This summer marks the 80th anniversary of the fall of France. The fall was as sudden as it was shocking: six weeks after German panzers, sweeping north of the Maginot Line, punched through the thick forest of the Ardennes in mid-May, the newly appointed leader of the French government, Marshal Philippe Pétain, addressed the nation: “It is with a heavy heart that I announce that hostilities must end.” Among those who heard the radio address was a French army captain who, though a decorated veteran of World War I, had again insisted on seeing combat. In a matter of weeks, he dashed off “a statement of evidence” of the events in which he had just participated. 

Penned in what the author, Marc Bloch, confessed was “a white heat of rage,” the resulting book, L’Étrange défaite, or Strange Defeat, remains among the most incisive analyses of France’s collapse. An iconoclastic historian of medieval France, Bloch developed an influential, though elusive, notion of what he called mentalités: the intellectual and emotional structures that, no less certainly than material factors, shaped how past generations conceived their world. Not surprisingly, Bloch believed that any worthwhile explanation of how France came to suffer “a defeat no one would have thought possible” required a foray into the mentalities of its political and military elites. 

Eighty years later, Bloch’s investigation casts useful light for those historians who, gripped by the white heat of their own moment, may seek to understand the once unthinkable defeat of the United States in its “war” against the new coronavirus.

Phony War

The drôle de guerre, or phony war, unfolded for eight months beginning in September 1939. During this time, France conscripted and mobilized millions of men. Shuttled to defensive positions across the country, the conscripts often lacked the military equivalent of personal protective equipment, or PPE. They suffered shortages of boots and blankets during the especially cold winter and an alarming scarcity of masks—in this case, gas masks. Among the officers who did have masks, some refused to wear them. Smoking cigarettes as they reviewed their troops carried more panache.

Compounding these shortages was a shortage of convincing leadership. The government, under Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, issued empty exhortations in place of clear and cogent reasons for the sacrifices they were asking of soldiers and civilians. Determined to avoid the consequences of having declared war, the government sought to render the impression that it merely sought peace by other means. Jean Giraudoux’s play The Trojan War Will Not Take Place thus depicts Hector turning to diplomacy in order to prevent the fall of Troy. Tellingly, Giraudoux was not just the nation’s most celebrated playwright but also the government’s minister of information.

By early 1940, soldiers belonging to certain professional categories were demobilized. Then as now, the government sought to brush a veneer of normalcy over everyday life. It was not difficult. With Paris’s cafés teeming with customers, theaters humming with audiences, and stadiums thrumming with fans, the city gave new life to the old saw that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Not surprisingly, the hit song of the drôle de guerre was Maurice Chevalier’s “Paris Will Always Be Paris.” 

“A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred to despise it . . . serve it only halfheartedly.”

Looking back at this period, Bloch lays the blame squarely on the government. In failing to supply the French “with that minimum of clear and definite information without which no rational conduct is possible,” the country’s elected leaders were guilty of a dereliction of duty that constituted “the most heinous crime of our self-styled democrats.” On the subject of French democracy, Bloch was equally severe. He notes that the effectiveness of any form of government, whether monarchic or democratic, suffers when there is a disconnect between the stated values of the system and the actual values of those who run it. “A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred to despise it . . . serve it only halfheartedly.”

On this score, the social democratic Bloch agreed with the politician Henri de Kérillis, his archconservative contemporary, who lambasted the government for its failure to rally the French. “The moral mobilization of France is the most important condition of victory,” Kérillis declared. “We will be victorious only if we are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.” Bloch was just as harsh in his judgment of the military leadership. Not content merely to denounce their “utter incompetence,” he mercilessly dissected the reasons for it. “Thoughts of the last war clung to them because they were the thoughts of their youth. Those long dead days had all the brilliance of things seen.” 

In effect, their collective mentalité, shaped by the last war, was incapable of prosecuting the next war. They could no more see that German tanks would blast through the Ardennes and shatter French forces than their predecessors could have seen that the war of movement in 1914 would soon calcify into a war of trenches that lasted four seemingly endless years. Faced with this new threat, the French high command “believed in doing nothing and in behaving as we always had behaved.”

The Use of History

Future historians who will narrate how American leaders failed to see our medical and political crises can take a page from Bloch’s last and unfinished book. By the time he joined the French Resistance in early 1943, Bloch had begun Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien, a brilliant reflection on the craft of history writing. He did so in order to answer the question one of his children asked him: “Tell me, Daddy, what is the use of history?” Bloch did not live long enough to complete the book: in the spring of 1944, he was captured by the French militia and handed over to the German SS, who then tortured and executed him.

But his incomplete manuscript, which holds that one misunderstands the present when ignorant of the past, did offer his child and readers an answer—one that applies equally to the strange defeat of a major American political party when Donald Trump surged through its ranks as a presidential candidate as to that of the world’s most powerful democracy when the novel coronavirus swept through its populace. 

Material and mental structures, Bloch observes, abide well past the circumstances that gave them life. American historians will explore the defeat of establishment Republicans who, hunkered behind a Maginot Line of traditional expectations, failed to see that a Trump administration would punch through the country’s founding principles as well as those of their own party. Unable to see beyond mental givens and previous patterns of material reward, the U.S. government confronted the coronavirus epidemic rather the way that France faced an advancing Germany: it declared war without planning for any particular contingencies, and it failed to level with the public about the threat it faced, let alone to persuade it to make sacrifices.

But Bloch also adds a new wrinkle to this old chestnut. Just as studying the past helps one better know the present, attending to the present illuminates the past. We will, he warns, “wear ourselves out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past if we are totally ignorant of the present.” Though he had read and written about past military battles, Bloch observes, he never knew what defeat truly meant “before I myself had suffered its terrible and sickening reality.” 

Today’s Americans may understand better than their earlier peers the experience of those whose democracies have gone corrupt or given way to authoritarian impulse. Perhaps they will feel a pang of humility on their next encounter with a nation that struggles against or succumbs to the same ideological virus. And looking back upon the French past and out on the American future, perhaps they will draw some understanding from Marc Bloch, who wrote that “there can be no salvation where there is not some sacrifice, and no national liberty in the fullest sense unless we have ourselves worked to bring it about.”

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