Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France


Before the Nazis killed him for his work in the Resistance, the great French historian Marc Bloch wrote a famous short book, Strange Defeat, in which he puzzled over Germany's six-week conquest of his nation in the spring of 1940. In Strange Victory, the distinguished diplomatic historian Ernest R. May argues that Germany's success is even more of a puzzle than Bloch could have imagined, for we now know that its armed forces were measurably inferior to those of France and its allies, even in tanks, and its top military leaders all considered an attack on France to be a long-odds gamble.

Strange Victory, a riveting study not only of those crucial six weeks but of the years and days leading up to the German invasion, makes it clear how Hitler, though a lazy, ill-informed psychopath, outguessed his own experts as to how French and British leaders would respond to German actions. May's dramatic narrative, laced with vivid character sketches, draws on little-used German, French, and British archives to show how German intelligence officers found the keys to plan a successful surprise attack on the Western front, and, on the Allied side, how French and British officers failed to see or understand the plain signs of Germany's intentions, even though they had well-placed spies in Berlin. His interpretative history suggests new ways to think about the decisions taken on both sides, and new ways to see how this history relates to issues of our own time.

Strange Victory makes it clear that French and British leaders (Winston Churchill not excepted) clung to their expectations of a nearly bloodless victory over Germany, even through the first devastating days of the German offensive. This part of the story is especially important, for it has some of the qualities of a parable: Nazi Germany was taking advantage of governmental habits of mind and custom in 1940s France that have parallels today—among them, confidence in technology, a high aversion to incurring casualties, and decision-making processes that did not favor rapid response. In the future, Professor May suggests, nations may suffer strange defeats of their own if they do not learn from their predecessors' mistakes.