How Dangerous Ideas Crumbled France in Six Weeks

The results of relying on the wisdom of man

The outbreak of World War i was met with cheering crowds in Paris. Frenchmen and eager youth jumped at the opportunity to join what they thought would be a short, victorious war. Propagandists sprang into action.

“I hope,” wrote France’s minister of public instruction as teachers prepared for the 1914 academic year, “that on the day schools reopen, in every town and every class, the teacher’s first words to his students will raise their hearts to the fatherland and that his first lesson will honor the sacred battle in which our armies are engaged.”

But the years wore on. The Western Front, the main theater of the European war, cut through France’s territory, and its battles cut through its morale. France, with a population of 40 million, saw 8.4 million men go off to war. Nearly 1.4 million never came back. Half of those who survived had been injured, and over 1 million of those had been gassed, disfigured and mangled, suffered amputations and left as permanent invalids. Four years of trench warfare devastated the nation.

Within this atmosphere, a sweeping intellectual change occurred.

When World War ii came around, there were no crowds cheering in Paris. For nine months while Germany conquered Poland, France waited passively behind its fortifications. Then, Germany looked west and rolled into France. The fight was over in six weeks. The Nazis went on to terrorize the Continent in an unparalleled conflict that ended 66 million lives.

How did the nation that had held out during the four years of World War i collapse after just six weeks in World War ii? There is no simple answer. But when the question is explored, we can learn a lesson of eternal importance: Men have an extraordinary ability to ignore danger—and an alarming willingness to follow the intellectuals of the day, no matter how misguided.

Studies done since the world wars have concluded there was little difference in the strength of the French and German armies, on paper. French tanks had the superiority in numbers, quality and firepower while German airplanes were the more advanced machines.

The overwhelming disparity in performance came from a difference, not in firepower, but in mind-set.

In between the world wars, intellectuals searched for the solution for war. Where were they to look? By that time, the Christian worldview had been thoroughly discredited. The warning of the Prophet Jeremiah—“the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”—was thought to no longer apply. Intellectuals looked elsewhere for the answers. Were humans the enemy, or was war itself the enemy?

In France, more than any other democracy, the enticing philosophy of pacifism was planted deepest.

Teaching Pacifism

The war of ideas began in the classrooms. Intellectual authorities who had touted nationalism in World War i altered student textbooks to promote an antiwar mood.

History professor Mona Siegel tracks the changes in her book The Moral Disarmament of France: Education, Pacifism and Patriotism. Even as World War i was raging, protests from teachers labeled as “defeatists” became more common. “The government moved rapidly to silence teachers who protested too loudly or publicly, removing them from their jobs, fining them and, in a few cases, imprisoning them,” she writes. “Ironically, government repression of ‘defeatist’ teachers drew attention to their cause and evoked sympathy from many of their war-weary colleagues. By the mid-1920s, the pacifist beliefs articulated by this small minority from 1914 to 1918 would become the reigning ideology among teachers nationwide.”

War not only had taken France’s sons, it had wrecked its infrastructure and economy. Rebuilding the devastated areas drained government finances. International trade was disorganized because of the war. Debts piled up, and inflation caused many of the rich to send their wealth abroad. Political groups that were pushed aside during the war began to aggressively reappear: The wealthy classes and conservative peasants fought against the socialists and bureaucrats. In short, France’s landscape was ripe for new intellectual solutions.

Just a few years after the war, textbooks that portrayed the war as “heroic French soldiers” triumphing over the tyranny of “brutal German ‘Huns’” were labeled as “bellicose” and had to be replaced. Gaston Clémendot, a school teacher and author of history books, was one of the major figures who decried the 1919–1924 French textbooks as having “a warlike spirit and a patriotic, nationalistic and accusing tone toward Germany.”

Clémendot feared that the history lessons given to the children of France “inspired hatred of foreigners, glorified the experience of battle, and laid the moral groundwork for future wars.” He called upon fellow teachers around the country to abolish the discipline of history in primary schools. “What we need,” he insisted to his colleagues, “is to forget, and history is the opposite of forgetting.”

In 1924, Clémendot was one of the schoolteachers asked to speak at a convention of the French schoolteachers union Syndicat National (sn). There he delivered a two-hour summary of his position. “I say history cannot be pacific,” Clémendot thundered. “I say that it is inevitably bellicose, that history cannot help but support the spirit of war.” He was greeted with a standing ovation, but his proposals were initially turned down.

