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Piercing the Fog of War

STRANGE VICTORY Hitler's Conquest of France By Ernest R. May; Hill and Wang: 384 pp., $30

September 24, 2000|PAUL KENNEDY | Paul Kennedy is the author or editor of 14 books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." He is Dilworth professor of history at Yale University

In 1940, the great French medieval historian Marc Bloch sat down to compose a work of critical contemporary significance, which he entitled "Strange Defeat." It told the story of the abrupt and astonishing collapse of France in just a few weeks during May and June of that year, which Bloch had witnessed all too vividly. And it sought to relate the sudden defeat of one of the greatest military nations of the world to those disturbing social, political, economic and moral trends that were weakening the French nation as the 1930s unfolded. The book was a tour de force. Several years after its composition, Bloch was killed by the Nazis for his membership in the French Resistance.

Since that time, historians galore--Gen. Andre Beaufre, Alastair Horne, Brian J. Bond, Liddell Hart, Anthony Adamthwaite, Robert Doughty, Robert Young and many besides--have sought to recount the tale of France's monumental collapse at the hands of the upstart Wehrmacht. This has been a great field for those who wish to draw large and meaningful lessons about the moral and social decline of Western societies in the 20th century (and usually compare France's sorry state with Britain's robust revival under Churchill). It is no surprise that one of the most authoritative recent studies of France's defeat, by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, is entitled "La Decadence: 1932-1939." Sans doute! France lost because it was decadent. France lost in the military sphere because it was decadent in the sociopolitical sphere.

Far fewer historians, however, have looked at the story from the other side of the Rhine, apart from the memoirs of panzer commanders and the official German histories. Essentially, this means--as Ernest May, professor of history at Harvard, points out in his splendid revisionist work "Strange Victory"--that the epic story of the Battle of France has much more often been told from only one perspective, like the Battle of Midway being analyzed only from the Japanese side.

May's book readjusts this Western historical tilt in many sensible ways. To begin with, he has not simply responded by examining only the German side of the story, because that would only replace the view from Paris with the view from Berlin. Instead, he tells the story from all angles, using masses of archival material from French, German, British and Belgian ministries plus printed sources in many languages. The result is a truly international study in European diplomatic and military history that is reminiscent of May's first book, "Imperial Democracy," which told the story of the Spanish-American War of 1898 from many viewpoints.

Still, the fact that this is a study of "Hitler's Conquest of France," as the subtitle suggests, and is intended to readjust the balances of our understanding the events of 1940 means that May's focus is on Germany and that many of his more interesting revelations are about the complex, often twisted relations between the Fuhrer and his generals, some of whom had plotted to oust him only a couple of years earlier. Those opponents within the higher ranks of the Wehrmacht had thought that the forcible reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 was crazy. They trembled at Hitler's extremism during the Munich crisis in 1938, and they were nervous at being brought into a war with Poland, France and Britain in 1939. But in each of those crises, Hitler had been proven right and their own pessimism was discredited.

Yet a full-scale attack on the French, British and Belgian armies in the West was different from the swift overrunning of unmechanized Polish forces, and many generals remembered how Gen. Alfred von Schlieffen's bold plan for a westward offensive in 1914 had bogged down in the hedgerows and poppy fields of Flanders. True, the younger, radical tank generals like Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian were exciting Hitler with the argument that blitzkrieg warfare offered swift and decisive victory, but many others were not persuaded. The senior general, Karl von Rundstedt, for example, said privately that the proposed panzer strike through the Ardennes forests was "madness" and that "the campaign could never be won." The hilly, wooded countryside was impenetrable, and the French army would soon realize what was going on and move superior forces to the scene. The Wehrmacht's modernized divisions were all too few, and much of the army was slow, unwieldy and greatly disrupted by Hitler's constant expansion plans. This was a gamble that was unlikely to come off.

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