I recently revisited an excellent lecture series on ITunes U, France since 1871, by John Merriman, an acclaimed Yale historian. One of the primary readings for this survey course is Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, by Marc Bloch.
Bloch’s name was familiar to me. In a history course for the Cours de Civilisation Francaise at the Sorbonne, my Professor, M. Pantet, referenced his work. In addition, many of the works of French history I have read reference Bloch as he brought something new to historical research: his experience as a native Frenchman and a Resistance fighter in World War II (at the age of 50). Therefore, I bought Strange Defeat to accompany this lecture series.
Bloch was a writer and teacher of French history. He fought in both World Wars and later taught at the Sorbonne in Paris. Bloch wrote Strange Defeat to explain why in 1940, France fell so rapidly. Merriman claims that Bloch “taught us [historians] how to think about the past” (France Since 1871, Yale Courses).
“Those who teach history should be continually concerned with the task of seeking the solid and the concrete behind the empty and the abstract…it is on MEN rather than FUNCTIONS that they should concentrate their attention” (Bloch, 27).”
Bloch was asked to give a lecture in Oslo in 1929 which would lead to two of his finest books, Les Caractères originaux de l’histoire rural francaise and Annales d’histoire économique et sociale.
“I was born in France. I have drunk of the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her clime, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests…(xiii, Statement).”
His patriotism came innately. He was a third-generation soldier; his great-grandfather served in 1793; his father was one of the defenders of Strasbourg in 1870 (thus, of my ancestors); and his entire family left their native Alsatian roots during the annexation of the Second Reich.
Unfortunately, Bloch’s life and career would be cut short. He was captured by the Nazis in Lyon for his work in the Resistance, beaten, tortured and shot in Trévoux on the 16th of June, 1944.
In Georges Altman’s Foreword to Strange Defeat, he writes of Bloch, “he loved danger…he had ‘the soul of the fighter that rules the body of its possessor’ (xv).” Bloch used to tell his fellow Resistors, “If I get out of this alive, I shall go back to teaching.” Bloch could no longer teach in a French classroom, but he continues to teach the world through his writings.
Bloch begins Strange Defeat with a Presentation of the Witness. HE is the witness: to the horrors of two world wars; to the inadequacies of leadership; to the heartbreak of loss in warfare; to daily fear and trepidation of an unknown enemy.
In Chapter one Bloch recounts his personal experiences in combat. He takes us day by day through battles, destruction, discouragement, fear; every adjective associated with combat could be inserted here. At one point Bloch has to make a split decision at a crossroads: 1) to go west to Brest and escape to England; 2) to go east to “continue to serve his country and family by escaping a trap that was to be sprung” or 3) to go south and be captured by the Germans at the Loire (he later discovered the Germans were not there). He chose east, to Rennes.
The purpose of Bloch’s documentation is in hopes that, “…a day will come…when this old and sacred soil of France, so many harvests have been lifted—harvests of free thought and of judgement unrestrained—will once more burgeon into ripeness (1).”
Bloch’s book is an amalgamation of his thirty-four years of writing and teaching history in his professional career, the great many documents of past history he has read, with the tragic events of which he played a part. He writes with the same habits of criticism, observation and integrity of which the exigencies of his work as an historian are judged.
Dunkirk: In 1940, Bloch’s unit went through Dunkirk following a heavy bombardment by the Germans. Bloch has a vivid memory of “the ruined town with its shells of buildings half-visible through drifting smoke, and its clutter, not only of bodies but of human debris in the streets…” (Strange, 20).
It is not this image that makes the biggest impact on Bloch, however. He states that what is most clear in his memory is the “slow movement away from this debris” watching the mirrored-glass sea, under a pure-gold sky in which the black smoke made a “lovely pattern about the shoreline that one was cheated into forgetting its tragic origin” (20). I’m sure this happened often. These beleaguered soldiers needed respite from the horrors all around them. Their minds needed to escape the surrealism if only briefly.
Rennes: When they arrived at Rennes, the “narrative of miseries” forced him to describe why the success achieved was so small, but important. The First Army no longer existed. Let that sink in for a moment. What is the function of The First Army? They were to provide organizational structure for large military organizations that might be mobilized in time of national need. Now, this group is gone.
Section Two is treated more as reflection than reaction. I felt at times that I was reading a book on Leadership or Complex Organizations. For example, in speaking of the strong leadership of the Commander of the Fourth Corps, he surmises, “in every human group there is something over and above the individuals who compose it” (33). What is needed is, what the French call, the esprit de corps; to go against the tradition handed down from seniors to juniors, by leaders to subordinates. An organization must have a more homogeneous whole, having clearly marked characteristics.
Bloch surmises that what drove the French armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of mistakes:
- Our leaders [French] were incapable of thinking in terms of the new war: the German triumph was a triumph of intellect. The ruling idea of the Germans was s While the French were sending messages by donkey-wagons and bicycles, the Germans were using autos.
- The movement of the defensive line was strictly related to that of headquarters. (39). On the contrary, German reinforcements were continually dribbled into every breech which occurred.(39).
