Much has been written about various aspects of World War II, but books continue to come out. Some re-evaluate using new information, some take a different look at old information and try to show it in a new light. Julian Jackson has written a very interesting book on the German invasion of France in 1940, called (simply enough) The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. In it, Jackson attempts to show his version of why France fell, and whether or not it was inevitable. Were the Germans just too powerful? Was the new Blitzkrieg warfare just too much for the incompetent French soldiers? Jackson uses personal memoirs, eyewitness accounts, and diaries to provide this vivid account of six weeks of hell. Not only that, but he places the fall in historical context.
"The debate on the Fall of France has gone on ever since 1940, but now at least it is possible to view the event with greater serenity, and abandon the tone of polemic and accusation." (page 4)
First Jackson tells the story of the invasion, breaking it down into four narrative chapters that explore it from a different angle. The first one contains the military aspects of the defeat. The second looks at the relations between France and its allies, mainly Britain (though it does examine other countries, such as the support pact with Poland). This examines how the British and French looked at each other, along with how they cooperated in war (and how they fought amongst themselves, as well). The third chapter looks at the political aspects of the defeat, while the fourth looks at the French people. Then Jackson looks at how they all relate to each other and shows how each one can be seen as part of the defeat, while none of them can be singled out as the main cause. Finally, Jackson explores the consequences of the defeat, including how it coloured French thinking for years to come, even reaching as far forward as today. Much of French foreign policy has referred back to this time in their history.
I was really impressed with the way Jackson tells the story. His writing is evocative, and his use of sources from memoirs of generals and politicians to the common soldier is well-done. I have read a few books on this aspect of the war (or that have included it, anyway), but never have I heard from the soldier's point of view. This is becoming the norm in World War II history books recently (see An Army at Dawn), and I like it. I think it gives us a better picture of warfare and how it affects the soldiers who are fighting it, rather than just dry strategy and tactics. That's not the only thing that's good about The Fall of France, though. Since Jackson is examining the defeat from multiple sides, it wouldn't have been surprising to see him tell the story of the invasion and then look at the other aspects of it, thus having some narrative repetition. Jackson avoids this, seamlessly linking the chapters so that they tell a continuous story, even as he looks at the different points.
The most interesting part of the book is when Jackson looks at the different causes of the loss. The standard is to blame the horrible French military, calling them cowards and (as the stereotype goes), saying how easily the French surrender. Mosier's The Blitzkrieg Myth places a large portion of the blame on the British. Jackson shows, however, that the root cause was the bad intelligence that the French had, which caused them to send their best troops against a German feint. He takes pains to point out that there was no one specific cause, however. He agrees with Mosier that the British pulling back didn't help, and he mentions the refusal of the Belgians to coordinate defense strategy with the French and the British until after Germany invaded (they had declared neutrality). The coordination between British and French forces was not the best, either, making the situation more complex than many claim. The French soldier fought with Úlan when he didn't feel abandoned by his superiors.
I also found the historical context fascinating. Jackson doesn't just tell the reader about what happened, but he examines the next fifty years as well, and how the fall affected France. French historians still don't talk about it much, and when they do discuss it, it's more of a condemnation of the Third Republic government before the war than anything else. Jackson's book does much to alleviate that problem. To many, the Fall of France was an inevitable result based on the "decadence" of France in the pre-war era. Jackson refutes that brilliantly, saying that the war was actually quite winnable, had it been executed properly.
It's hard to find any real faults with this book. While nothing is perfect, any problems I had with the book are so niggling as to be unmentionable. It is a very short book (only 249 pages, not including notes and bibliography), but it feels deep. I could have hoped for even more depth, but Jackson uses the scale marvelously, packing a lot of information and evaluation into these 249 pages. There is no padding and little extraneous information included. Between The Fall of France and The Blitzkrieg Myth, I've found some fascinating short history books. As long as they don't read like summaries, I hope that this is a trend.