The Fall of the Third Republic and the Reasons Why

By: Frank Russo

On May 10th, 1940, Operation Fall Gelb commenced with German armored forces spearheading assaults through the Ardennes and over the Mouse river into France. In conjunction with this assault came separate assaults on Belgium and the Netherlands, with astonishing success. It was an unprecedented assault, and nobody, not even the German high command flush from successes against Poland, expected it. The French high command was sent reeling and was never able to recover. There are many questions that remain. The most pressing is, “what went wrong” for the French and “what went right” for the Germans.

Modern historians and revisionists alike point to German invincibility and French decadence as the answer to both of these questions. In fact, many consider it a verdict on secular republicanism as a whole. And in many senses they are right. But in many senses they are also dead wrong. Before looking at the events of  May 1940, we must look at the 1930s and French policy as a whole. Following the first world war, threats loomed greatly over the French nation. ¼ of their land was devastated by the fighting and there were still signs everywhere of what happened. Subway seats were still reserved for disabled veterans. Movies and reels were shown every day in French cinemas. The trenches had not even completely vanished.

The French of the post war years were a people who were bound together in a collective memory of suffering, in which their armed forces and countryside had effectively been used by their allies as a blunt to the German colossus. In the event of another war with a rising Germany the French had no desire to once again take the brunt. But in order to forestall such a outcome, the French needed allies. These were short in coming. In 1914 the French could rely on the Russian empire to serve as strong ally and force the Germans to fight a two front war. In 1940 this was not the case. The Russian empire was gone and in its stead stood the Soviet Union, an authoritarian power bent on continental domination just as much as the Nazis. Aside from this stood the fact that anti communism was a uniform ideology that bonded both right and left, (or at least many parties on both ideological sides), in French parliamentary politics.

Aside from that the Soviet Union by the time of the late thirties was no longer in the mood to form an anti fascist Bloc as it was in the early and mid thirties. Josef Stalin, had started to reach out to pro Moscow parties across Europe, the most famous of which was the Popular Front in France, in order to build an anti-fascist coalition. However, following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, attempts were made by many in France, most notably French socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum, to force intervention on the side of the Republican loyalists against the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco. The Republican forces were soon overtaken by communist and socialist factions which dampered any enthusiasm held by the British for direct military intervention on the behalf of the Republicans. Blum, seeing direct intervention as an impossibility,instead advocated for a mutually agreed upon non-interventionist policy between all major European powers.

This was not to come to fruition either as the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany would send aid to the nationalists,(in the Fascist party Bloc), and the Republicans,(in the communist party Bloc) ,. This left a bad taste in the international community’s mouth, a community already afraid of communist subversion. If a movement to protect democratic institutions could so easily be overtaken by Moscow loyalists, what would come of any such coalition that included the Soviets? In any case the point would become moot for two major reasons. The first being that France was largely subservient to Britain in its foreign policy decision making and in the United Kingdom anti-communist sentiment ran too high. The second was that any such coalition would become impossible on August 23rd, 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, a nonaggression treaty between two powers that despised each other. The pact sent shockwaves through the world and left France in a worrying position.

From Stalin’s perspective, the move was one of forward thinking. He knew that Hitler was dedicated to the destruction of communism and the addition of the Soviet Motherland to the German Reich. The nonaggression treaty was simply to buy time. Stalin as well wished to let the western Allies take the brunt of Hitler’s attack and let a world war one style stalemate play out which would drastically weaken German forces and resources. The great purges of the 1930s had killed off 40,000 experienced military officers of the Red army and by all field projections Stalin's advisers had told him that the Red Army was not ready for war.

While Russian political maneuvering would not pay off in short term, France was still left with very few allies. The loss of backing from potential anti-fascist communists,(now being ordered by Moscow to back down), was a harsh blow. To further enhance the embarrassing lack of friends Belgium refused to ally herself to the French via coalition and voided a 1929 agreement, instead opting for strict neutrality. The Dutch were equally, if not more so, uncooperative. While the Belgian government itself struck to the path of appeasement, its top military officers remained in conversation with the French high command, attempting to coordinate defense and assault plans. This is still a indicator of how alone France must have felt. The low countries could not be counted on.

It may come as a shock but Italy was also an ally that France looked to to blunt German aggression. In 1936, Hitler began to saber rattle against Austria, demanding it's addition to the Reich or war. Italy,(a fascist power but at this point not an Axis one), was against such an action as it would put Germany on an even more impressive footing in case of war between the two powers. Thus the Stresa front was born, an alliance between Mussolini,(Italy), Daladier,(France), and Chamberlain,(Britain) that forced Hitler to back off on his demands and leave Austria alone, (for the time being),. The Stresa front was almost a thing of French dreams but it was indeed to good to be true. In 1937, Mussolini would invade Ethiopia, sparking international outrage, especially in England.