In the next few years, however, Clémendot was rewarded. French schoolteachers declared the “moral disarmament of France their foremost mission,” according to Siegel. “If teachers pursue their pacifist propaganda,” wrote Madame Roulet, a schoolteacher and sn leader, “war will not come. Certainly, we are humble and small, but we are numerous and everywhere.” Thus, the children who would fold to the Germans 15 years later were intentionally and systematically told not to dwell on their history.

At the same time, antiwar novels flourished. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929, was hugely successful in France. Within 10 days, the French had purchased 72,000 copies; by year’s end, nearly 450,000. Pacifists hailed All Quiet on the Western Front because it portrayed the brutality of war rather than romanticizing it as honorable and patriotic. Germany banned the book and its sequel.

As economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell notes in his book Intellectuals and Society,”Being a pacifist in the 1920s and 1930s was a badge of honor ….” Pacifists were the iconoclastic visionaries. Pacifists wanted peace. Others wanted war.

Outlawing War and the Merchants of Death

The devastation of World War i made preventing war the paramount objective. In the mid-1920s, prominent intellectuals called for “some definite step toward complete disarmament and the demilitarizing of the mind of civilized nations.” Two French intellectuals, Romain Rolland and Georges Duhamel, were among those who published a petition in the New York Times that called for a ban on military conscription, in part, “to rid the world of the spirit of militarism.”

Amid this peacemaking atmosphere, France and the United States developed the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. It was designed to simply outlaw war. Eventually signed by 62 nations, parties were to renounce the use of war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be.”

One American senator satirically remarked that “what the proclamation of Sinai did not accomplish in 4,000 years, what Christ’s teachings have not achieved in 20 centuries of time, is to be produced by the magic stroke of Mr. Kellogg’s pen.” Many intellectuals put their faith in it.

Influential American philosopher John Dewey lambasted the critics of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. They were, to him, part of the “Old World diplomacy” that had led to the First World War. Those who critiqued the pact were trying to be fashionably “realistic” and displayed the “stupidity of habit-bound minds,” he wrote.

In Europe, antiwar activist Bertrand Russell advocated that if one simply disarmed, “no one would have any motive to make war” on them. “When disarmament is suggested, it is natural to imagine that foreign conquest would inevitably follow and would be accompanied by all the horrors that characterize warlike invasions,” he wrote. “This is a mistake, as the example of Denmark shows. Probably, if we had neither armaments nor empire, foreign states would let us alone. If they did not, we should have to yield without fighting, and we should therefore not arouse their ferocity.”

To French intellectuals, this reasoning did not sound naive or dangerous; it sounded like the only solution.

Intellectuals thus turned on those who manufactured weapons, believing them to be the cause of past wars and possible future wars. Frenchman Romain Rolland, even amid World War i, wrote that the “intellectuals, the press, the politicians, the very members of the cabinets (preposterous puppets!), have, whether they like it or not, become tools in the hands of the profiteers and act as screens to hide them from the public eye.” His label for them, “profiteers of massacre,” became popular in the 1930s, as did the title of a popular book Merchants of Death.

During the decades between the world wars, the French Army adopted a defensive military budget, abiding by the numerous arms control agreements it had signed. Meanwhile, the Germans pressed ahead and remilitarized. It was only in 1936, after civilians began to call for a more offensive orientation, that the government increased the Army’s budget. But it was not enough to secure an advantage over the Germans in 1940.

Blind to German Aggression

Between the world wars, Germany was able to rearm, take back the Rhineland on the border of France (and remilitarize it), and occupy Czechoslovakia without retaliation from surrounding Western democracies. Today it is clear how appeasing Germany led to war. What is less clear is how the surrounding countries were able to rationalize these aggressive German actions away.

The prevailing ideology at the time was that war was the enemy—not people, not nations. The aged people had seen the carnage of modern warfare in person. The young had been taught in school to avoid it at all costs. This kept many intellectuals from blaming Germany for its actions. Instead, they heaped scorn on those who would dare to suggest a military answer to any of the not-yet-violent pushes of Germany.

Those who wanted to avoid blaming Germany needed a scapegoat. An influential body of intellectuals found one in the United States. The approach of anti-American manifestos, as historian Seth Armus explained in his book French Anti-Americanism (1930-1948), moderated the traditional anti-German stance of the right.” For the authors of such manifestos, Armus wrote, “Everything wrong in France and Europe, even the resurgent militarism of Germany, could be blamed on America.” After all, Americans were the ones who demanded the burdensome reparation payments for Germany’s role in starting World War i.

