Book Review: Jean-Baptiste Duroselle's France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939

One of the urgent questions that keeps coming up in the war with Islamic careerists is this: what is the similarity of the situation that lead up to the start of World War II?  Are our leaders appeasers in the tradition of Neville Chamberlain, letting budding Hitlers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have victory after victory until they start a war their opponents are unprepared to fight?  To understand the answer to this question, it’s necessary to understand the events that lead to the first part of the analogy.

Most Anglophones do think of Chamberlain and the British, but what about the French?  They were the other “key player” in the whole drama, and had more “skin in the game” as they had a land border (and three neutral countries unable to withstand a German onslaught) between them and Germany.  Why didn’t they act more forcefully?  The answer to that question is the subject of France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939 by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, the most eminent expert on the subject France has produced.

Most American conservatives tend to dismiss the French, especially in the wake of their lack of support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  But the French, especially in the early part of the period in question, did many things that would warm the hearts of any American neo-con.  For example, they held out for the gold standard much longer than their American and British counterparts.  In an age when disarmament talks were much the rage in diplomatic circles and at the League of Nations, the French were advocates of the “trust but verify” philosophy which Ronald Reagan would advocate in the 1980’s.  Especially when Louis Barthou–in some ways the real “hero” of this story if there is one–was Foreign Minister, France pursued a system of alliances with eastern European countries and with the USSR as well to counteract the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany.  But Barthou died in the assassination of Yugoslavian King Alexander I in Marseille, and his successors lacked his vigour, to say the least.

But fail France ultimately did, and Duroselle attributes this to several factors.

The first was the nature of France’s political system.  Having drug themselves through the Reign of Terror, two Napoleons and the other excitement of the nineteenth century, the French were wary of real centralisation of power.  The Third Republic, an heir of the French revolutionary tradition, was set up in theory with Cartesian logic and centralisation.  The reality was that its multi-party system and weak presidency guaranteed that no one group would dominate, which meant instability.  During the period in question (from the death of Aristide Briand to the outbreak of the war in Poland) France had no fewer than nine Foreign Ministers, some of them serving more than one time in office.  As a result France was inherently slow to react to focused threats such as Nazi Germany.  One thing that Duroselle observes more than once is that this instability reflected the desires of the French people even if it didn’t serve their interests.

The second was the legacy of the “Great War,” World War I.  France had been “bled dry” by that conflict.  Its people were totally unenthusiastic for another war; much of the slowness of their response was a form of denial.  Its military, having been burned with an obsessively attack-oriented strategy in World War I, overcompensated by adopting an obsessively defensive strategy, symbolised by the Maginot Line.  This strategy ignored the rise of mechanisation, both on the ground (tanks, motorised infantry) and especially in the air which would change the nature of war.  France was especially tardy in rising to the latter issue, not beginning to seriously upgrade its air force until 1938 (the Germans and even the British had started in the middle of the decade.)

And that leads to the third problem: the British were no help at all for most of this period.  It was no secret that France could not stop the Germans militarily without the British.  But the UK had a different view of the situation.  Protected (or at least they thought they were) by the Royal Navy, the British were not as sensitive to the needs for strong land defence as their French counterparts.  In any case most of those in London–including Neville Chamberlain and especially Sir John Simon–were appeasers from the start to Munich, even insisting in the early period that the French disarm, as was the fashion of the time.  The only British politician to address the issue of Germany satisfactorily in the period was Anthony Eden (Churchill, who would have proceeded entirely differently, was in the political wilderness during the 1930’s,) and he didn’t last long.  The performance of the British (and to a lesser extent the Americans) doubtless was in de Gaulle’s mind when he constructed France’s offish security arrangements in the 1960’s.

Through one government after another, the French attempted to put together a plan to deal with Hitler’s rise.  They did so in the middle of the last Great Depression.  France’s agrarian economy insulated it from the initial severity of the crash, but as depression drug out and the Anglophone world played post-gold standard games with their currencies, the economic debacle reached the Hexagon.  The turning point of the story took place in 1936 with a) the German occupation of the Rhineland and b) the election of the Popular Front and Léon Blum.  France’s attention was more focused on its social problems (the 40 hour work week and the exit from the gold standard were implemented in this period, the former only to be fudged on with war preparations and the latter subverted by the French themselves) than with the rise of Nazi Germany.   The Rhineland occupation caught both London and Paris flatfooted.  The French lack of meaningful response was in part due to Maurice Gamelin’s overestimate of Germany’s strength.  (The Americans were to repeat this faulty guesswork during the Cold War, overestimating the USSR’s missile strength in the 1950’s, then to wake up in the late 1970’s to discover they really did have a “missile gap” on their hands, although the American response was different.)

The capitulation at Munich in 1938 may have been an embarrassment to the British, but it was a disaster for the French.  Édouard Daladier had good intentions, but in some ways he was a hawk flying with turkeys such as Chamberlain and his own Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, as accomplished of an appeaser as the British.  The sell-out of Czechoslovakia led to the collapse of France’s credibility, especially in eastern Europe and the USSR.  That collapse doubtless made an impact on Stalin and Molotov as they, having toyed with the British and French about a mutual assistance pact, turned around and signed the non-aggression pact with Germany, which cleared the way for Hitler’s Wermacht to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.

In the middle of this drama Duroselle chronicles much of the history of Europe in the 1930’s as it affected France’s foreign policy.  It will come as a surprise that Mussolini’s Italy, always assumed to be hand in glove with Hitler, was in fact alarmed at Hitler’s rise and especially the possibility of the absorption of Austria into the the Reich.  It wasn’t until the Italians invaded Ethiopia that Italy, isolated by sanctions and disapproval, really gravitated towards Germany and the “Pact of Steel.”  In the background also was the Spanish Civil War.  One would expect Popular Front France to be enthusiastic about supporting the Republicans, but France took a policy of non-intervention.  The final collapse of the Republic (followed by France’s recognition of Franco) is probably the most moving part of the book from a humanitarian standpoint.

In the middle of the book Duroselle stops and takes a look at France in the 1930’s.  In spite of their reputation as a chic and sophisticated people, the French of the era were insular, lacking in foreign language skills, and inveterate homebodies.  Their commercial presence internationally–aided to some extent by their empire in Africa and South-east Asia–was reasonable but not outstanding, and not a centrepiece of their foreign policy, as the loss of France’s presence in eastern Europe in the wake of Munich would attest to.

Duroselle was certainly the master of his subject.  The reader is well advised to become familiar with the French system of the Third Republic before attempting to wade through the diplomatic maze he describes.  The translation is reasonable, although dense in spots.

Americans frequently think they are wholly other than the French–whose current political state is the other major direct product of the Enlightenment–but reading Duroselle should disabuse anyone of the notion.  There are important differences, some of which he points out, but France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932-1939 should be a warning that a divided country facing both a major economic crisis and emerging threats can be vulnerable to serious disaster irrespective of its past as a world power.

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