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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Cost of Conservatism: French Defeat in World War II

American Conservatives are self righteous and convinced that they alone have the best interests of the nation and the American people in their hearts. Conservative politicians throughout the globe behave in this fashion and try and portray their opponents as decadent, irresponsible and unpatriotic.

These themes mirror the conservative movement in France of the late 1930s. When Leon Blum and the popular front ( a coalition of liberal parties) were elected in 1936 to lead France, the right began what can only be called a crusade against him and the government. It did not help that Blum was Jewish.

The right in France used religion, particularly Catholicism and morality to advance their cause. As Hitler and Mussolini began their march through Europe, the French right showed sympathy for the fascist dictators whose domestic policies and opposition to the United Kingdom were appealing to conservatives. The fear and hatred of socialism and the Soviet Union was so intense among the French right that Adolf Hitler was seen in some quarters as the best leader in Europe. Hitler's anti-communist and anti-Jewish agenda was soon to be replicated in France by the right.
While it has become commonplace in the post war world to assign blame for French defeat on outdated military tactics, much of the blame lies with political conservatives whose sympathy for Nazi Germany and whose apprehension about alliance with Great Britain led to a rapid French capitulation. Once Winston Churchill tried to rally France to fight on, the French right began to discuss an armistice with Germany. For these conservatives a deal with Hitler, despite the fact that it was a violation of the Anglo-French alliance that had been in place since before the First World War was preferable to being submissive in any way to the British. What I am saying here is quite clear: In violation of all standards of human decency and in violation of the interests of the French Republic, these conservatives sought to make a deal with Hitler. The fact that many on the right did not respect Democracy and had blamed the French Republic whose governments were often voted in the by masses and filled with Jews for all of France's problems. These conservatives preferred a return to Monarchy or even a Nazi style government for France. When Prime Minister Paul Reynaud sent Charles DeGaulle to London on June 14th, 1940 he made it clear he did not want to give up the fight. Two days later Reynaud was deposed in what can only be described as an illegal coup by the right wing within his conservative government and six days later he was arrested and sent to Germany as a prisoner where he remained until May 1945.

Once the Armistice was signed and the new Vichy French state formed, it became a military dictatorship. On July 10th the National Assembly voted dictorial powers to Marshall Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun in World War I but also the instigator of the illegal coup against Reynaud, a noted Anglo-phobe and supporter of French antisemitism.

Petian immediately began to reshape French society on a more conservative model which also means collaborating with the Nazi's who had not only defeated France and occupied 60% of its territory but whose ideology the new French leadership sympathized with. The National Revolution was launched which began to reshape French society on religious lines. P├ętain used his power to order the dismissal of republican civil servants, the installation of exceptional jurisdictions, the proclamation of anti-Semitic laws, and the imprisonment of his opponents and foreign refugees. His government also without a formal deceleration of war did everything it could do to help the Axis cause against the British by trying to hold French colonies in North Africa and attacking British forces in the Middle East. During this time the French forces in Syria even battled Free French forces under the leadership of General Charles DeGaulle who was fighting alongside the British. DeGaulle, who like Petain was a member of Reynaud's cabinet was tried in absentia and sentenced to death should he return to France from London. DeGaulle however had the ear of Winston Churchill (but not Franklin Roosevelt who preferred to cultivate moderates in Petain's government) and as time wore on the majority of French colonies in Africa and Asia submitted to DeGaulle as the legitimate leader of France, not Petain.

Petain's Government did many things that undermined the French resistance cause and continued France's new status as a satellite of Nazi Germany. Multi party democracy was rejected in favor of a single party, conservative dictatorship. Petain was portrayed as a hero in posters and government propaganda. The cult of personality of Petain became the central focus of the French state. Thousands of Jews were stripped of French citizenship and forced to wear a yellow badge. Eventually Jews were put in concentration camps. Known Communists who had been legitimate members of government under the Republic were often times simply rounded up shot.

The France of commerce and city life was rejected in favor of a more agrarian and traditional France. Abortion policy was restricted and official government propaganda promoted the role of woman as merely servants of men who were to raise a family and stay home. This is in sharp contrast to the role of woman in wartime Anglo and American societies. In addition, active collaboration with the Nazi's was encouraged and a death sentence was ordered for anyone who was convicted of listening to the BBC.

France's conservative movement had succeed in destroying the republic, rejecting its alliance with the U.K., promoting fascism and ostracizing the Jews. Conservatism worldwide promotes itself as a strong force for good. But when we are faced with conservative leaders we must recall the lessons of France and hold our leaders accountable for any slide towards fascism.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Good posting. Too bad we still have not learned from history. I need to speak to you as soon as possible. Are you in town ?? Call me.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.