William L Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic recounts how it was that this proud nation went from Europe's strongest power and undisputed victor over Germany a scant 20 years earlier, only to so quickly and totally crumble to the same foe during the early days of World War 2.
Rooted to the Past
Most people's sense of France's defeat in 1940 assumes that there is little more to know than that a superior army defeated an inferior one. Yet as Shirer begins to dig beneath that surface impression and examine the facts in more detail, a much different image begins to emerge.
Crushed from Within
France had become bitterly divided in the inter-war years over the type of society best suited to guide her coming out of the turbulent period of World War 1. Many still harbored visions of a return of the monarchy which had intermittently held state power since the great revolution of 1789. Others openly sought the adoption of the then ascendant Italian and German authoritarianism that seemed to many in France to be the future of a united Europe.
The military mind of Hitler is usually viewed today as he was in 1945, somewhat deranged and delusional. But in 1939, he was wise enough to listen to his young guns - such as Rommel - and adopt their vision of modern war strategies, while France held tight to the views of the aged commanders of twenty years before. The difference between the two approaches would become evident to all during that spring of 1940.
What Shirer's book illustrates in great detail is that it was the combination of internal disorder and rancor, along with an unbreakable attachment to anachronistic military doctrines that created the perfect recipe for disaster and defeat.
A Battle Lost - Not a War
Few are willing to admit it today, but in those dark days after the fall of France in 1940, the overwhelming majority of the French population stood firmly behind the call of Marechal Petain's Vichy government to accept not just military defeat - but national subjugation. But not all French did so.
And as the defeatist French generals & politicians met in Vichy to snuff out the life of her democratic institutions and bend to the will of Adolf Hitler - one voice of resilient defiance was heard (admittedly by few) declaring that that fight was - indeed - not over.
While virtually none of his harried and humiliated countrymen supported him at that precise moment - the young (by French military standards) tank commander sat in a London radio studio and declared that the war was not lost - and that he would stand with all who shared that view to continue the resistance to the snuffing out of the light of French republicanism and national independence.
At France's darkest hour - one hand held aloft the flame of hope. One voice refused to accept - let alone embrace - darkness. One voice rejected despair, and called for even more resolve.
And though few knew it on that day - it was France's finest hour. Heroism had survived the onslaught.