"When did it become likely
that France would lose the Second World War?"

(Opening statement for a panel discussion
at the meetings of the Society for French Historical Studies, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 9 March 2001)

By Michael Jabara Carley©

I do not think the opening question is well put because technically France did not lose the Second World War, it won. Or rather, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain won, and since France was an ally, it won too, making a small contribution to the total Allied war effort. The war lost was in France in 1940, when a French government capitulated to Nazi Germany. The formal French capitulation at Compiègne in June 1940 left many French people thinking they had lost the war, or at any event thinking that they had suffered a great catastrophe. Other French people thought about resistance, vengeance, and putting things right--it is true not many at first--but more, as time when along and it looked like Nazi Germany could be beaten. We ought to remember that in the summer of 1940 both victorious Nazis and beaten French thought that Britain was done for, and that British surrender was only a matter of time. Further resistance to Nazi Germany was considered pointless; war in Europe would soon be over.

That being said, if the question is refocused on the lost war in France in 1940, then I would propose that this war was lost for many reasons (not to worry, I am not going to cop out here). These reasons were military, political, economic, both long and short-term. But since this is an academic exercise to enlighten and I hope entertain our colleagues, I would suggest, as some of you might expect, that the French catastrophe can be traced in some measure to the French and Soviet failure to compose their differences after the Russian Revolution and foreign intervention and civil war. I mean here, not just in 1939, but during the entire inter-war period, for there were three points during those two decades when there were possibilities for a Franco-Soviet rapprochement. These points in time were 1924-1927, 1932-1935, and 1939.

For the sake of discussion, therefore, I will say that the critical failure came in the 1920s during the Franco-Soviet conference (1926-1927) to settle outstanding political and economic issues. Here was the best chance to put relations back on a cooperative level based on common strategic and economic interests. The strategic interest was the reestablishment of the pre-World War I Franco-Russian connection (of course not an alliance in the 1920s) intended to check a future resurgent Germany. The economic interest was in settling the pre-war tsarist debts and in building mutually profitable trade relations.

The conference failed however in 1927 because those French advocates of better Franco-Soviet relations were submerged by French anti-communists who wanted to fight national elections in 1928 on an anti-communist electoral platform. They could hardly make agreements with the Soviet Union which would advance the electoral prospects of the left.

The Soviet government offered concessions to France on the tsarist debts, not offered to any other country. The French finance ministry, no patsies in such negotiations, conceded that the Soviet proposals were acceptable on economic grounds. In Moscow there was much wringing of hands for having given too much away to the French.  In the mid-1930s French and British officials (Robert Coulondre, Charles Alphand, and S. D. Waley) looked back on the failed negotiations and thought that the French government had erred in rejecting Soviet offers, on economic grounds alone. But Alphand and Coulondre, both French ambassadors in Moscow in the 1930s, thought more in terms of political considerations.

In the mid-1920s too the main issue was not economic, it was political, for both the French and the Soviet governments. Secretary General Philippe Berthelot and Deputy Commissar Maksim M. Litvinov at different times in the mid-1920s made this very observation. For what I call the "realists" in France, the main political issue was the reestablishment of better relations with the Soviet Union. For others, the political issue was whether to jeopardize relations with Britain or Poland for the sake of those with the Soviet Union. And there were domestic political issues: a centre-right French government could not accept an agreement with the Soviet Union on its economic merits because electoral considerations overruled it. The "early cold war", as I like to call it, was hot and virulent in the 1920s, and it made impossible a Franco-Soviet rapprochement.

Efforts in the 1930s to achieve an improvement of Franco-Soviet relations were a replay of the 1920s, in different circumstances of course. The failure of the 1920s hindered the subsequent effort in the 1930s. I would suggest that cooperative Franco-Soviet relations in the inter-war period might have made France stronger in various ways, and might have led to a different outcome in 1940 than the catastrophe which actually occurred.