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Reflections on the French Disaster

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

Et nunc, reges, intelligite, erudimini, qui judicatis terrain.

We can no longer hope to “muddle through somehow”: we must think our way through. And the first condition of honest thinking is to measure our personal equation. I am biased, but I know I am biased. I was born and brought up in France, and I feel the wounds of France in my very flesh. I was profoundly influenced, in my most formative years, by England, just before the self-assured splendor of the Victorian age had departed. America is my chosen home, in the spiritual as well as in the material sense. I have never separated these three lands in my heart. I have never been called upon to do so: for most Americans, as well as for myself, England and France are not foreign in quite the same sense as other countries are foreign. They are intimately linked with our tradition. My country is Western Democracy, and its essential principle is individual liberty.

I have never hated Germany. German thought I have revered; German art I have loved. It is an unspeakable comfort to me that Thomas Mann should be with us: I am not torn between conflicting spiritual loyalties. I can go fearlessly to the end of my thought, and reach the conclusion that in Hitlerism, with much that is great and good, there is a specific element that is evil absolute. It must be checked, or all that we value shall perish. This is now a truism, professed by the leaders of both our national parties. And it can he checked, insolent though its triumph be today. Hitler is merely a greater Napoleon—far abler, no doubt, as diplomat, as strategist, and as administrator; more sincere in his intense devotion to a narrow ideal; free from the parvenu vulgarity that impelled the Corsican to set up a court and marry an archduchess. The parallelism is striking: Hitler’s vassal Europe, from Poland to Spain, closely resembles the French Empire in 1812. In both cases, Russia is a doubtful friend and England an implacable enemy. Hitler may force not merely an armistice but a formal peace upon the present rulers of France: Bonaparte imposed no less than four successive treaties upon Austria. But, as early as 1804, sensible men even in France agreed with Madame Letizia, Napoleon’s mother, that “it could not last.” Predatory empires have endured—those of Rome, of the Turks, of the Habsburgs, of the Romanoffs, of the British in India. I could give my reasons for refusing to believe that Hitler’s domination has the same vital power. It is a magnificent, costly, and murderous show. It will create a legend as hard to eradicate, perhaps, as that of Napoleon himself. It will no doubt leave “a deep mark in history,” if by a mark you understand a scar. And it will probably hasten the very things it professed to crush, just as Napoleon created Germany’s national sentiment. But I cannot conceive that, ten years from now, Bohemia, France, and Poland will be ruled by a German Protector as they are today.

I must state my bias with the utmost candor, because the trend of this meditation is not an apology for the democracies but decidedly the reverse. I feel free to criticize, because I am a son of the house. I do not want to sneer at the defeated: I am among the defeated, and I ardently wish that they shall rise again—but not with the faults that have deserved defeat.

Here we must guard against a common and pernicious fallacy. We are tempted to confuse three orders of phenomena: ideals and principles, the sorry game of opportunistic intrigues in diplomacy and home politics, and military efficiency. In the latter, the Allies have been manifestly outclassed. But victory and defeat are not final arguments. If a gangster should prove cleverer than the police, that would be no reason to submit to gangster rule: it would merely call for a sweeping reorganization of the police force. In diplomacy, the Allies committed the most egregious blunders: it does not follow that the ideals they professed were wrong. Our dream would be that a great nation should march steadily toward a noble goal, with wary yet unfaltering step, and with effective implements to remove every obstacle. But if the nation should stumble, tragically or even ludicrously, that would not prove that the goal was not right.

The most obvious cause of the democratic disaster is the vast superiority of the Germans in technical efficiency. They had modern instruments in abundance, and they knew how to use them with skill and courage. This is the incontrovertible fact which dominates all the details of the campaign. There may have been individual weaknesses on the Allied side, and individual scapegoats will no doubt be found. But, as in football, the decisive “breaks” seldom go consistently to the weaker team. Had the Belgian King held out a few days longer, had a few bridges been destroyed in time, had there been better troops and a better commander in the Sedan sector, the story would have been different in detail: I believe the outcome would have been substantially the same. And for this military defeat of the Allies, it is the military who are first of all responsible.

