An engaging, thoroughly researched account of Nazi Germany’s surprising, rapid defeat of French and Allied forces in the spring of 1940.
Historian May (The Kennedy Tapes, 1997) argues that “fatal misjudgments” of the Allied command brought a defeat that was “almost inconceivable” to just about all the participants. Prior to the German victory, virtually no one but Hitler himself believed that the superior forces of France (allied with Britain, the Netherlands, and—too late—Belgium) could lose. With the swift felicity of a scholar in total command of his subject, May moves from Berlin to London to Paris, describing and assessing the decision-making and the decision-makers. We meet a Hitler who, though a late sleeper and habitual moviegoer, had “a broader conceptual framework than his professional advisers and a broader base of knowledge.” His strident, intransigent insistence on having his way is one of the principal reasons for Germany’s military successes from 1938 to 1940, and also accounts for Britain’s ability to evacuate nearly 340,000 men from Dunkerque (Hitler had issued a puzzling stop order that prevented his forces from capturing or killing tens of thousands). The German invasion involved an elaborate feint in Belgium, followed by a major attack through the Ardennes Forest (the so-called “Plan Yellow”), which succeeded because the “best French soldiers [were] in the wrong places, and the worst-prepared French soldiers” found themselves confronting “the best that the Germans had.” May notes a number of eerie parallels to our own day (when Americans expect to fight wars without casualties). Hitler, for instance, believed that the French were “preoccupied with their comfort” and that the British were “materialists” who would “quit once their pocketbooks suffered.” Among May’s many provocative conclusions are that the “imaginativeness” of Nazi planners far surpassed that of the Allies and that “Allied intelligence services performed abominably.” Many informative notes, a 50-page bibliography.
Both a lucid history and a gripping cautionary tale. (b&w photos, not seen; 19 maps)