Echoes Of The Great War Resound Differently In Poland

The famous book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by British professor Christopher Clark, investigates World War I, diagnosing it to be more of a tragedy than a crime. The Great War was started by the “sleepwalkers” of the title, who were unaware of the historical scale of the catastrophe they were perpetrating. Not only did the hecatomb of victims and the scale of the destruction prove to be cataclysmic – but, above all, there followed the collapse of the European political order, admired by many to the present day as the “beautiful 19th century.”

Six years ago, when the centenary of that war took place, Clark’s book became the “political bible” for politicians and intellectuals who, smacking their lips with appreciation, discussed its thesis at countless conferences, always concluding with the same caution against repeating the “sleepwalking” precedent.

Looking from the Western European perspective of la belle époque, which was brutally interrupted by that war, one may say that this kind of narration dictated to Europe by Clark is not only logical but also nobly moral. However, what must strike a Pole in this narrative is the radically different experience of the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe. And it is a difference that a contemporary French, Italian or even German probably does not notice, let alone accept.

One of the most famous passages from Polish literature, kept in the memory of every Pole from school-days, is the prayer from the Pilgrim’s Litany by the greatest Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz: “For universal war on behalf of freedom for the nations, we beseech Thee, O Lord!” This prayer is regarded as a prophesy about the outbreak of war which, after more than a hundred years of occupation, would finally bring Poles freedom and the possibility of living in their own country. In this Polish narrative, 1914 is neither a “crime” nor a “tragedy.” Quite the opposite – it is a historical declaration of freedom restored four years later. And the unexpected result of that war entailed the fall of the three occupying emperors: German, Russian, and Austrian.

This was a key moment for the Polish understanding of the world and the position of Poland in it. Having won the war, England and France paved the way for Poles to regain freedom; and thus, these two powers were inscribed as “friendly” and “allied” in the code of Polish political self-awareness, passed down from generation to generation. But that is not all. Every child in Poland knows that the victory was only possible because of the fact that the Americans entered Europe for the first time in history. When they left the continent shortly after, disgusted with the quality of European politics, it did not take long for the tragedy to strike again – the Second World War. So, this belief in the almost “magical” power of American presence in Europe became deeply rooted in the political DNA that shaped the identity of Poles.

The Polish state, reborn in 1918, could not think of itself other than in terms of some broader Central European union. Obviously, it was a memory of the old days gone by when the Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty ruled a vast federal power with two capitals in Krakow and Vilnius. Although there were other ethnic categories (for which the Polish national movement was leading the way in the new statehood) – the fact that Józef Piłsudski came to power (on the day of the historic Armistice of Compiègne on November 11, 1918) meant that it was not “nationalists,” but “Prometheists” that came to define the post-war mission of the Polish state. The military alliance with Ukrainians and Belarusians (who were also liberating themselves from Russian domination), meant to re-establish a union in Central and Eastern Europe, broke down under pressure from the Bolsheviks.

Thus, there was barely enough strength left to defend the endangered Polish statehood against the Bolsheviks who, in the summer of 1920, gathered just near the outskirts of Warsaw. It was also impossible to marshal enough energy to renew the idea of a union in Central Eastern Europe. Although such a union was not formed then, and this part of Europe was soon to become a battlefield of nationalism, nevertheless, immediately after the Great War, this period became an echo constantly resounding in Polish politics throughout the last century until today.

Primarily, it is an echo of a dream of political integration which could no longer be established specifically in the centre of the Eastern part of Europe. Over time the inability to maintain such a state of affairs became more and more obvious. However, the dream could be realized through a great European integration project for the whole of Europe. One should bear that in mind in order to understand the enthusiasm of Poles for their own accession to the European Union in the 21st century, but also the enthusiasm for its enlargement to include Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia. The peculiar “transfer” of the Union to the East has built the political mission of the contemporary Polish state; and without awareness of this fact, it is impossible to understand the Polish policy of the last 25 years.

Unfortunately, there is also a distant echo ringing loudly in Poland’s memory of the fact that at a time when in 1920 all Polish plans threatened to fail, as did the very existence of the Polish state, the “allied” and “friendly” European powers, in particular England under the rule of Lloyd George, paradoxically took the side of the Bolsheviks. This was at the same time as the Spa Conference when the Polish government was forced to surrender to Soviet Russia half of its territory – that is everything that the Russian Tsars forcibly appropriated themselves in the 18th century.

Never again has it been possible in Poland to eliminate this intuitive distrust of European “friends,” a distrust further strengthened in September 1939 and which, in fact, continues to this day. In turn, however, the still resonating echo of those events also provokes a particular Polish sensitivity to harm and the rejection by Europe of Ukrainians and Belarusians, i.e. the only nations that a century ago faced the Soviet threat with armed force, alongside the Poles. Everyone who wants to understand today why over a million Ukrainian immigrants, who have been welcomed with open arms, live and work in Poland need only remember this previous anti-Soviet alliance. Also, we will learn about this alliance at the European Union Summit, where the Polish Prime Minister is (successfully) striving for a plan for extensive economic support of Belarus which is to start when its citizens manage to remove the tyranny that has prevailed there so far.

