The National Catholic Review
Steven Englund

People tend to look back and read history (including their personal stories) as inevitable. Historians, particularly those willing to ask What if?, can occasionally help us see the way that certain events might have been otherwise, how much they depended on a gossamer tissue of contingencies, not on some lock-step logic. In any case, the illusion of retrospective determinism, as one philosopher called it, has rarely received a more wonderful drubbing than it gets at the hands of Ernest May. The author’s accomplishment is the more impressive when we consider that he has managed to tell an old story in a convincing new way, in a different field from the one in which he made his reputation. A distinguished scholar of American history, May here brings extraordinary professionalism and imagination to bear on a heavily written-about event in the European past: the German military victory over France in 1940.

With relentless argument, May trounces the common nostrums that hold that Germany had crushing military superiority, that the French and British armies were badly led and that the French people had no desire to fight. The French Republic, he shows, was better equipped than the Reich (more men, guns, planes, tanks); neither side had especially brilliant top commanders (though Germany had better field tacticians); and by 1939, the spirit of the French population had evolved in the light of Nazi aggression. The country by and large was more than just resigned to, it was inclined, to war with Hitler. Had its army attacked Germany when the latter attacked Poland, there is every reason to think it would have been victorious.

May uses new material as well as methods. He closely examines German archives, as Robert Paxton did in his groundbreaking book on Vichy, and with nearly equally dramatic results for French history. He mainly considers historical data taken mostly from before or during the fall of Francethat is, before the protagonists and most historians started spinning convincing arguments as to why France had to lose, and lose quickly. Third, he has a grasp of the military mind and of the role of military intelligence in war that is subtler and surer than anything I have seen since John Keegan. (Consider this judgment of the French commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin, which applies to nearly all top brass: Like most professional military men at most times in modern history, he was much more interested in force structure than in readinessin having well-equipped armies at some later date rather than having troops on the line prepared to fight with what they had in hand. This inclination would account for his not calling the government’s attention to evidence that Hitler might be planning early action against Austria or Czechoslovakia....)

May will surprise readers in his depiction of the resistance that German generals threw up to Hitler’s demands for an immediate offensive in the West. Only with death in their souls did they eventually execute Plan Yellow (or Vabanquespielgoing-for-broke). What then happened is one of the darker miracles of military history. Despite every indication to the contrary, French generals would not react quickly to convincing evidence that the German main attack was landing in the Ardennes and the feint coming in Belgium, not vice versa. On this telling, the war was lost in four days (10-14 May), when Guderian broke through French lines at Sedan.

May sees it all coming down to the French general’s staff’s inability to react quickly. From headquarters to field commands, it required 48 hours for orders to be executed. As Raymond Krakovitch’s recent brilliant biography of Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister in these weeks, puts it, You would have thought the telephone had not been invented. A ranking German general noted, after his troops crossed the Meuse, The French seem really to have lost all common sense! Otherwise they would and could have stopped us.

The problem with the French was perhaps, pace Santayana, that they had learned too well the lessons of the past. Here is May on édouard Daladier, in one of the most brilliant paragraphs of the whole book:

This experience [of the 1934 Stavisky riots] scarred Daladier. After 1940, many would cite the episode as evidence that he had always been weak, indecisive, and inclined to evade responsibility. If he himself had put into words the lessons it seemed to teach, he might have said that it showed the wisdom of being deliberate rather than precipitate, and casting widely for advice instead of listening to just one person or faction. But this may be a way of saying that it encouraged future indecisiveness. Certainly, recollection of February 1934 left Daladier permanently fearful of emotionally charged public demonstrations...[and] hypersensitive about arousing the ire of right-wing extremists.

On other occasions, the French problem lay in not recognizing the present for exactly what it was. May persuasively shows that Hitler better understood French and British governmental interests and actions than they did his. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Daladier simply could not get their arms round the fact that a national leader might actually want another Great War. If only, May says, they had read, and heeded, Mein Kampf. He cites the famous judgment of Sir John Wheeler-Bennett: Except in cases where he had pledged his word, Hitler always meant what he said.

While this is no Guns of August, May writes well (Ribbentrop had ash-blond hair and the puffy handsomeness of an overage gigolo), and he lets drop very deft obiter dicta: e.g., [Chamberlain was] foolish perhaps, but weakno. Except possibly for Margaret Thatcher, no peacetime British prime minister has been so strong-willed, almost tyrannical.

There are a few small mistakes in these 464 pages of text. For one, it is Karl Lueger, not Karl Lueder; the Pont Alexandre III does not cross the Seine at the Place de la Concorde, but farther west; cabinet de naguère means yesterday’s cabinet, not well-worn cabinet; and I know of no historian of France who would speak of the French Radical Party’s unwillingness to identify clearly with either left or right (whether rightly or wrongly, the Party always identified itself as leftwing). Except for illegible page numbers, the book is reasonably well presented.

All this said, I have a caveat. May’s book, finally, is misleading. The story, as he tells it, particularly after the fighting began (10 May), is entirely a military one. For him, the fall of France became inevitable with the capitulation of Belgium on 28 May. From then on, and indeed even before that, there is no important political or moral dimension to the strange defeat, as Marc Bloch called it.

The story May does not tell, but which is no less relevant than the military one to Hitler’s conquest of France, is the intense political confrontations going on among French political and military leadershipspecifically, Premier Reynaud’s losing battle with Petain et al. to continue the fight. The decision-making process that May so brilliantly analyzes when it is technical, also involved profound, longstanding political conflict; but in this he is not interested, for he ends his book too soon. Hitler’s conquest of France took place in the June set-to among senior French leadership as much as it did on the Ardennes battlefield in May, and this story goes unrecounted. Krakovitch, in his biography of Paul Reynaud, thus offers a tonic appreciation to May’s account of what was going on behind the lines, for it also profoundly contributed to the fall of France: specifically, the desire of the French military chiefs to shift responsibility for the May disasters onto political shoulders. The armistice, when it came, represented the final victory of the surviving French generals of the Great War (Pétain, Gamelin, Weygand) over the Republican, parliamentary politicos they had so long hated.

Steven Englund is a historian and writer living in Paris where he is completing a study of the political significance of the nation-idea in French history and beginning a biography of Napoleon I.