But France’s industrial capacity was now so restricted that money could hot be turned into munitions overnight. A B-I heavy tank, for example) took two years to build--in three separate factories. Indeed, some machine tools were so old that workers constructed tanks with little more than hammers and files. Efficient production depended on large orders, which Were not forthcoming. The removal of munitions plants from the vulnerable Paris region, notably Pierre Cot’s transfer of the entire aviation industry to Toulouse, Bordeaux and Marseilles, further disrupted rearmament. There were shortages of skilled workers, especially in engineering and metallurgy Still, France made such strides that by 1939 it was outproducing Germany in both tanks and fighter aircraft. Furthermore France’s military equipment was in certain respects superior to that of the Third Reich. Gamelin nOt only had more tanks, some with thicker armour and heavier guns, he also had more artillery than Germany. True, only 44 of his 200 artillery regiments were motorised. But the Wehrmacht itself was more of a “military anachronism” than a “mechanised juggernaut”: when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 he helded 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses, over four times as many as had Napoleon in 1812.
However, arms mattered less than men-and ideas. Gamelin and his generals had learned little and forgotten nothing since Verdun. They did not even appreciate the value of the inhltration tactics which had enabled the Germans to make such dramatic advances in 1918, well before the blitzkrieg was envisioned. It was not so much in war matériel that France was old-fashioned-though Vuillemin said that the obsolescence of the air force scared him out of his wits-it was in military doctrine.
Gamelin considered aviation an adjunct to the army and even a progressive such as Charles de Gaulle had little notion of employing aircraft in combined operations with tanks. The French army relied on firepower rather than mobility, understandable perhaps since its infantry, burdened with heavier equipment, was slower in 1939 than it had been in 1914. Gamelin allowed himself to be distracted by Italy and developed no plans to attack Germany. Any offensive, he said, would result in “a modernised form of the battle of the Somme.” As this suggests, Gamelin was as defence-minded as Daladier who, as War Minister, declared that “the first and last word in military art is to build a trench and hold it.” Yet the Maginot Line was palpably incomplete. Like its leaders, the French army was cautious, bureaucratic, fossilised by tradition. Few of its officers envisaged the tank as much more than a lumbering gun platform designed to support ground troops-not one of the copies of General Guderian’
Equally inadequate were the evacuation measures-~except in the case of government ministries. Politicians seemed especially prone to “blue funk.” The Aviation Minister, certain that “the destruction of Paris would pass all imagination,” sent his family to Brittany and advised others to do the same. These others had to fend for themselves. So from Lille to Strasbourg there was a “stampede of the well-to-do.”Cars packed with people and possessions jammed the roads leading south and west. Huge crowds besieged the railway stations and people fought for seats on trains. Six hundred thousand Parisians fled in a week. The capital felt empty, though queues still formed outside savings banks. The shops were deserted, apart from those selling trunks. The Louvre closed and its works of art were packed into crates. Factories were camouflaged, trenches were dug in parks, street lamps dimmed to a glimmer. Doctors profited by issuing medical certificates granting exemption from military service. A brisk trade arose in houses for sale or rent in areas remote from invasion routes. Country cousins became popular. By 29 September 1938, in fact, France was consumed by a war scare reminiscent of the Great Fear of 1789. In Paris, Strasbourg, Dijon and elsewhere mobs attacked Jews and looted their shops, shouting: “Down with the Jewish war. ” The spirit of Bonnet stalked the land. “Let us not be heroic,” he urged; “We are not up to it.”
At Munich Daladier was hungry for conciliation. As usual, he looked combative and made a continuing show of resistance. But he was a willing victim of the British “plot,” as Lord Halifax’s private secretary put it, “to frighten the French into ratting and then get out on their shoulders.”94 Daladier revealed his true colours by remarking that the bellicistes in his own cabinet wanted to push France into an “absurd and above all impossible war,” a war that might cost the lives of three million Frenchmen. Harrowed by his country’s weakness, especially in the air, he agreed to the carve-up of Czechoslovakia. But his scowling countenance and hunched posture betrayed his anger, Daladier recognised that Munich was a crushing humiliation for France, but he did not expect it to be hailed with “frenetic joy.”96 By treating the story of Daladier’s return to France as the Climax of his post-war novel The Reprieve, Sartre made it famous: expecting to be booed (if not mobbed.) by the crowd at Le Bourget airport but finding himself cheered, the dumbfounded Premier turned to Leger as they disembarked from the plane and said through gritted teeth, “The cunts!” Ironically, Sartre’s lover Simone de Beauvoir participated in the general euphoria. She was “delighted” with Munich and “felt not the faintest Pang of Conscience” about the betrayal of Czechoslovakia: “Anything, even the cruellest injustice, was better than war. ”
war in which the whole country, besieged behind the Maginot Line, would become a monstrous Verdun fllled, Laval forecast, with “millions of corpses.” Yet, as the decade advanced, more and more Frenchmen bitterly concluded that the alternative to war was slavery, that their choice lay “between Vérdun and Dachau. ” Hence the incessant panics, the visions of catastrophe and the “nightmare of fear”(Julien Green’s phrase) which afflicted France throughout the 1930s.
Disquiet aggravated disunity as Hitler set his sights on Poland. Bonnet sought to squirm out of French obligations. Daladier wavered and procrastinated, his outbursts of anger being invariably followed, as “Pertinax” remarked, by gestures of impotence. Even when he did declare war the Prime Minister tried to keep the door open to peace. Many of his compatriots shared his ambivalence. On the one hand, they knew that unless France fought Germany it was finished as a great power. They resembled the departing soldiers whose excellent morale was, a journalist noted, “curiously mental”:‘37 the poilus were not moved by patriotic fervour but by the grim conviction that a dirty job had to be done at once. On the other hand, a significant section of French society shared Daladier’s mental reservations and such people grew increasingly anxious that the war should remain as phoney as possible. They hoped that there would be little fighting and tried to believe that France was safe behind the Maginot Line, which would, some said, become the largest tourist attraction in Europe after the war. But as propagandists and censors went about their business and the newspapers appeared with large blank spaces, no one knew what was happening. Albert Camus wrote in his journal, “Never has the individual been more alone in the face of the lie-making machine.” An air of gloomy unreality permeated the capital. With its street lights painted dark blue, Paris resembled a ghost city. Car headlamps were also coloured blue and looked like large aquamarines bowling down asphalt canyons. Squares and alleys were full of shadows. The prostitutes carried gas masks, as did the tin’helmeted policemen, slung from their shoulders in dung-coloured satchels. “Everything, underlying everything,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “a feeling of unfathomable horror."