They are, of course, pointing accusing fingers at the politicians, and their bluff may succeed. Politicians are the perfect scapegoats. We may believe in party politics as a necessary evil; but we despise those who engage in that tortuous and slimy career. On the other hand, it is the very essence of patriotism to affirm that the army can do no wrong. An army, by definition, is heroic and invincible. If it is defeated, it can only be through the treachery of civilians—”the stab in the back” which, according to Hitler, was the sole cause of the German collapse in 1918.

This is as fair as blaming an assembly of shareholders for a railroad collision: the technicians are in control. The parliaments voted all the billions that the fighting services demanded, including the fantastic cost of the Maginot Line. I am not accusing the military, as a corps, of treachery, cowardice, or incompetence. I am accusing them of sluggishness in thought, of excessive attachment to tradition. The British navy is doing creditable routine work, because the work of today continues without a break the work of yesterday. The French built the Maginot Line with marvelous ingenuity, and were prepared to turn the whole frontier into a gigantic Verdun, but they were not prepared to meet the motorized Blitzkrieg. The first reports of the battle in northern France betrayed their bewilderment: “The situation is confused; there are enemy tanks in the rear of our formations.” So motorcycle units could push through almost at will, and when Weygand attempted to form on the Somme a “line” of the 1914 pattern, speedy German columns had already reached the Seine. Like the swift and massive armies of Carnot against the cautious tacticians of Prussia and Austria, the Germans won because they played a new game. There is no method of offense against which some form of defense cannot be evolved: even air raids and submarine warfare, although they cannot be checked altogether, are prevented from becoming decisive. The failure to cope with the motorized Blitzkrieg is inexcusable, for the Germans had boasted about it for years, and had given a large scale demonstration of it in Poland ten months before. The French high command must have been paralyzed by its pride. “Of course what happened to Poland could not happen to the glorious French army!”

The curse of all armies is the Living Fossil; no fossil Marshal can stand against a live Gefreiter. This experience is not new. The French built in 1840 a continuous wall round Paris, which would have been effective in 1815, and proved useless in 1870. They had constructed by 1880 a line of detached forts which would have stopped the Germans ten years before. Their Maginot Line would have been an impregnable protection in 1914. The French Army still thought of infantry as the decisive factor—artillery and tanks merely open the way—an infantry still armed with the excellent but antediluvian Lebel rifle. Those who made the disaster inevitable are not merely Gamelin and his subordinates, but the high command for the last twenty years, not excepting those two noted members of the French Academy, Petain and Weygand.


I have no desire to make those who designed, forged, and wielded the military instrument bear the sole responsibility for the catastrophe. Politics and politicians had their share. But what politics, and what politicians?

England is still fighting indomitably; France is gone. It is very tempting to seek in the special weaknesses of France the cause of the difference. France had a whirligig of cabinets ; England, a slow steady line of Conservative ministers. France toyed with the Front Populaire experiment; England held fast to the orthodoxy of Baldwin and Chamberlain.

I believe this discrimination to be thoroughly unjustified. England escaped collapse, now as repeatedly in the past, simply because God made her an island. In diplomacy, in military preparedness, she has proved at least as wobbly and as incompetent as France. I was reading but yesterday Georges Duhamel’s “Chronique de l’Annee 1939”: he was deploring the incomprehensible uncertainty and delay of England. Had England had, like France, four million trained and equipped men, Europe would not be under Hitler’s heel.

I have no thought of defending the defunct French Constitution of 1875. May it never live again! It was a monarchical instrument, unwanted by the very men who wrote it. It survived so long, a dreary compromise, only because it was pulled at the same time by opposing forces. But it never seriously deflected the trend of French political life. French policy, on the whole, was more clear-sighted and more steady than that of England—not to mention our own. Under many nominal heads there was a fairly consistent purpose. In England, a chaos of velleities wore for years the same silk hat and carried the same umbrella.

We shall be told that the weakness of France was the result of the hopeless division created by the demagogues. This is a bold travesty of the plain facts. “Hopeless division” resulted from the refusal of the minority to cooperate with the Front Populaire majority. As soon as the international situation grew menacing, the Blum Cabinet called a halt (la pause) to social legislation, and embarked on a great rearmament program under the direction of Daladier, whose patriotism seemed beyond cavil. Leon Blum repeatedly offered to form a “Sacred Union” embracing Rightists as well as Communists. The Right refused. Their ideal was not to share power for the salvation of the country, but to ban the majority from power altogether, to punish the Left for daring to be a majority. Their open aim, constantly professed in the reactionary Temps, was to outlaw, first the Communists, then every form of socialist. They hated the mild and scholarly Blum far worse than they dreaded Hitler. Daladier, a weak politician who fancied himself as a new Clemenceau, was slowly driven to become their tool. He suppressed the Communist party, while people who had openly conspired against the regime, and who were plainly in sympathy with the enemies of the country, were lauded and called to a share in the government. It was Daladier who mortally wounded the Republic; those who completed his work have shown him little gratitude.

