What lessons remain eighty years after France's collapse in the face of the German onslaught?
Eighty years ago, France suffered perhaps the greatest humiliation in its history. Between May and June 1940, France was brought to its knees by a German Wehrmacht which achieved in just 43 days what the Kaiser’s army hadn’t been able to realize in four years.
Perhaps even more shocking was how swiftly France’s leaders adjusted to their new circumstances. Seventeen days after France signed an armistice with Germany, its National Assembly effectively dissolved the Third Republic and granted full powers to the Great War hero, Marshal Philippe Pétain. On October 30, 1940, Vichy France’s slow slide into collaboration with Hitler’s regime became official when Pétain declared on the radio, “I enter today on the path of collaboration.” 27 days earlier, Vichy had enacted the first of several anti-Semitic laws, a legal process that culminated in French officials helping to deport Jews to death camps in the East.
Notwithstanding postwar myths, there’s little doubt that France was overwhelmingly behind Pétain well into 1941. As awareness that Germany might not win the war grew, and its occupation of France became harsher, organized resistance spread. But those who chose to resist from the beginning were pitifully small in number. Those who put everything at risk—career, family, reputation—were even fewer.
Everyone’s life involves free choices which turn out to be decisive for everything else they do. June 18, 1940, was the day in which an obscure French general made such a choice by delivering a 360 word broadcast on the BBC. What became known as L’appel du 18 juin was the personal Rubicon of Charles de Gaulle. Nothing would be the same for him or France again.
Not an Unknown
Though de Gaulle’s broadcast was the first time that he spoke directly to the French nation, it did not mark his entry into public life. During the 1930s, de Gaulle had pursued a concerted campaign to prepare his country for the threat emanating from a resurgent Germany. On one level, that involved writing articles and books like Vers l’Armée de Métier [Towards a Professional Army] (1934). This called for the development of a professional armored force as the spearhead of France’s army. While attracting praise from across the political spectrum, the book drew criticism from the radical left. That is partly because it remained suspicious of conservative Catholic career officers like de Gaulle whom many of France’s left regarded as hostile to the Republic. But the left also saw de Gaulle’s proposal to professionalize much of the army as contrary to the Revolutionary tradition of a conscript levée en masse.
De Gaulle’s attempts at persuasion also involved joining an influential Parisian intellectual circle which gravitated around a retired Jewish army officer, Émile Mayer. He had been forced into retirement in 1899 for defending another Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been wrongly convicted of treason in the 1890s. Mayer’s group included journalists, liberals, intellectuals, socialists, and non-conformists, many of whom were well-positioned to shape policy and public opinion.
Nor did de Gaulle hesitate to lobby politicians directly. He was as willing to speak to Léon Blum, also Jewish and who became France’s first Socialist prime minister in 1936, as he was to the market liberal and conservative anti-appeasement politician, Paul Reynaud. It was the latter, when serving as prime minister between March and June 1940, who appointed de Gaulle Under-Secretary of State for War on June 5 as the full scale of the disaster engulfing France became evident.
De Gaulle spent the eleven days between June 5 and June 16 fighting a losing battle against defeatists in the Council of Ministers, including his former patron, Marshal Pétain. De Gaulle also undertook trips to London for consultations with the British government and had long arguments with the French army’s commander-in-chief, General Maxime Weygand, who was convinced that an armistice was inevitable. De Gaulle realized the game was up when Reynaud resigned on June 16 and Pétain was appointed prime minister with a mandate to seek terms with Germany.
What de Gaulle did next was extraordinary and, in one sense, totally out of character. Though already well-known for his independence of mind, de Gaulle’s entire social, military and religious background was one which venerated authority, discipline, and hierarchy. Instead, however, of accepting the pro-armistice ministers’ victory, he boarded a plane to London with his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel, and a British general, Edward Spears, on the morning of June 17. He took with him two suitcases, 100,000 francs given to him by Reynaud, keys to a London apartment, and only a vague idea where his family was.
That same day, Pétain addressed the country stating that he was going to seek an armistice with Germany. Upon arriving in London, de Gaulle met with Winston Churchill who assented to de Gaulle’s request to make his own broadcast over the BBC airwaves. The British cabinet agreed, but only after some significant lobbying. Britain had, after all, not yet severed ties with the French government. Giving de Gaulle a platform was thus a risk. But taking risks was swiftly becoming the order of the day.
The Unforgettable Speech That Few Heard
De Gaulle spent the morning of June 18 drafting his remarks for the broadcast. Perhaps he realized that he could not assume that he would have regular access to the BBC. In any case, he was determined to get his points across as succinctly as possible. At 6:00pm London time, de Gaulle arrived at the BBC to record his speech. It lasted just four minutes. The BBC broadcast his remarks at 8:00pm Paris time.
