Strange Defeat

The main illusion of the interwar period in France was that another war could somehow be averted. Since the debacle of 1940 the central question has been, What brought about the collapse? Here two views dominate. The first argues that the debacle, and everything that flowed from it, was a more or less inevitable consequence of attitudes and events in the previous two decades, as suggested already during the Occupation by Marc Bloch. The second denies any determinism in France’s collapse, stresses the patriotism and willingness of most Frenchmen to defend their country in 1939—40, and either implies or explicitly asserts that Vichy and the Collaboration were an aberration not representative of the vast majority of the population or of the general sweep of French history.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that while fascists on both sides of the Rhine had attributed the defeat to the alleged decadence of the republic, the French generals disseminated the myth that the debacle had been the inevitable outcome of the army’s material and technological inferiority. The prewar prime minister, Edouard Daladier, rejected the latter argument outright. As he wrote in his prison cell during the Occupation, it was precisely those “pathetic old officers,” such as Petain, who had “betrayed the trust we placed in them” by their “opposition to armored divisions” and their “belief in fixed fortifications.” And yet, much as he derided the generals, Daladier viewed the larger context of the debacle through the prism of France’s reaction to World War I, writing that the republic had transformed the commemoration of the Armistice into “a funeral rite,” and had made the Arc de Triomphe into “little more than a glorified sepulcher” surrounded by “a crowd huddled in meditation, as if at graveside.” Indeed, even the victory parade of 1919 began with the march of the wounded—many of whom were horribly mutilated. Soon thereafter France became dotted with innumerable memorials that acted more as sites of mourning than as reminders of triumph. Sculptures of dead and dying soldiers, such as we find in Domme, Lilas, Levallois, and countless other locations, reflect a general public perception of war as an event of mass death. No wonder then that while Daladier perceived Vichy as the creature of a conspiracy by “the men of February 6,” who “took their revenge by surrendering in Bordeaux,” and “handed France over to the Germans so as to finish off the Republic,” he also had no doubt that the success of this “plot” was facilitated by the widespread pacifist sentiment in interwar France.

This view is shared by several scholars who have recently written on this period. Philippe Burrin traces French accommodation during the Occupation to the rifts of the 1930s. It was then, he argues, that the country’s cohesion was undermined, that fear of war created a “pacifist depression,” and that growing xenophobia and antisemitism were accompanied by a remarkably “unaggressive attitude” toward the Nazis. If the French entered the war filled with angst rather than determination, the trauma of defeat and the wholly unanticipated occupation only enhanced their bewilderment. Accommodation was thus the expression of both mental attitudes and political opinions already present in France before the debacle, ranging from separatism, antirepublicanism, a longing for national renewal, outright fascism, integral pacifism, and sheer opportunism. While preventing the formation of a united front, these competing dispositions and ideologies created a space for collaboration with the Germans and for the brutal persecution of France’s perceived domestic enemies.

Similarly, Eugen Weber endorses Bloch’s view that the passage from the glory of World War I to the confusion, turmoil, and ultimate paralysis of the interwar period lay at the roots of the “strange defeat.” Weber notes that for the “pacifists of the Left and Right” the “real enemies of peace... were inside France: in parliament, in government, and among those Jews and refugees who sought to embroil the country in war with Germany.” It was this view of the enemy as being installed within the nation, that eventually led some pacifists to see the German occupation as an occasion to purge France of its domestic foes. At a time of economic crisis and unemployment, this attitude bred prejudice and intolerance. While the Right had a long tradition of antisemitism, dating back to the 1880s, the climate of the 1930s offered the Left, too, as Weber writes, “licit opportunities for xenophobia and patriotic ire.” And since “Jews had long been the resident alien par excellence,” and in France “were associated with the German enemy,” anti-Jewish outbursts occurred already in the 1920s and were greatly exacerbated by the waves of refugees from Germany after Hitler’s “seizure of power” in 1933. Thus Jews and refugees became synonymous in the public mind, foreigners in general were seen as polluting the nation and taking away jobs from honest Frenchmen, and antisemitism became increasingly prevalent in the last years of the republic.