France was no weaker politically than England, only far more exposed. The faults of the French regime were more apparent, because its parliamentarism was more consistent than that north of the Channel. It might sound like bitter irony to call it parliamentarism pure and undefiled, which it was. The executive—the cabinet—had been reduced to a joint committee of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. There was a constant effort to register, as accurately as possible, every shift of public opinion: the prime minister was merely a marker on a dial. The head of the American state also is swayed by popular pressure; so he speaks with many voices, according to the seasons. If we had a new name each time we have a new Roosevelt, we should approximate the French Republic of yesterday.

In England, the weaknesses of parliamentarism are partly veiled by the glamorous survival of monarchy and aristocracy, partly corrected by the instinctive skill which is bred by age-long practice. In America, the presidency is dominant: Congress was intended to be only a check. But the chief reason why the fumbling rule of deliberative assemblies has not led England and America to disaster is that these two countries have never, until this very summer, seriously felt the menace either of invasion or of revolution. Even a castle of cards will stand, so long as there is no breath of wind. If some Fuhrer controlled a Canada with twice our numbers and three times our industrial resources, if some Duce held absolute sway in a Mexico as populous as ourselves, there would be certain congressional antics which we could ill afford. The confused tyranny of politicians, with us, has been something like a skin disease—annoying, but not fatal. America has grown great and remained free, not because of that disfigurement, but in spite of it.

This is no apology for an authoritarian-totalitarian government of the Hitler-Mussolini-Franco type. But, after many years of reluctance, I have been compelled to accept Emile Faguet’s definition of parliamentary “democracy”: “The cult of incompetence, and the dread of responsibilities.” I submit that no army, no university, no church, no business could survive if it were run on orthodox “political” lines, if the members organized themselves into groups for the sole purpose of reviling and thwarting the management at every turn.

We are constantly told that parliamentarism—or the parliamentary trend in our government—is the only means by which liberty can be safeguarded, even though it be at the expense of efficiency. We are offered the choice: “Would you prefer to be free in a morass, or secure in an iron cage?” There is a third way, which I sketched in this magazine a few years ago: we can be free elsewhere than in a bog. An institution is an instrument, not a principle. A man can love liberty and yet despise the parliamentary system, just as he may be religious and refuse to spin the prayer-wheels of Tibet. A strong unhampered executive is a clear advantage, as the experience of American business demonstrates. But the dictatorships, including Petain’s blurred copy of the Second Empire, provide no guarantee for liberty. We do not want the irresponsible tyranny of a semi-superman; neither do we want back the paralysis and bewilderment of the Weimar republic. “Save Democracy!” does not mean: “Perpetuate the talk-shops.”


The “democracies” are suffering from another weakness, the result of an inner contradiction: they are still “imperial” in name and spirit. Many of us resented the title of Earl Browder’s book: “The Second Imperialist War.” Technically, Browder was right. When the war broke out, England and France were still empires in a threefold sense: through their overseas possessions, through their influence over minor nations, through their investments in many lands. This threefold imperialism was for them a source of pride, and they were reluctant to share it. In the name of sincere democracy, all imperialisms stand condemned. It is no worse crime to rape Czecho-Slovakia than to absorb Albania; no worse to destroy Albania than to conquer Ethiopia; no worse to hold Ethiopia by force than to rule India by the sword. In no case is there a clear “consent of the governed.”

The benefits conferred by the conquerors are irrelevant.

Probably a German Protector might clear the slums of England, end unemployment and despair in the depressed areas, improve the physique of the British lower classes; in France, a stern overlord might check alcoholism, transform sanitary conditions, and cut down the death rate. These blessings would never be accepted as valid arguments. Those Frenchmen who feel deeply the shame of being ruled by a German-inspired government will now understand that Annamites, Tunisians, and Moroccans may not be unanimously satisfied with their puppet sovereigns. It is a harsh lesson, and it should be taken to heart.

