The World War II Multimedia Database

For the 72 Million

Prelude to War – France

France suffered in World War I more than any other Western combatant. Most of the fighting on the Western Front took place on her soil, and she lost millions of men in trench warfare.

At Versailles in 1919 she was determined to never allow German aggression to threaten her again. She hoped that the combination of demilitarization, reparation, and occupation would force the Germans to abandon any hopes of invading France again.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the French had the largest, most powerful army on the face of the earth. Much of their equipment was technically advanced, and they had large resources in their colonies and manpower upon which to draw. Both the United States and Great Britain looked to France to secure peace on the European continent. Great Britain would secure the seas.

France did not lack the tools, only the will. Tired of fear and bloodshed, France did not wish to take on the role of world superpower. Economically and socially, she could not. Much of her land that supported coal and food production had become battlefields. The French public did not support commitments of troops overseas, except for her colonies.

The French government, her army, and many of her citizens were transfixed by World War I. France prepared to fight the last war, not the next one. André Maginot, the French Minister of War, advocated and built a series of fortifications all along the border with Germany. Named for their advocate, the Maginot Line was built to fight a war that was already over. Strong forts linked by tunnels and smaller redoubts provided a very tough defensive line. But by the thirties, static fortifications were no longer state-of-the-art. Warfare was about to become far more mobile that the World War I commanders could have dreamt. The internal combustion engine could drive heavily armed weighty armored boxes at speed, so pillboxes could now move rapidly. Maginot did not understand.

Because of her treaty with Belgium, the Maginot Line did not extend through the Belgian border. The world’s strongest defensive line had a back door. The Germans took note of it.

Static thinking occupied more than just the French military minds. The French people were paralyzed by the thought of the their dead, and they looked towards the possibility of another war with heavy hearts. Only the French Communists, with funding from the Soviet Union, actively opposed the newly risen German nationalism. Many French citizens tried to put it out of their mind.

But the move to reestablish “Greater Germany” could not be ignored. Like the British, the French were deeply concerned by the German reoccupation of the Rhine in 1936. Unlike the British, the French had the means to do something about it. But without British support, the French do not move. The Nazis reoccupy the Rhine without incident.

Edouard Daladier, the French Premier, went to Munich in 1938 and with Britain, allowed Germany to carve up the Sudetenland. So far Hitler and the Nazis had not used overt military force to attack the West, and everyone in Britain and France hoped that the Germans would make no more demands. The growing reports of anti-Semitic violence and strong-arm tactics in the new provinces of the Reich were discounted or ignored.

As Germany made noises to reclaim the Polish Corridor to Danzig, Britain and France made guarantees to the Polish government. In the event of an attack, the West would come to the defense of Poland.

On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland. Britain and France knew that this could not be allowed to stand, and declared war on September 2, 1939. Hitler had begun the Second World War, but all the world’s leaders shared the blame through their inaction.

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