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French Week: On Respect for the Dead

Day two of French week!

French week is supposed to be about wine, food, women, and song, with the occasional exuberant reference to free universal health care. But because this is the American Internet, c. 2003, there is some debunking to take care of, first. Today we take down a particularly vicious little calumny, the claim that the French defeat in World War II was the result of cowardice and a fondness for surrender. Never mind that none of the people making these claims seem to have had any personal combat experience fighting the Wehrmacht, or a rudimentary understanding of history. This is a question d'honneur, and so today we will put it to rest. It's a long post, so slide a poulet à l'estragon in the oven, and come back for the rest.

A quick recap of the historical facts:

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invades Poland. England and France declare war two days later. What follows on the Western front is a confused and limited campaign, with the most active fighting taking place up in Norway. The fighting along the French-German border is static, with both sides dug into some serious fortifications. On May 10, 1940, German armies invade the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Shortly thereafter, nine armored divisions penetrate into France through the Ardennes forest, catching the British and French armies completely by surprise. On June 16, Maréchal Pétain, a war hero from the Battle of Verdun, is asked to form a new government, and he immediately requests cease-fire talks with Germany. The cease-fire takes effect on June 25. France is effectively partitioned: the northern half of the country and the entire West coast will remain under direct German occupation; Southern France and North Africa remain under the control of the new Pétain regime, with the French capital relocated to Vichy.

So why did France surrender so quickly? The direct, military cause is easy to pinpoint. The Germans simply suprised the French by attacking an area of the front that was weakly defended, in between the heavily fortified Maginot line to the south, and the bulk of French and British forces in Belgium to the north. The Ardennes forest was thought by the Allies to be impassable to tanks and heavy artillery. The Germans found a way to get their Panzer divisions through, and from that point on the war was lost.

But there's a more profound, indirect reason for the French defeat, which explains why the German armies were able to score this tactical coup in the first place. And that reason is the French experience in World War I.

World War I has almost comical connotations in our own popular culture. American doughboys, kaisers and marshals in funny hats, the Red Baron. But for France, the Great War was the most traumatic event of the twentieth century. No country lost as great a proportion of its population in that war: 1,400,000 men were killed outright, two million were wounded. A million of the wounded had debilitating injuries, and could never work again. They were a lost generation, and a living reminder to others of what war really meant.

The human toll also had an economic impact. Between the dead and the disabled, France lost a full ten percent of its workforce. Most of the war was fought on French territory, in the industrial North, which remained under German occupation for four years. This land was utterly devastated.

Battle strategy in the first World War was as simple as it was ghastly: bombard the enemy position as hard as you can with artillery, then send human waves over the trenches and hope to overwhelm the machine guns. This slaughterhouse lasted for four years, but the wounds it inflicted on France, both physically and psychologically, did not end with the armistice. The birth rate, already flat for a hundred years (France was the first country to experience this symptom of modernity) fell sharply (by three million!) in the aftermath. Economic production did not regain its 1914 levels until 1928, right before the Great Depression sent everything to hell again.

And France won that war.

This unmitigated horror shaped the perceptions and fears of those who were called upon to plan and prepare for the second. It was clear that the country could not incur similar losses and hope to survive. France in 1939 needed time to rearm, and the overwhelming consensus among military planners was that the war on the Western front would be another war of attrition. So it was fought as a defensive action, with the hope that Germany could be contained and starved into sumbission by a prolonged Allied quarantine, as well as coordinated attacks on the periphery, such as the Norwegian campaign. Only a few rare visionaries (like de Gaulle) understood that the nature of war had fundamentally changed, and that France was now at great risk.

However dour the strategy of containment and attrition, the French did not hesitate to mobilize in 1939, and they did not shrink from fighting even in the face of overwhelming odds in 1940. In the space of three weeks, some 100,000 men died defending their country from the German invaders. From four to eight million civilians fled their homes; an unknown number died in the exodus.

In the end, the French endured four and a half years of German occupation. Between the initial carnage of the invasion, reprisal killings of civilians, and general Nazi atrocities, some 300,000 civilians were murdered. This is in addition to the 200,000 French soldiers killed during the initial invasion and in the many subsequent battles where Free French divisions saw combat.

Compare this to the total of 300,000 American military deaths, on all fronts, for the entire Second World War.

The people who fought Hitler fought bravely. The Poles, Danes, Belgians, British, Norwegians, Dutch and French were not cowards. The countries that survived German attack survived thanks to geography - for Britain, the English Channel; for the Soviet Union, the vast Eurasian steppes. And still those countries were nearly defeated.

There are many true and uncomfortable things you can say about France in the Second World War. Vichy was a criminal regime, and France has not fully come to terms with that painful part of its history. French political leaders in the 1930's left the country passive and exposed to a German attack that could have been deterred. But to say that, when war did come, the French lacked courage, is to spit on the graves of noble people.

For shame!

* Casualty figures for World War I are taken from Notre Siècle: Histoire de France de 1918 à 1991 , by René Rémond (Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1991). Figures on the decline in birth rate and industrial production are from lecture notes for a 1996 course in contemporary French history course taught by M. Guttmann at the Middlebury School in Paris. Casualty figures for World War II vary somewhat from source to source. The figures used here are from Jason McDonald.

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