To be sure, for all its fear of war, economic hardship, resentment of foreigners, political instability and corruption, France did not turn to fascism. While the mass of the print media was on the Right, and an array of antirepublican and quasi-fascist or paramilitary organizations flourished, when push came to shove in the street fighting of February 6, 1934, what died was not democratic rule but the future of fascism in France (until the German occupation). The riots made possible the formation of the Popular Front and demonstrated the limits of fascism—an inherently aggressive and militaristic movement—in a nation imbued with pacifist and defensive attitudes. This, however, made for a major reorientation of political attitudes in the mid-1930s, whereby right-wing nationalists shifted to an antiwar posture, while the Left became increasingly militant. The possibility of national unity vanished when the Right joined the pacifists in viewing their main threat as the socialists and Communists whose destruction must be achieved even at the cost of collaboration with France’s foreign foes. As each political camp harbored its own illusions, the increasing politicization and polarization of society, the timidity and lack of enterprise of the military (whose concepts of warfare remained firmly anchored in the experience of World War I) and the shortage of manpower caused by the “hollow years” of low birthrate that resulted from the losses in 1914—18 combined to enhance the political paralysis and domestic tensions that prevented the nation from preparing for confrontation with Germany.

The central paradox of French society in the 1930s was that it maintained an obsessive public discourse on war yet was tremendously reluctant to prepare for it. Thus, for instance, while aerial warfare was anticipated to bring about a universal apocalypse, hardly anything was done to create civil defense or to build an air force capable of stopping enemy aircraft. As Alain put it, “The essence of tragedy is the expectation of catastrophe.” Hence we find Julian Green writing in his Journal in 1930 that everyone was talking about the next war: “In salons, in cafes, that is all that one hears with the same tone of horror.” In 1932 he notes, “The madness . . . consists of expecting the war for the end of the week. For the last four years we have lived in this nightmare of fear.” Henri de Montherlant, who claimed to be kept awake at night by thoughts of war, asserted that most people around him “do not give a damn. . . . they know there is a menace . . . but bury their heads in the sand”; and Jean de Pange noted that “all France [is] obsessed by the thought of German aggression.” That was the atmosphere in which France erected the Maginot Line, the vast chain of fortifications that only trapped its soldiers underground and channeled the German Panzer divisions to a scantily protected invasion route that should have surprised nobody, using tactics and war machines already known since at least the Polish campaign of the previous year. This was, as Weber says, “the war that nobody wanted”; it was also one that nobody had prepared for, despite the fact that everyone talked about it. Moreover, while some believed that the war had been fought against the wrong enemy, others insisted that it should not have been fought at all, and others still maintained that the defeat was the consequence of a domestic conspiracy by the opposite political camp. One can hardly think of a more propitious climate for the installation of a regime in France that declared its determination both to collaborate with the Germans and to totally change the nature of French politics and society.

Notably, it was during the 1930s that the social-revolutionary pacifist optimism represented by Barbusse was replaced by much darker visions, as the French remembered the death and desolation of 1914—18 with even greater intensity in view of the shattered hopes for a better world and fears of yet another war. This was well reflected in Jean Renoir’s film The Grand Illusion (1937), which is both about World War I as an event that brutalized even the most noble spirits, and a devastating critique of the interwar years, made even more explicit in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). Hardly in line with his commitment to the cinema engage of the Popular Front, Renoir makes a powerful statement on the disintegration of French society in the wake of disaster, while simultaneously painting a nostalgic, if also ironic picture of the old codes of conduct and honor, decency and courage, that were irretrievably lost in the war. Renoir may be politically on the side of Marechal (Jean Gabin), but he laments the disappearance of such men as the French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), or the physical and mental distortion of his German counterpart von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), two men who have more in common with each other, both socially and spiritually, than with their respective underlings. Gabin wins, but his victory is finally not that of his class, but of his type, of the tough survivors, of the fittest. Neither courage, nor justice, appear victorious, but raw instincts, physical strength and will power. These, combined with the now rotten and degenerate remnants of the old society, and quasi-pathetic arrivistes characterized by the Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), ultimately create the world of The Rules of the Game, a Ship of Fools whose passengers dance away the night as it irrevocably goes under.