The speech was rebroadcast on several occasions in the next 24 hours. Hardly anyone in France, however, heard it. The BBC didn’t even preserve the actual recording. But what mattered was not that the broadcast had been heard. Its importance lay in the fact that someone had made such a speech at such a time.
De Gaulle’s address did three things. First, it analyzed what had befallen France. In de Gaulle’s view, it was the failure to take seriously developments in military technology and strategy which had rendered the French army seriously unprepared for modern war. For those few in the know, this was a pointed criticism of France’s military and political leadership—including Pétain. They had neglected to fulfill their most basic responsibility to defend the country from foreign aggression. But this also implied that France’s defeat was not the result of some fundamental flaw on the French people’s part.
Second, de Gaulle offered hope and a way forward. Yes, a catastrophe had befallen France, but it need not be a lasting defeat. “Because France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone!” he repeated. It possessed, de Gaulle reminded listeners, a vast colonial empire from which war against Germany and Italy might be waged. Moreover, Britain and its even bigger empire was still in the fight. Most of all, de Gaulle stressed, there was the great and yet untapped industrial power of America. In short, he was urging his listeners to look at the lost struggle in France from a global perspective. “This war is not,” de Gaulle said, “decided by the Battle of France. This war is a world war.” These words amounted to asking everyone—especially those French soldiers and civilians disinclined to surrender but struggling to envisage other options—to think strategically and outside continental European horizons.
Third, and most crucially, de Gaulle’s appel had a moral core to it. We find this in the second last sentence. “Whatever happens,” de Gaulle said, “the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”
It’s worth contemplating what de Gaulle meant by “must not” and “will not.” By “must not,” de Gaulle was appealing to his compatriots’ honor. Honor is best understood here as self-respect. To give in, de Gaulle was stressing, was to lose self-respect and begin walking down what, in Vichy’s case, turned out to be a very dishonorable path indeed.
De Gaulle’s “will not” was something different. He was asking France to do what he was doing: to make free choices and to act. Wherever they were to be found, Frenchmen had the obligation to continue to fight—more precisely, to resist—an enemy with whom no compromise was possible. Words may have been the only weapons that de Gaulle had at his disposal on June 18, but he made every one of them count.
De Gaulle’s address concluded with the seemingly casual remark: “Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on Radio London.” On the surface, this has a matter-of-fact quality to it. But we should recall that the British government had not granted de Gaulle permission to deliver any more addresses on the BBC. It had not even accorded him recognition, let alone a regular broadcasting spot. In fact, de Gaulle had no formal status in Britain’s eyes until June 28 when Churchill described him as “Leader of the Free French wherever they might be.” The previous day, the French government ordered de Gaulle to return home to answer accusations of disobedience. His refusal to do so marked the point of no-return.
De Gaulle’s statement that he would be back on the radio the following day was the beginning of his long struggle to put flesh on the bones of what resistance meant. For the next four years, that resistance often seemed more directed at de Gaulle’s allies than Germany. Indeed, it took time for actual Frenchmen to rally to his call for resistance. By July 1940, only 7,000 Frenchmen had enlisted in his cause.
Certainly, those who did came from often quite different backgrounds. They ranged from the Catholic nobleman and conservative army officer, Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (a future marshal of France), to the left-leaning and pacifist-inclined French Jewish jurist, René Cassin (a future Nobel Prize winner and drafter of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights). That said, it took a long time before most Frenchmen rallied to de Gaulle. Even today, you can find apologists for Vichy.
Despite these obstacles, de Gaulle never doubted the unique legitimacy he acquired as the first French leader to insist publicly that there were alternatives—far more honorable alternatives—to an armistice with Nazi Germany. For the rest of his life, de Gaulle would invoke this legitimacy during crises. Whether it involved replacing the tottering Fourth Republic in 1958, or refusing to buckle before radical Marxists trying to plunge France into chaos in May 1968, no-one could forget that de Gaulle had been the first to say “no” to dishonor and “yes” to resistance. When de Gaulle gave his dramatic televised address of April 23, 1961, as he faced down army officers attempting a putsch to preserve France’s sovereignty over Algeria, he wore his general’s uniform for a reason. It was all about conjuring up the unique status which June 18 had conferred upon him: something possessed by no-one else.
In many ways, Charles de Gaulle was a notoriously difficult man. While remarkably prescient about the future, de Gaulle also badly misread some situations throughout his public career. His treatment of others, including close collaborators, sometimes verged on the brutal. But on June 18, 1940, de Gaulle did something spectacular. In the face of prodigious odds and at enormous personal risk, he chose to defend the honor of his country. For that alone, France and the free world will always be in his debt.