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.)
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