In his famous book, Professor Clark proved that the echoes of the Great War are clearly heard in contemporary politics. And this is certainly true. However, the Polish echoes resound a bit differently from those heard by the great British historian.

Jan Rokita is a Polish philosopher, opposition activist in the communist era, former MP and deputy of the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament).

This article was published in the monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze (Poland) as part of a historical education project of the Institute of National Remembrance.

The image shows, “Cud nad Wisłą” (“Miracle on the Vistula”), by Jerzy Kossak, painted in 1930 (Museum of the Diocese in Torun).

Why Did Italy Declare War In 1940?

Scholars and lay readers often assume that Italy joined Germany in 1940 because “the end of the war appeared to be on the horizon, Mussolini concluded the best choice was to join the Germans in their war against France and Britain, in order to seize territory in the Mediterranean. Malta, Corsica, Savoy and Nice – the Italian territories possessed by foreign powers – and Tunis; and along with other African lands, these were meant to compensate Italy for the the ‘disloyal behavior’ that London and Paris had exhibited in 1919.”

I had this opinion too, until by chance, in late 2009, I had to prepare a detailed paper on the Italian point of view about the French 1940 Armistice. I should mention that the subsequent paper I wrote on this topic achieved remarkable success when presented – in Paris at the Ecole militaire, on January 15, 2010. Later, I developed the idea into a book, which was published in 2014, in Italian.

Back in late fall 2009, in order to understand the French Armistice clearly, I began with the war itself, and with the plans – if any – made before the war. So, I began from secondary sources, mainly official publications, such as, the accounts of the Italian Alpine campaign of 1940, and the Italian military occupation of France, along with the addition of Galeazzo Ciano’s diary and some other sources. While collecting all the data, I found some things which clashed with the commonly held view, and which, when brought together, yielded a new perspective that should at least be revealed and discussed.

The problem of why Italy entered World War II was at that time, in 2009, still unclear. Traditional historiography tends to give Mussolini the simple desire to gain some territory at the lowest possible price; while other authors suppose that war was declared only because the Duce wanted to demonstrate that the Italian people were warriors. Both these major explanations are not so convincing, unless one is firmly believes that Mussolini was completely devoid of cold judgement and reason and was playing a sort of poker with the worst cards. Now, apart from any kind of consideration about Mussolini’s mental faculties, when gathering all the strands of the economic and political situation in Italy in 1939-40, the mosaic that results is very different than the one proposed till now by Italian and non-Italian historiography.

While it is certainly true that the person who decided the Italian involvement in war was Mussolini, the question we need to answer is: How did things appear to him? What was his – and the Italians’ – perception of the situation, which could be quite different from how matters actually stood. This question is never answered; or, at least, this question has never had a really satisfying answer, one which might allow us to understand why Mussolini took that fatal decision. The problem has certainly been discussed in Italy and outside Italy, in various ways – but nobody has to-date offered an explanation which might lead us beyond mere suggestion, or a bias, or a notion.

There is an astounding lack of documents from Mussolini about this question. There are many memoirs and journals by other people, but one must be very careful with these, because they were all published after the war, when their authors wanted above all to try to justify themselves to the people and to history. Ciano’s Diary, The diary written by Giuseppe Bottai, one of the smartest men of Fascism, appeared only after his five-year service with the French Foreign Legion in 1944-49.

There are also books and memoirs written by civil and military officers, sometimes top officers, but none offer anything substantial, other than an occasional detail. And, thus, the problem remains always unsolved: Why did Mussolini, who had no intention of going to war, suddenly decide to declare war in June 1940?

It is also clear that given the above caveats, one cannot pretend to demonstrate the truth. It is only possible to suggest an hypothesis, a tentative answer to the afore-mentioned questions; and it will up to the reader to decide whether the hypothesis can be accepted or not, fully or in part, or totally rejected.

When seeking to understand the reason why a certain decision was made, the only doable thing is to gather all the information about the man who took that decision. Then, one can see if, by chance, after having considered the facts, there is anything which may be helpful in finding an answer.
Therefore, what was Italy’s situation during this period, militarily speaking? Was Italy put under any kind of pressure? And if so, what kind of pressure, from where and by whom? Could Italy sustain a war, and, above all, a war as an ally of Germany? What outcome could Italy expect?

Now, in view of contemporary military, diplomatic anad economic documents, the answer appears to be quite complex, and most definitely surprising and very different from what is commonly supposed.

