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The Case of France

ISSUE:  Spring 1944

There is an old Horatian maxim that advises against calling in a God to provide a solution unless the case is worth his trouble. There can be no doubt that the case of France calls for the most serious intervention of the best political thought at our command. The spectacle of the brain of our western culture put out of action by the most barbarous of invaders, the silence of Paris, the profanation of the whole soil of France, the absence from the stage of the world of a generally recognized French government, the ambiguity that overhangs the present and the future of the French nation, here is nodus enough. But faced with this unprecedented catastrophe, the solutions, the explanations have been far from worthy of so great and tragic a theme. The gutter, the brothel, the boudoir, the lobbies of parliament, the directors’ rooms of banks and trusts, the dark council chambers of ignoble conspirators, all have been called in to explain what is commonly called the “fall of France.” And the first thing to do is to protest both in the name of decency and in the name of good sense against the term “fall.” Conquest, yes, defeat, yes, disaster, yes. But “fall” both flatters Anglo-Saxon moral complacency and conceals from its users and from their listeners the true character of the catastrophe, conceals from them the important political truth that victory and defeat are not issued like Sunday school prizes or demerits. It is a vulgar and immoral superstition to believe that the good always win or that the defeated were defeated because of some moral defect—a point less novel in Virginia than in old or New England. It is a special form of the worship of the Bitch-Goddess, Success, to condemn from a superior moral platform, men or nations that have not succeeded in winning her favours.

So by insisting on talking of the “defeat” of France, one does more than make a pedantic point of nomenclature; one brings to the foreground the primary problem, the problem of the military defeat of France, the fons et origo of so many ills subsequent both in time and in logical sequence. Here we come up against another intellectual sin, the congenital refusal of the Anglo-Saxon publicist to give due place to mere military considerations. It is hard for one brought up in that tradition to accept the fact that military defeat has, as a rule, military causes; that if the military accountancy shows a balance, other defects in the total social economy do not count; and that no other moral or intellectual merits offset military weakness when it comes to the last argument of kings and peoples. The military reasons for the defeat and conquest of France are simple and indisputable, but they are not often enough borne in mind.

There is surely nothing at all surprising in the defeat of a people of forty millions by a people of eighty millions? True, British and Dutch and Belgian armies were involved on the French side, but so was the Italian army on the German side—at the last desperate crisis when, for all practical purposes, the French army alone was in the field. Sometimes a power much weaker in ordinary military resources makes up for that defect by other assets: better armament, better training, a more homogeneous society, a better morale. Even so (as the South discovered) a competently directed superior power can always win if its resources are used with reasonable intelligence and vigour. Grant defeated Lee, even if Hooker didn’t!

But apart from the primary statistical inferiority, the more the French case is examined, the worse her position is seen to be. Not merely were there two German subjects for every French citizen; there were more than two German men of military age for every Frenchman of military age. In 1914, France had the oldest population in Europe; she lost more men out of a smaller pool than any of the other great powers; her bad demographic situation was at its worst in the years when her active army had to be recruited from the generation born in or just after the war of 1914-1918—i. e., in 1938-1940. The situation from the point of view of military morale was no better. For the French had suffered a more profound disillusionment than the Germans. The Germans had only had the shock of not winning a war they expected to win; the French had had the shock of winning a war they hoped to win—and then of having to fight a new war in worse conditions so soon after the last war that a large part of the army defeated in 1940 had known the agonies and glories of Verdun. If the veterans of the Army of the Potomac had had to undergo a new Cold Harbor or Fredericksburg in 1884—with Grant and Sherman very ready to tell them that it was no good—the Union might not have stood the strain.


Why, if these things were obvious, did the French go to war with British support and American approval? Because they were not obvious except to the few (among whom I hasten to say I was not included) who understood the profound revolution in the art of war caused by motorization, the tank, the new force of air power. It was an accident that the military technique of 1914 favoured the defence and consequently the powers that needed time to mobilize their resources, the more pacific, the democratic powers. In this sense, the magazine rifle, the machine-gun, the quick-firing field gun were democratic weapons. The tank and the plane were not, since they made quick and decisive victory possible and so benefited those powers that could really in peace prepare for war, because for them peace and war were only different stages in the normal life of the state. The French had prepared for a war of 1918; so had the British and the Americans as far as they prepared for anything. But even had the French General Staff understood the technical problem, had they adopted General de Gaulle’s theories en bloc, French preparation would have been grossly inferior to German because the French nation and its riders wanted peace, and only nations whose rulers want war can really prepare for it in modern times. No peace-wanting nation will stand, even in time of open danger, the kind of preparation called for. American economic mobilization before and after Pearl Harbor illustrates that point well enough. Danger of war is not, in a democracy, the same thing as war.

