National Socialists. 

The Virtues of a Free People

In his passionate memoir about the defeat and betrayal of France in May-June 1940, Strange Defeat, the historian March Bloch, a man of the decent and moderate Left, lamented such blind pacifism and the concomitant dismissal of the legitimacy and dignity of patriotism and national loyalty. A secularized French Jew, Bloch fought courageously in both World Wars. He was a patriot deeply committed to the French nation and to the ideals of French republicanism. He was an honorable man who was untouched by the decadence of the time or the siren song of pacifism. Another witness to the decadence of a French Republic seemingly incapable of political and military renewal was the aforementioned Raymond Aron, perhaps the greatest French political thinker of the 20th century.

In his Memoirs, Aron was particularly critical of French “anti-fascist intellectuals” who saw fascism everywhere, dividing the nation while incoherently supporting a foreign policy of peace at any price (the same strange syndrome of anti-fascist rhetoric and pacifist policy could also be found in left-wing intellectual and political circles in Britain). In response to the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, a manifesto of influential anti-fascist intellectuals called for the “return of the Third Reich to the League of Nations.” These were “only words, words, words,” as Aron strikingly put it, words that served to conceal a quiet accommodation to Hitler’s agenda for a Nazified Europe. Aron argued that to detest fascism and war, while doing nothing to stand up to Hitler’s lupine imperialism, was both morally incoherent and a recipe for disaster. These were “minds… operating in the void.” They had succumbed to a literary politics, devoid of a minimum of properly political reflection and any coherent and sustainable notion of political responsibility. 

In an address on “Democratic States and Totalitarian States” delivered on June 2,1939 to the French Philosophical Society, Aron called for the restoration of virtues necessary for any self-respecting political order, including a free one: heroism, sacrifice for the common good, a willingness to work and not just to insist on one’s rights. These virtues must be accepted voluntarily by those who care for the survival of liberal civilization. They cease to be virtues when they are imposed forcibly by a totalitarian state dedicated to nefarious ends. But Aron argued insistently before a group of mainly pacifist or semi-pacifist intellectuals that one must accept those means that are necessary and efficacious in fighting the totalitarian threat: “one can only resist arms with arms.” Aron believed that English and French pacifists could not be more wrong when they argued that introducing obligatory military service (as the English had recently done), “made the democracies complicit in a totalitarianism of their own.” Aron believed that it was “truly stupid” to argue that in the act of resisting totalitarian evil, “one had lost the reasons for resisting.” This antipolitical moralism was a poor substitute for the political responsibility that de Gaulle, Aron, and Bloch all represented, and defended, in their distinctive ways. 

French soldiers fought courageously and honorably during the devastating but short-lived Battle of France. So many good men, and countless civilians, perished in defense of their cherished country. But in the months and years leading up to the Battle of France the armed forces remained committed to a policy of inertia, to a thoughtless acceptance of the status quo. They were in essential respects committed to fighting the last war. De Gaulle made one last effort to break through this fog of incomprehension. On January 26, 1940, during the so-called phony war, he wrote a powerfully worded and argued “Memorandum” on the military and political state of France that he sent to eighty influential figures in the Government, the High Command, and the governing class. He argued passionately that “military immobility” did not answer to the nature of the present military realities and the larger facts on the ground. He lauded the revolution in warfare brought about by “the internal combustion engine” which now “endows modern means of destruction with such force, speed, and range that the present conflict will be marked, sooner or later, by movements, surprises, break-through and pursuits the scale and rapidity of which will infinitely exceed those of the most lightning events of the past…Let us make no mistake about it!” In his War Memoirs, de Gaulle notes that his Memorandum, this eloquent plea for France to face pressing realities, and to recognize the deluge that was about to overrun the country, “produced no shock.” But some lightly mechanized divisions were coming into formation and de Gaulle would head one, with some momentary successes, near Abbeville at the end of May in an effort to stave off the German invaders. 

France’s rapid military defeat (Paris would fall on June 14, 1940, a little over a month after the Battle of France had begun) was a direct result of this failure to adjust to the requirements of warfare in the age of the internal combustion engine, as de Gaulle had put it. In his famous “Appel” of June 18th, 1940, his call to continued resistance and the founding moment of La France libre, the Free French movement, de Gaulle reminded everyone who was listening (probably a small audience at that precise moment) that the Government of France that had just entered into negotiations with the Nazi authorities had been “overwhelmed by enemy mechanized forces, both on the ground and air.” These were, as de Gaulle pointed out, self-inflicted wounds: “it was the German tanks, planes, and tactics that provided the element of surprise which brought our leaders to their present plight.”

Through their noble actions, Churchill and de Gaulle vindicated the struggle of free peoples and resisted the alleged inevitability of a new totalitarian despotism.

