The title is taken from the third volume of Alistair Horne’s trilogy on French-German relations (wars) between 1870 and 1940. France lost two and won the middle (1918), but, in the last (1940), France, in effect, lost itself, i.e. its “country.” What does the loss of “country” imply and does it occur every time a war is lost?
To Lose a Country
Many countries absorb losses quite well. Britain lost the American colonies in 1781 but went on to a greater naval and colonial empire. The U.S. lost Vietnam in 1975; a few years later, it was the world’s “sole remaining superpower.” Then why did France lose itself in 1940 and not earlier? Horne’s actual title for the third book is To Lose a Battle: France 1940. Substitute “country” for “battle,” and that is what he really means. And that is what really happened.
As British Prime Minister, Churchill made several trips to France in order to stave off defeat, as he knew what that would mean. He even proposed a Franco-British political union to hold together. Nothing worked. After the surrender, he told the people, “…the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
Words are deceptive. France “won” in 1918, but the effects of that trauma paralyzed the country until the final blow in 1940. The same army that held Germany at bay for four devastating years came apart in six weeks before the surrender on June 24, 1940.
World War II was “total” war, which means that victory and defeat were also total. To “lose” a country, therefore, is to lose heart and soul. Territory, army, colonies, casualties, and other tangible manifestations can be recovered or compensated over time, but a country’s nature, purpose, and being, once lost, cannot be recovered.
Total defeat, in this case, meant the end of France in the global strategic balance; replacing historic grandeur with a more modest and restrained worldview; the priority of domestic versus global ambitions; the threat of immigration as potentially fatal, acceptance of status rather than leadership, the realities of occupation and a German Army parade down the Champs-Élysées.
Finally, the personality of Charles de Gaulle, in this perspective, is more nostalgic than substantive, almost pure memory. In his attempt to revive France as a great power, he demanded the removal of all American troops from French soil (1964). At the press conference, he was asked this question: “Does that include the ones buried here?”
Rubbing it in, yes, but that’s what “loss of country” means (dependence).
Does this case have any bearing upon the United States today?
France was defeated in battle by a neighbor but faced decades of internal erosion before the defeat. The experience of World War I was so traumatic that France simply could not bear a repetition. Germany profited from the same experience, improvised, and won in a few weeks a victory that escaped them years earlier. What occurred internally, thus, decided the difference between victory and defeat. Germany (Nazis) was eventually defeated (1945), but solely from without (should anyone doubt this, just examine pictures of post-war Berlin).
In the final analysis, it makes little difference whether “loss” comes from military defeat or political/cultural erosion. ln either case, the result is the same. Just as boxers retire after their prime, countries, also, reach a “peak” before final decline.
Where does the U.S. stand today? After the experience of winning two world wars and the Cold War, former UN Ambassador under Reagan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, declared it was time for America to “become a normal country in a normal time” (1991). By the end of the Cold War, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev confided to President Reagan, “We have done a terrible thing to you, we have deprived you of an enemy.”
Gorbachev was right but probably did not see the full implications. But the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, did. By campaigning on the slogan “it’s the economy stupid,” Clinton saw that America’s time as world hegemon was over, to be replaced by a well-worn but reliable turn inward. While still promising to “remake the world,” Clinton promised to do this through the new phenomenon of “globalization,” as an equal country with others toward a shared goal of “more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment and a greater possibility of world peace.”
In the ensuing decades, neither equality, growth, nor peace have prevailed while the turn inward has been exacerbated to the point where a subsequent administration pledged to “lead from behind,” while the current one has ignored the existing world order through domestic “greatness.”
In the 2020 presidential race, neither candidate cared to even discuss the subject “foreign policy,” much less any new world orders. With the death of a black man in Minneapolis by police in May, the concentration of American political/social order has been fully devoted to the twin abstractions, “justice, equality,” while the president’s personal conversations with world leaders came the closest to anything remotely “foreign” to the public.
The attention of the voting public has now come full-circle to unveil new and innovative ways to achieve both equality and justice between home-grown identities and to determine if the domestic order will be socialist or capitalist. Judging from history (about 6000 recorded years of it), this may occupy whole generations, if not centuries, to decide. It may just as well never end.
In the meantime, world order, if there is to be one, will almost certainly be determined by someone else. Judging from recent and current directions, it may well make little difference to Americans as to whom. In any case, we are certain neither to like nor to accept it. But Police reform requires total attention.
If history is any guide, again, an injured America, as in 1941 and 2001, might just survive another “day of infamy” and rise to the occasion. But this historical repetition has probably run its course.
In the meantime, it might be instructive to see how France has done since 1940. Once “lost,” it has re-emerged, but not by itself nor as before (not even remotely).
Who would be around to help the USA?
More articles by Dr. John Tierney, Jr.