But there was an additional cause of French weakness which had no moral character and was, in the crisis of 1988-1940, incurable. It was not merely a case of total mobilization of resources (impossible until war came) but of the inadequacy of those resources—and those resources were inferior to German resources in a proportion far more terrible than before. For modern war is a war of steel and machine tools, and France was an exporter of iron ore and an importer of machine tools. With all her resources mobilized, she was still a military push-over for the Third Reich. In time, she could count on the industrial resources of Britain and America— but Germany refused to give her time, and how much time was needed, the fifth year of the war shows beyond any doubt. How long would a fully-armed France have had to wait before British and American resources were available? Two years, three years? It was asking too much, far too much. The defeat of France was, given the nature of modern war, a certainty—a certainty concealed from us because we did not understand the nature of modern war. So we started looking for extraordinary explanations and began talking of the “fall of France.”

Some of the criticisms of the French war plan would be justified if they came from rigorous and prescient military theorists. But coming from the run-of-the-mill exploiter of military history of the last war, they are comic or impudent. The French General Staff of 1914 was bitterly criticized for not staying within its Vosges fortress belt; the General Staff of 1939-1940 stayed in the Maginot Line; the generals of 1914 ignored the German threat through Belgium and did not extend their Left far enough; in 1940 they rushed into Belgium with their best troops and equipment and lost them in the Dunkirk campaign; Foch ignored the importance of material superiority and overemphasized morale and the offensive spirit; Petain knew better; in 1939-1940 war was to be won on the cheap and the Petain legend was ready for German use when it was proved that no war is won on the cheap. But what chance had any French Government or General Staff of arguing the question of the lessons of 1914-1918 with novelists and publicists and military critics who thought wars could be won by luring the enemy into the offensive? And what would have been the Anglo-Saxon outcry against French militarism, if France, in the interval between the two wars had cultivated the military spirit and sacrificed all her resources to prolonging the Maginot Line to the sea? And what if the Germans in 1940, faced with a Maginot Line to the sea, had merely contented themselves with the conquest of Holland and Belgium, whose airfields are quite adequate for the bombardment of London?

And let it not be said that these fairly banal reflections on the military causes of French defeat are superfluous. They are not, for the greatest barrier between the French people and their British and American allies is and will be the belief on one side that the French defeat was due to corruption, treason, bad civilian morale, to anything but its simple military causes, and, on the other, the belief that the British and American peoples (and their soldiers) forget that so far, many more Frenchmen have been killed in this war fighting Germany than Englishmen or Americans have been killed, that no army, not even the Russian Army has in fact withstood, in the same dimensions of space and time, the prepared onslaught of the Wehrmacht. Russia could recover (among other reasons) because of her area and natural resources; Britain could survive (among other reasons) because she is an island. The other reasons are important, but the decisive reasons that gave them a chance to be important are geographical. If the Germans could have crossed the Channel, they would have found troops not merely armed only with obsolete weapons, but in many cases not armed at all. If the Russian army could have been pinned up against mountains and frontiers, say on a line from Smolensk to Kiev, there might have been for it and for the victorious Germans, that “battle without a morrow” which Hitler strove for in vain when his own resources were stretched and his enemy’s made more available at the very gates of Moscow. The French could not retreat to Seville or stand siege in a fortress with a moat whose importance we realize now when we are planning to cross it in the opposite direction.

This, though the main story, is not the whole story. There were grave and not inevitable weaknesses in French equipment, strategy, and political morale. We can be quite sure that so ruthlessly self-critical a people as the French will examine the question of responsibilities with a rigour that may shock us. But it will be well for us to remember the basic fact that the first burden of resisting the Third Reich was imposed on Poland; the second on France; and both at a time when Britain had declared war but was not yet in a position to make it, and when the United States and Russia had not even declared war.