Perhaps the most crucial step in the path to World War ii, and to France’s quick defeat, was Adolf Hitler’s decision in 1936 to march into the Rhineland, a zone that was supposed to be off limits to German troops. According to Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, the dictator later said, “The 48 hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life.” Germany’s military resources were wholly inadequate for even a “moderate resistance.” Had the French marched into the Rhineland, the Germans would have had to fall back, embarrassingly.

But the French did not march.

The lack of French political will during Hitler’s march into the Rhineland foreshadowed the political lumbering that would inhibit France during the first six weeks, culminating in its defeat. France’s press spouted the expected pacifist lines, as historian Ernest May described in his book Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France: “Nowhere in France was there the slightest indication that the public wanted or would even tolerate military action on account of German remilitarization of the Rhineland. The satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné expressed a common view when it said: ‘The Germans have invaded—Germany!’ Communist leaders, supposedly in the forefront of opposition to Nazism, called stridently for preventing ‘the scourge of war from falling anew on us.’ They urged the whole nation [to] unite ‘against those who want to lead us to massacre.’ Socialist spokesmen termed ‘inadmissible any response that risked war,’ saying that even reinforcing the Maginot Line would be ‘provocative.’ The right-wing dailies Le Matin and Le Jour declared that conflict with Germany would benefit only Russia.”

Subsequent advances were treated similarly, in what Thomas Sowell describes as “one-day-at-a-time rationalism.” When the Germans annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938, some of the French press asked, “Should the French get themselves killed for Beneš, the Free Mason?” The next year, when Hitler demanded annexation of Poland’s port of Danzig—the act that precipitated full attack on Poland—the hallmark of sophistication was the headline “Do We Have to Die for Danzig?”

The Defeat

Yet public opinion had begun to part from elite opinion. A poll in France in 1939 actually showed 76 percent of the public was willing to use force to defend Danzig. It was too late. Within months, Germany attacked Poland. France and Great Britain, upholding their pledge to defend Poland, declared war on Germany. Thus began what the Americans coined the “phony war,” where Western allies, over a period of eight months, undertook little else but preparation and a few small skirmishes.

During this “phony war” period, French intelligence uncovered plans for a German invasion. French generals, deliberating on whether or not the plans were fake, ultimately failed to change their tactics. Hitler drastically changed his and decided to move his troops through the Ardennes forest—a pass the French thought was too dense for tanks to navigate.

Many historians have a hard time explaining why France fell in six weeks. The Germans were able to outflank the French defensive line, but much of its defeat had to do with the poor quality of the French command, both politically and militarily. As historian and diplomat Robin Winks wrote, “[M]uch of Germany and all of her army had for 20 years been focused on one goal—expunging the shame of 1918.” In contrast, France’s political system was fighting itself, pacifism was rampant, and the country had begun rearming too late to maintain its advantage.

Aside from some heroic actions by French soldiers and the impressive patriotism of Gen. Charles de Gaulle—who refused to give up the fight—France crumbled. As the nation lay defeated, the head of the teachers union, which had so ardently worked to instill pacifism in French students, was told, “You are partially responsible for the defeat.”

What Did We Learn?

World-renowned educator and theologian Herbert W. Armstrong often talked of the pendulum swings of human thought throughout the ages. “Humans tend to swing to opposite extremes like pendulums,” he wrote in the August 1957 Plain Truth. One dogma is replaced by another as different intellectuals have their period of influence—with none able to find the truth. In less than a generation, France swung from patriotism to pacifism and avoided the fields of thought in between. It also went from four years of resistance to six weeks until defeat.

In doing so, the greatest minds of France proved, again, that intellectuals must not be blindly trusted.

As British historian Paul Johnson wrote, “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which have been to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

The men who rejected the Bible’s worldview of humanity—a carnal nature prone to despicable acts—and proclaimed a utopian view of the way to end world conflicts were not the first to do so. Pacifism was not invented by French intellectuals between the world wars. It was merely repackaged for the events of the day.

The same idea has been repackaged again for our day. The enemy is once again said to be war and not individuals.

Schoolteacher Clémendot urged France to forget its history, and the damage was horrendous. Today, American colleges are requiring fewer students to take history courses. Less than one in five students is required to take even one survey course of history or government before he or she graduates.

Humans can rationalize anything away. We can remain calm in the face of imminent danger, not because of heroism, but because sometimes we don’t even know it’s there, or we won’t face it. It begs the question: If a population doesn’t have a good grasp of history, can it determine whether an idea that seems novel and plausible has been tested before and found wholly false? No, unfortunately, it can’t and it won’t.