Renoir’s films mirrored the increasing preoccupation in 1930s France with the nature of the next war. Here was a perplexing image with neither clear-cut boundaries nor easily identifiable foes, where domestic strife overlapped with international conflict, and the identity of friends and enemies alike became progressively elusive. Torn over opposing prognoses of and preventive measures against future military confrontation, the French conducted a debilitating battle among themselves over the shape of their society and the implications of destruction. As the turmoil at home and the dangers abroad intensified, France began to imagine war as an apocalyptic event that, rather than bring about the end of armed conflict, would wipe out civilization itself. In the last prewar years, a cacophony of voices competed over the implications of this predicted catastrophe: Would it sweep away the old and prepare a clean slate for the construction of a “brave new world,” a “workers’ paradise,” or a “racial utopia”? Or would it irreversibly annihilate humanity altogether? Was universal apocalypse an event to be anticipated with revolutionary fervor or should it be prevented even at the price of submitting to evil?

That the conflicting images of war and anticipations of disaster that wreaked havoc in 1930s France coalesced into an initially almost uniform support for, or acquiescence with, Vichy and the Occupation demonstrates the extent of overlap between warring political camps in this respect. On both extremes of the ideological spectrum, those who hoped to build a new world on the ruins of the old found their loyalties stretched between allegiance to the patrie (homeland) and attraction to foreign paragons and allies. Resentful of the republic and fascinated with fascism, the radical Right found it difficult to oppose Germany in defense of a system it no longer supported. The Communists, for their part, were torn between animosity to the Right and the military establishment, and obedience to the conflicting orders of the Kremlin—which first declared war on fascism and then signed a treaty with Hitler. Similarly, the New Pacifism of the interwar years, which proclaimed absolute opposition to war, even at the price of national capitulation, both employed a terminology of violent conflict at home and prepared for collaboration with the foreign enemy.

What is so striking about representations of war in France of the entre-deux-guerres is that beyond their heavy emphasis on mourning for the fallen of 1914—18, they frequently imply the need to avoid another war at any cost. It is here that the ideological divide almost totally vanishes, as it did, for similar reasons, in the early months following the debacle. For such representations reflect the widespread illusion that anything, including defeat, occupation, and collaboration, is better than another slaughter. This was of course the message of the endless lists of names inscribed on hundreds of memorials in the towns and villages of France. But the dead were mobilized by every political cause and fear of war became a potent weapon in the hands of all parties. Thus, for instance, a poster protesting the Allies’ demand from France to pay back its war debts, depicts a dead soldier rising from his tomb with the question: “In your calculations, have you included the price of my blood and that of my comrades?” A right-wing election poster in 1928 warns that a victory by the Left would encourage “Hindenburg the God of war”—seen marching ahead of massed artillery and warplanes—to launch war, just as Bethmann-Hollweg had done following the elections of 1914. Yet while throughout the interwar period the Right played on the public’s fear of war, it proposed no alternative to confronting a future enemy invasion. This had a devastating effect on public morale, since neither the Right nor the Left appeared able or willing to contemplate the actual possibility of war but merely used it as a threat and a warning. Moreover, the boundaries between foreign and domestic conflict were intentionally blurred. Thus, in a mid-1920s election poster, the extreme right-wing league, Les Jeunesses Patriotes, presents itself as manning the ramparts, flying the flag of “Social Peace,” while defending the fortress from the charging “revolutionary hordes” (fig. 2).

Internal conflict as extension of foreign threat. “Les Jeunesses Patriotes are building the ramparts that will stop the revolutionary hordes.” Right-wing poster, mid-1920s.