Nevertheless, the questions brought to the forefront by the French catastrophe are not merely military. Defeat was the occasion for the revelation of old strains and weaknesses; it entered into the composition of some problems; it was a catalyst for others. These problems face us now and face the French now, and they cannot and should not be ignored. First of all, 1940 revealed that political nature abhors a vacuum. In the catastrophe, there was no institution to which the French people could turn, in which they could put their trust. There was only a personal symbol of past glory and personal integrity, Petain. The Third Republic had succeeded only too well in taking personality out of politics. The generation of Poincares and Clemenceaus was dead. No civilian in a moment of greater disaster than 1870 even tried to play the role of Gambetta. That fell to a comparatively obscure soldier, de Gaulle. There is a lesson here; not a lesson that only soldiers can evoke national pride or give the emotional power needed at such moments, but that somebody must, some man or group of men, some sacred institution, not so drab a body or so ironically regarded an institution as the Parliament of the Third Republic. It is only true in a very limited sense that “ridicule is the test of truth,” and what little truth there was in the maxim was excessively exploited in France. It was not a minor matter that honest men had to put up with the company of rogues, that the dignity of the incarnation of the sovereignty of the French people, the President of the Republic and the Parliament, was an idea so remote from reality as to be a joke without further elaboration. What France needed was not more of the wit of Georges de la Fouchardiere, but the sense of the dignity of the Senatus Populusque Romanus. When that dull machine-politician, Chester Arthur, became President of the United States by the accident of the assassination of Garfield, his old pals were amused. But when one of them put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and addressed him as “Chet,” the New York politician removed his hand and froze him with a glance. He was President of the United States with a new standard of dignity and duty. Here is a lesson; and if Frenchmen and French leaders in the next few years seem to insist too much on dignity, national and representative, on pride, on what may seem like mere amour propre, it should be remembered that they are repenting a national sin that seemed pretty venial in 1939 and was almost mortal in 1940.

But it was not only the dignity of the French nation that was compromised; it was its authority and power. From 1918 to 1939, there was a steady ebbing-away of the authority of the French state. It became harder and harder to get any policy adopted or carried out; the balance of power was only too perfect; all pressure groups cancelled each other out. And France was left to routine that produced results ranging from brilliant (in technical reconstruction) to abysmally bad (in foreign policy and in public finance). If Frenchmen, especially young Frenchmen act the Jacobin, talk of a France “pure et dure,” remember that they have memories of a regime that even, its friends hardly dared assert to be worthy of respect, even if it was worthy of love. The old reactionary parties in the first years of the Third Republic called it “la gueuse,” the “slut”; it was untrue then; it was not so untrue in the inter-war years. The young Frenchmen and the young Frenchwomen who have been resisting the Germans and their allies are now far more akin to the Republicans of the heroic period, before 1870, than to their immediate predecessors. They see the Republic returning: Pale encore, et des plis de sa blanche tunique Cachant son front voile.

What they see coming is an immaculate Republic, but a republic. For “the republic” is an ideal that has new life in it since so many have died for it. Liberty once taken for granted and too often interpreted as a mere license for a policy and a life of minimum effort, has been lost and is now being fought for. The old scorn of the reactionaries for the “mere” ideals of the Left, the contempt for the cloudy concepts of the republican tradition, the “nuees” of Charles Maurras, have no hold on the young now, who have seen men and women die for those ideals and have seen the hateful sterility of the Maurrasian doctrine and the open treason of many of its disciples. And on the other side, men have learned that words like “liberty” and “France” have meanings not exhausted and not easily replaceable by the latest slogans turned out by M. Andre Marty. In a more genuine sense than the Communists meant it, the French people want a France “forte, libre, et heureuse,” and if they have to sacrifice any of these attributes it will be the last—they have learned that without the first two, it is empty of meaning.

Our soldiers will soon be deeply involved in the affairs of a country that is suffering from the greatest ordeal in its history. It is suffering in pride, for the total impotence of France, metropolitan France, is a complete novelty in history. It is suffering in a sense from the necessary reaction to that impotence. The Resistance movement, apart from its military importance, was a moral necessity for France. But a great underground conspiracy is an expensive remedy. The Ku Klux Klan may have been a necessity but its price was long paid by the South all the same. France in 1939 was a rich country in the old way slowly adjusting itself to the need of becoming a rich country in the new industrial way. She is now a poor country, stripped and weakened, with more need but less means of bringing about that economic transformation that is a condition of her free survival. Already a country too old in population, she is now a country in which the young and energetic have acquired ways of thinking and ways of acting that may cut them off from the middle-aged electoral majority. A country accustomed more than any other to unlimited free discussion, she has been gagged. A country accustomed to be a leader and liberator of others, she will owe her formal liberation mainly to Allies. Most of the problems of France can only be solved by Frenchmen; some can only be solved by Frenchmen in association with their continental neighbours; some are general to the whole free western world. But on the relations of France and the French people with Britain and America very much depends—for us as for them. And there is one absolute condition of that relationship being fruitful, that when we think or talk of the “fall of France” we should mean by it what we mean when we talk of a brother or a comrade who fell in a battle that he began and he alone could begin, a battle which we are now carrying on to a victory that is his as well as ours.


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