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Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France Hardcover – September 20, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

The collapse of France before the German onslaught of 1940 was not, as many historians have argued, the result of the Wehrmacht's absolute superiority or the terrible fury of blitzkrieg. Indeed, writes Ernest May in Strange Victory, France had more soldiers in the field than did Germany, their arms were evenly matched in many categories and superior in many others, and the German army was far from fearless. What carried the day for the Nazi invaders was a greater imaginativeness in planning. France and its allies "made no effort to understand how or why German thinking might differ from theirs," did not allow for surprise, believed that their defenses would shield them, and in any event paid little attention to the intelligence that their spies brought them, including irrefutable evidence that German forces were massing along the little-defended border with Lorraine, avoiding the heavily fortified (and, May allows, highly effective) Maginot Line.

The Allies soon overcame their lack of common sense, May continues in this penetrating study, while in the wake of his French victory, Adolf Hitler "became so sure of his own genius that he ceased to test his judgments against those of others, and his generals virtually ceased to challenge him." The outcome is well known. Still, May suggests, Hitler's comeuppance does not diminish the lessons to be learned from the fall of France--notably, that bureaucratic arrogance, a reluctance to risk life, and a reliance on technology over tactics will quickly lose a battle. Students of realpolitik, no less than history buffs, will find much to engage them in May's book. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

The book's title inverts Marc Bloch's classic Strange Defeat because, for Harvard historian May, it is the German victory that requires explanation. In this provocative analysis, May argues that the French and British defeat in 1940 was a consequence of neither moral decay nor military ineffectiveness. In the late '30s, the Wehrmacht was still a network of improvisations, by no means the formidable instrument of later mythmaking. After Poland had fallen, Hitler demanded an immediate attack on France, and his generals balked; an "encounter battle" in central Belgium was what the French expected and were prepared to fight. Instead, the Germans famously developed an alternate design, based on a thrust through the Ardennes. May argues convincingly that a major factor in the offensive's reorientation was the German army intelligence service's justified conviction that the French and British high commands would respond slowly to a large-scale surprise. More than enough evidence was available to turn French and British eyes to the Ardennes in the spring of 1940. But since 1933, May argues, generals and politicians on both sides of the English Channel had failed to read German intentions and German decision-making processes. Instead, they sacrificed thought to habit, and put unexpected events into preconceived models. This well-written book, suitable for general readers as well as specialists, offers no easy counterfactuals, no check lists for future guidance, but it illustrates the importance of common senseAits presence and its absence. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (September 20, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809089068
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809089062
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #482,275 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By J. W. Marquis on May 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
I was amazed to find this book so shabbily reviewed! This is a work of brilliant scholarship and well written. One of the reviewers commented that the book is not original and that the fall of France was not strange. Originality exists on different levels. That human failings were behind the fall of France was commented upon almost immediately, beginning virtually on day one with Churchill's "The battle of France is over; the Battle of Britain must now begin" speech. But to document these failings, to detail the mistakes made, to prove that it was human failings at the heights of command in the French Army and polity, rather than equipment failures or unusual brilliance of the German high command, are no mean feat. Moreover, May's research is exhaustive. So many scholars today have a theory and tailor the research to support that theory. To this they add footnotes and a lengthy bibliography to convince the reader that they have been scholarly. This is not what May has done. He has pieced together from thousands of sources a very complex story, which has enabled him to tell that story "the way it really happened." Anybody who does that, especially in this day of jet-set historians, deserves the highest accolades. I doubt that any of the reviews given here are by people with May's expertize on the subject; yet they have the temerity of to dump on him. With a work like this, the only justifiable criticism is to find factual discrepancies, citing source and page. Noticeably, there are none in the reviews submitted.
Professor May has written an excellent book and he is to be praised and congratulated on his achievement.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Before the Nazis killed him for his work in the French Resistance, the great historian Marc Bloch wrote a famous short book, "Strange Defeat", about the treatment of his nation at the hands of an enemy the French had believed they could easily dispose of.
In Strange Victory, the distinguished American historian Ernest R. May asks the opposite question: How was it that Hitler and his generals managed this swift conquest, considering that France and its allies were superior in every measurable dimension and considering the Germans' own skepticism about their chances?
Strange Victory is a riveting narrative of those six crucial weeks in the spring of 1940, weaving together the decisions made by the high commands with the welter of confused responses from exhausted and ill-informed, or ill-advised, officers in the field.
Why did Hitler want to turn against France at just this moment, and why were his poor judgment and inadequate intelligence about the Allies nonetheless correct? Why didn't France take the offensive when it might have led to victory? What explains France's failure to detect and respond to Germany's attack plan? One will have to decide on their own answers. It is May's contention that in the future, nations might suffer strange defeats of their own if they do not learn from their predecessors' mistakes in judgment.
Thoroughly researched, Ernest May writes a dramatic narrative-and reinterpretation-of Germany's six-week campaign that swept the Wehrmacht to Paris in spring 1940. Besides his point of view to be read and pondered, several intriguing pictures and maps are included.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Michael B. Crutcher on January 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Harvard historian Ernest May has written an excellent, detailed account of why France fell, and fell so quickly, in May of 1940. He takes the title of his book, Strange Victory, from Marc Bloch's book, Strange Defeat. Bloch was a French historian and soldier who wrote his account shortly after the French debacle. Bloch stressed the defeatism of the French soldiers and the disorganization of the French Army command, which he saw personally. His book strongly reinforced the idea, common after the shockingly quick defeat, that France was a rotten apple waiting to be plucked from the tree.
May disputes Bloch's account. He notes that French aircraft and armor were equal to or sometimes superior to that of the Germans. France held a slight edge in the number of first line troops. Morale was generally good among French soldiers (and not so good among the Germans, including the Generals, who mistrusted Hitler.) May posits that Germany succeeded because Hitler had superior strategic insight, including a better understanding than did his generals of the passivity and ineptitude of the British and French military command. Germany outwitted France on the battlefield by sending its main thrust through the Ardennes, a move that surprised the French and to which they were slow, fatally slow, to react. French troops often fought bravely, but their commanders did not have them in the right position, especially their first line units. Germany had a crucial advantage in military intelligence, particularly in their ability to interpret various bits of evidence and to weave a coherent pattern from it to inform their front-line commanders.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In this interesting book, Prof. May is concerned with determining why the Germans conquered France at the outset of WWII. He takes pains to rebut common misconceptions about the fall of France. The most important misconception is that the Germans were destined to win because of overwhelming technological and military superiority. While other authors have commented on this point, May shows well that the French and British Armies had superior manpower, were at least equivalent in the air, and had real advantages in armor capabilities and artillery. The Allies would also enjoy the tactical advantage of defending. May concentrates on how decisions were made and why decision making in Germany, France, and Britain was structured as it was. This results in an overlapping series of sections devoted to the crucial Allied and German decisions. The first section is devoted to why the Allies failed to confront Germany over the acquisitions of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Key issues here were the limitations imposed by domestic democratic politics and the inability of Allied leaders to understand that Hitler actually wanted war. This is an understandable failure. Chamberlain and Daladier, the latter a decorated veteran of the Western Front in WWI, thought that war would be catastrophic (they were correct,)and combat inconclusive (they were wrong), and couldn't imagine that any political leader with a shred of sense would choose war. Looking back over the 20th century, individuals like Hitler are depressingly familiar - Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Saddam Hussein - the list is easy to compile. Prior to the 30s, however, there had been no one on the European scene like Hitler since the time of Napoleon.Read more ›
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