The first facts to consider are economic data, because money defines and determines what the military can do. Italy’s financial situation, in the Spring of 1940, was terrible. This is very well known by Italian economic historians, but is normally not taken into consideration by Italian military historians, and appears to be completely ignored by non-Italian military historians and by lay readers, whether Italian or not.

In fact, actual sources are really very few. Apart from the well-known (in Italy) book by General Carlo Favagrossa, Perché perdemmo la guerra (Why We Lost the War), published in 1946, and by the former Mussolini Finance minister, Felice Guarneri’s Battaglie economiche (Economic Battles), published in 1953), a scholar can only look at basic sources, such as, the figures given by the Central Institute of Statistics in Rome, the reports and official publications by the Ragioneria Generale dello Stato (State General Auditing Board) about the Italian budget, that is to say, Il bilancio dello Stato negli esercizi dal 1930-31 al 1941-42, and Il bilancio dello Stato negli esercizi finanziari dal 1942-43 al 1947-48, and the annual reports of the Governor of the Bank of Italy to the shareholders from 1939 to 1946.

Books too are quite few concerning this topic of Italy’s economic situation during the years under consideration. These books include, Giuseppe Mayer, Teoria economica delle spese militari (Economic Theory of Military Expenditure), published in 1961; Epicarmo Corbino, L’economia italiana dal 1861 al 1961 (The Italian Economy from 1861 to 1961), published in 1962; and Giuseppe Toniolo, La Banca d’Italia e l’economia di guerra (The Bank of Italy and the War Economy), published in 1989. The most recent, and perhaps the best work about this issue, is Luciano Luciani, L’economia e la finanza italiana nel secondo conflitto mondiale (Italian Economy and Finance in World War II), published in 2009.

The economy was not going well at all in the 1930s, and unemployment was common. Studies about this aspect are still rare and seldom published; and one is tempted to ask how much Fascist propaganda had the lingering effect to convince people that all worked well. Anyway, one can find something in Enrico Cernigol and Massimo Giovanetti, Ricordati degli uomini in mare (Reminiscences the Men in the Sea), published in 2005), which consists of interviews with survivors of submarine crews. When answering the question, why did they enlist, most of the answers are more or less “because of the lack of work in the Thirties.” Something similar is found in personal accounts or memoirs of people who did not have important positions at that time and who were interviewed; or this reason is indirectly admitted in some contemporary documents.

Wars in Ethiopia and Spain, and the short campaign in Albania, were a huge financial drain on the Kingdom of Italy. Since 1935, two thirds of the annual state expenditure had been on armed forces. Italy’s global expenditure rose from 33 billion liras in 1935–1936 to 60 billion in the fiscal year 1939 – 1940; and the deficit progressively and constantly grew from 13 billion liras in 1935–1936 to 28 billion in 1939 – 1940. And when considering the disagreggated data, we find that military expenditure, because of war, was solely responsible for the deficit.

There was also another problem. The Italian state’s income depended on only 28 percent taxation, and 72 percent on revenue. This meant that given the normal diminishing of commerce in the time of war, the state would never have been able to retain the 72 percent, and thus a consistent reduction of income had to be foreseen. At the same time, it was clear that if limited wars like those in Ethiopia and Spain had been so expensive, a World War against France and Britain would be harder, if not impossible, to sustain.

So, here we have the first fact that Mussolini was well aware of: The impossibility of managing a medium- or long-term war against great powers because of lack of money. And Mussolini knew this well, since minister Guarneri clearly warned him, and soon was forced to resign.

The second aspect to be considered is that of the Armed Forces; and this was strictly linked to the lack of money. If the State had no money, and Italy lacked raw materials to achieve a general rearmement, it was impossible to fill the need for ordnance and restock the depots emptied by the recent wars in Africa and in Europe. The standard interpretation concerning the state of the Italian Armed Forces in 1939 is that they possessed old equipment, useless in a modern war. This is a fallacy. Their equipment was as good as other European armed forces in 1939, except perhaps the Germans. The problem was that the Italian Armed Forces lacked sufficient equipment to carry out the operations with which they were tasked. They did not have enough vehicles, weapons and ammunitions. And they could not acquire the material it needed in sufficient quantities because Italy lacked an effective industrial system.

Comparative figures for war production of high-technological ordnance, such as, aircraft are quite revealing. For example, in 1939, Italy produced 1,750 aircraft; in 1940 3,250. The next year, 1941, marked the highest point of production with 3,503. Then, Italian production slowly decreased: 2,813 in 1942 and 1,930 in 1943, for a total of 13,523 planes throughout the entire conflict. In 1942, Japan made 9,300 planes, Soviet Union 8,000, Britain 23,671, United States 47,859 and Germany15,596. That is to say, in only one year, Germany produced more aircraft than Italy did in four years of war. German aircraft were faster, more effective, powerful and modern than Italian ones. During the period 1939-1945, Japan produced 64,800 aircraft, the Soviet Union 99,500, Germany 125,072, Britain 125,254 and United States more than 300,000. These figures have been officially published by the Italian Air Force in Rodolfo Gentile, Storia dell’Aeronautica dalle origini ai giorni nostri, (Florence, 1967), and in Vincenzo Lioy, Cinquantennio dell’Aviazione italiana, (Rome, 1959).

