From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

2
1940: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?

In the early morning of Friday 10 May 1940, German troops invaded Holland and Belgium. The next six weeks have become some of the most celebrated in the history of the twentieth century.1 By 15 May the German armour had punched a 50-mile-wide hole through the weakest part of the French front around Sedan, and the French premier, Paul Reynaud, was already telling his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, 'we are beaten; we have lost the battle'.2 On the night of the 20th the Germans reached Abbeville, at the mouth of the Somme, cutting off the British and Belgian forces, together with many of the French. Although a third of a million men were eventually evacuated from the beaches around Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June, the German advance resumed on the following day and Paris fell on the 14th. Three days later a new French government requested an armistice, and this was duly signed on 21 June, in the same railway carriage in the forest of Compie`gne in which Germany had capitulated 22 years before. The Anglo-French alliance was finished. An unprepared Britain was left to fight on alone.

The story is so familiar as to be almost a cliche´. Viewed with hindsight, 1940 has cast a long shadow back over the preceding decade. In Britain, interpretations were shaped for a generation by the brilliant political polemic, Guilty Men, written by three Beaverbrook journalists, among them Michael Foot, in four days during the Dunkirk evacuation. This bestseller (over 200,000 copies) started with the 'defenceless' troops on the beaches of Dunkirk—'an Army doomed before they took the field'—and then reviewed the events of the 1930s so as to indict a generation of politicians who 'took over a great empire, supreme in arms and secure in liberty' and 'conducted it to the edge of national

Apart from minor corrections and a slightly revised ending, this chapter takes the form in which it
was originally published in International Affairs, 66 (1990), 325–50. It was given as a conference
paper at the Institute of General History, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Moscow, in Nov. 1989.

1 For recent discussions see Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France
(New York, 2000), and Julian Jackson, The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (Oxford,
2003).

2 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols., London, 1948–54), ii. 38.

-23-

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