Review: Le choix de la défaite

Annie Lacroix-Riz analyses the portentous orientation of influential sections of the French elites towards Germany in the 1930s and the fluid transition to collaboration.

“The day will come,” wrote the French historian Marc Bloch in April 1944, “and perhaps quite soon, when it will be possible to shed light on the machinations that took place in our country from 1933 to 1939 in support of the Berlin-Rome axis so that it could rule over Europe.” Shortly beforehand, on 8 March, Bloch, who had joined the Resistance to fight against the German occupation regime, had been arrested, imprisoned and severely tortured by the Gestapo in Lyon. Facing death, he was gripped by a question that he had already addressed back in the summer of 1940, shortly after the German Reich’s rapid military conquest of France. In his essay L'étrange défaite (Strange Defeat), he concluded that the French elites – military leaders, politicians, journalists, and above all industrialists – were prepared to “single-handedly destroy the entire edifice of our alliances and our partnerships” and enter into open collaboration with the Germans. Bloch, too, like so many others, fell victim to that collaboration: the Nazis murdered him on 16 June 1944.

Annie Lacroix-Riz, Professor Emeritus of Contemporary History at the Université Paris-Diderot (Paris-VII), has now published a third updated and expanded edition of her book Le choix de la défaite (The Choice of Defeat) on this dark episode. Her story begins with Bloch’s judgment on the role of the French elites in the 1930s. This voluminous, detailed study, brimming with countless archival sources, can now be seen as proof that Bloch was absolutely right at the time with his remarkable, albeit at first glance astonishing, assessment.


Lacroix-Riz traces the political trajectory of influential sections of the French elite over the course of the 1930s, especially those associated with the Banque de France and the Comité des Forges, an association of industrialists in the French steel industry. On the one hand, she outlines the growing proximity of these circles to fascist ideas, first based on the Italian and, the, from 1933 onwards, on the German model. Their desire was to defeat the French left as effectively as possible. With the left being regarded as the “enemy within”, elements within the French elite began to finance fascist organisations which, like in other countries, were wreaking havoc in France during the 1930s. French fascists showed their hand most violently on 6 February 1934, stirring up unrest which, according to Lacroix-Riz, amounted to an attempted coup with the backing of the Comité des Forges.


The fascist threat was confronted by the Popular Front government, a coalition of parties of various leftist orientations, which formed the government from 1936. Yet the determination of Front populaire to push back against fascism only strengthened the willingness of the far-right circles in the French elite to take a more radical path for asserting their interests. The methods used by Germany’s Nazi state to promote profit maximisation had already attracted considerable interest from French bankers and industrialists. The foreign policy pursued by Paris began to shift, now adjusting, in some respects, to Germany’s plans for the continent. In Eastern and South-eastern Europe, France had long encouraged an alliance of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania under the “Little Entente” as a defence against big power aggression. But now these allies were more or less left exposed to German expansion, while Paris rejected any opportunities for cooperation with the Soviet Union to take joint action against the looming fascist threat.


Ultimately, hatred of the “enemy within” was stronger than hatred of the “enemy without”, concludes Lacroix-Riz. It led to influential sections of the French elite, especially the circles connected with Banque de France or the Comité des Forges, preferring collaboration with the German Reich to a fierce defensive struggle against the Nazis, whom they admired in many respects. The motto of quite a few in the French bourgeoisie was “better Hitler than Blum”. How else could one explain the way France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 only to remain largely inactive and collapse within a few weeks of the German invasion on May 10, 1940. This acquiescence was astonishing for a power of France’s stature. “We did not conquer France,” General Walter von Reichenau, who commanded the German 6th Army during the attack on Belgium and France, later affirmed. “It was handed over to us.”


A bitter but closed chapter of history? Not at all. When, after liberation, France began to come to terms with the extent of its collaboration and its own crimes, many in the powerful inner circles of the French elite who had made “the choice of defeat” in 1940, and prior to the outbreak of war, went unpunished. Lacroix-Riz sheds light on these events in another work (La non-épuration en France, Paris 2019). Moreover, with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the very same French steel industrialists who as members of the Comité des Forges had once pushed for extremely close cooperation with Nazi Germany to the point of open collaboration emerged once again as highly significant political players. They have become part of the foundation myth of the European Union.


Annie Lacroix-Riz: Le choix de la défaite. Les élites françaises dans les années 1930. Dunod. Malakoff 2023. 1224 pages. 13.90 Euro.