Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.
Writing a general historical summary is surprisingly difficult. Even when discussing general facts, the historical consensus is not necessarily settled. Covering the subject sufficiently enough to give a good overview without going into too much detail or covering topics unevenly is a delicate balance. Worse, there is simply so much competition these days, and if what a book says can be learned by simply reading a Wikipedia article, then there isn't a reason for that book to exist.
France 1940: Defending the Republic by Philip Nord neatly avoids these issues. A short book—barely 200 pages long and seeming much shorter—it includes an opinionated but factual overview of the lead-up to the Battle of France, a brief overview of the Battle of France itself, and a discussion of the dissolution of the French Third Republic afterward.
It isn't about the Battle of France per se so much as it is about the fall of the French Republic. In the book, the Battle of France is about setting the stage for the drama of the rise of Vichy. It is not a particularly deep book, and for anybody with an existing understanding of the Battle of France, it offers little new information. But it does a good job as an introduction to the topic and draws on a wide collection of sources. which are cited and offer further reading. It does its job without great fanfare and within its limitations is a quality piece of work.
"Strange Defeat," the introduction to the book, is a historiography covering the reactions to the Fall of France in 1940, with the book arguing against the idea of French defeat as inevitable or the French having been uniquely ill-prepared and instead making the case that the truly exceptional aspect of the Fall of France was the subsequent political capitulation of the French government. It is this, more than anything else, that the book wishes to explain—everything else, properly speaking, is just leading up to it.
Part one, "War Preparedness," covers the lead-up to the war. This starts with the first chapter, "Diplomacy," which relates the French strategy of attempting to contain Germany through a surrounding network of alliances and its attempt at Briandism, political rapprochement in the early 1930s. This failed, but the French genuinely did their best to attempt to create a coalition to oppose the Germans and were let down by the slow reactions of the British and the defection of the Italians.
There was precious little the French could do to shore up their alliance network in Eastern Europe without foreign support due to the cunning offensive moves of Hitler, which exploited French weakness, but the French were still a far more consistent and firm opponent of Hitler than any other power.
Chapter two, "Armaments and Morale," paints a positive picture of the French effort to prepare for the war, with a massive increase in military spending and equality in ground armaments with Germany, while its air force combined with Britain was equal and set to outpace its German counterpart soon. While the French effort may have been too late, every Allied power in the 1930s was caught similarly flat-footed and took a long time to mobilize.
The French strategy of holding against the Germans and then attacking once overwhelming material superiority had been gained was the same as that used with great success later in the war. It similarly paints a more positive picture than the image of defeatism that is often portrayed concerning French morale and compliments French leadership.
Part two, "The Battle of France," opens with "Battle Plans," critiquing the French for their excess conservatism but noting that the battle's result was a great surprise to all involved, and defending basic French military strategy as well-conceived. It takes the usual excessively optimistic view about the potential of a French Saar offensive and takes a dim view of proposed peripheral operations in Scandinavia or attacking the Soviet Union.
As a whole, however, it is complimentary of the French idea of long-term war strategy and equates it to later Allied war operations. The greatest reason for the French defeat is proposed as German brilliance with their highly aggressive and risky attack through the Ardennes and French planning, which had left them with few reserves to respond to it.
The actual battle of France is one of the shortest chapters in the book. Chapter four, "Lightning War," relates in broad terms the German attack along the Meuse, the attempted French counter-attacks, the German breakout, Dunkirk, and the fall of France proper. Much of it is a comparative work that stresses how other Allied Powers later in the war did no better during their initial battles.
Nord's focus for this book is ultimately a political one, and so part three, "Death Comes to the Republic," is its centerpiece with the start, "Armistice," chapter 5, which blames the French acceptance of a complete armistice and military capitulation upon last-minute changes in the French political structure, which led to a prominent number of partisans of the armistice coming to power and a decline of solid republican figures in government, with starring roles being Pétain and Gamelin, military men who were partisans of an armistice with the Germans and the end of the Republic. It was not French decadence that led to the fall of the Republic but rather political maneuverings.
