In the year 1918, Germany and its allies, Austria and Turkey, were defeated by the forces of France, Great Britain, Italy, Belgium, and the United States in the terrible war now known as World War I. To ensure that Germany would be of no further threat to French security, French premier Georges Clemenceau sought revenge against the Germans at the peace conference in Versailles. France demanded the demolition of German militarism and a great reduction of German territory.
France recovered the provinces of Alsace and lost parts of Lorraine, and all German overseas colonies were seized and parceled out among the Allies. The Armed Forces of Germany was deprived of its military and naval air forces, and the army was reduced to a limit of 100,000 men (Flory & Jenike 356). Propelled by a strong sense of revenge, these demands were not enough for Clemenceau and other French statesmen. French minister Etienne Clementel argued that if Germany was left without any real and permanent redistribution of economic resources, France might once again be threatened by Germany’s industrial strength.
This vision became the basis policy of the French government, and great reparation payments were forced upon the Germans, which not only ruined the German economy, but also produced an unsurprising outrage amongst the German people. After the Treaty of Versailles, the triumph of the victory over Germany promoted a feeling of confidence amongst the French, who were assured that Germany could never again rise to provoke another World War. Despite all the efforts to cripple and contain Germany, France had neglected in preparing herself well enough to attack, relying very heavily on defensives.
When the time came for the French to fight against Germany in the Second World War, France was clearly unprepared. In an effort to contain Germany through alliances, the Locarno pacts of 1925 with Poland and Czechoslovakia also brought about a sense of security for France against potential German aggression. Czechoslovakia was promised protection and support against any German attacks. These treaties were negotiated in secret under the major powers of Europe, and were regarded as the promise of a new era of peace in the war-exhausted world.
German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann insisted on a reduction of the forces occupying the Rhineland, which was under the control of the French and British at the time. The pacts resolved territorial disputes between Germany and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France, and steered toward a new era of Franco-German cooperation (Mazower 109). Economic cooperation increased between the two countries, and a Franco-German commercial treaty was signed in 1926 (McMillan 99). After the war, each nation’s army carefully studied the methods of warfare and weapons used during the war, and began to puzzle out improved strategies to fighting a war.
France had already been invaded by Germany twice within the previous fifty years, and to prevent another invasion, the leaders of the French Army were determined to construct a vast defensive barrier along the entire border between France and Germany. Named after French minister of war Andre Maginot, the Maginot Line was a long line of concrete and steel forts armed with many “large, long-range cannons, concealed machine guns and antitank gun emplacements, deep ditches, barbed-wire entanglements, areas of buried explosive mines,” and many other obstacles designed to keep off any enemy attacks (McGowen 12).
The line stretched from Luxembourg to Switzerland, and was considered a masterpiece of the highest technological advancement at the time (Evenson 232). An important new weapon used in the war, the tank, was carefully studied and experimented with by the French Calvary. In 1935, France organized what was the world’s first tank division, known as a Division Legere Mechanique (DLM), or Light Mechanized Division (McGowen 17-18). It was firmly believed by most of the world’s military experts of the 1930s that the French Army was the world’s best, and that the Maginot Line was indisputably impenetrable by any army.
Also in 1935, French leader Pierre Laval signed a mutual assistance pact with Russia, but neglected to develop it with following staff talks and a military convention. This was a major failing for France, as it came to be that Germany should sign a ten-year non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939. This provided Hitler with a great benefit in avoiding a two-front war with Russia. A similar mutual assistance pact was signed between Czechoslovakia and Russia, but this, too, became past.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler began to display signs of belligerence by sending troops marching into the Rhineland, which daringly defied the Locarno Pacts that Germany had signed in 1925. Despite that it was also a direct violation of the clause for the demilitarized buffer zone between Germany and France in the Versailles Treaty, Hitler took his chances and succeeded in taking over the Rhineland. Hitler and his generals knew well that the German Army was weak and far behind France and Great Britain in its ability to fight a war, but France failed to take action.