So, lack of money, weapons and automotive transports meant the impossibility of managing a modern war, such as the Germans carried out against Poland. In fact, according to the report presented by Graziani on May 25, 1940, the divisions of the Italian army were too lightly armed. They had 23,000 vehicles, 8,700 special vehicles, 4,400 cars and 12,500 motorcycles. Tanks numbered some 1,500 useless light tanks, and merely 70 medium battle tanks. This meant the that Regio Esercito possessed only half the number of vehicles it needed to manage something similar to the German “Blitzkrieg.” It was impossible – as Graziani said – to fill the gap, because the country simply did not have enough cars and trucks. Artillery was old and had little ammunition. Fuel was sufficient for only a few months. Italy produced 15,000 metric tons of crude oil annually. Albania provided 100,000 more metric tons. Normal Armed Forces consumption was 3,000,000 tons in peacetime; in war it increased to 8 million. Libyan oil had been discovered, but it was too deep to of use.

All this is fairly well-known. But what seems rather unknown, or little evaluated, comes from an official document, quite a relevant and reliable one, published quite long ago, namely, the minutes of the meeting held at the General Armed Forces Chief of Staff’s office in 1939. The first volume – from January 1939 to the end of December 1940 – begins with very interesting statements. During the first meeting – which included only the Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs of Staff and the General Chief of Staff, Marshall Badoglio – held on 26 January 1939, that is to say soon after Monaco, but eight months before the war, Badoglio opened the meeting stated: “Above all, His Excellence, the Chief of the Government, declared to me that, concerning rivendicatons against France, he has no intention to mention Corsica, Nice and Savoy. These are initiatives taken by single persons, who in no way enter into his plans of action.

He declared to me, moreover, that he has no intention demanding territorial cessions from France, because he is convinced that France is unable to accept – for, by doing so, he would put himself in the condition of drawing back a possible demand (and this would lack of dignity), or to enter into a war, (and this is not his intention).”

When speaking of initiatives taken by single persons, Mussolini meant something rather well-known at that time and quite recently as well. We know about this through the memoirs of one of the most important personalities of Fascism, Baron Giacomo Acerbo, a World War I hero, who had joined Fascism before the March on Rome. He was the leader of the Abruzzo region and who was not only a remarkable world-renowned expert in economics, but an expert in agriculture too. Plus, he was a member of the Great Council of Fascism and one of the only four members of this Council who voted against the issue of the anti-Jewish racial laws. At that time, he was going to be appointed President of the General Budget Committee in the Chamber of Deputies, and in 1943 he was the last minister of finance Mussolini had before resigning in July.

Acerbo wrote:

“Mussolini’s obstinacy not to deprive himself of the cooperation of his son-in-law [Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, who had married Mussolini’s oldest daughter, Edda] appears more incomprehensible and deplorable when thinking of what happened on November 30th 1938. I mean that sitting of the Chamber when, during a speech by Ciano, and as soon as he [Mussolini] heard Ciano’s voice, stated the ancient territorial claims which Fascist Italy did not intend to renounce – all while some thirty deputies shouted, “viva Nizza,” and “viva la Savoia” and “viva la Corsica,” etc. And this happened while the new French ambassador, François-Poncet, was in the diplomatic seat and who had arrived after just a week in Rome, and after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries… At the end of the session, a hundred people in Montecitorio Square shouted the same things. It was a comedy prepared by Ciano himself, with the cooperation of the Party Secretary, Starace. And at that moment, we thought that it did not lack the preventive consent of Mussolini, who attended the session. On the other hand, just that evening, Mussolini, when opening the work of the Great Council censored what had happened with a curt tone: “I take exception to the scene which occurred today in the Chamber (these were almost exactly his words), and I take exception both because it was done without my knowledge and because those who organized it did not reflect that it was at least unsuitable, seeing that only a few days earlier we had resumed full relations with France.” The two responsible remained indifferent as it did not concern them… Everybody expected the resignation of the two responsible, but they conserved their places more firmly than ever.”

So, territorial claims against France was Ciano’s and Starace’s idea – and it was so far from Mussolini’s mind that he wanted to make sure Badoglio knew this, and, through him, the Chiefs of Staff. This is the first surprise: Italy – Mussolini – deprived of the supposed desire for getting into a war, and, above all, a war against France. If one might wonder whether this document is reliable, the answer is: 100%. Minutes were written and later submitted to each of the partiipants, who signed them. Only later they were submitted to Mussolini in person, and – especially in this case – there was no negative reaction, no correction, no change. In other words, Mussolini implicitly admitted that his opinion was just as Badoglio had reported.