FIGURE 2. Internal conflict as extension of foreign threat. “Les Jeunesses Patriotes are building the ramparts that will stop the revolutionary hordes.” Right-wing poster, mid-1920s. 

This kind of rhetoric intensified during the 1930s, when the danger of a new war increased and the domestic conflict became ever more vicious. Following the riots of February 6, 1934, the socialist party’s daily, Le Populaire, appeared with the headline “Fascism Will Not Pass!” equating the radical Right, which included many war veterans, with the Boches (Germans) against whom the slogan “they will not pass!” was used in 1914—18. Thus the Left, too, presented domestic opponents as equivalent to the foreign threat. Conversely, the Popular Front came to be seen by the Right as even more menacing than the Germans, while simultaneously being charged with wishing to bring about war. Innumerable political posters now depicted the anticipated war in the form of German bombers destroying France, implying thereby that the Right would prevent a conflict that France could not conceivably win (fig. 3). This right-wing defeatism in the guise of anti-Left sentiments is probably the best indication of the crisis of French society on the eve of the debacle. The bizarre consensus between the Left and the Right that was at the root of the strange defeat is perfectly encapsulated in a 1938 poster issued by the fascist journal Je suis partout, where a morose poilu (ordinary soldier), faced with the demand to “Die for the Soviets! Die for the Negus! Die for Red Spain! Die for China! Die for the Czechs! Die for the Jews!” responds by saying: “Thank you, I’d rather: ‘live for France!’” This is the atmosphere of fear and defeatism depicted so well in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel on the war scare of 1938, The Reprieve. For such fascist opposition to war was not substantially different from the attitude expressed in a 1939 trade union poster, portraying the workers of Europe united behind the slogan “Enough!” (with war and arms production). It was this same slogan that united French, German, and Italian pacifist veterans who gathered at Douaumont, by Verdun, in 1936, in an antiwar demonstration. Four years later these same German workers were dictating terms to their French comrades.

It was the illusion of peace that led Felicien Challaye, one of the leaders of French pacifism, to declare in March 1936 that the pacifists “want nothing to do with war, even that which is baptized antifascist and revolutionary” and to insist, following the debacle, on the “duty to collaborate with Germany.” On the other extreme of the political map, the Jeunesses Patriotes proclaimed in its leaflets: “Le Communisme, viola l’Ennemi!” (Communism, this is the enemy!), while the new fascist league La Solidarite Franjaise warned that the red fascism of social-Communist Judeo-freemasons posed a deadly threat to freedom, the family, and the nation and that it was about to bring revolutionary tyranny to France as it had to central Europe and Russia. War was thus conceived as a struggle between competing forces inside France, all of which, for one reason or another, feared or rejected the idea of military confrontation with a foreign enemy and vented their rage by combating each other. The term pacifism is perhaps somewhat misleading in this context, since even the most militant pacifists were willing to fight those who in their opinion were French proponents of war. Blood, sacrifice, and destruction were terms on everyone’s lips. War became a general obsession, perhaps even greater than in Germany in the late 1930s; and yet it was civil war that everyone spoke of, whether in order to prevent another catastrophe such as that of 1914—18 or to ward off a Franco-Bolshevik uprising. There is little doubt that the ample evidence of the price of war throughout France did its share in diminishing the public’s willingness to take part in another massacre. At the same time the fact that the fear of war did not facilitate domestic reconciliation, but rather introduced a new violence to political and intellectual discourse, indicates the brutalizing impact of 1914—18 on French society. That the abhorrence of foreign war reached such dimensions in France is quite laudable; that it ultimately led not only to military defeat but also to collaboration with the Nazis is a trauma that France is still trying to overcome.

Fear of war as component of domestic politics. “If the Front Commun [Popular Front] attacks... Hitler [will] attack France!” Right-wing poster, mid-1930s.

FIGURE 3. Fear of war as component of domestic politics. “If the Front Commun [Popular Front] attacks... Hitler [will] attack France!” Right-wing poster, mid-1930s.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!