This was partly because the French government was suffering from political factionalism, and was undergoing a severe cabinet crisis at the time of the remilitarization (Flory & Jenike 399). France’s belief of the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles, or the idea of revanchism, factored another reason for her failure to respond. Other than negotiating a pact to appease Hitler, French policy-makers and their British counterparts agreed that there was no real other alternative (McMillan 120). Although Germany seemed unprepared for war, an enormous new army was forming and new weapons were being produced at a frightening speed.
Many people in Austria openly showed their admiration for the things Hitler and the Nazis were doing for Germany, and expressed a desire to become a part of Germany. As Hitler began to grow more and more confident in his leadership, he viewed this as an excuse to invade and annex Austria in 1938. There was no effective protest from France or Britain against the achievement of Anschluss, and so the German Army was joined with the Austrian Army, which increased German forces a great deal. Hitler now had his eye on the Sudentenland, on the Czech border, which was inhabited by a population of 3. 5 million Germans (McMillan 121).
In 1938, the Munich Pact was signed in an attempt to appease Hitler, promising Germany one-third of Czech territory. Hitler also acquired four million people, including one million Czechs, the Skoda armament works, and the defensible frontier in the deal (Flory & Jenike 401). The Munich agreements marked the peak of attempts to keep from going to war with Germany, but only assisted in providing Hitler with a stronger confidence in his power. Within six months, Hitler had violated the pact by sending German troops to take over the rest of Czechoslovakia and gained all the forces of the Czech Army.
Czechs mobilized, expecting aid from France, Great Britain and Russia, but none of them wanted to risk starting a war with Germany. The Czechs were betrayed and abandoned by the western powers in order to appease Hitler, and this gave him time to consolidate his power. Ironically, the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, which disregarded the Locarno Pacts, eventually dragged the French into a war they had tried so desperately to prevent since 1918. The appeasement policy was a great failure and blunder for the Allies. By this time Hitler was convinced France and Great Britain would do nothing to stop him from doing what he wanted.
Hitler soon made a demand for Danzig, a part of Poland which had been taken from Germany and given to Poland after World War I. When Poland refused, with the forces of Great Britain, France and Russia behind her, it was clear there would be a second World War. However, soon after this, Hitler negotiated a shocking non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on August 23 (Calvovoressi 58). Hitler was now free to fight Poland without worrying about a two-front war, which had been the cause of Germany’s defeat in World War I.
In return, Russia was free to take Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, Bessarabia (in Romania), and Lithuania (Boorstin & Kelley 663). After Hitler invaded Poland in September, Great Britain and France declared war against Germany – and the Second World War had begun. As it became obvious that France would once again go to war against Germany, the French Army had sixty-seven field divisions positioned along the border between France and Belgium and also behind the Maginot Line (McGowen 46). Still the French was geared entirely on defense, and mobilized slowly.
McGowen argues that Germany would certainly have been in extreme danger, had the Allies made a quick attack across the French-German border before Germany had a chance to withdraw its troops from Poland. However, this chance was lost because the French military was too concentrated on building up their defense forces (40). Their role was to contain the German attack the best they could until the British were also more prepared for a massive attack, thus leaving Poland to face her fate of being repartitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union.
As the British were busy fortifying the French military and the French continued to building up their forces behind the Maginot Line, Germany was moving its armies back from Poland, and was busy with fortifying the Westwall. It was a strange stretch of time when there was no fighting in Western Europe broadcasted as a “phony war,” otherwise known in German was the sitzkrieg, meaning “sitting war. ” Months passed with little progression in the war, and the French Army began to decrease severely in morale and discipline.
Having held the title of being the best army in the world for so many years, most French soldiers believed they could easily defeat the Germans. McMillan believes that, to some extent, the inactivity of the “phony war” sprang more from a false sense of security, based on the confidence in the impenetrability of the Marginot Line. The illusion of normality throughout the nation also prevented the growth of any real sense of national unity (124). Hitler’s Mein Kampf was not translated into French until 1934 and very few Frenchmen had read about the alarming hatred Hitler openly put up to France. McMillan 119).
