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Taking as his starting point the famous 1944 essay, Strange Defeat, by the French historian Marc Bloch, Ernest May sets out in this book to understand why it was that France collapsed so quickly when attacked by Nazi Germany in 1940.  For over fifty years, Bloch's conclusions have carried great weight in our understanding of what happened.  May summarizes this received wisdom as follows :

    In June 1940, and for a long time thereafter, the fact of France's rapid defeat seemed to speak for
    itself. Three conclusions were thought obvious. First, Germany must have had crushing superiority,
    not only in modern weaponry but in an understanding of how to use it. Second, France and its allies
    must have been very badly led. Third, the French people must have had no stomach for fighting.
    Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the satellite French government of 1940-44, ascribed France's
    defeat to "moral laxness." Though not everyone would have used Pétain's particular term
    ("relâchement"), most people around the world agreed that France's defeat owed something to lack
    of moral fiber.

Ernest May marshals a tremendous amount of evidence to refute this facile explanation.  He demonstrates very convincingly that the German Armed Forces were actually inferior militarily to the French, argues that the French military leadership was really quite competent, and asserts that French moral had turned fairly positive by the late 1930s and was no longer as defeatist as it had been in the early 30s.  Ultimately he arrives at a much different conclusion from the conventional view :

    In sum, the essential thread in the story of Germany's victory over France hangs on the
    imaginativeness of German war planning and the corresponding lack of imaginativeness on the
    Allied side.  Hitler and his generals perceived that the weakness of their otherwise powerful enemies
    resided in habits and routines that made their reaction times slow.  They developed a plan that
    capitalized on this weakness.  French and British leaders made no effort to understand how or why
    German thinking might differ from theirs.  They neglected to prepare for the possibility of surprise,
    and, as German analysts and planners predicted, they could not react promptly once events began to
    be at odds with expectations.  Mercifully for humankind, the German advantage did not persist.
    After the 'miracle' in France, Hitler became so sure of his own genius that he ceased to test his
    judgments against those of others, and his generals virtually ceased to challenge him.  His conduct
    of the Battle of Britain, his invasion of the Soviet Union, and his subsequent declaration of war on
    the United States were, to say the least, ill-considered.  But up through the victory over France in
    1940, the story contrasts the exercise on the German side of some common sense and the failure on
    the Allied side to exercise any common sense.

In May's telling, it really becomes a story mostly of superior understanding by Hitler of the limits of democracy and of a woeful lack of perception on the Allies' part of just how far Hitler was willing to go in pursuit of his own aims.

I take May's points and don't see all that much to dispute in his basic case, but there are a few points that need to be made.  Now, before I go any further, I should acknowledge that I loathe France and the French and this inevitably colors my perception of the events in question.  But let me just ask you this question : you're playing a war game on a deserted island and you can have 100 French soldiers with guns or 10 Germans with naught but sticks and rocks; which side do you choose ?  For all the fancy arguments about equipment and weaponry, planning and strategy, morale and morality, isn't there some visceral level where most of us simply consider it to be ingrained in the national character of these two peoples that the Germans will triumph over the French ?  Sure, the French rode high for a while under Napoleon, but that was before Germany unified, and WWI was a stalemate between the two parties, but until the British and later the Americans came to their aide, the French would have to be considered to have lost quite a bit prior to the stalemate, which after all occurred mostly on their soil.  I honestly just have trouble imagining a scenario where the French could defeat a German attack, regardless of how high or low their relative spirits are or how well one side is equipped.

The other point that May raises, about the inherent disadvantage of a democracy as war approaches, needs to be taken more seriously.  He clearly intends the book to teach us some lessons that we can apply to the current world situation :

    The story is particularly well worth recalling now, for in the post-Cold War era, the United States
    and the other seemingly victorious Western democracies exhibit many of the same characteristics
    that France and Britain did in 1938-40 -- arrogance, a strong disinclination to risk life in battle,
    heavy reliance on technology as a substitute, and governmental procedures poorly designed for
    anticipating or coping with ingenious challenges from the comparatively weak.

All of this is true but he's missed the most important point about his own observation : the unwillingness of democracies to expend the lives of their own people is a handicap, but their unwillingness to take the lives of their opponents is potentially disastrous.  It is obvious that Britain, France, the USSR and the US could have attacked and dismantled Nazi Germany before Hitler was ready to wage war.  It is also clear that had they pursued this course of action millions of lives would have been saved.  It is also completely implausible to think they would ever have done so; democracies just do not launch preemptive wars.  It is in the nature of a democracy to place a greater value on the life of a citizen of a totalitarian nation than that nation's own leaders do.  this allows determined leaders, like Hitler, to prepare for eventual war with complete impunity.

Just as Germany could have been defeated with relative ease by early action on the part of the democracies, the same was also true of the USSR throughout the Cold War, and is true now of states like China, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Libya and so forth.  All of these nations, if we simply take them at their word and look at what they have done militarily, must be considered hostile to the West generally and to the US specifically.  The Chinese nuclear program, based in large part on technology stolen from the US, is obviously aimed at the US.  It would be a fairly simple matter, right now, to launch a massive nuclear strike against the Chinese and eliminate their capacity to do the same to us in the future.  If the Chinese are serious about dominating the world, and we are foolish to think that they are not, then such a first strike might well save hundreds of millions of lives.  We will never, ever, undertake such a strike, just as we refused to do so against the Soviets, at a cost of millions of lives and fifty years of global economic and political stagnation.

In fact, despite the example of popular fiction like On the Beach and Fail-Safe, it is extremely difficult to imagine an American President launching a retaliatory strike even if the Chinese were today to launch all of their missiles at us.  Imagine for a moment a scenario whereby the President, regardless of who he is, gives the order to kill tens, even hundreds, of millions of Chinese citizens because Chinese rockets are in the air.  Sure it's theoretically possible but there's good reason to doubt it.  Recall the elaborate precautions we've taken in recent wars to minimize loss of enemy life.  Why suppose that a President would so blithely doom millions ?  May's argument has the force of reason behind it, but in a fundamental sense it may be unlearnable by a democracy.

The book is very well written and does force some reconsideration of those fateful six weeks in 1940 when France crumbled and fell to the Nazis.  It raises issues that we need to consider, about the necessary weakness of a democracy in facing a hostile nation.  In the end though, it's lessons for today are the stuff of seminars.  It is extremely unlikely that the hard lesson that France learned at Hitler's hands can truly effect how modern democracies deal with the despots we face.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Ernest May Links:

    -REVIEW: of B. I. Bukharov. Voprosy Dalnevostochnoi Politiki SShA (1953-1955 GG) (Ernest R. May, American Historical Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Ernest May's Home Page at Harvard University
    -BOOK SITE : Strange Victory (FSB Associates)
    -REVIEW : of Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France By ERNEST R. MAY (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Strange Victory (Laurent Cartayrade, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of Strange Victory by Ernest May The Phony War's Real Story (RICHARD J. TOFEL, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Strange Victory (ROGER BISHOP, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of THINKING IN TIME: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. By Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May (Bernard Gwertzman, NY Times Book Review)

    -PROFILE : Marc Bloch: Isralite de France (Hal Goldman, University of Vermont: History Review vol. 6, December 1994)
    -BOOK LIST : NR's List of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century : #80.) Strange Defeat, Marc Bloch

    -REVIEW : of France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944. By Julian Jackson. (The Economist)