"The Road to Vichy," chapter six, is the final piece of the drama as the French parliament voted voluntarily to give full powers to Marshal Pétain, ending French democracy. It notes the climate of fear hanging over the decision and the efforts of Pétain to prevent any alternate bases of power from emerging in North Africa that might have continued the war.
The Germans' armistice terms were just soft enough to accept, even if they were still extremely hard in absolute terms, and the French parliament was the target of bullying and coercion, which helped ensure its positive vote for Pétain. Over time, many would regret their choice and grow to oppose the new Vichy regime.
The conclusion, "The 1940 Syndrome," defends the French once more and returns to a historiographical look to see why the declinist and decadence historiography of France in 1940 has become so prominent, seeing it as utilized by both Vichy and De Gaulle after the war to defend and legitimize themselves.
As the post-war star of technocratic planning and Gaullism has faded, so too as the esteem for France in the 1930s been rescued somewhat from the gutter, and even as the role of the resistance has received greater nuance, France, in the end, has proved surprisingly firm in its Republican convictions and destiny.
France 1940: Defending the Republic is a slight book, and it is not really a revision as its advertising states. The basic principle that it espouses—that the French defeat was not inevitable, that the Third Republic was not inherently flawed, that the French were not uniquely cowardly or dysfunctional—is the current dominant position of scholars in the field. This is my main gripe with the book—that it is falsely advertised, as its description on Amazon and other sites gives high hopes for a detailed and truly revisionist book—when it is nothing of the sort.
It is easy to find flaws in this book. Since it is so short, there is plenty that could have been covered more. Statistics of French armaments, telling more than a scattering of the French military commanders, greater description of French tactical doctrine, the Maginot line, the contribution of the French colonies, the French navy, the war against Italy—each of which is covered in perhaps a single sentence—are all extremely short or missing. But the essentials of the subject—French diplomacy, the French economy, French military doctrine, German military doctrine, French war production, the outline of the battle, historiography, French society and its mentalities, political divisions, French operational plans, etc.—are present and accurate.
The only subject that the book gets wrong is overly vaunting the possible success of the Saar Offensive, which tends to be overrated in popular history. There is not much of an effort to dive into details of France in 1940, but what is written is accurate and well-argued.
Generally, the book is readable. It makes a conscious attempt to be less formal in language than most scholarly books. It never dives into great detail, and its basic tenets are rather simple: It relies extensively on comparing France to other nations in direct terms, so this aids in making it quite comprehensible. Sometimes these comparisons could be expanded upon (it makes note that Britain had a highly effective rearmament program but does little to quantify why it was perhaps better than the French one). For the simple summary that the book is, however, they work well generally.
Its ideological trend of arguing in favor of French democracy in the 1930s and early 1940s, is consistent and well constructed, although missing key elements, such as Daladier's authoritarian tendencies, which led to a concentration of power in his hands, albeit ineffectually used. Only the banning of the communists receives much note.
Another thing tjat could use work is definition. Given that the book seems to be intended for a general audience, key notes in French history like the Dreyfus Affair, which are referred to but receive no definition and might not be known by the average reader, could receive some attention. Furthermore, there are no maps whatsoever despite the fact that they could do much to define the German breakthrough at Sedan in particular.
The value of the book is deeply bound up with the reader and their level of knowledge. If you already have a decent general understanding of the French, don't buy it. There isn't anything in it that is notably new other than perhaps the political maneuverings that led to Vichy.
There is no deep delving into French power structures nor extensive theory-crafting concerning the Republic and its decline, but as an introduction into the subject, it is a readable and approachable book that covers the essential views on the Battle of France and its historiography, gives a comprehensive comparison of France's actions to those of other nations, and gives just enough detail of the main events to enable an appropriate framework for understanding.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Ryan C Thomas