Through the sitzkrieg, German soldiers would hold up banners asking French soldiers why they are fighting, hoping to disheart their opponents about the war. As the French Army was becoming more lazy and careless, Hitler was preparing a big attack against France. Hitler ended the “phony war” in April with the invasion of Denmark and Norway. Battlefront was everywhere now, and soon afterwards the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were taken over. France quickly became nervous and requested more air support from Britain.
French aviation could not compare to the strength of the German Luftwaffe, but Chamberlain wanted to keep British planes for the defense of his own country and the French were turned down. On May 10, 1940, Hitler ordered the invasion of France. Hitler’s surprising strategy for the attack depended heavily upon air power, and became known as Blitzkrieg, or the “lightning war. ” Using the fastest new vehicles, the idea was to attack from the sky at lightning speed. As technologically advanced as it was, the Maginot Line was still just a wall, inflexible and exposed at the sea and Ardennes Forest.
The German Army trooped into France by simply going around the “impenetrable” Maginot Line, and attacked at the “blind spots,” where French defenders could not see an attack from the side (Flory & Jenike 421). French generals were taken by surprise by how fast Germany came in, and were totally unprepared. French general Maxim Weygand was commander of the French forces at that time, and produced a plan to try to fight off the German attack with what was left of his army.
Despite his efforts, all the soldiers in the French Army’s line of defense had fled by May 13, and Germany charged into France. The end was now at hand. With the triumph of the “lightning war” tactics, France was taken over within a period of only 43 days (McGowen 61). The end came swiftly, with Mussolini to increase French misery with his declaration of war against France four days before the fall of Paris, hoping to gain in on some of the benefits. On June 14 Hitler marched into Paris with his Nazis as citizens of Paris watched with tears at the Nazis’ victory parade.
With Italy involved in the invasion of southern France, France surrendered by the end of June, and Britain stood alone. The fall of France shocked the world. That summer, French premier Philippe Petain was reluctantly forced back into power. He was known as a supreme patriot during World War I, and many French men and women beheld him as the country’s savior in this time of disaster. He established a puppet state called Vichy France, which was occupied by German troops in November 1942 (Flory & Jenike 421).
Under the leadership of Petain and Laval, the Vichy regime was welcomed by those against the Third Republic, and replaced the Republican ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” with the precept of “family, country, and work” (McMillan 136). Ironically, it was Petain himself who decided that is was best for France to seek active collaboration with the Nazis. Laval was at his side, bent on unifying France with the Hitlerian order in Europe. They hoped, in consequence, that the Nazis would soften their harsh treatment of French citizens if they continued to feed the demands of Hitler, and followed the Nazi policy.
Appeasement and accommodation with Hitler brought no return. To the satisfaction of German economic supremo Albert Speer, French workers were sent to work in Germany in 1943, and became the principal source of skilled labor for the Germans in all of Europe (McMillan 141). The entire French economy was given over to fortify Germany’s war economy. A scapegoat had to be found, and the blame for the defeat in 1940 fell upon the Jews. With the cooperation of French policemen, French Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps.
A quarter of the country’s Jewish population had been exterminated in the Holocaust, the first round-up of the Jews being in August 1941, and the second in 1942 (Bely 130). The Second World War may have been avoided if the French had stood more firmly against Hitler’s insatiable demands, and concentrated more on developing a keener sense of national unity. Perhaps not have recognized that long before, France suffered greatly from Petain’s collaborationist designs toward the Nazis.
By 1944, four years after its establishment, Vichy no longer existed, and both leaders were branded as traitors to the country. Put on trial at the Liberation, Petain would implore that, “having failed to be the sword of the French people, he had at least tried to be their shield” (McMillan 136). McMillian explains how Vichy’s sordid methods were at drastic odds with its professed goal of a national moral revival (139). We must always remember and study these misjudgments to prevent another World War from ever happening again.