Book Review: France 1940
by Philip Nord
Yale University Press, 2015
Philip Nord’s brief, rabble-rousing new book France 1940 gamely leaps to the defense of one of history’s least defensible things: the abrupt defeat of France at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940. For the last 70 years, that defeat – and the subsequent formation of Philippe Petain’s collaborative Vichy government – has been characterized as being as much moral as military: France had been bloated, decadent, and heedless of the growing threat of Nazi Germany and thus laid ample seeds of its own defeat. That’s the tack taken by William Shirer, for instance, in his massive 1969 book The Collapse of the Third Empire, but Nord argues that this is much too simple a reduction.
In his book, which he calls “as much an argument as a narrative history,” he walks his readers through a quick but detailed look at France’s preparedness for war, the actual Battle of France in which 90,000 French soldiers lost their lives, and then the long and complicate aftermath of surrender and collaboration. His account of the brief military confrontation itself is particularly lean and energetic, describing both the unconventional brilliance of German General Manstein, who conceived a “Fall Gelb” plan that would send the main German attack force through the allegedly-impenetrable Ardennes forest, and the, shall we say, very conventional incompetence of French General Gamelin, who decided to send an entire army of experienced and well-trained troops just north of the Belgian border in Holland to ward off a German attack he imagined would come from that direction (the so-called “Breda variant”). Nord neatly weighs these factors against each other:
France at the outbreak of war in 1939 had stood a fair chance of winning. The odds slimmed, however, in the months that followed. Waiting on events had not helped, nor had the distractions of the Norwegian expedition. Yet what made the biggest difference were changes in battle plan undertaken by both sides. Hitler embraced the Fall Gelb, Gamelin the Breda variant. More than anything else, it was senior-level military decision-making, German as well as French, that set France up for defeat.
But his most thought-provoking contention is that history judges France in 1940 so harshly mainly because France had the bad luck to be the first major ground army to face the hammer blow of the Wehrmacht:
The Low Countries, the English-speaking peoples, the Soviet Union, none of them were any better prepared for Hitler’s attacks, nor did any of them perform better on the battlefield in the war’s early stages (the Battle of Britain apart). In fact, they had all bet on France to do the heavy lifting, hoping to spare themselves the effort, and were caught up short when things did not turn out as they hoped. If judgment needs to be made, then it is not so much France that should stand accused but all those other countries who imagined France as their own first line of defense.
It doesn’t entirely convince. France’s failures in 1940 were too many and too systematic to support the implication that their equivalents would have been made by just about anybody, and a disgraceful collapse is still a disgraceful collapse regardless of how many people were hoping it wouldn’t happen. But it’s a vivid defense, and those are always healthy to have in our midst.