- The whole plan of the campaign was wrong: the reply of the Anglo-French forces to the German invasion of Belgium:
a.The bridges between Liége and Maastricht should have been destroyed.
b.The German tanks were a great deal more numerous .
c.The collapse of the Armies of the Meuse and at Sedan which, by uncovering the rear of the troops engaged in Belgium, led to the complete failure of the entire scheme.
d.The German advances of the Saône, the Jura and the Rhine were given ample time to surround the French Armies of the East and most of the Army of the Alps.
Bloch asks, “Did we ever really, in the whole course of the campaign know the precise location of the enemy at any given time?” Bloch states that this was not to be as explained by “the faulty organization of our Intelligence Service” especially in Flanders where “never had the nation [France] in arms been better ‘found’”(45). In addition, the rate of progress was too slow compared to the Germans.
The French were short of tanks, aeroplanes, guns, motor vehicles, and tractors as they had poured all of their money and labour into concrete for the Maginot Line (51).
Bloch also addresses the accusations of “cowardice among the troops and officers” (105). These include positions being abandoned and “every man for himself” mentality. Bloch did not witness any of these. However, “when a people has been defeated”, he explains, there has to be scapegoats and traitors to sniff out. He reminds us that “the High Command was largely to blame” (106).
One of the main issues that continues to be repeated in French warfare, according to Bloch, is to follow procedures from past battles. For example, from lectures delivered by Foch in 1910, the battles of Napoleon Bonaparte were to be used as a model “irrespective of any changes that might have taken place in the world since Napoleon’s day” (119). How can this strategy be valuable during the current World War II? There were fewer roads in Napoleon’s time and the fire-strength of the weapons was tiny considering neither barbed-wire nor machine guns had been invented.
The final section of Strange Defeat is titled “A FRENCHMAN EXAMINES HIS CONSCIENCE”. As the first two sections examine the culpability of the government and military for the defeat in France during World War II, Bloch inquires of the self-examination of the Frenchman in the last. He states that he does not take on this task “joyfully or lightly” . As an historian, Bloch states that he knows better than most men how difficult it is to conduct analysis which “must be concerned with a complex of causes, remote, involved, and in the present state of sociological science [of 1944], extremely difficult to uncover (126).
Bloch recalls that his children and unknown friends [myself included, today] must not be allowed to reproach or condemn the author for revealing errors “for which every citizen was, in part, responsible” (127).
In his “balance-sheet of history”, Bloch states that men in the front are rarely satisfied with the actions of their companions in the rear. This is especially true when the battles end in disaster. The soldier is well aware of the sacrifice he is called to make. This is the reason many feel that they were “stabbed in the back” by the numerous military coup d’etat .
There were many bitter feelings from the war of 1914-1918 [it is interesting that Bloch never refers to this as World War I. In 1939, Time Magazine was the first to coin this term. Perhaps Bloch was not aware of this term]. Everyone knew that the “artistic heritage and the national prosperity “ had been cruelly mutilated and compromised. Any city of more that 20,000 inhabitants was “open” and therefore vulnerable to destruction.
This war of 1939 [again Bloch uses this term instead of World War II] did not bring about feelings of “die for Danzig” or “die for Belgrade”. Who wants to fight a war to protect a distant land? In the same way, in Alsace-Lorraine, where the actual fighting of France began in 1914, there were no soldiers willing to give into an adventure with the most appalling disasters just to protect the “beautiful Alsatian eyes”. “The men of factories and the fields would no more, in 1939, have deliberately shed his blood for the overthrow of the dictators than would their elders of the war of 1914 for the liberation of Alsace-Lorraine” (137). However, once the battles began, these men felt that by fighting, they were helping forward one of the great tasks of humanity.
Of course, no one believed Hitler to be as evil as he was being painted. After reading Mein Kampf, Bloch came to the conclusion that Hitler kept the real truth from his servile masses. The worst enemy became the “mental laziness” which led to a gloomy mood of self-satisfaction.
Bloch concludes Strange Defeat with a bold statement that would become an omen of grave portent: “We find ourselves to-day in this appalling situation—that the fate of France no longer depends upon the French” (174). From the moment that weapons fell from the grasp of their hands, the civilization of France became “humiliated spectators”.
“What will become of us if Great Britain is in turn defeated?” Bloch cries. “I look forward to an eventual British victory!” An historian likes to arrange patterns with pictures of a possible future. Blog states that his only hope is that there is “enough blood left to shed” as the future of the nation will not rest on his generation. Therefore, the map of the future will be drawn as a result of lessons learned.
“’A State founded on the People needs a mainspring; and that mainspring is virtue. (Montesquieu, 176) ‘”
Bloch requests in his last will and testament that “A family tradition, already of long date, has bound me firmly to my country…I can, in all sincerity, declare that I die now, as I have lived, a good Frenchman” (178).
Many documents have been discovered since World War II and many witnesses have testified of these battles on French soil; by French citizens, British citizens, German citizens and American citizens. Was this a Strange Defeat to them as well?
Bloch died too soon to know how modern historians explain the defeat of France. Do these historians concur with Bloch 100 years after the first World War? 76 years since the Second? Has Bloch’s personal account and reflections colored their perspectives?
“Those who teach history should be continually concerned with the task of seeking the solid and the concrete behind the empty and the abstract…it is on MEN rather than FUNCTIONS that they should concentrate their attention”
I will pass this treasure on to my daughter Lorin, an European Historian to glean from her wisdom!
Marc Bloch. Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. Oxford University Press, 1968.
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)