on October 31, 2001
I keep returning to this book as among the best I've ever read. It is both good reading as military history and failure analysis: no one has been able to write so deftly and originally about why France fell so swiftly in 1940. Unlike other military history books, this one is not heavy on maps nor units nor armament, merely a very incisive and friendly discussion of why France fells so quickly.
Having served during WW1 and serving during WW2, Marc Bloch points to a litany of reasons why the French army, which was better equipted than the Germans, collapsed so suddenly. Despite what I learned in highschool about the French defeat of WW2 (France was overconfident behind the Maginot Line), Marc Bloch tells a different reason. The French army never understood how the speed of modern weapons had shortened space. Marc Bloch, serving at the front in 1940, recalled that the German offensive actually seem to overtake each French retreat: whenever Marc Bloch's unit retreated in 1940, they constantly found the Germans in their rear. The consequence was the French army was in a perpetual retreat and lacked the time to mount a proper counter offensive.
Marc Bloch also points to the cultural factors in the French defeat, namely the French education system which ignored history and visual arts in its cirriculum. He proposes a greater emphasis on both. I agree with the latter: in the US, we are saturated with images but we are visually illiterate. As for history, there is now too much emphasis on history without a comparable attempt to work things out in the present. This is a terrific book that reads like a no-holds barred fight.
This slim, unpretentious volume, written at the time events took place, and validated by the author's subsequent death at German's hands, is the best witness account we have of the disintegration of what at the time was regarded the most powerful army in the Allied camp. There is a dry-eyed innocence in the reporting that makes the shattering news it conveys more momentous than anything I have read in more scholarly, more documented, chronicles of the period which overwhelm citizen experience with broader perspectives. This is not to minimize others' works, nor to regard M. Bloch as a "minimalist": au contraire. He was a world-renowned medieval scholar, so his mind was nuanced and perceptive, his approach unsentimental and objective; he brings the full intellectual rigor of his training and experience to extract all possible social, historical, and moral truth from the seemingly mundane. He was in his late forties when the war started but nonetheless, served with honor, very much with his eyes-opened, did his duty in the army and kept his brain functioning throughout rather than putting it on hold in blind patriotism (such a treacherous, over-rated popular paliative). He kept at his craft but rather than delving in ancient manuscripts he reported on what he observed around him of an army, indeed a state, in rapid collapse. The macro waves drowning the country are inferred from his micro observations. Indeed the many treasures come in seemingly casual descriptions of mundane events like millions of naked, flickering, low-wattage light-bulbs adumbrating the tragedy of national collapse. Bloch comes to a melancholic but inherently optimistic conclusion: the future of France will be built not by men of his generation, but by a new breed. How ironic this observation in the midst of the overwhelming propaganda for Petain's phony reactionary, bullying National Revolution and its relatively widespread support (at least in its early stages) in Occupied and Vichy France. This book was written after the defeat and before he joined the Resistance (in whose service he was captured, tortured and killed by the Gestapo). Even in the most abject moments of defeat, I don't think Bloch ever wavered in the belief that the Germans would eventually have to go. Indeed, without regret or melancholy, there seems to have been an absolute faith in the eventual disappearance of the old, pre-popular front, pre-war French order, as much as of French political and military men, as of pre-war French bourgeoisie. The book could have been written by a character in Renoir's 1939 masterpiece "Regle du Jeu." This is real though, and our author a genuine hero. Perhaps it would have been ironically interesting, had he lived, to learn what he would have made of Indochine, Algerie, Gaullism and the heady days of 1968.
For anyone interested in the second world war and French history, this little book is indispensible.
on July 24, 2006
The simple-minded are apt to chalk up the shocking defeat of France in the summer of 1940 to French weakness. If you'd rather think a bit more deeply, read this classic account by the pioneering medieval historian. Bloch, who lived through the defeat and died fighting with the French resistance, lays out a penetrating analysis of the French defeat. It is vivid, perceptive, beautifully written, and unsparing in its examination of the failures of the generals, the politicians, and the people. It is a thought-provoking cultural critique of a society in a moment of crisis. A classic.
In "Strange Victory", French Army Captain Marc Bloch, gives a first-hand account of the French defeat in May-June 1940, and discusses why and how the French were defeated. Bloch was a veteran of World War I, and due to patriotic reasons, remained as a reserve officer between World War I and II, while earning a living as a professor and historian. Although he was 53 years old at the outbreak of World War II, he voluntarily elected to continue service, and was eventually assigned as a divisional fuels officer. He was assigned to the "Northern Front", and was among those encircled by the Germans in their May 1940 offensive, and was evacuated at Dunkirk. After evacuation he was returned to France in the Normandy area, and when the Germans reached his area, rather than surrender, he slipped away and returned home to write this history in 1940.