It is certainly true that Italy was not overly friendly with France, but this was due to problems born in 1919 and never resolved. Italy perceived France and French policy toward, and in, the Balkans as a threat. That is why, for instance, the first operational plan made by the Italian Air Force in 1929 was the “Ipotesi Est, Ipotesi Ovest, Ipotesi doppia” – “Hypothesis East, Hypothesis West, Double Hypothesis” – where “East” meant war against Yugoslavia, “West” war against France and “Double” war against both nations. But all this was intended in a purely defensive way, as becomes evident when reading the plan itself.

In fact, the most important and general doctrine was the Directives for the coordinated employment of the Army Air Units. “Directives” were divided into three main parts. The first contained general issues and orders for actions above the ground; The second was about fighting at sea; the third concerned antiaircraft defense, reconnaissance, emergency airfields, emergency redoubts, and so on. The only known copies are those owned by Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff De Pinedo. These now lies in Rome, in the Army Archive, fondi acquisiti, non catalogato. The “Ipotesi Ovest, Ipotesi Est, Ipotesi doppia, considerazioni generali” exists as an incomplete copy in the same Army Archive, in fondi acquisiti, non catalogato. A complete copy, however, has been found by John Gooch in the same Archive. The only study existing about the Directives is my own, “The First Air War Doctrine of the Italian Royal Air Force, 1929,” a paper presented at the 67th annual conference of the Society for Military History – Quantico (VA), the U.S. Marines Corp University, on April 28, 2000.

French policy also gave Mussolini a lot to worry about. From the Italian point of view, France appeared to have a peculiar ability to act in such a manner as to draw the ire of other countries. In those years, not only did Italians view French attitudes as hostile toward Italy, but also premier Leon Blum made two policy errors, which further alienated Italy. The first was a Franco-Spanish pact, where Spain allowed French troops transit through Spanish territory to reach North Africa in case of war against Italy. The second was France’s announcement of sending weapons, ordnance and men to support the Spanish Republic. Mussolini did not care about Spanish affairs, but if French intervention rendered Spain a sort of French protectorate, or strategic ally, Italy could find both the exits from the Mediterranean closed to Italian shipping. The Suez was owned by a French-British company. The Straits of Gibraltar were passable because Spain owned the African side, despite British possession of Gibraltar. What if France indirectly controlled the African side as Britain controlled the European one? This could pose a threat to Mussolini’s and Italy’s strategic interests.

Errors made by politicians could occasionally be made worse by blunders made by a single official. So, it was with great astonishment that the Italian press, in spring 1939, reported that, while speaking to a meeting of French Army non-commissioned officers, French general Giraud thought it a great idea to state that a war against Italy would be “a simple walk in the Po valley” for General Gamelin’s Army. After such a declaration, made by a prominent French general, how could Italy not consider France to be a concrete threat?

But did Italy really believe a French offensive was possible? Did Italians really suppose this possibility was real? The answer is, Yes. Leaving aside unfriendly French attitude during 1935 to 1939 period, the possibility of French aggression had been carefully considered by the Italian General Staff – but always from a defensive point of view. We never find, during the whole 1939 and during the first months of 1940, anything other than putting up a defence against French attack. There is never an intention to carry out an attack against France, in Africa or across the Alps, nor any consideration of landing in Corsica or in Provence. On January 26, 1939, Badoglio told his colleagues that Mussolini, in case of war against France, had ordered: “Absolute defensive on the Libyan front, and that there was nothing to fear from Yugoslavia, and not to worry about Egypt, that is to say,the British. A bit later, during the same meeting, when speaking of possible action on the Alps, he added: “The Duce decided on only some defensive concentrations, on both the Alpine and Libyan borders.”

There was no further mention of war against France till April 1940, when, during the meeting held on April 9, Badoglio presented the “strategic rules given by the Duce,” and said, “So: defence, and no initiative on the Western Alps. Surveillance in the East. In case of collapse, exploit it. Occupation of Corsica is possible, but not probable. itis foreseen the neutralization of the air basis of the island is foreseen.” Then, action against England in Africa and in the Mediterranean was discussed. But, about the French, Badoglio remarked that “the real risk for Libya is the Army of Weygand.”

General Weygand was, at that time, considered by his Italian colleagues as the best French (even worldwide) general of his time. And this good opinion reached the man in the street through the press. This was a symptom of something different and quite more complex than the simple admiration for a good commander.

It is quite interesting, and revealing, to read comments published in the Italian press, in Spring 1940, especially given that Italy was under a dictatorship, so that what appeared in print was approved by official censorship. In effect, if something was published, it was substantially approved by the Fascist regime and reflected the regime’s mind. Thus, comments published in Spring 1940, about the military situation in Norway, and, later in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, by one of the most well-known and most fascist Italian reporters, Mario Appelius, spoke of Weygand with a deep respect, although Appelius was quite harsh about other Allied generals, such as, Ironside, Lord Gort, or Gamelin.

