Fighting the Last War

French military thinking after the war of 1914–18 naturally developed along one line while the Germans as naturally followed just the opposite course. The French general staff understood that the last war had been won with the use of certain strategies and tactics; unfortunately, they assumed that the same or similar tactics and strategies would assure success in any new test of strength with Germany.

For the Germans, on the contrary, the big fact was that the last war had been lost. They put all the energy and aptitude of the professional Prussian army organization to work on the job of finding out, not what had been done right, but what had been done wrong, and of finding different and better ways of doing it next time.

Both sides correctly saw that trench warfare had stopped the German armies in 1914–18. But while the French were perfecting it in the form of great underground forts, the Germans were developing ways and means of avoiding static warfare. Instead of a frontal assault on the Maginot Line, they planned and carried out a flanking movement. Mobility was their watchword in making the fullest use of the tank, the self-propelled gun, and the airplane.

With the possible exception of the Russians, all the other general staffs were as out of date as the French in strategic thinking; and the French staff, to be fair, was not as backward as its critics have made out. But its ideas of war were defensive whereas those of the German general staff were offensive.

Politics of Power

Not only were the plans of the German army designed to push offensives into other countries, but all Germany was organized to accomplish the very same end. There again the Germans had an advantage, since the French army never had comparable power to marshal all the activities and all the resources of the nation in the support of military aims. When Goering announced the Nazi preference for guns instead of butter, the French retorted that they still preferred butter. France did not refuse to support its army; it simply did not follow the German example of making the needs of the military supreme over all other considerations.

Nor did France arm itself in sufficient strength to make good on its diplomatic pledges to other nations. This was a more obvious failure to bring military policy into line with foreign policy—or rather, to keep the nation’s international promises within the limits of its military capacity. France had promised to go to the aid of a number of other countries if they were attacked: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Belgium. But it was not strong enough to carry out those promises, especially after Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. And it lacked the industrial bone and economic muscle to keep abreast of German rearmament had the French people wanted a test of strength—which they did not.

Unwilling Warriors

The war of 1914–18 was a terrible blow for France. Over 1,300,000 Frenchmen were killed and another 4,000,000 wounded, many of them so that they could never again lead normal lives. It was a per capita loss much greater than any other nation suffered. This enormous destruction of young manhood was doubly tragic for the future of France because it came on top of a birth rate already hardly sufficient to make up for deaths.

France, likewise, suffered more destruction of property than any other country in the last war. A broad area in the east and north was left in shambles. French industry was disorganized, its markets disrupted, and the nations to which France had made loans before 1914, particularly Russia, were bankrupt. To top it off, the crushing national debt incurred to fight the war and reconstruct the country forced devaluation of the currency so that by 1938 the owners of insurance policies, bonds, bank accounts, and mortgages had seen much of their wealth wiped out.

All this meant that France was bled white in both human and material resources. Many Frenchmen lost confidence in themselves and their institutions. Influential elements in the population lacked the will to carry on the struggle for national existence, and even high officers of the army openly stated after 1920 that France could never survive another war like the last one.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that a kind of logical pacifism spread throughout the country. It received official encouragement from the public schools and the ministry of education, and found popular support in all corners of the nation. A feeling of revulsion from war and a surging desire for lasting peace were common to all Europe and all the world after 1918, but nowhere were they stronger than in France. The fact that nearly every French family counted one or even more of its members among the dead or wounded was, of course, a powerful argument against further war. But more than that, the people recognized that France simply could not afford the costly sacrifices of another such struggle.

It was not until the 1930’s, however, that France hit rock bottom. Throughout the long depression no leader appeared to inspire popular hope and confidence. On the contrary, such events as the Stavisky scandal, which broke early in 1934, threw suspicion on several prominent politicians and raised questions about the integrity of the Republic. Of its instability there was plenty of evidence. No French government was able to work out a political platform that the people, or their elected representatives in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the French parliament, would approve and support for very long. From February 1930 to June 1940, one politician followed another as premier. Altogether, 23 cabinets were formed and fell in those fateful 10 years when strong and stable leadership was so much needed.

The depression produced unemployment in France, just as it did in the rest of Europe and in the United States. In order to keep as many workers employed as possible, the French employers split up the available jobs into fragments so small that those who did have employment received unbelievably low wages. As a natural consequence, the French workers became discontented and sought relief or the promise of a better system in various proposals for social and industrial reorganization, tending to the Left.

Likewise, at the upper end of the ladder, the owners of the banks, the factories, and other enterprises were hard hit. While they did not go hungry, they saw their wealth and their position of leadership in society undermined. They, too, became discontented and sought relief in proposals for new and different systems, tending to the Right.

This atmosphere of political confusion and social unrest encouraged the formation and rapid growth of organizations proposing active measures to remedy the situation. Their agitation, in turn, stirred up still greater dissatisfaction with conditions and with the government’s failure to find a cure. Almost all shades of political thinking could be found among these groups: some were closely linked to parties in the Chamber of Deputies; others ignored the Republic and threatened to set up revolutionary regimes of one kind or another; some were mere propaganda mouthpieces; others were organized as small private armies and equipped even with machine guns and gas grenades.

The climax of discontent came on February 6, 1934 in the form of a bloody riot in the streets of Paris. Frenchmen of the Left fought Frenchmen of the Right; and both fought the police and units of the army called in to guard the Chamber. Order was finally restored and the Republic managed to stave off political bankruptcy. But from that moment until 1939, the specter of a civil war like that in Spain was never far from the minds of Frenchmen.

Outside Aims and Inside Aid

To make matters worse, internal French politics became tied to movements that originated and were directed from outside the country. The Rightist leagues looked to Mussolini for inspiration and help, and through him to Hitler. When the Paris police found hidden arsenals of arms made in Italy, it was clear that dirty work was afoot.

The sorriest aspect of all was that traitors as well as sincere but misled Frenchmen served, under color of patriotism, as the eyes, ears, and tongues of the fascist regimes in corrupting and confusing the people of France. Before the war they spread defeatist and pro-Axis propaganda; after it started, they poisoned the minds of the troops with such questions as “Why die for Danzig?” and told the home folks that “Britain would fight to the last Frenchman.”

On the other side, the Communists, acting through a variety of organizations in some of which they held the real authority while others provided the clothing of respectability, managed to exert a wide influence on behalf of the Third International. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939, the Communist International, and therefore the French Communists too, abandoned suddenly their former role as mainspring of the united front against Nazism. Instead, they denounced the war as an “imperialist” plot and just another “pluto-democratic” scheme to exploit the workers and peasants.

Thus, on the Left as well as on the Right, there were French eyes, ears, and tongues that drew their inspiration from outside France.

Noisy But Not Numerous

One can readily understand that the French national will to resistance was not strengthened by the propaganda and the activities of these minorities. But it would be a grave mistake to think that the noise they made and the confusion they spread were true measures of their numerical size. Circumstances gave them an influence all out of proportion to their numbers.

The vast majority of the French peasants, workers, and middle-class people did not support either extreme. They simply stood aside and silent, so overwhelmed by the effects of the depression and the threat of war that they seemed incapable of action. Through the last twenty years a great majority of Frenchmen voted for men and parties that were neither of the extreme Left nor of the extreme Right. Any analysis of the future of France that assigned principal roles to either the communists or the fascists probably would not be realistic.