A reading of Churchill’s and de Gaulle’s respective War Memoirs suggests that the rot went significantly deeper than this. General Maxime Weygand, the head of the French armed forces, was already contemplating defeat and a possible armistice in the early days of June 1940. He could imagine continuing the fight only if Britain committed to engaging the whole of the Royal Air Force’s resources on the continent. This was surely untenable since Churchill was obliged to both continue the fight in France, honoring his alliance with France, while saving some precious resources for a Battle of Britain that was surely about to begin. Churchill admired the fighting spirit of Premier Paul Reynaud and tried to buoy his prospects on June 16th, 1940 with a Declaration of Union between Great Britain and France that was also promoted and supported by de Gaulle (the future Free French leader had joined Reynaud’s cabinet on the 5th of June, 1940). Churchill’s account of the bitterly hostile response of Weygand and Marshall Pétain to this remarkable offer is quite revealing: in the French Cabinet meeting they mocked the idea of a “fusion with a corpse” since they were absolutely convinced that Britain was finished, too. They were quintessentially false realists from the beginning to the end of the drama. 

The Morality of a Shipwreck

In the riveting first chapters of his Mémoires de Guerre, de Gaulle brilliantly captures the atmosphere of defeatism and moral and political corruption that dominated the highest French military and political circles. Pétain mistook France’s defeat in the Battle of France with something on par with her earlier defeat during the Franco-German War of 1870-1871. He saw no substantial difference between Bismarck’s Germany and Hitler’s, and he thought France would live to fight another day. Churchill suggests that at heart Pétain was always a defeatist. But de Gaulle believes that a younger Pétain would have hesitated “to don the purple in the midst of national surrender.” But in de Gaulle’s inimitable words: “Old age is a shipwreck. That we might be spared nothing, the old age of Marshal Pétain was to identify with the shipwreck of France.” Memorable words, indeed.

France was hit by a perfect storm consisting of defeatism, immobility of mind and policy, and utter blindness to the nature of the enemy. Pacifism on the Left, defeatism among too many on the Right, and a paucity of good men deeply committed to the cause of liberty, human dignity, and national honor. Paul Reynaud might have played the role of Churchill (and de Gaulle) if the State was in “running order.” He was a man of courage, intelligence, and undeniable patriotism. He actively encouraged those who wanted to continue the fight for France’s liberty and honor, first and foremost de Gaulle, as well as Georges Mandel, Clemenceau’s old assistant, who embodied much of the patriotic spirit of the old Tiger. But Reynaud did not have the strength to resist the rising tide of defeatism in a cabinet where some preferred to become a German province rather than continue the fight with Britain and Churchill. Reynaud was burnt out, fatigued, and not a little despondent (and his plotting mistress had undoubted pro-German sympathies). The legal authorities in France were left to choose the path of dishonor, suing for a peace that made the remnant of France a “prince-esclave,” as the great Père Gaston Fessard wrote in writings justifying the rejection of the legal government of France in the name of a truly “legitimate” one such as de Gaulle’s. A legitimate political order must be free and truly sovereign, he argued, and not a slave of a totalitarian and nihilistic foreign power. It was that conviction, at once moral and political, that largely animated those who joined the ranks of Free France. 

The French defeatists on the Right, and pacifists on the Left, shared one great conviction: they both thought the war was essentially over. Britain would soon surrender and France would accommodate herself, however unpleasantly, to the New World Order announced by German arms and Nazi propaganda. But de Gaulle and Churchill both appreciated a deeper truth: The Battle of France, even the forthcoming Battle of Britain, were mere episodes in a much larger struggle. Unlike the military and political denizens of defeat, they pledged themselves to “never surrender” and were willing to continue the fight from their respective empires if necessary. As de Gaulle put it in his famous Appeal, they could both look forward to help from the “immense industrial resources of the United States” and to a “world war,” a larger frame of space and time as Pierre Manent once put it, that would correct the egregious errors of men like Weygand and Pétain.

De Gaulle’s radio “Appeal” of June 18, 1940 was thus an appeal to both realism and honor, as was Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech of the same day. And both great statesmen knew exactly what would follow if the Nazis were met by shameless accommodation rather than honorable resistance. What they offered humanity, according to Paul Reynaud, was the “Middle Ages without mercy.” A strikingly apt formulation. But Churchill said it even better on June 18, 1940 in the aforementioned “Finest Hour” speech. Remarking that the Battle of France was now over and the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Churchill suggested that a failure of will on the part of free peoples would lead to the “whole world, including the United States, including all we have known and cared for, [sinking] into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Those were precisely the stakes as both statesmen fully appreciated.

Through their noble actions, Churchill and de Gaulle vindicated the struggle of free peoples and resisted the alleged inevitability of a new totalitarian despotism. The path of courage and noble resistance turned out to be the path of the most reasonable realism, of supreme civic good sense. That is one fundamental lesson from 1940, and the fall of France, that should not be forgotten. What Churchill and de Gaulle represented, especially in those crucial days and months in the spring and summer of 1940, is a decisive example of noble character and prescient leadership the contemporary culture of repudiation chooses to ignore.