Appelius covered the war since early opearations in Poland. Then, he was in Finland, and, on May 9, 1940 he was in Amsterdam. The following day, he reached Brussels under German bombardment, and soon left the city by the last train out to Paris. He vividly described what happened in those days, after his own experiences.

And, on May 15, Appelius wrote about the French: “Nobody doubts the bravery of the French Army. Summoned by the mistakes of its own politicians to sacrifice itself once again to defend England, the French Army will surely fight with the same bravery of 1914.” This is revealing of a certain propensity towards France by the Italians. In 1940, of course, one could not help but bear World War I in mind: It was the same French Army that had stopped the Germans on the Marne, in Verdun and, in 1918, in Arras and Reims. The same French Army had demonstrated during the Great War that it could lose some battles, but win the war, emerging victorious from the most desperate situation. In other words, Italians were France-friendly.

But were the French Italy-friendly? Considering the Italian “coal affair” of 1940, one could very much doubt it, at least in Italy. Mussolini and the Italian top generals, in Spring 1939, were well aware of the joint military conferences held by the British and the French in Europe, Africa (in Djibouti), and Asia (in Singapore) to define a coordinated action against the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians in case of war. And Italian top-brass knew very well that the main problem was that of maritime warfare.

Italy could sustain for a short-term, a land war, with resistance in the Alps. Air war was sustainable too, but African colonies could not be kept without maritime communications. This led to another big problem that Mussolini was aware of – the Italian fleet was not yet ready – and Allies knew it. And this problem was dire, for it hinged in the fleet, and on which depended ultimately national survival. It was the problem of coal.

As it is well known, as soon as the war began in late summer 1939, Italy announced it was “not belligerent,” which meant something similar to neutral, but was not exactly the same. What is often forgotten is that as soon as the war began, Britain and France, but above all Britain, imposed an official blockade on German goods, which evolved into an undeclared blockade of Italian merchant ships – and which above all else was against Italian coal imports.

It was a real disaster for Italy, because 75 percent of the coal needed for daily life came from other countries – by sea from England, Belgium and above all Germany. Normally, Italy needed 17-18 million metric tons of coal per year. In 1940, Italian production was 5,355,000 tons for the 17,882,000 tons needed for the year. In 1941, 17,945,000 tons was needed, while only 6,363,000 was produced, forcing Italy to reduce its import to 11,582,000. In 1942, one third of the needed 16,504,000 tons came from national sources, whilst the remaining – 10,793,000 – was imported. The Royal Navy did its best to make the blockade against Italy as strong as possible, especially from December 1939 onwards. After having met the British ambassador Sir Percy Lorraine in Rome on 30 November, Foreign Minister Ciano wrote in his Diary on December 5, 1939 that Sir Percy was going to Malta to push the British Admiral to soften the blockade and control of Italian ships. Thus, from August 1939, 847 Italian ships were stopped and their goods confiscated, for a financial loss of more than a billion liras; and ships were forced to stay in French or British ports up to one month. There was no alternative, because railway traffic was impossible without locomotives.

The same situation affected other fuels. On June 10, 1940, Italy had a 2.4 million ton reserve of liquid fuels; and in the period of June to December 1940, Italian and Albanian production did not exceed 80,000 tons, with an annual consumption of 2 million, whch, during the war, and up to September 1943, came to 8,799,000 tons. Italian production was clearly insufficient, and thus Italy depended upon imports (from June 1940 to September 1943 amounted to 3,572,000 tons from Germany, 2,150,000 from Romenia and 53,000 from other countries).

And the Allied game appeared clear when, in the winter, England officially announced that it would provide Italy the coal, if Italy accepted to provide the Allies with aircrafts, cannons, weapons and heavy equipment. In other words, Italy would receive coal, if it accepted to deprive itself of weaponry entirely and become the Allies’ arsenal. This would have been paid with coal. No mention was made, or seems to have been made, of crude oil.

The Allies did the same kind of blockade in World War I, especially in 1916-18, to pressure Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark; but that time they asked for “loyal cooperation,” which consisted of organizing local trusts that gave their word to the Allies that what was bought by their own countries would be consumed in their own countries, and not sold to Germany. Thus, the Dutch Trust, the Swiss Economical Surveillance Society and the Danish Merchants’ Cooperative were established. All worked very well, especially in Switzerland, where the Swiss agreed to stop buying abroad and selling to Germany, and bought raw materials producing goods for Allied powers. Basically, in 1940 Britain seems to have looked for a similar arrangement with Italy.

