The Strange Defeat of the United StatesRoundup
tags: France, World War 2, Marc Bloch, COVID-19
ROBERT ZARETSKY is a professor of modern French history at the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.
This summer marks the 80th anniversary of the fall of France. The fall was as sudden as it was shocking: six weeks after German panzers, sweeping north of the Maginot Line, punched through the thick forest of the Ardennes in mid-May, the newly appointed leader of the French government, Marshal Philippe Pétain, addressed the nation: “It is with a heavy heart that I announce that hostilities must end.” Among those who heard the radio address was a French army captain who, though a decorated veteran of World War I, had again insisted on seeing combat. In a matter of weeks, he dashed off “a statement of evidence” of the events in which he had just participated.
Penned in what the author, Marc Bloch, confessed was “a white heat of rage,” the resulting book, L’Étrange défaite, or Strange Defeat, remains among the most incisive analyses of France’s collapse. An iconoclastic historian of medieval France, Bloch developed an influential, though elusive, notion of what he called mentalités: the intellectual and emotional structures that, no less certainly than material factors, shaped how past generations conceived their world. Not surprisingly, Bloch believed that any worthwhile explanation of how France came to suffer “a defeat no one would have thought possible” required a foray into the mentalities of its political and military elites.
Eighty years later, Bloch’s investigation casts useful light for those historians who, gripped by the white heat of their own moment, may seek to understand the once unthinkable defeat of the United States in its “war” against the new coronavirus.
The drôle de guerre, or phony war, unfolded for eight months beginning in September 1939. During this time, France conscripted and mobilized millions of men. Shuttled to defensive positions across the country, the conscripts often lacked the military equivalent of personal protective equipment, or PPE. They suffered shortages of boots and blankets during the especially cold winter and an alarming scarcity of masks—in this case, gas masks. Among the officers who did have masks, some refused to wear them. Smoking cigarettes as they reviewed their troops carried more panache.
Compounding these shortages was a shortage of convincing leadership. The government, under Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, issued empty exhortations in place of clear and cogent reasons for the sacrifices they were asking of soldiers and civilians. Determined to avoid the consequences of having declared war, the government sought to render the impression that it merely sought peace by other means. Jean Giraudoux’s play The Trojan War Will Not Take Place thus depicts Hector turning to diplomacy in order to prevent the fall of Troy. Tellingly, Giraudoux was not just the nation’s most celebrated playwright but also the government’s minister of information.
By early 1940, soldiers belonging to certain professional categories were demobilized. Then as now, the government sought to brush a veneer of normalcy over everyday life. It was not difficult. With Paris’s cafés teeming with customers, theaters humming with audiences, and stadiums thrumming with fans, the city gave new life to the old saw that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Not surprisingly, the hit song of the drôle de guerre was Maurice Chevalier’s “Paris Will Always Be Paris.”
Looking back at this period, Bloch lays the blame squarely on the government. In failing to supply the French “with that minimum of clear and definite information without which no rational conduct is possible,” the country’s elected leaders were guilty of a dereliction of duty that constituted “the most heinous crime of our self-styled democrats.” On the subject of French democracy, Bloch was equally severe. He notes that the effectiveness of any form of government, whether monarchic or democratic, suffers when there is a disconnect between the stated values of the system and the actual values of those who run it. “A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred to despise it . . . serve it only halfheartedly.”