A failure of national will in a decadent country, outgunned, outmanned and divided by class conflict? Douglas Johnson opens our summer series of Second World War reappraisals by looking at the myths and legacies of the fall of France to Hitler's blitzkrieg fifty years ago this month.
No-one can doubt that it is the events of 1940 which still cast the longest shadow over the consciousness of France today. The French have adapted to de-colonisation and to the memory of cruel colonial wars; they have accepted and even welcomed modernisation and the decline in the numbers of their population engaged in agriculture; if there is a certain crisis of identity, they would claim that they are in the forefront of those who seek their future within a European context and that their historians are distinguishing themselves in their demonstration of how the French nation became a reality. But 1940 has not been assimilated. That the French army was routed, that an armistice was sought, that there was collaboration with the enemy, that a French government tried to turn back the achievements of history and to reject the principles of 1789, that Frenchmen persecuted Jewish men, women and children, are facts which still create a brooding and melancholic sense of guilt and resentment and which still demand explanation and understanding. Controversies concerning the unity of the internal resistance movements and the nature of the Gaullist resistance organised from London and from Algiers have only served to intensify this unease.
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