While Italy was not officially punished, (in fact it would take over Ethiopia), the relationship was soured. England would begin to distance itself from the Stresa front and not amount of French posturing for unity would keep it together. The same year the pact of steel would be signed, officially tying Italy and Germany together in an alliance. France was quickly running out of options. The United States, while sympathetic, was officially neutral and England was more intent on appeasing Germany than fighting her. It took the 1938 seizure of Czechoslovakia following the Munich agreement to stoke serious British opposition to Germany but at this point it was almost too late, at least for France.

We must now turn to the military side of affairs in order to get a good glimpse of the situation. To all intents and purposes the French army was superior to the Wehrmacht from a numerical scale. It had more numerous and better tanks than the Germans and in fact had more motorized units than the Wehrmacht. This was even before the outbreak of hostilities following the German assault on Poland. In fact, following Poland, Germany was without a full quarter of her armed forces. If there was ever a time for the French to attack, it was the winter-spring of 1939-1940. The French did not attack. The reason for this is well known. The French high command was still dedicated to outdated modes of defensive warfare. In fact France’s overall military plan was to absorb a German attack, (preferably anywhere but on French soil), blunt it, gather supplies and men before pushing back into Germany and winning the war.

Hitler in fact wanted to attack the French Homeland in November, a move that would have been disastrous had the German high command not dissuaded him. The Polish campaign, while a stunning success, had cost the Germans much and they needed time to regroup. They also needed a plan of attack. The Maginot line, spanning from the Mediterranean to the Ardennes, was immediately not an option. Despite being outdated tactically, it represented the world's most impressive defense line. It had only one major flaw. It did not extend all the way to the English channel. The French, not wanting to upset the Belgians, had declined to extend the Maginot line across their border. This left Northern France particularly vulnerable to a Schlieffen style plan of attack, which is exactly what the Germans had originally planned. That was until a German officer, carrying the invasion plans while on a recon flight, was shot down and interrogated revealing the German plan of attack.

This prompted the German command to make a quick change. The Ardennes, considered impassable for tanks, was the new route of invasion. The area was the one that was only sparsely defended by lower quality French troops while the French moved all their motorized and crack troops north to where the German attacks meant to originally be, a fatal mistake as it would turn out.

Many mock the idea of the Maginot line but when it was conceived it was actually quite a brilliant solution to many problems. While undoubtedly expensive the line would be less expensive than maintaining a larger standing army, which was a huge bonus, especially in a time of economic crisis. The French economy actually began to improve by the time of the rearmament drive, the production of planes and tanks actually outpacing the Germans. The SOMUA main battle tank and the CHAR B1 were fearsome threats to German tanks. But they suffered from the same problem that hampered the planners of the Maginot line. They failed to grasp the full measure of modern war. While the Germans used mass tank formations for quick piercing attacks to be followed up by infantry assaults, the French preferred to use line formations for their tanks in mostly defensive maneuvering.

Another fatal flaw of the French tank organization was a lack of radios. Line of sight was necessary for communication whereas the Panzer divisions acted with a good degree of flexibility due to their ability to exercise a fair degree of autonomy. This was proven on May 10th, when a diversionary raid kept the elite French forces in the North busy while General Rommel and Guderian advanced across the Ardennes and the Meuse. Their assault met initially fierce resistance and almost ended in calamity as British air forces and French fought to get a crack at the army advancing into them. However, German anti air was just too good. 45 of the 71 British bombers were downed and German tanks were able to provide lateral fire on the French positions to allow their engineers to build bridges.

General Heinz Guderian, a tank commander, wanted to keep going. However, field marshall Von Kleist, afraid of the idea of his panzers outpacing the infantry. Guderian, ignoring his orders, swept through to the coast cutting allied forces in half and sealing Frances fate. While their soldiers fought hard eventually France would seek a negotiated peace and Marshall Petain would take over, installing an Authoritarian regime that was collaborationist. France was not defeated by Germany alone. It was defeated by outdated military tactics and a political elite that was all too willing to surrender. This is evidenced by Prime Minister Reynaud needing power to Maximillian Weygand and Marshall Petain, both military elites, who disavowed Charles De Gaulle's move to make a government in absentia in London.

They also refused to acknowledge the chance of starting a resistance movement from their African colonies, stating that any Frenchmen who left French soil was committing an act of treachery by doing so. In this way these select few military men had dashed any French hope of continuing the war. France had done everything in it's power to make sure the water did not advance on their own soil. Their adventures in Norway and their hopes of an Eastern front were indicative of this attitude. In the end however, the shocking triunoh of the Wehrmacht had proved too much and French spirit was dampened. The third republic, claimed to be especially weak and decadent but in reality no more so than any other democratic power at the time, was killed by a majority vote in the National Assembly on June 25th, 1940 with Marshall Petain assuming dictatorial powers from the spa town of Vichy in southern France.

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