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Germany’s Defeat of France in 1940

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TweetJune 10, 2020 — Evidently France is re-reading Strange Defeat, a 1940 book by Marc Bloch that analyzed how the country fell so quickly to German invasion in World War II.  The French are looking for clues as to why they have done less well in the current pandemic than Germany. I recommend a later 2000 account of that surprising French defeat: Strange Victory, by the late Harvard historian Ernest May.  Hitler’s plan was a reckless gamble, which his generals thought would fail.   What I got out of the subsequent events described in the May book is not what is described on the dust jacket.  The invasion in the spring of 1940 succeeded, not because of a lack of French will to fight or a lack of awareness that the Germans would go around the Maginot Line, but rather by luck.  The

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June 10, 2020 — Evidently France is re-reading Strange Defeat, a 1940 book by Marc Bloch that analyzed how the country fell so quickly to German invasion in World War II.  The French are looking for clues as to why they have done less well in the current pandemic than Germany.

I recommend a later 2000 account of that surprising French defeat: Strange Victory, by the late Harvard historian Ernest May.  Hitler’s plan was a reckless gamble, which his generals thought would fail.   What I got out of the subsequent events described in the May book is not what is described on the dust jacket.  The invasion in the spring of 1940 succeeded, not because of a lack of French will to fight or a lack of awareness that the Germans would go around the Maginot Line, but rather by luck.  The outcome turned on some trivial events that could just as easily have gone the other way.  (The unlikely crash landing of a small German plane at Mechelen-sur-Meuse was particularly consequential.)  When the gamble succeeded, Hitler’s generals were powerless to oppose him in the still more reckless gambles to come, which of course ended disastrously.

I am somehow reminded of some reckless gambles undertaken by American presidents who came to office in elections that turned on trivial events that could just as easily have gone the other way.  Developments that have far-reaching consequences don’t always have deep causes.

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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