The book opens with a description of what he experienced from the outbreak of war until his return home. Although he was not a front-line officer, he was able to observe a great deal from the French side of things, from a command perpective. And because of his training as a historian, he was able to have a certain detachment, which enabled him to understand what was happening, and why. The rest of the book explains why the French were basically defeated by the Germans in only six weeks of combat whereas they had defeated the Germans 22 years before.
While Bloch has many reasons why the French lost, which he explains in great detail, several important ones were that the French were re-fighting World War I and were overwhelmed by the sheer speed of the German advance, the French leadership did not aggressively remove incompentent officers from responsible positions when they had the time, French officer training was woefully deficient in teaching the skills they'd need to fight the next war, and French political leadership was fractured.
Bloch was known as a fighter, and joined the French resistance in late 1942. He was captured by the Vichy Police and executed by the Germans in June 1944, so this book was only published posthumously in 1946. As I mentioned above, Bloch wrote this book after the French defeat, and it has a freshness and immediacy that you won't find in books written after the war. There are no maps, tables, or photographs in this book, although if you're familiar with the campaign, they really aren't needed. Although always well written and thought-provoking, the writing is often very dry, particularly in the latter parts of the book. However, even though this book was written in 1940, it describes as well as any other book written after the war why the French were beaten.
Recommended for those who want to learn more about the French defeat in 1940, as analzyed by a French officer who was there.
on March 29, 2015
My main reason for finding and reading this book is that it often shows up in citations and direct quotations in other histories on the fall of France in 1940. Its impact is so profound is that even inspired at least one book title, "Strange Victory," by Ernest May. In reading it, I found that it was also a war memoir with absurdist themes.
Bloch's book is short, as it was written while he was in the Resistance, and so didn't have access to full sources. So, much of what he writes is his opinion, based on what he saw as a pre-war French citizen and as a staff reserve officer in 1939-1940.
His overarching theme is that the French defeat was an intellectual, mental one. Interestingly, he seems to understand that the defeat wasn't just a military one, but that militaries are a reflection of the societies that make them. France's defeat, when seen in this way, was a complete failure of almost every aspect of French national life. Dogmatism and narrow thinking were the ultimate causes of the defeat.
He provides plenty of examples, as he saw them. Of course, the military failing is foremost. The French military was wedded to a defensive doctrine, and the pace of thinking was so slow that the German advances often came as a shock. Promotion in the French high command often depended on age, and younger thinkers with fresh ideas were not promoted fast enough. Internal processes were a mess, as Bloch saw first-hand. One of Bloch's jobs was to determine the location of fuel dumps in Belgium; he couldn't do that because the intelligence staff kept the list of dumps in a vault, but Bloch couldn't access it and no one would give it to him. Soldiers surrendered, often without a fight, because as he says: "Our soldiers were defeated and, to some extent, let themselves be too easily defeated, principally because their minds functioned far too sluggishly." Ultimately, the High Command should have prepared its soldiers and the nation for the next war, but it didn't.
(Curiously, at one point Bloch mentions in passing that he has a batman, a sort of military butler who serves an officer in some armies. It never occurs to him that this vestige of an older way of military thinking is outdated or that such a person could be better used in some other capacity, despite the obvious personal convenience of having such an assistant.)
Bloch also considers French society leading up to the war. In his view, French society was at odds with itself, and major sections of society were rigidly self-centered. The working classes and its unions were focused on preserving the 8-hour day to the exclusion of all else. He accuses the bourgeoisie of separating themselves from the rest of the country, perhaps out of fear. The newspapers strayed from factual reporting, and were so opinion-based that people sometimes read them so as to infer the opposite of what they were reading; skepticism of anything in print resulted. In this kind of intellectual climate, it was difficult to believe anything, or to put anything (say, for example, the defense of France) above one's own interests. A "ruthless heroism," as he calls it, was distinctly absent. Bloch seems to be saying that France was pardadoxically fighting with a WWI military mindset, but without the national spirit of self-sacrifice that characterized that prior war. Throughout this analysis, one can see why Bloch's book has been influential to later writers: he considers a range of factors, beyond the obvious military ones, as an explanation for France's collapse in 1940.
Above the prose narrative there hovered themes that reminded me of Albert Camus's "The Stranger." Bloch's book has a man-vs-society quality about it. At times, his narrative led me to wonder if he's searching for meaning where none may exist; the anecdote about the safe is a case in point. In such situations, an individual has to follow his or her own course, and Bloch does that. He fought in WWI, he came back to service in WWII, and after France fell, he joined the Resistance and died as a consequence, leaving behind six orphaned children (his wife died suddenly while he was in prison, according to the forward).
