Why did Germany defeat France so easily in 1940? Conventional thinking has focused on three reasons. The first of these reasons that Germany had superior troop strength and more sophisticated weaponry has been shown to be false. The second, that the French troops were badly led, has also been discredited. Third, the charge that there was a "moral laxness" among the French soldiers does not hold up either. During the six weeks of fighting, France lost approximately 124,000 men with another 200,000 wounded, and reports indicate that most French units displayed gallantry.
What did or did not happen? Harvard historian Ernest May surveys a broad range of factors on both sides that led to the outcome in his absorbing diplomatic, political, and military history Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France. The author emphasizes the high level of confidence that prevailed in France before the German invasion in May and continued in certain places even after the Germans were on French soil. The arrogance of the French leaders they knew they had superiority in crucial areas and that Germany was aware of it was a crucial factor in their defeat. A second reason, to minimize the loss of life, was certainly understandable after such great losses in World War I. The Maginot Line was, the author says, "indicative neither of despair about defeating Germany nor of thought mired in the past. It was instead evidence of faith that technology could substitute for manpower." The third factor he focuses on is the cumbersomeness of French, as well as British and Belgian, military bureaucracies. In a nutshell, "Germany's strange victory occurred because the French and British failed to take advantage of their superiority."May explores the interplay of domestic politics and foreign policy decisions over the years leading up to the German invasion. By the mid-1920s Hitler had become a masterful demagogue and laid out some of his basic beliefs in Mein Kampf. In 1937, he talked to his army generals and foreign minister about the need to use force to expand the nation to gain new resources and territory. May notes that Hitler did not trust official memoranda or other documents from diplomats. Instead he "assiduously read German translations of foreign newspapers and magazines . . . Hitler insisted on extracts, no summaries. He particularly demanded material on foreign leaders." These sources helped Hitler predict how certain personalities would react to specific challenges. The author introduces the primary political figures in France, in particular Edouard Daladier, who was prime minister of France from April 1938 until the spring of 1940. Perhaps as important, he served as war minister and defense minister when he was named prime minister and continued in those positions as well. Although he insisted on significantly increasing France's ground and air forces throughout the mid-'30s his grim experiences in the Great War made him very reluctant to send troops into battle.
May probes the importance of military intelligence for both the Allies and Germany. Though the Allies couldn't possibly have predicted all that Germany planned to do, there were signals that should have alerted them to the danger. The author says their failure to recognize the extent of the German threat is attributable largely to "characteristics of their systems of collecting and analyzing intelligence and to their lack of system in relating this intelligence to their own decision-making." May notes that most writings about the 1940 surprise have missed this point "in large part because their authors have been taken in by veterans of the French intelligence services who claimed to have perceived what the Germans were going to do, sounded loud warnings, and been ignored by dull-witted generals and politicians. But little or no evidence dating from the period itself supports this claim."The author has written the only account that deals in depth with both Germany and France. Also, it is the only one that focuses on intelligence analysis as a key element. May sees contemporary relevance for what happened then. "The Western democracies today," he notes, "exhibit many of the same characteristics that France and Britain did in 1938-40 arrogance, a strong disinclination to risk life in battle, heavy reliance on technology as a substitute, and governmental procedures poorly designed for anticipating or coping with ingenious challenges from the comparatively weak."This dramatic story could have turned out differently. May enlightens and stimulates our thinking about decision making in times of crisis.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.