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Book Review: The Fall of France

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On the plane ride from London I finished Julian Jackson’s The Fall of France. While I was disappointed with the first chapter, I was very pleased with the volume as a whole.

It is common to assert that France fell because of inadequate tactical and operational doctrine. The story goes something like this; bright young German officers read a really smart pair of Britons named JFC Fuller and BH Liddell Hart, came to appreciate the importance of tanks, concentrated their relatively small number of tanks into Panzer Divisions, and used those divisions to smash holes in the lines of the idiot French, who felt that tanks should be distributed in support of infantry. This is the line that you most often hear on the History Channel, for example.

The only difficulty with this is what I call the historical coherence problem. In short, nothing about this story coheres even vaguely with empirical reality. It’s unclear that Guderian and the other important Germans read Liddell Hart and Fuller at all, much less that they were influenced by them in any meaningful way. The central aspects of what came to be known as “blitzkrieg” were worked out in 1917 on the Eastern Front and between 1927 and 1933 at a place called Kazan, in the Soviet Union. While German tanks were concentrated at a divisional level, French armor was, if anything, more concentrated at the battalion level. The initial German break-through, in the Ardennes, was produced almost entirely with infantry, just as the large German breakthroughs in 1918 had been produced. The role of armor was to enhance the ability of the Wehrmacht to exploit those breakthroughs, as armor is particularly effective against unprepared defensive positions (and particularly ineffective against prepared ones). French tanks were deployed and used in a very sensible manner, given the operational decisions made by the French and British high command.

The failure of France in 1940 was caused, essentially, by an operational level error. The Germans found and exploited a particularly weak French sector, punched through, and surrounded the bulk of the French and British armies in Belgium. The German Army of 1918, with no armor at all, would have made the same breakthrough, although it would have been more difficult to exploit and complete the encirclement. The line put forth by BH Liddell Hart is almost entirely wrong, although his self-serving histories of discussions with German generals would suggest otherwise.

Jackson repeats this inacccurate line in the first chapter of his book, which caused me to toss it away in disgust. Having nothing else to do (I was awake at 3am, recovering from jet lag) I picked it up and continued to read. The situation improved considerably, and, in contrast to the content of the first chapter, Jackson ended up giving a brief but sound military history of the campaign. Jackson tends to fall in the same direction as Ernest May regarding the military situation of 1940, although he believes, as I, that May goes to far in painting a portrait of German military insecurity.

In any case, the central value of this book comes in its discussion of the French decision to surrender. This is a question that particular interests me, so much so that I have decided to assign one of the chapters of the Jackson book to my National Security class. France in May of 1940 faced a desperate security situation. German conquest of metropolitan France was inevitable. The French reaction to this problem, however, was not determined. The French government could have moved to North Africa, kept the fleet out of German hands, and continued the war. The French decided instead to conclude an armistice with Germany that neutralized their fleet and colonial possessions. This had very bad consequences, but that’s beside the point; what’s interesting to me is how the French policymakers of the time weighed the question of whether or not to surrender. The German victory laid bare the debate on national values and national interests in France, and all of those values became contingent.

The French example reminds us that their can be patriots on either side of any security question. Petain and Laval were disgusting creatures, especially Laval, but they were both French patriots, as much as Degaulle. They simply understood France and French values in a different way. Laval’s allies believed that the Americans and British were as much a threat to core French values as the Germans were. Rebuilding what was great about France meant rebuilding the France that preceded the Revolution, and discarding the ideals of 1789. This wasn’t all, of course; Laval and Petain also believed that the physical security of the French people could best be protected by accomodation with, rather than resistance to, Nazi Germany. The decision to surrender must be understood in the context of the brutal political divisions that existed in France in the 1930s. Many believed, quite literally, that defeat at the hands of Germany was the only way to solve the political problems left over by the revolutions of 1789 and 1871.

The point isn’t that Petain and Laval shouldn’t be condemned by history; they clearly should. However, they cannot be condemned for a lack of patriotism. This is a lesson that needs to be learned and re-learned by Americans. There is no core value that cannot, in an extreme situation, be traded away. At the same time, what we believe our core values to be deeply informs how we think about securing them.

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