I really, really, really want to recommend a book to you. It’s called Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France and it’s by Ernest R. May, a highly respected diplomatic historian. There are two reasons why this book is so good. The first is that it is just a marvelously engrossing narrative of one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th Century: the lead-up to the Second World War and particularly Hitler’s lightning victory over France in May and June of 1940. It’s just a very polished, compelling World War Two book and a very good read.
But it’s much more than that.
May begins with a question that most of us would probably not imagine really was a question. That is, why did France lose?
From the newsreels, many histories, and the mythology of appeasement you’d get the impression that this was just a given, that Germany was strong and armed-to-the-teeth and France was unprepared and weak. But this just wasn’t the case. May makes very clear that France (and especially France and Britain together) were both quantitatively and qualitatively stronger and better prepared for war. Simply put, on balance, they had more stuff and better stuff.
So then the question: why did they lose and lose so quickly?
May provides a complex series of answers to this question. But the key ones are easily stated.
One, the French intelligence services were inefficiently organized and intelligence gathering was not well wedded to policy-making. In other words, though France had better intelligence assets in Germany the French weren’t particularly good at analyzing and making use of that information. Nor were they particularly good at crafting policy based on intelligence.
Two, the French military, though professional and well-equipped, was organized around a series of what one might call risk-averse doctrines which made it cumbersome, immobile and less agile and quick to react than it should have been.
May uses diplomatic, military and intelligence sources from the French and the German sides to assemble a very clear view of how the two diplomatic and war-fighting machines operated. May’s readily apparent depth of familiarity with these sources is little short of breath-taking.
All of this combined to allow the weaker power, Germany, to defeat the stronger one, France.
What makes this book valuable to read today is that May makes a convincing case that our Western military and intelligence services are much more like that of the French circa 1940 than the Germans. And that’s sobering.
This is the rare work of history that has very real application to constructing defense, intelligence and foreign policy today. More on Strange Victory soon.