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France in Defeat, 1940
It took only six weeks for France to capitulate to the German invaders. A stunning defeat - particularly since before the war the French army was considered the most powerful in Europe.

France's vaunted Maginot Line failed to hold back the Nazi onslaught and the German Blitzkrieg poured into France. (see Blizkrieg, 1940) Thousands of civilians fled before it. Traveling south in cars, wagons, bicycles or simply on foot, the desperate refugees took with them what few possessions they could salvage. It wasn't long before the roads were impassable to the French troops who were headed north in an attempt to reach the battlefield.

Paris was abandoned and declared an Open City. The French government joined the fleeing throng and after moving to, and then quickly abandoning one location after another, finally ended up in the city of Vichy.

The ultimate humiliation came at the signing of the armistice on June 22. The French had maintained as a memorial the railroad car in which the armistice ending World War I had been signed twenty-two years earlier. It occupied a hallowed space within a small forest north of Paris. Hitler insisted that France's capitulation to his Nazi jauggernaught be formally acknowledged in the same railroad car at the same spot.

Under the terms of the armistice, France was divided into two sections: Occupied France under direct German control and Vichy France - a quasi-independent territory with Marshall Petain, an eighty-four-year-old hero of the First World War, as its head.

A reporter for the London Times published his observations on defeated France shortly after its collapse:

"A problem for all who think about it is how to explain the amazing mental attitude which seems to prevail today in France. Most Frenchmen seem to regard the total collapse of their country with a resignation that has the appearance of indifference. They are, indeed, dazed by the rapidity of the collapse, but register no violent reaction to so great and unexpected a shock. Soldiers in considerable numbers are being demobilized and returning home, and so, it is felt, the catastrophe cannot be too appalling. The German propaganda machine is working on this state of mind. The R.A.F. attacks upon the aerodromes in the occupied region are used as evidence that the British, who have already deserted their Ally, are now making direct onslaughts on the Frenchman's home.

There is little interest among the ordinary people in the maneuvers of the Petain Government. The Marshal himself is not looked upon with any enthusiasm. His achievements as a soldier in the last War are generally recognized, but his last minute entry into politics makes little stir in the Frenchman's heart. On the other hand Laval [a lieutenant of Petain's and the real head of the government], who has never been popular, excites almost general distaste..."

Conditions in Vichy France

"Vichy, for a nation which has reached the nadir in its history, gives an excellent picture of a certain French state of mind. Naturally the place is crowded beyond capacity. It is full of well-to-do refugees from occupied France, as well as French officers, immaculately accoutered, and political aspirants. They crowd the cafes, hotels and boulevards. The refugees and officers are enjoying the calm and the mild pleasures to be had there.

The aspirants are busily fishing in the stirring political pool in the hope of finding an agreeable job. There is adequate food for those who can afford to buy it, always provided that you are not a butter lover or do not expect to find a wide selection of luxuries in the shops. Here is little evidence that France has suffered one of the greatest defeats in her history. Outside the boundaries of this temporary capital, food is not so plentiful, yet in a minor degree the same spirit of indifference exists. The men are returning fairly quickly to their homes and to the harvests which have been in many cases ruined by inattention. But it is hard to discover any serious attempt to meet the formidable problems which are threatening the Vichy Government."

Conditions in Occupied France

"The opinion is often expressed that occupied France is in a much better shape, in spite of all the devastation, than the unoccupied territory. The Germans for many reasons are trying to whip into shape that part of the country which has fallen into their sphere of influence. Their problem is especially serious.

North of Paris there exists a desert. Towns like Abbeville, Amiens, Cambrai, Arras, and scores of others are very largely destroyed, though in most places the churches and the cathedrals seem to be intact. The villages are deserted, the farmsteads empty.

Crops are rotting on the ground. The first wave of the German Army consumed everything. It was, in fact, until a week or two ago a land of the dead, metaphorically and literally, since the corpses of men and animals still littered the ground. Now the people are slowly creeping back, only to find that there is little to eat and less to do. Everywhere the first pick of what is going falls to the army of occupation, the second to those who work for their German masters, the scanty crumbs that remain are left for those who fulfill neither of these conditions."

Treatment of British Prisoners

"One case of refined cruelty was witnessed at Malines, where a body of British prisoners were being marched east. They were in full uniform except for their tin hats. These had been replaced by a variegated assortment of every kind of headgear, male or female: bowler hats, toppers, caps, homburgs, women's bonnets, berets, plumed Ascot models. A pathetically ridiculous spectacle. Its only purpose could have been to make the weary men look clownish or to suggest to the French inhabitants that British troops had been looting the shops. Other tales of discrimination between British and French prisoners of war are common. Nevertheless, on the whole, the treatment of prisoners whose care is left to the second-line troops is not too bad."

   This article was originally published in The Times of London on August 17, 1940, republished in The Times of London, Europe Under the Nazi Scourge (1941); Shirer, William L., The Collapse of the Third Republic: an inquiry into the fall of France in 1940 (1969).

How To Cite This Article:
"France in Defeat, 1940," EyeWitness to History, (2006).

In reaction to the American invasion of North Africa in November 1942, the Germans occupied Vichy France.
Following the Allied victory, Marshall Petain and his lieutenant Pierre Laval were tired for treason and sentenced to death. Petain's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.