Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

Is America 1940 Britain or France 1940?

Nations do not always unite during crises. Sometimes, countries will fall apart in a crisis that threatens their national survival.

In 1940, both the United Kingdom and France faced a crisis: German invasion. However, Britain united for survival while France fell apart and capitulated to the Nazis.

The French had the resources to survive in 1940, including a well-equipped army of five million men. In fact, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill considered France’s army the finest in Europe until June 1940.  

Moreover, the French Army fought surprisingly well in 1940; destroying around 30% of the German tanks and killing nearly 48,000 German soldiers. French forces even defeated an invading Italian Army in Southern France shortly before their country’s surrender.

Yet both the French government and army collapsed in 1940. Instead of fighting the Germans, the French turned on each other, allowing the Germans to overrun the country.

I think Americans need to study France and Britain in 1940 because France’s example shows not even the gravest crises can unite some countries. Instead of unity, a crisis can bring collapse and capitulation.

So why did they France Collapse while Britain united?

To be fair, geography played a role. All the Germans had to do in 1940 was to drive across the French borders and Belgium. Meanwhile, the British had the English Channel and the Royal Navy between them and the Wehrmacht.

Yet the French had enormous resources that could have stopped the German invaders with proper leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership did not exist in France in 1940.

So why did France Fall in 1940?

Some reasons for France’s 1940 collapse include:

Political Polarization

By 1940, the politics of France’s Third Republic had become totally polarized.

Intractable political divisions were everywhere. On the left, for example, the Communists refused to help or support socialists. On a national level, the Right refused to back the socialist Popular Front government. Moreover, the right was deeply divided between the royalists and fascists. Royalists themselves split into Orleanists, Bourbonists, and Bonapartists. The factions refused to cooperate even during the Nazi invasion.

Political expediency played a role in France’s defeat. Communists, royalists, and fascists wanted the Popular Front government and the Republic itself to fail so they could seize power.

By failing to put politics aside for the war, the French doomed their country.

In contrast, the British united. Many British people regarded Winston S. Churchill as a madman. Yet they accepted him as Prime Minister. Notably, all three of Britain’s major political parties; Conservative, Labour, and Liberal, united in a war government.

Most of the Conservatives hated Churchill yet they accepted him as Prime Minister. They went with Churchill because Winston was the only Conservative Labour Party MPs would support. Similarly, Conservatives accepted Clement Attlee, a left-wing Labour leader, as Deputy Prime Minister.

Hence, the British could put aside enormous political differences for the duration of the war. Essentially, the British froze politics for the war’s duration. They postponed disputes on issues such as Indian Independence, the welfare state, nationalization, and free trade until the war ended.

Hence, the British could put aside enormous political differences for the duration of the war. Essentially, the British froze politics for the war’s duration. They postponed disputes on issues such as Indian Independence, the welfare state, nationalization, and free trade until the war ended.

Americans need to be scared because our political polarization could be as deep as in France in 1940. Notably, Republicans refuse to cooperate with Democrats on any issue besides defense spending or emergencies such as COVID-19.

Frighteningly, many Republicans politicize pandemic response when it is to their advantage. For example, US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) even wrote “I write to inform you that I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis,” McConnell said in a letter to President Joe Biden (D-Delaware). McConnell was referring to the debt ceiling. Many economists believe Congress’s refusal to raise the debt ceiling could trigger economic collapse.   

Lack of Trust and Faith in Institutions

The British could put their differences aside in 1940 because of a powerful faith in institutions.

To explain, in 1940, most Britons had strong faith in a few institutions. Those institutions included the monarchy, parliament, and the Empire. The faith in institutions allowed ordinary people to look beyond politics and fight for a higher goal.

Most French people lacked a similar faith in 1940. Indeed, much of the French population thought their national government, the Third Republic, was illegitimate. For example, many conservative Catholics believed the secular Republic violated their faith. Royalists felt the Republic had no right to exist and Communists believed the Republic was a corrupt abomination.

Underlying the ideological differences was a declining faith in institutions that began in World War I. The French made enormous sacrifices in the First World War. In fact, 1.927 million French soldiers and 600,000 French civilians died in the war. Yet material conditions for the French people did not improve after 1918.

Moreover, the French government did a poor job of selling the war, relying on blind patriotism. Most French soldiers did not understand what they were fighting for beyond the flag. Predictably, after 1918, many French people felt their loved ones had died for nothing.

Under those conditions, many French people believed the Communist and fascist conspiracies about the war. The Communists blamed the rich while the fascists blamed the Jews.

Distrust and hatred of authority ran high. Popular frustration fueled political polarization, which made uniting the nation against the enemy difficult.

Americans need to be afraid because distrust in our institutions is running high. In particular, American leaders have asked ordinary people to sacrifice heavily for vague notions of community and country while offering nothing. America suffered 844,859 coronavirus deaths as of 30 December 2021.

Remember all the glorification of essential workers in 2020, which did not lead to higher wages, more benefits, or better working conditions. France, similarly, glorified its soldiers in 1918, then dumped them back onto the streets after the armistice.

Something Americans forget is that after World War II, His Majesty’s Government made enormous efforts to improve the lives of ordinary people. For example, the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state. There were no such efforts in America after the COVID-19 pandemic, beyond a few cash payments.

Today, America faces a toxic mix of frustration at losses and distrust of institutions reminiscent of 1940 France. For example, just 39% of Americans trusted the federal government to deal with international and domestic problems in September 2021, Gallup estimates. As recently as 2001, 83% of Americans trusted the federal government to solve international problems.

Yet America’s leaders, like France’s leaders in 1940, expect ordinary people to sacrifice for the nation. The hope is Americans will fight for democracy even though democracy has done nothing for them. In 1940, many French people sacrificed democracy to save themselves, after decades of democracy doing nothing for them. In contrast, British soldiers in 1940 understood the government could do something for them after the war.

I think America is courting disaster by not addressing widespread disillusionment and frustration with government and doing little for ordinary people. Even though Americans love to think of themselves as 1940 Britain, we are behaving like 1940 France and could soon suffer a similar fate.