The Fall of France and the Summer of 1940

April 7, 2006

troduction The collapse of France in the summer of 1940 astonished the world. France had been victorious in 1918 and, to counteract the fragility of the border with Germany, had made herself the dominant power in Europe. However, World War I (the “Great War”) had changed France’s military doctrine from offensive to defensive, resulting in the construction of the Maginot Line to guard against Germany. The left-wing Popular Front government of the mid-1930s hardened fears of Fascism and encouraged a defensive outlook. The “Maginot” mentality of politicians and soldiers developed into full-blown defeatism that crippled the Third Republic and rendered it ineffective before the threat of a Nazi invasion. As we face the dangers of terrorism and a divided world, we can learn lessons from France’s dilemma of 65 years ago. Failing to make the right decisions in the face of danger can have terrible consequences, as France learned to her great misfortune.

In the summer of 1940, World War II was underway. Poland had fallen in 1939 to Adolf Hitler’s Germany, leaving France as the main protagonist against Fascist domination of the Continent of Europe. After the conquest of Poland, a war without battle began on the Western Front. For eight months, interspersed with periods of false alarms that Hitler was about to invade Belgium or The Netherlands, a drole de guerre, or “Phony War,” existed. The Western Front became stagnant except for occasional artillery fire and patrolling. Complacency set in, and it was expected that a long, leisurely war of attrition would ensue, with Germany eventually collapsing from the Allied economic blockade. However, by the end of the summer of 1940, France had fallen, the Battle of Britain raged, and the famous desert campaigns in North Africa had started.