Italian industrialists were quite interested, because Italian societies were selling a lot of trucks and weapons to the Allies in that period. But for the Italian government to officially accept such a proposal would mean exposing Italy to the risk of a German attack with no possibilities of defending the country, given the lack of heavy weapons, and no possibility of moving and manoeuvring troops, given the lack of oil. And this had to be done by accepting British conditions and receiving coal at a price fixed by England. Could Italy risk its integrity to receive coal to be paid in weapons at British fixed price? It was suicide. It was absurd.

So, in autumn 1939 Mussolini substantially had the alternative between the war against the Allies and the acceptance of the Allied ultimatum, that is to say an immediate war against Germany with no possibility of defence. And how could Mussolini hope to receive any help from the Allies, seeing what they gave to their friend and ally, Poland?

Some authors say that the Allies wanted to gain Italy’s help simply to turn German resources from the western front against Italy. If they failed, and Italy entered the war together with Germany, this would only weaken the German war effort, given that Germany would have been obliged to support Italy. As said, there are some Italian authors who suggest it. The most important is the late Franco Bandini, who introduced this idea in his book Tecnica della sconfitta (Technique of Defeat).

The situation appeared quite grim, especially because in that same period British and French fleets began deploying a number of their vessels in the Mediterranean. In the autumn of 1939, the Allies had seven battleships (five British, two French).

According to official information, at the end of December 1939, France had eight battleships (the Courbet, Océan, Paris, Bretagne, Provence, Lorraine, Dunkerque, Strasbourg) and England fifteen (the Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, Valiant, Malaya, Barham, Ramillies, Resolution, Revenge, Royal Oak, Royal Sovereign, Repulse, Renown, Hood, Nelson, Rodney), not considering the Richelieu, first (and only) of a class of four, which was going to join the fleet, as well as the British King George V, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Jellicoe and the Beatty. Germany had at that time the two old battleships the Schlesien and the Schleswig-Holstein (soon declassed to school-ships) and the more modern Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, Admiral Graf von Spee, Scharnorst and Gneisenau, with the Bismarck under construction. So the Pact of Steel had nine scattered battleships, against twenty-three concentrated battleships; and it could hope to have – that is after the end of construction and with no further losses in battle (after having lost the Graf von Spee in the Rio de la Plata on December 17th, and if the Tirpitz could be had on time) to a maximum of sixteen against thirty-two, (and not considering the just sunk Royal Oak, by a German U-boot in October 1939). Thus, the Allies had a one to two advantage.

The Italian fleet, at that time, numbered only two old refurbished battleships – the Giulio Cesare and the Conte di Cavour. By June 1940, two more old refurbished ships (the Caio Duilio and the Andrea Doria), along with the first two super-dreadnoughts of the «Littorio» class (the Littorio and the Vittorio Veneto).

It was clear that under such conditions, in case of war against the Allies before the end of Spring 1940, Italy would have had its fleet immediately destroyed and all its coasts devastated, with annihilation of its merchant traffic, and of many of its major cities, such as, Palermo, Naples, Genoa, Trieste, all along the Leghorn, and up to Venice.

As admiral Romeo Bernotti, the most important Italian naval strategist and theorist, stressed in December 1940, six months after Italy’s declaration of war: “In August 1939, during the period of diplomatic stress, and because of the possibility of the Italy entering the war, the Anglo-French concentrated in the Mediterranean most of their naval forces. At the same time, merchant traffic was displaced from that sea. The displacement ended during Italy’s not-belligerence period, but was presumed three weeks before our intervention. In Anglo-French plans, it was foreseen that the displacement from the Mediterranean would have had a provisional character, would have been a short-termed one, supposing Italy would have been forced to collapse, as a consequence of its naval inferiority and of the quick economical asphyxiation.”

Hitler came to the rescue, and Germany promised, giving its word to Italy, to supply all the needed coal, sending it by rail, and also providing wagons and locomotives. But how do the Germans really feel about Italy? Could Italy trust them or not? Here was another problem.

When Mussolini signed the Steel Pact with the Germans, he signed from a fully defensive position; and the same thing happened at the time of the Antikomintern Pact. Mussolini felt surrounded and isolated and he choose the only alliance he was offered. It was not the best possible alliance Italy and Mussolini could hope for – it was the only one possible. It was far from the best, especially because the German behaviour was not very encouraging. Hitler greatly admired Mussolini, but his staff did not. And, if there was any admiration, it was only for the Duce – it did not extend to Italy and the Italians.

In Berlin, Rome had two quite good officials, in the persons of Ambassador Bernardo Attolico and military attaché General Efisio Marras. Neither one was enthusiastic about the Germans; both were clear-eyed and objective. Attolico was hostile to an alliance with Germany; or, at least, of an alliance as strong as the Germans desired at that time. Attolico’s official correspondence to Rome was filled of warnings. On September 10, 1939 Ciano wrote in his Diary: “Attolico reports that… great popular masses… begin to demonstrate an increasing hostility and that words such as betrayal and perjury are frequently uttered.”

