I’m bringing this up for two reasons. First off, because I saw this – click the link and you’ll see a series of “person in the street” interviews where they ask some basic questions about World War Two and people just don’t know the answers. Secondly, because this date is the 76th anniversary of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries – so, might as well try and help out with this historical ignorance.
This Wikipedia article is actually a pretty good run-down of the event – someone who cares (or some people who care) apparently put a bit of effort in there to get an informative and useful description. Naturally, it doesn’t tell the whole tale, but if you read it you’ll generally understand what happened. Another good source you can get is William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940. Shirer carries the story back to the birth of the Third Republic in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and describes in good detail the various political cross-currents which contributed greatly to the collapse of 1940. Shirer was an excellent historian, though he was also an old-school Liberal of the mid-Twentieth Century type, and so he emphasizes some things I think less important and glosses over (just a bit – he was immensely fair-minded) the two crucial things in the moral collapse which preceded the military downfall: the relentless anti-Catholic actions of the French government and the gigantic amount of very absurd pacifist propaganda in the State-run schools between World War One and World War Two. If nothing is absolutely true and nothing is worth fighting for, you might find it difficult to get men to fight and, if need be, die for truth in war, you know?
Another thing which played a huge role in the collapse was the astonishing amount of corruption in the France all through the Third Republic. There are always people on the take, but in the Third Republic it became a way of life for French politicians, and by extension French business and French journalists. The Panama Scandal was, perhaps, the worst of them all, but over and over again French leaders were found to be taking bribes and various interests in France were found to be for sale to the highest bidder. The Dreyfus Affair is probably still fairly well known, but in the end the crux of that matter was that the French government and military spent a huge amount of money, time and energy defending what was known to be a lie pretty early in the process…because people were invested in the lie and money was to be had for those who would keep it up.
The bottom line was that by 1940, the French government, business, media and military leaders were all highly compromised and suspect in the eyes of the French people, and the destruction of Christianity and Patriotism in France had robbed the French people of the very desire to fight hard against a foreign aggressor. This is not to say that no French fought – some did. In fact, about 85,000 French soldiers died in the six week campaign. But, for the most part, it was just a general collapse – and it started at the top, especially among France’s military leadership.
Little realized by most casual observers is the fact that the Anglo-French armies in 1940 were very much more powerful in manpower and material than the German army (half the German troop strength was low-grade, untrained, badly armed reserve forces). The Germans did have a tactical advantage in their armored and motorized divisions (which made up only a fraction of the German force), but the French Army had more trucks and tanks than the Germans…and French tanks were better armed and armored than German tanks (though generally slower in speed and, crucially, lacking effective radio communication, thus hampering tactical deployment). Shirer notes in his book that the French Air Force ended the campaign with more planes than it started with – and yet it is seen that the Luftwaffe was always able to provide air cover when it was needed by the advancing German armies.
The French and British also greatly assisted the Germans by putting their best armies into Belgium when they were needed in the Sedan area of France. But, even then, the Germans ran a gigantic risk in their invasion plan. Guderian made his reputation in his breakthrough at Sedan and his race to the Channel, but had the French leadership had just a little more desire to fight, Guderian would be remembered at the fool who stuck his neck out too far, too fast and got crushed by an easy counter-attack by French forces. When he lunged for the Channel after his breakthrough, for a couple days he had a mere regiment or so of motorized troops guarding his flank…the French had in the area two armored divisions (in addition to a substantial amount of infantry) which could easily have crushed that flank guard, cut off Guderian and changed the whole course of the war…but, the French leaders lacked the will (and any sense of how short time was to act) and the French troops also showed a complete lack of desire to get at grips with the enemy (this lack of desire, I think, flowed from the top – when then-Colonel de Gaulle was given command of a scratch force of armored troops, his attack knocked the Germans about quite a bit…it was too late to change things and his small force was insufficient, at any rate, to do much…but he showed what French troops could still do when led in to battle by a warrior).
Learning about this campaign is very important for any citizen of a democratic republic – it shows, definitely, Napoleon’s dictum that “the morale is to the material as three is to one”. To be sure, someone with absolutely overwhelming force can crush an enemy no matter how spirited they are (as was seen in Stalin’s attack on Finland in 1939)…but in forces roughly equal (and Anglo-French superiority in manpower and material made up for German superiority in tactical doctrine – provided that leadership was available to react properly to events), who has the fighting spirit is probably going to carry the day. The French State was rotten to the core – both in government and military. Corruption, immorality, nihilist philosophy of varied stripes, various conspiracy-theory-mongering (often centering on Jews as a scapegoat) all led to a France which lacked the desire to defend itself. Only a few clear-eyed patriots saw that no matter what was wrong with France, fighting the Germans was the first duty of all French.
And if all that sounds familiar to American ears, then that should be a bit of a wake-up call. We, too, are buried under corruption, immorality, nihilist philosophy…and, of course, anti-Semitism is also gaining purchase in the United States as various conspiracy theories are tried out (by people on both left and right – but, actually, more on the left than on the right in this area), and all of them tend to gravitate towards Jews as the scapegoat. We still have an immensely powerful armed force at our disposal – but is there still the overall spirit, especially in our leadership, to actually fight a war? Meaning – to fight it with the ruthlessness necessary to secure victory in spite of all problems? That is an unknown – and unknowable – thing right now. Sure, there are plenty of patriots in America…and plenty of hard-working, decent people, as well. But who rules the roost? The patriots and hard-working people, or people who have lost all sense of morality and honor? Remember, we recently found out that a carefully orchestrated series of lies was used to advance government policy…and we know that corruption is endemic in our nation. We can see it in the fact that the leading contender for the Democrat nomination not only hasn’t been indicted, but almost certainly will never be indicted.
It is to be hoped that we aren’t too far gone – but the lessons of France, 1940, are valuable for us to learn if we want to make sure we aren’t too far gone.