It has always appeared to me that the tragedy of our time is that the public, in consonance without professed democratic principles, should presume to exercise a real control over diplomacy while being swayed by emotional sentiments which, in turn, sway the sentiments of those whose business it is to guide the destinies of nations; for it is utterly impossible for the public to grasp the elementary precepts, much less the subtleties, of diplomatic dealings.
The book explains the lead up to WWII, the position of France during the war, and the peace that follows the war. Huddleston is an interesting guy. He was plugged into various diplomatic circles, he apparently worked at the League of Nations for a while, and – most importantly – he was correct about a lot of issues over a long period of time.
The book really shines when he focuses on France during the occupation – a subject about which I knew very little. I’ll spend most of the review on that topic.
Diplomats – including Huddleston – knew that the Soviets were negotiating a peace pact with the Germans as early as 1939. As one Russian diplomat said, “The USSR was born out of the first war, and a second would end in the Soveitization of Europe.” If Germany went to war with Britain and France, all potential outcomes were good for the Soviets.
Anyway, interesting diplomatic factoids aside, our story really starts at Dunkirk. Dunkirk is usually considered a miracle for the British. Huddleston’s take is quite different.
At Dunkirk, the French and the Belgians basically fell on their collective swords so that England could live to fight another day. To eliminate any additional miraculousness, Huddleston also notes that Germany chose to let the Brits escape, in hopes that they would make peace.
France thus plays a sacrificial role, which too few in England (and France) seemed to understand or appreciate. From this point on, the general outline of Huddleston’s tale emerges. The most noble people are those that stay with their country through the terrible conditions that followed. More precisely, the most noble actors are those who stuck with their country, acted to minimize the suffering of their countrymen while walking the fine line between not provoking the Germans into totally destroying France and yet not actively assisting the Germans.
These people were later condemned as collaborators by others that fled their countries for more comfortable conditions.
Leopold III, who chose to stay in Belgium, is an example of the more noble sort. But, Huddleston’s favorite is Petain, who chose to stay in, and lead – what was left of – France. The politicians, whose silly choices had led to this point, fled to live in the relative comfort of unoccupied countries. From afar, the politicians could take pot shots at their countrymen.
It’s worth pausing to think briefly about the armistice terms between Germany and France. The French-German armistice terms were harsh, but were far more lenient than unconditional surrender. The Germans praised the valor and courage of the French. The French were allowed to keep a government (headed by Petain) in the south (Vichy), and were allowed to keep their ships and their colonies. The French knew that they had to defend North Africa if they didn’t want the Germans to impose new terms.
Petain’s strategy is perhaps best summarized by the following quote, “If our allies come with two or three divisions, I will fire on them; if they come with twenty I will receive them with open arms.” This is the fine line that Petain walked during the remainder of the German occupation. He also walked this line to ensure that French citizens who remained in France were as comfortable as possible. For his efforts, he died in jail after De Gaulle returned from England. Such are often the costs of doing the right thing.
Much of the book then details Petain’s efforts to avoid helping the Germans while also retaining the ability to fight the Germans when the time came. For example, Petain could – at any time – have obtained more generous terms for the French people by handing over the French fleet to the Germans. He never did so.
Despite the fact that (via diplomatic channels) the Allies knew of Petain’s intentions, the Allies repeatedly antagonized the French. For example, see here.
More broadly, Petain’s goal was to get the Germans to trust the French enough to turn as much of their arms against Russia as possible. (As we’ll see in a moment, much of the hatred against “collaborators” was led by the Communists – though, perhaps this is only a coincidence).
Huddleston believed that Russia goaded Hitler into declaring war, as the war in the west slowed. Huddleston also believed that as soon as Germany and Russia started fighting, Churchill should have withdrawn so that Germany and Russia could concentrate on destroying each other. Petain may have been a collaborator, but Petain’s aims – if Huddleston is right about them – appear to have been much sounder than Churchill’s or Roosevelt’s.
I’ve covered this view of the end of WWII before, but Huddleston provides additional evidence that Russia won WWII and that American and British policy was incredibly inept at the end of the war. Fighting Japan (to the point of total ruin) removed the last barrier to Bolshevism in the East. And, as Huddleston puts it, “The world was made safe for Bolshevism at Teheran.”
Huddleston brings some new, relevant and interesting information to the table. Specifcally he notes that, as it become safer for the Resistance to operate in France, the movement was increasingly led by Communists. He goes so far as to note that during the worst years after the Liberation, France was essentially governed by the Communists. It’s also interesting to note that De Gaulle was first recognized by Soviets.
Huddleston doesn’t imply that De Gaulle was a Communist, but he does mean to suggest that the Communists tried to divide France as much as possible following the war.
When we come to the Liberation, the real tragedy unfolds. Everyone was accused of “collaboration.” Indeed, to have lived in France and survived during the war years necessitated a certain amount of “collaboration.” Could one reasonably have refused to sell goods to any German? Etc.
What followed was an orgy of accusation, imprisonment, summary execution and other atrocities. As Huddleston puts it, “There has never been, in the history of France, a bloodier period than that which followed the Liberation of 1944-1945.” He cites several sources (including foreign ones) that claim that at least a hundred thousand citizens were murdered.
The real tragedy was ultimately that the division created by the “patriots” (none of whom actually did anything to hasten the end of German control of France) destroyed the country:
Was it wise, from the national viewpoint, to hold up France to the mocking yet shocked gaze of the world, as a country in which the marshal, the generals, the ecclesiastics, the members of the prefects, the officials, the ministers, the writers, the intellectuals, the artists, were devoid of love of their country, and were ready–or in fact did–“sell out” France to the “hereditary enemy”? Was it wise to pretend that large sections of the French people were traitors or near traitors, and that only the emirges and a relatively small number of active (and sometimes imprudent) Resistants were patriotic?
Indeed, it was not wise. As with so many things that happened following WWII, it was not wise, it’s not easy to explain, and it seems only to have benefitted the Soviets.
It’s worth noting that Huddleston credits the Marshall Plan for saving France. It made the French choose – yes or no – whether or not they were with the Americans.