COVER STORY: by Andre MauroisNews Weekly
DEMOCRACY: How free societies perish
, January 8, 2005
What causes free societies to lose their capacity to defend themselves? The distinguished French writer André Maurois was a close observer of the events which led to France's surprise defeat by Germany in May-June 1940. He concluded that the reasons behind France's sudden collapse were not primarily military, but moral, and enunciated nine principles essential for the defence of freedom.
These principles are not without relevance for today's Western democracies as they confront the threat of global terrorism.From April to June 1940, Hitler invaded and overran Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. France's sudden collapse shocked the world, because France enjoyed a military superiority over Germany in troops and tanks. Only in aircraft was Germany superior to France.
What caused the fall of France? One person who saw these events unfold first hand was André Maurois (1885-1967), a Frenchman of Jewish descent, who was one of France's foremost writers and a member of the prestigious Academie Française.Friend of Churchill
Maurois was also a personal friend of both the then French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud and Britain's future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as well as of other leading political figures in France and Britain.
On June 10, 1940 - four days before the French capital, Paris, fell to the Germans - Maurois flew to Britain to plead desperately for military assistance for the beleagured French army. But it was too late.
Reynaud's government fell. On June 16, the elderly Marshal Pétain - hero of World War I's Battle of Verdun - became Prime Minister and sued for peace.
Britain now stood alone, bracing herself for a likely German invasion.
On July 2, Maurois left Britain to give a series of lectures in the United States. During his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, which was infested with German submarines, he learned from a telegraph news bulletin of yet another blow to French national pride.
The British feared that Marshall Pétain's new government, which had recently surrendered to Hitler, might put the French navy at the disposal of the Nazis. To prevent this possibility, Churchill reluctantly ordered a British squadron to attack and sink the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, the military port at Oran in French Algeria.
Early one morning in mid-voyage, Maurois encountered another distinguished passenger, Sir Norman Angell (1872-1967), the British writer, sometime Labour politician, early pioneer of the League of Nations and winner in 1933 of the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of peaceful co-operation in international relations.
The two men sat down together and, in the course of a remarkable conversation, explored the causes of France's lack of defence preparedness.
"I knew you were aboard," Angell told Maurois, "and I'm taking the liberty of speaking to you because, in this terrible catastrophe of France, there are many things I do not understand ...
"I am not talking about the military defeat, which can be explained by the lack of preparation on the part of both our countries and by bad strategic concepts ... It is the moral disaster that surprises me ...
"Does it seem true to you to say that the morale of the French army and people was less high in 1939 than in 1914, and that the will to win was less vigorous?"
Maurois replied, "Many units of the army fought splendidly, but it is accurate to say that on the whole the army's will to win was less strong than in 1914."
"And why?" asked Angell. "The fate of France was at stake in both cases and the danger was greater in 1940."
"That is true," said Maurois, "but France in 1914 was a country relatively united; the France of 1940 was a country profoundly divided."
"Hasn't France been divided ever since 1793 [the year the French revolutionary Reign of Terror began]?" asked Angell.Fifth column
Maurois replied: "Chateaubriand said of the Terror that that bloody ditch would never be filled up, and it is certain that memories of the Revolution for a long time dominated the political life of France. But in 1914 there was a sincere reconciliation in the face of the enemy. For four years socialists and capitalists, radicals and monarchists were brothers in arms.
"Peace put an end to that idyll. The Russian revolution inspired great hopes in the working-class and great fears in the middle-class. Part of the latter naively thought, first that Fascism, and then that Nazism, would be a rampart against Communism. The authoritarian governments in Rome and Berlin acted in opposition to the government in Moscow while biding their time to make an alliance with it.
"All of them expended huge sums for propaganda and exerted themselves to seduce the French masses. These foreign hands dug once more a deep ditch between the two halves of France."
"Nevertheless," said Angell, "in 1914 ... ".
"In 1914," said Maurois, "enemy propaganda did not exist; in 1939 it had been at work with diabolical ingenuity for five or six years ... Now, democracies are a form of government in which public opinion is all-powerful and in which nothing can be done without its support.
"Examine the facts in France, in England and in the United States; you will discover that public opinion in all three countries was wrong or was misled with surprising consistency.
"The public did not understand the danger and did not demand rearmament until much too late. Their leaders could and should have guided the public.
"Unhappily, the political leaders had acquired the habit of consulting it and not guiding it. You could see them leaning on public opinion, sounding it out, and trying to find some way in which they could please it and at the same time convince it that it was better for a country to live than to die.
"As for the military leaders, they were dependent on the political leaders and did not dare either to contradict them or to exert pressure on them. Lacking precise and definite orders, the agencies and the experts took their time.
"No one in our country prepared a timetable of operations. In Germany Hitler said: 'I wish to be in Paris on June 15th. For that, I must begin the offensive at the beginning of May; I need the new tanks at the beginning of April.' Thus he constructed his work plan, and woe to him who did not carry it out!
"With us what happened? The experts were asked: 'How much time do you need to build so many planes per month, or so many tanks?' The experts picked a date at random and their decision was respected. We made our timetables backward.
"It was the war that should have governed technical necessities, not the technicians who should have controlled military requirements! As a result, we made preparations for a war in 1942 that was over in 1940."
"In the end," said Angell after a thoughtful silence, "what are the essential liberties that we want to safeguard at all costs?
"We want the law to be the same for all, which assures each one equality of opportunity; we want everyone to have free access to the sources of information (and this is the true meaning of freedom of thought); we want each one to be free to express his ideas so long as he does not preach the destruction of the State which gives him that freedom; and we want it to be possible to change the government if that is the freely expressed desire of the majority. That, it seems to me, is all."
"That is all," Maurois said, "and it does not mean that statesmen must each day before acting refer to public opinion and consult it like an oracle. A country can be perfectly free when its leaders, whom it has freely chosen, do not consult it on every individual point.
"If the British ministers in 1936 had had the wisdom to disregard public opinion and support France on the Rhine [after Germany's illegal reoccupation of the demilitarised Rhineland zone], we would have avoided this war."
"It is a fact," Angell said, "that for a long time our countries, rather than face a painful reality that demanded work and courage, took refuge in make-believe worlds ...
"Politics itself became a sport. But when it is a question of saving one's hide, time becomes too precious to permit of these mass evasions ... While our children were being delightfully thrilled by the happy endings of Hollywood movies, the youth of Germany was at work shaping the real world ... And in it the endings are harsh."
Angell got up and left Maurois who, alone once more, spent a long time thinking about this conversation. He got out a pencil and, on the cover of the book he was reading, he wrote the following:Remedies
(1) Be strong.
A people that is not ready to die for its liberties will lose them.(2) Act Fast.
Ten thousand airplanes built in time are worth more than 50,000 after the battle.(3) Direct opinion.
A leader leads; he does not follow.(4) Maintain the moral unity of the nation.
Political parties are passengers aboard the same ship; if they wreck it, all will perish.(5) Protect public opinion against the influence of foreign governments.
To defend ideas is legitimate; to accept money from abroad for defending them is a crime.(6) Act instantly against all illegal violence.
Provocation to violence is a crime in itself(7) Protect the young against any teaching designed to weaken the unity of the country.
A country that does not seek to preserve its existence commits suicide.(8) Demand upright lives in those who govern.
Vice of any sort gives advantage to the enemy.(9) Believe passionately in the ideas and in the way of life for which one is fighting.
It is faith that creates armies, and even arms. Liberty deserves to be served with more passion than tyranny.
- The above events were recorded in two of Maurois's books, Why France Fell (1941) and his posthumous Memoirs (1970).