Palgrave Macmillan has just published The Fall of France in the Second World War: History and Memory by Richard Carswell, a member of our IHR seminar group. The book considers how the fall of France – the military defeat and demise of the Third Republic in 1940 – was explained by protagonists and observers at the time; how it has been treated by historians in the years to the present day; and how it has been remembered more widely. While many predicted war with Germany during the inter-war period, few foresaw France’s defeat. Germany’s unexpectedly rapid and total military victory spawned a myriad of apparently plausible and sometimes contradictory explanations, based on France’s alleged shortcomings, military, political, economic, moral, spiritual, biological, divine, treasonous, conspiratorial – the list was almost endless. Some chroniclers and historians simply narrate the main military and political events of the two months from 10 May to 10 July 1940 (when the National Assembly voted plenary powers to Marshal Philippe Pétain) and leave it to the reader to glean the reasons for the military and political outcomes. Other historians seek explanations of the disaster in one or more of the four broad themes at the core of the book (schematised by Pierre Grosser and Patrick Finney): decadence; responsibility; constraint; contingency.
Carswell suggests that the academic consensus of today has largely discarded the notion of decadence as an explanatory approach and tends to concentrate on contingency as an important factor in the battle of France. While they usually agree that the collapse of the republic would not have occurred without the military defeat, these historians differ in the relative weight they ascribe to the individual and collective responsibilities of France’s leaders and to the constraints which limited their actions. This consensus (with its variations) has yet to seep into the wider popular consciousness.