French History @IHR: Roundtable on Richard Carswell – The Fall of France

Date and Place: Monday 7th October 2019 in the IOE, Bedford Way, Room 728

Speakers: Richard Carswell, Chris Millington (Manchester Metropolitan), Emily Hooke (Southampton), Ricchard Vinen (KCL)

Paper Title: Roundtable discussion of Richard Carswell’s The Fall of France in the Second World War: History and Memory

To listen to a recording of the event, click here (right click to save as MP3)

The first Modern French history seminar of the academic year marked the publication of Dr Richard Carswell’s monograph, The Fall of France in the Second World War: history and memory. This new book traces how the Fall of France has been treated by people who lived through the defeat in May-June 1940 and by historians afterwards. It provides an excellent appraisal of both contemporary sources and the latest historiography.

The round table took place in presence of the author and three discussants: Dr Chris Millington (Manchester Metropolitan), Emily Hooke (University of Southampton) and Prof Richard Vinen (KCL). Dr Andrew Smith (University of Chichester) chaired the discussion.

Richard Carswell introduced the four main approaches to studying the Fall of France that dominate the historiography:

  • An insistence on powerful forces such as decadence and conspiracy. Such reading, which has long dominated narratives on the Fall of France, suggests that the French military defeat was the inevitable consequence of a society grown rotten in the inter-war period.
  • A military approach that chiefly focuses on what happened on the battlefield.
  • An examination of failure through two main questions: who failed, what failed? This brings up broader conceptual issues: How does one define failure? Is it systemic?
  • A focus on constraints, influenced by the work of Peter Jackson. This view pays particular attention to the consequences of the First World War and connects the years following the Treaty of Versailles with the defeat of France. In this reading, interwar economic constrains explain France’s slow rearmament. Likewise, France’s precarious system of diplomatic and military alliances that emerged from the war explains its poor defence strategy in 1940.

Inspired by the works of Julian Jackson and Jean-Pierre Azéma, Carswell’s book combines approaches that focus on constraints, failure and contingency. Carswell ended his brief introduction by explaining why military history is not enough to appreciate the complexity of the Fall of France.

Chris Millington began his comments on the book by evoking the significance of the French defeat in British and US popular culture, from the description of the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” in a 1995 episode of the Simpsons to recurrent parallels that popped in the medias in 2003 between French military failure in 1940 and Jacques Chirac’s reluctance to engage in the Second Iraq war. Millington praised both Carswell’s impressive use of sources and his ability to distill them. He noted that the chapter on decadence was particularly excellent (and useful for teaching) in how it sets out clearly what contemporaries and historians meant by decadence, a concept that students often have difficulty understanding. For Millington, the most interesting parts of the book consist of snippets of the lives of people who were caught up in the experience of the defeat and whose narratives tend to be erased from military histories of the period. Millington ended his remarks with questions about the global ramification of the defeat; the experience of people of colour caught up in the exodus; the memorialisation of the defeat; and what remains to be written about the fall of France.

Emily Hooke praised the methodology of Carswell’s book: by mixing different contemporary perspectives on the Fall of France with how scholars have looked at it, Carswell highlights how different historical actors had very different views of the defeat. She was also interested in Carswell’s use of memoirs and noted that these ego documents often worked as ways to justify individual actions to avoid the blame. In other words, writing about one’s role in the defeat often constituted a way to justify one’s action to posterity. Finally, she raised a question about the emotional consequence of the defeat and the Armistice, noting that many resisters had fought in 1939 and 1940; yet in their post-war writings they papered over their experience of the defeat and instead emphasised their resistance credentials. Thus, they attempted to avoid discussing feelings of shame and the crisis of masculinity often associated with the Fall of France.

Richard Vinen reminded us of the uncertainty of 1940 for historical actors: The future was uncertain to French politicians and some expected Britain to be soon defeated. Prisoners of War expected that there would soon be a deal to get them out of camps, and French citizens were uncertain of what the new regime would look like. Vinen then considered British views on the defeat, an approach which had been Carswell’s original focus when starting work on the book. Vinen noted that both British society and government ascribed an important role to France and its Empire in the late 1930s and early 1940s: indeed, there was a strong awareness that Britain was not fighting alone.

Finally participants suggested paths for future research on the Fall of France, including the need for an in depth study of how ordinary French people experienced these six weeks (with reference to the work of Hanna Diamond); the Fall of France as a transnational event (how was it viewed from Britain, the Empire, and beyond?); and the role of emotions.

 

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