To speak even more brutally, empire has no justification but might, and a weak imperialistic power is an absurdity. France, Belgium, and Holland are now prostrate, and the fact cannot long be concealed from their dependencies. England has repeatedly capitulated, in the most humiliating fashion, to the rough commands of a yellow aggressor. Power is waning, and prestige is gone. It is time to liquidate.

By liquidation, I do not mean brutal disruption. It would be a disaster for all concerned if the possessions of England and France were suddenly to proclaim their independence. If they remained free, they would probably fight—and starve. In all likelihood, they would be seized by the Germans, the Italians, the Japanese. It would be the substitution of a brutal and clumsy authority for a rule which had grown more supple through years of experience—and perhaps more gentle with the mellowness of decrepitude. What I advocate is the liquidation of the imperial spirit—that spirit of domination and racial pride which we execrate in Hitler. It would mean granting at once, without further haggling, to all those countries which have a civilization of their own, full dominion status and equal membership in a Franco-British Commonwealth of Free Nations. We shall never aid British democracy with a clear conscience if it implies preserving British rule over alien peoples. We have followed the right path ourselves—renounced our protectorate over Latin America, prepared to set the Philippines free, made the Hawaiian Islands a self-governing territory. We have but one peccadillo to mar our record: Puerto Rico. As for backward countries like Equatorial Africa, they should all be governed under a genuine mandate system, for the benefit of the natives, and not, like Kenya, for the sole advantage of a few white settlers. These things have repeatedly been proposed by liberals in England and in France; but the imperial democracies have been deplorably slow in reading the signs of the times.

“Imperialism” is a form of the nefarious “Great Power” delusion: no power is great unless it can order lesser powers about. Only yesterday we asserted with pride that our fiat was law in the Western hemisphere. This in turn is a vulgar interpretation of “national glory.” Just as a man is “worth” so many dollars, a country is “worth” so many millions of subjects, or so many millions of square miles. Many a Frenchman will feel humiliated, if tomorrow he no longer “owns” the Sahara.

From such a delusion—the very delusion which is now driving Hitler and Mussolini on their mad careers—we must resolutely purge our minds. There is no sin in mere bigness, provided it is not achieved at the expense of liberty and equality. There may be good giants—ourselves, Brazil, China, the British Commonwealth, so far as the white dominions are concerned; perhaps also the Soviet Union, if it be true that the minor nationalities are respected and indeed encouraged. In all cases, excessive size should be corrected, as it is with us, through the federal principle. In Europe, it is plain that the notion of Great Powers has been a curse. Charles V, Louis XIV, Richelieu, Frederick II, Napoleon, and Bismarck foreshadowed Hitler and Mussolini. The small countries are more decent, saner, politically more intelligent. It was no loss, but an immeasurable gain, for the Scandinavian nations and Holland to remain, in the past, outside the German Reich; we all rejoice that Switzerland exists, that she has not yet been rent asunder by her three “great” neighbors. The French, had they been victorious, would have attempted to disrupt Germany. A scrupulous and generous soul like Jacques Maritain could add, without a touch of hypocrisy: for the benefit of the Germans themselves. Maritain was right: culturally, it would be better if Bavaria, Saxony, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hanover, and the free cities, and even the duodecimo principalities of Thur-ingia, should thrive again. But the test of this argument is: “Would you prescribe the same sauce for German goose and French gander?” My own answer is emphatically “yes.”

The cult of bigness, the dread of disruption, are twin delusions, both equally undemocratic. Neither Norway nor Sweden suffered when they amicably agreed to separate. England has accepted—with a sigh of relief—the secession of Ireland, and would not be the poorer if Scotland and Wales should set up separate governments. We sympathized with the Spanish Republicans for granting Catalonia and the Basque provinces their freedom. Czecho-Slovakia would have been well advised to make herself into a Central European Switzerland, and not to attempt the unification of a heterogeneous country. Yugoslavia would be happier if she came to terms with the Croats, Slovenes, and Bulgars. In the same way, I should consider it a victory for democracy if Brittany, Alsace, and Corsica were to enjoy the fullest measure of autonomy—a measure which they alone have the right to determine. Royal France was very tolerant of local traditions; the Revolution, on the contrary, proclaimed the French Republic “one and indivisible,” and made the federal idea a crime against the nation. It was a momentous error which must be repaired.

