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Uncommon Decency

Nov 3, 2021

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the wartime memoirs of French historian Marc Bloch were published posthumously as Strange Defeat (1946), after the Gestapo tortured and ultimately killed their author for his resistance to Nazi occupation. To characterize France’s defeat in the summer of 1940 as “strange”, however, would be a vast understatement. In the short span of six weeks through May and June that year, the entire paradigm through which Britain and America were approaching the nascent world conflict was turned on its head, argues Michael S. Neiberg in When France Fell (2021). In it, he describes the state of utter panic that gripped the US military establishment upon seeing French defenses crumble so swiftly under Nazi attack. Germany’s occupation of the northern half of France had dramatic consequences for the conduct of the war, too. The country’s world-spanning navy and its far-flung colonies were suddenly ripe for capture by the Axis powers. So swift and unforeseen was France’s defeat, in fact, that the Allies surmised pro-German fifth column activity to have been at play in the Third Republic, the decadent precursor to Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime. Suddenly, America began to fear similar pro-German coup attempts in its own Latin American backyard. For Neiberg, the country’s collective memory of the war as a period of American strength overlooks the faulty and desperate decision-making that drove US policy up until the Allies turned the tables in 1943. In this episode, he discusses the book with another eminent historian of modern France, Julian Jackson.

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