How Dangerous Ideas Crumbled France in Six Weeks

Hitler and his men walk through the capital city after the French surrender. (harWood/keystone/getty images)


The results of relying on the wisdom of man

The outbreak of World War i was met with cheering crowds in Paris. Frenchmen and eager youth jumped at the opportunity to join what they thought would be a short, victorious war. Propagandists sprang into action.

“I hope,” wrote France’s minister of public instruction as teachers prepared for the 1914 academic year, “that on the day schools reopen, in every town and every class, the teacher’s first words to his students will raise their hearts to the fatherland and that his first lesson will honor the sacred battle in which our armies are engaged.”

But the years wore on. The Western Front, the main theater of the European war, cut through France’s territory, and its battles cut through its morale. France, with a population of 40 million, saw 8.4 million men go off to war. Nearly 1.4 million never came back. Half of those who survived had been injured, and over 1 million of those had been gassed, disfigured and mangled, suffered amputations and left as permanent invalids. Four years of trench warfare devastated the nation.

Within this atmosphere, a sweeping intellectual change occurred.

When World War ii came around, there were no crowds cheering in Paris. For nine months while Germany conquered Poland, France waited passively behind its fortifications. Then, Germany looked west and rolled into France. The fight was over in six weeks. The Nazis went on to terrorize the Continent in an unparalleled conflict that ended 66 million lives.

How did the nation that had held out during the four years of World War i collapse after just six weeks in World War ii? There is no simple answer. But when the question is explored, we can learn a lesson of eternal importance: Men have an extraordinary ability to ignore danger—and an alarming willingness to follow the intellectuals of the day, no matter how misguided.

In between the world wars, intellectuals searched for the solution for war. Where were they to look? By that time, the Christian worldview had been thoroughly discredited. The warning of the Prophet Jeremiah—“the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”—was thought to no longer apply. Intellectuals looked elsewhere for the answers. Were humans the enemy, or was war itself the enemy?

In France, more than any other democracy, the enticing philosophy of pacifism was planted deepest.

Teaching Pacifism

The war of ideas began in the classrooms. Intellectual authorities who had touted nationalism in World War i altered student textbooks to promote an antiwar mood.

History professor Mona Siegel tracks the changes in her book The Moral Disarmament of France: Education, Pacifism and Patriotism. Even as World War i was raging, protests from teachers labeled as “defeatists” became more common. “The government moved rapidly to silence teachers who protested too loudly or publicly, removing them from their jobs, fining them and, in a few cases, imprisoning them,” she writes. “Ironically, government repression of ‘defeatist’ teachers drew attention to their cause and evoked sympathy from many of their war-weary colleagues. By the mid-1920s, the pacifist beliefs articulated by this small minority from 1914 to 1918 would become the reigning ideology among teachers nationwide.”

War not only had taken France’s sons, it had wrecked its infrastructure and economy. Rebuilding the devastated areas drained government finances. International trade was disorganized because of the war. Debts piled up, and inflation caused many of the rich to send their wealth abroad. Political groups that were pushed aside during the war began to aggressively reappear: The wealthy classes and conservative peasants fought against the socialists and bureaucrats. In short, France’s landscape was ripe for new intellectual solutions.

Just a few years after the war, textbooks that portrayed the war as “heroic French soldiers” triumphing over the tyranny of “brutal German ‘Huns’” were labeled as “bellicose” and had to be replaced. Gaston Clémendot, a school teacher and author of history books, was one of the major figures who decried the 1919–1924 French textbooks as having “a warlike spirit and a patriotic, nationalistic and accusing tone toward Germany.”

Clémendot feared that the history lessons given to the children of France “inspired hatred of foreigners, glorified the experience of battle, and laid the moral groundwork for future wars.” He called upon fellow teachers around the country to abolish the discipline of history in primary schools. “What we need,” he insisted to his colleagues, “is to forget, and history is the opposite of forgetting.”

Outlawing War and the Merchants of Death

The devastation of World War i made preventing war the paramount objective. In the mid-1920s, prominent intellectuals called for “some definite step toward complete disarmament and the demilitarizing of the mind of civilized nations.” Two French intellectuals, Romain Rolland and Georges Duhamel, were among those who published a petition in the New York Times that called for a ban on military conscription, in part, “to rid the world of the spirit of militarism.”

Amid this peacemaking atmosphere, France and the United States developed the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. It was designed to simply outlaw war. Eventually signed by 62 nations, parties were to renounce the use of war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be.”

One American senator satirically remarked that “what the proclamation of Sinai did not accomplish in 4,000 years, what Christ’s teachings have not achieved in 20 centuries of time, is to be produced by the magic stroke of Mr. Kellogg’s pen.” Many intellectuals put their faith in it.

Blind to German Aggression

Between the world wars, Germany was able to rearm, take back the Rhineland on the border of France (and remilitarize it), and occupy Czechoslovakia without retaliation from surrounding Western democracies. Today it is clear how appeasing Germany led to war. What is less clear is how the surrounding countries were able to rationalize these aggressive German actions away.

The prevailing ideology at the time was that war was the enemy—not people, not nations. The aged people had seen the carnage of modern warfare in person. The young had been taught in school to avoid it at all costs. This kept many intellectuals from blaming Germany for its actions. Instead, they heaped scorn on those who would dare to suggest a military answer to any of the not-yet-violent pushes of Germany.

Those who wanted to avoid blaming Germany needed a scapegoat. An influential body of intellectuals found one in the United States. The approach of anti-American manifestos, as historian Seth Armus explained in his book French Anti-Americanism (1930-1948), moderated the traditional anti-German stance of the right.” For the authors of such manifestos, Armus wrote, “Everything wrong in France and Europe, even the resurgent militarism of Germany, could be blamed on America.” After all, Americans were the ones who demanded the burdensome reparation payments for Germany’s role in starting World War i.

Perhaps the most crucial step in the path to World War ii, and to France’s quick defeat, was Adolf Hitler’s decision in 1936 to march into the Rhineland, a zone that was supposed to be off limits to German troops. According to Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, the dictator later said, “The 48 hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life.” Germany’s military resources were wholly inadequate for even a “moderate resistance.” Had the French marched into the Rhineland, the Germans would have had to fall back, embarrassingly.

But the French did not march.

The Defeat

Aside from some heroic actions by French soldiers and the impressive patriotism of Gen. Charles de Gaulle—who refused to give up the fight—France crumbled. As the nation lay defeated, the head of the teachers union, which had so ardently worked to instill pacifism in French students, was told, “You are partially responsible for the defeat.”

What Did We Learn?

The men who rejected the Bible’s worldview of humanity—a carnal nature prone to despicable acts—and proclaimed a utopian view of the way to end world conflicts were not the first to do so. Pacifism was not invented by French intellectuals between the world wars. It was merely repackaged for the events of the day.

The same idea has been repackaged again for our day. The enemy is once again said to be war and not individuals.

Schoolteacher Clémendot urged France to forget its history, and the damage was horrendous. Today, American colleges are requiring fewer students to take history courses. Less than one in five students is required to take even one survey course of history or government before he or she graduates.

Humans can rationalize anything away. We can remain calm in the face of imminent danger, not because of heroism, but because sometimes we don’t even know it’s there, or we won’t face it. It begs the question: If a population doesn’t have a good grasp of history, can it determine whether an idea that seems novel and plausible has been tested before and found wholly false? No, unfortunately, it can’t and it won’t.

Full article: How Dangerous Ideas Crumbled France in Six Weeks (The Trumpet)

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