What Was France In 1940?

John Reeves
5 min readMay 5, 2017

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Petain meets Hitler in 1940.

In May and June of 1940, France suffered the most devastating catastrophe in its illustrious history. By late June, after the rout of the French army, eight million panic-stricken refugees were fleeing down the roads south of Paris. The nation’s utter annihilation by the German Wehrmacht was incomprehensible to contemporaries, even to the Germans themselves. William Shirer, an American journalist, noted in his diary that the world was witnessing, “the complete breakdown of French society — a collapse of the army, of government, of the morale of the people.” He then added, “It is almost too tremendous to believe.”

The French premier, Paul Reynaud, resigned on June 16 and was succeeded by the 84-year-old hero of Verdun, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, who immediately asked the German government for an armistice. The terms agreed to by Petain on June 22 were unforgiving. From London, General Charles de Gaulle addressed France’s new leader,

“This armistice is dishonorable. Two thirds of our territory occupied by the enemy — and what an enemy! Our entire army demobilized, our officers and men prisoners. Our fleet, our planes, our tanks, our arms, handed over intact so that the enemy may use them against our own Allies. The country, the government, you yourself, reduced to servitude. Ah! To obtain and accept such an enslavement, we did not need the Conquerer of Verdun. Anyone else would have sufficed.”

The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, could not “believe that these conditions would be accepted by any French Government in possession of its freedom, its independence and its constitutional authority.” He believed a victory of Great Britain constituted the “only hope for the restoration of the grandeur of France and the freedom of her people.”

Petain, who was still beloved by the overwhelming majority of French citizens for his heroic leadership at Verdun during the First World War, saw things differently from de Gaulle and Churchill. Shortly after taking power, Petain told the nation in a radio address, “I have made a gift of my person to France.” He believed the war had been lost and it was necessary to alleviate the suffering of the French people. Misjudging the nature of the Nazi regime, he thought an honorable peace could ultimately be obtained from Hitler.

History would judge Petain harshly. Years later, de Gaulle wrote, “Alas! The years had corroded his character. Age delivered him to the maneuvers of men skillful in taking advantage of his majestic lassitude. Old age is a shipwreck…the old age of Marshal Petain was going to identify with the shipwreck of France.”

Soon after France capitulated, Petain and his leading associate, Pierre Laval, pressured the National Assembly into abolishing itself on July 10, 1940. Petain had now become a dictator with Laval as his majordomo. The old general, who would govern from Vichy in the unoccupied southern zone, appeared to have the overwhelming support of the French people. Shirer wrote, “Petain became, like Hitler, the law himself…” One politician said of France’s republican government, “It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men who were charged with guarding it and making it work.”

Charles de Gaulle, a comparatively junior and unknown figure who had only recently been promoted to Brigadier General, refused to surrender or even acknowledge the legitimacy of the Vichy regime. The day after the resignation of Paul Reynaud, de Gaulle flew to London. Of the general’s flight, Churchill wrote, “He carried with him in his small airplane the honor of France.” Upon arriving in England, after his dramatic departure from his homeland, de Gaulle remembered feeling, “deprived of everything, like a man on the shore of an ocean proposing to swim across it.”

On his second day in London, de Gaulle delivered a radio broadcast on the BBC, stating,

“As long as the allies continue the war, her [France] government has no right to surrender to the enemy.”

He called upon soldiers, engineers, and skilled armaments workers to join him in Britain and declared,

“Honor, common sense, and the interests of the country require that all free Frenchmen, wherever they be, should continue the fight as best they may.”

Alas, very few people in France actually heard that address. Shirer observed, “Not one single French military or political figure of any consequence, even in London, offered to join the defiant general. He was utterly alone. But undaunted!” Making matters worse, a military tribunal back in France condemned de Gaulle to death in absentia for desertion. Despite the apparent hopelessness of his task, de Gaulle exuded confidence. Later he wrote, “What I was determined to save was the French nation and the French State. What I had to bring back into the war was not just Frenchmen, but France. It was up to me to take responsibility for France.”

In a recent presidential debate, Marine Le Pen argued that the Vichy regime did not represent France. Instead, she insisted, “France was in London then.” In the summer of 1940, that would have been a highly dubious proposition to defend. De Gaulle had just 100,000 francs and a handful of volunteers. It also appeared inevitable that Great Britain would soon succumb to the German onslaught.

In retrospect, Petain’s claim of representing France was also suspect. He had obtained absolute power at a moment when French citizens were experiencing extreme disorientation and vulnerability. Shirer believed, “The elected representatives of the people bore a heavy responsibility for their abdication in a moment of fear and panic — a judgment made by the French themselves after the war when they barred from public life all those who had voted the death of the Republic.”

After the Allied victory, Petain was found guilty of treason by a French court and sentenced to death. General de Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment at the fortress on the Ile d’Yeu in the Bay of Biscay. Petain died in 1951, aged 95, his name forever blackened in French history.

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John Reeves

Author of “A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.”