His story is one of an individual struggling to make his society a better place in spite of itself. After reading this, different readers may draw different conclusions from his (voluntary?) self-sacrifice in the Resistance: was it more pointless given that he left behind 6 children, or was it more heroic because of it? Should he have been more self-interested for his family's sake, or less so, for France's? What was right for Bloch wasn't right for everyone else, even though at times he seems to think that self-sacrifice for the national interest is the highest good, as opposed to the spirit of self-interest that reigned in pre-war France. In this context, one wonders if his his death was a sort of suicide to prove his point, a Quixotic final exclamation point to the whole thrust of "Strange Defeat."
In conclusion, this book is probably of most interest to students of the campaign who are looking for a memoir from the period or a widely consulted cornerstone work. It is of less value to a general reader looking for an overview history of events or for a comprehensive and well-researched review of the French defeat.
on April 8, 2007
Other reviewers have given an excellent account of this book's main subject. What Bloch also reveals in these pages is the effect of ideology on the 20th century European mind. For example, he blasts the Germans for their embrace of "Hitlerian physics" but contrasts this to the "Marxist mathematics" promoted before the War by the French Left. He argues the spread of pacifism, first under Leon Blum and later under the High Command, prevented France's superior military from attacking the still-relatively weak Germans when they moved on the Rhineland. As he states: the German victory was fundamentally an intellectual victory, which is what made it so scary and ominous for the rest of the bloody 20th century. In this regard, consider Heidegger's towering intellect compared to Sartre's feebleness.
The book is filled with interesting anecdotal accounts of the Wehrmacht. Given the stereotypes, who knew German officers had "the bad habit of not returning salutes" properly? Who knew the German Army appeared in all respects "more democratic" than the French, with an easy camaraderie between officers and grunts? He attributes this to the powerful metaphysical bond the Nazis tapped into, especially among the young.
Anyone with knowledge of the disastrous political ideas of the 20th century will find a first-hand account confirming the worst. Bloch believed himself fully integrated into the French Republic and considered his Jewishness as secondary. The Nazis disagreed. The saddest thing in this story is that France has shown his optimism in the Republic was misplaced: French Jews are leaving in greater numbers today than anytime since Vichy.
on April 21, 2016
This book is perhaps more timely today than it was when it was written for the wisdom it imports. As other reviewers note, on one level it deals with the causes that contributed to France's capitulation to the Nazis in 1940. But the insights into human nature are timeless, especially now since we've lost several wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with worse days perhaps ahead. Bloch suggests that leadership by the elderly, physically and mentally, cannot survive contact with the vigorous impulses of youth. Although he was executed by the Nazis for his role in the Resistance, he gives them begrudging credit their revolutionary notions of warfare that leapfrogged the practices and strategy of the old regime.
I suspect we're about to see history repeat itself in the youthful crowds behind Trump and Sanders, looking for a new way out. I hope they find it in the time I have left.
on November 5, 2012
Strange Defeat presents the Fall of France, 1940 from the French perspective. Not the official self-defensive view of the French political-military establishment, but from the grounds-eye of a French Reservist Captain working in the Fuel Supply system in Northern France in 1940. It is written almost immediately after the campaign, and the author goes on to be tortured and killed by the Germans in 1944 for his activities in the Resistance. Marc Bloch was a professional historian of the Middle Ages, so the prose can be a tad elaborate, but it is frankly a refreshing difference from the routine language of most military histories. Much of the analysis is about Fench military politics in the period before the war and why the outcome was pre-ordained by the decisions the French made. He counterposes the French decisions and methods to that of the Germans in the interwar period and during the Phoney War. As a proper historian, he gives the Germans credit where it is due -- despite his obvious historical antipathy towards them (he fought in the Great War). It is also a subtle window into the French social system of classes and the tensions between them, he unabashedly supports his own class and that of the working man -- which not only explains some of the events leading to 1940, but offes insight into the post-war actions of DeGaulle and others.
on January 31, 2009
As both an avid reader of WWII history and early 20th century European history I find Marc Bloch's analysis of the French defeat not only insightful but his first hand accounts amazingly accurate. His original book was hastily written following the French loss. At the time he was a renowned Medieval history professor who took up his reserve status in the French Army at the age of 52 only to see the arrogance, ineptitude and disgrace of the self-serving leadership of the French Army and government under Jenri Phillippe Petan.
This later to be published book was found in a desk of the family home in the south of France. Having read several other short essays and books on the French defeat it's fascinating that the French, better armed, better prepared completely ignored the German's new strategies of combined air, tank and infantry tactics and the fast, penetrating attacks of the blitzkrieg. He clearly saw this first hand the alternatives the French had to stop the Germans following several eye witnesses accounts of battles and the unwillingness of the French to change tactics and to simply resupply their army. This is a shocking and eye opening view of how leadership can fail a nation.
on July 25, 2015
Good but sad history of the position of France in World War II. Proved that the angles and actions of France in the events of the country were not secure or positive, pre- or post- War. France was a light weight and disrespected the intentions of The World! Not a team player by a long range! Pathetic display and lacking in all loyalty to its people.