Dream of Security

The Republic of France came out of the first World War the strongest military power in Europe. It took a leading part in the League of Nations. It played that part so as to support strict enforcement of the peace terms. It built a framework of alliances with the small newly created nations along Germany’s eastern border to guard against the old-time aggressor. It boasted the second largest colonial empire in the world and the world’s fourth largest navy.

Above all, with Germany disarmed, the triumphant French army was without a rival in Europe.

Twenty years later France was still counted among the great powers of the world. To be sure, the League of Nations had fallen apart and some of France’s central European allies were showing signs of going over to the Axis. But the people of France—and of the other Western democracies—found comfort in the belief that the French army was equal or superior to Hitler’s new and untried Reichswehr. And they knew that the French navy was second only to that of Great Britain in European waters. Furthermore, the Maginot Line of underground fortifications had been completed along the section of frontier bordering Germany. For protection along the frontier from Sedan to the sea, France depended mostly on a line of strong Belgian forts to delay a new German assault.

Behind these defenses the French felt reasonably sure that they could mobilize their army without interference from a blitzkrieg attack such as German and Italian militarists were predicting. They were well aware that France was in a most exposed position, but they firmly believed that the French army, the fortifications, and the alliances assured them the power to stand off any attack upon their country.

Nightmare of Defeat

The appearance of strength and security was deceiving, however. By June 1940, France, shorn of allies, empire, and wealth, was at the mercy of the Nazi invader, its fortifications outflanked, and its proud military machine crushed.

The disaster was so sudden and so complete that it seemed more like a nightmare than the real thing. Without the grim evidence of a victorious German army straining to cross the Channel and devour England too, the world would have found it hard to believe that France—or any great nation—could fall so quickly from the top rank of great powers into the depths of confusion, despair, and enslavement to a foreign master. Many Frenchmen, stunned by the swift collapse of their homeland, actually could not understand what had happened or how it came about.

The World’s Awakening

But the world was not long in learning what it meant to have France broken. With Nazi armies holding the western coasts of Europe from the Bay of Biscay all the way to the northern tip of Norway, the last trace of a global balance of military power disappeared. World domination by the Axis became a threatening possibility, and the war ceased to be a European struggle. It became a new world war.

Spurred by hope of sharing in the spoils of a quick and easy victory, Mussolini sent his armies into the conflict, stabbing France in the back, overrunning British Somaliland, and threatening Egypt. The Middle and Near East barely avoided the struggle that engulfed them in 1941 and 1942.

In the Far East as well, Japan moved to take advantage of the changed situation. In assuming “protection” of the relatively weak and helpless French colony of Indo-China, the Japanese acquired the bases they later used to launch attacks on Manila and Singapore.

The United States woke up to the fact that its kind of world was going to pieces, and its way of life was no longer secure behind the Atlantic. Great stores of guns and ammunition, left over from 1918, were rushed across the ocean to reequip the Allied troops whose weapons had been abandoned on the beach at Dunkirk. Peacetime conscription of men for the Army was begun for the first time in the history of the United States, and construction of a great new Navy was started.

With France shattered, the European shield against German expansion was gone. The world had to readjust itself to the fact that Europe had a new master, powerfully armed and ruthless in using force to carry out his aggressive ambitions.

Cracks in the Armor

The collapse of France let loose a flood of lurid stories about “master spies,” “treacherous generals,” and “villainous politicians.” Their fifth-column tactics were supposed to have aided the enemy from within, and it almost seemed from these tales that nothing else figured in the downfall but the foul play of such people and the incompetence of government officials. Fifth columnists played a part, no doubt, in spreading confusion in France; and there was plenty of incompetence in high places. But later attempts to explain the defeat have brought out the importance of a wider range of factors.

In all the discussion that has taken place about the French collapse, a principal cause has sometimes been overlooked because it is so obvious. The downfall of France was caused in very large measure by the superiority of the German strategy, morale, and armament. There were internal weaknesses in France aplenty, but they did not show up in fatal form until the Germans launched their blitzkrieg through Holland and Belgium after the 8-month period of “phony war.”