I am not advocating the “Balkanization” of Europe, the setting up of sixty little countries, each fiercely independent behind bristling boundaries. That would be exaggerating the one great mistake of Versailles. The disruption of Europe into its small ethnic, linguistic, or historical units is advisable only as a step toward European federation. Into such a federation, the existing Great Powers will never fit harmoniously. Their whole tradition is one of strife and pride; they will inevitably keep playing Great Power politics, as England and France did within the League of Nations. A Great Power believes that it enjoys two decisive advantages: economic and military—a larger market, a bigger army. Rut no Great Power in Central or Western Europe is large enough to form a satisfactory autarchy, and military might has proved an incentive to war rather than a protection. A customs union and collective security would offer a far better solution.


Finally, the “democracies” (again not excluding our own) have not been able frankly to separate their cause from that of “plutocracy.” This is an inner flaw which has paralyzed their thought and their action. As Andre Siegfried so shrewdly said: “The heart of the French bourgeois is on the Left, but his pocketbook is on the Right.” And this is true of the liberal, democratic bourgeois everywhere. Ultimately, the pocketbook wins; we find in Holy Writ that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

All democracies are willing to let democracy work—provided it does not threaten the existing economic regime. Today’s majority has the right to rule—but not to overthrow the privileges of yesterday. On such an issue, the “free” will of the people must be checked by all constitutional means, the best of which is a conservative upper house in parliaments. If these means fail, extra-constitutional means are resorted to: economic threats, the famous Mur d’Argent against which both Herriot’s Cartel des Gauches and Blum’s Front Populaire were shattered. And, if need be, anti-constitutional means may be called into action: every plutocracy that dreads social change is in search of a Louis-Napoleon, a Franco, a Petain.

The elements which have seized power while France was in a swoon had for years been in sympathy with Hitler—as they understood him, as their German congeners like Thyssen had understood him—with Mussolini, with Franco. They were irreconcilably hostile to all “popular” governments, in Czecho-Slovakia, in Spain, and most of all in their own country. The foreign policy of England and France was pulled by sudden disconcerting jerks in three directions. The masses wanted peace, liberty, and social progress. Not a few conservatives, like Barthou and Churchill, placed Great Power politics, imperialism, which they honestly identified with patriotism, above class advantage; they opposed the dictators, and were ready to cooperate with Russia. But the defense of plutocracy inspired more or less secret deals with the anti-Comintern leaders: the Hoare-Laval-Mussolini tacit understanding, the hypocritical support and joyful recognition of Franco, the Munich appeasement. Thus, speaking with three discordant voices, torn between three irreconcilable tendencies, the diplomacy of the Western democracies became a series of lamentable farces. We said recently of Poland: “The Polish people must live; but not the Poland of Pilsudsky and Beck.” With greater force we must say today: “France must live and be free; but not the France of Laval and Flandin.”

The democracies were weak because of their irremediable hypocrisy. The ruling classes were ardently patriotic in words, but they worked constantly in collusion with the enemy and against the aspirations of their own people. They still bared their heads when the Marseillaise was sung and had not effaced from the walls of public buildings the words Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite; but what they defended was privilege. When they wanted to justify their course in cultural terms, they claimed that they were upholding the rights of “the elite”; and they had garrisoned the French Academy with their apologists.

A class which exalts private greed as the supreme good cannot demand the supreme sacrifice. People may live— anxiously, dismally—for the sake of “profit”; they will not be so absurd as to die for profit, especially for the profit of others. In a collective crisis, selfishness is bankrupt. If democracy is to live, it need not sacrifice the individual: but it must emphasize the common ideal and the common interest.

France is tied, hand and foot, and can no longer work for her own deliverance: no Joan of Arc would be a match for tanks and Stukas, All that we can hope is that, when she recovers consciousness, she will also recapture her conscience. The two democracies which are still on the fighting line will go down also, unless they purify their souls from selfish greed, pride, and hypocrisy. They must return to fundamentals: a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Otherwise all their “realistic” shufflings and evasions will be swept by the undeniable force of those whose faith is cruel but ardent, whose discipline is crude but effective. The Allies, two years ago, had wealth, numbers, and a great cause. They have flung their advantages away, because they refused to understand that a country’s first line of defense is a firm resolve, a clear mind, and a clean heart.


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