Germany expected – pretended to have – complete Italian support for its policy, right down to the last man and the last drop of blood – but with no independent decision-making power left to Italy. Here is one clear proof: Mussolini was not informed of the invasion of Poland before the attack began, despite what the Steel Pact clearly stipulated. According to the Germans, Italy could only follow the Reich and its policy, as evidenced by Attolico’s reports.

The Germans, Ribbentrop, did not like Attolico at all, and often asked that he be recalled, which happened in Spring 1940, because he was very ill and thus forced to leave the embassy and go back to Italy, where he died soon after.

But if Attolico’s reports were always dimly viewed in Rome, because of Attolico’s well-known attitude, it was not the same with Marras’ reports. General Marras was quite well liked by the Germans, who held him in good regard. He was also considered as being attuned with official policy than Attolico. That is why his evaluations were carefully considered by both Ciano and Mussolini. And we can easily see the results that his reports had.

On August 25 and 26, 1939, Marras he wrote to Rome about the atmosphere within German high command and political circles as, “Decisively close to breaking-point” with Italy, largely thanks to Ribbentrop who had done his best to convince everybody that Italy was ready to march along with Germany at the first shot.

Thus, the “non-belligerence” declared by Mussolini had a terrible and negative impact in Germany, and it was immediately reported to Rome from different sources that it had been described as “the second betrayal,” (the first betrayal being the change Italy did in 1915 when it entered the Great War on the side of Allies).

Apart from Marras’ reports, there were many other signals that could be cause for worry. All these are reported in Ciano’s Diary; and it would be onerous to repeat them all here. On September 9, 1939, Ciano reported that the Hungarian minister in Rome “…spoke clearly. He said which threat would hang over the world, Italy included, should Germany win the war… Anti-italian hatred is always alive in the German spirit, also if the Axis for a short time chloroformed it. The Duce was shaken and very upset.”

Then, there were rumors from Austria of annexing Trieste, or the whole of the Po valley. A Czech reporter described a harsh anti-Italian speech by a Nazi official in Southern Germany in 1939. There were similar reports and warnings from the Hungarian ambassador. All these added up to a hostile and wide-spread anti-Italian sentiment in the German population. It is possible that Mussolini did not care at all about these minor bits if information. But what certainly made him quite worried was the oral report Marras made directly to him in Rome, on March 4, 1940.

Ciano was there and later reported in his Diary that Marras was rather pessimistic about the German attitude toward Italy: “In spite of formal respect, he is convinced that the Germans have unmitigated hate, and worse, contempt, for us, for what they call the second betrayal. No war objective would be as popular in Germany, for the old and new generations, than an armed descent to the blue skies and warm seas. These and other things Marras honestly told the Duce, who was quite badly shaken by this.”

So, it was surely not by chance that Mussolini ordered the construction of the so-called “Alpine Wall of the Littorio,” that is to say, the mountain fortified system which was supposed to stop every entrance into Italy. The order was issued in the winter of 1940, and people worked 24 hours per day, under the artificial glare of photoelectrical light of the Army during the night, and using up all the iron and concrete available in Italy. At the same time, the Army staff concentrated Italian armoured units in the eastern part of the Padana Plain, to guard against an attack from Austria by the Reich.

Eyewitness geometrist Angiolino Savelli (in his talk with me in 1989), who had director in winter 1939-1940. In spite of all the efforts, the result was not very impressive. Engineer Corps Colonel – later Brigadier – Guido Lami, who directed a portion of the works on the eastern alpine border at that time, angrily commented: “The Germans have the Siegfried Line, the French have the Maginot and we have the Dull Line,” as Mrs. Elda Lami told me in 1990.

After the war, an author questioned the reason for such a double measure – standing and mobile defence, respectively represented by the Alpine Wall and the tanks unit – and some critics said that it was proof of tactical uncertainty and a waste of resources. But, apart from the fact that it had clearly been done after the 1917 experience, when, after Caporetto, the standing defence had been unable to stop the amassed and fast-moving enemy, and there had been nothing on the rear-line to stop them – now, in 1940, it was not a mistake, but the only way to stop a motorized German offensive able to pass through the fixed mountain defences.

And what was the German reaction, if any? Marras reported that the German general staff, in Spring 1940, long before the attack on the Netherlands and Belgium, had hinted that it had increased the forces in Southern Germany and, as Marras wrote, perhaps as a silent response to the rumors published by the press about the Alpine Wall.

When considering all these factors, it is most interesting to follow the evolution of Mussolini’s attitude toward the war during winter 1939-1940, according to what Ciano reported in his Diary. In early 1940, Rome warned Brussels and Amsterdam that Germany was planning an attack on them. By doing so, it meant to stymie the path that the Germans had chosen. And on January 3, 1940, Mussolini sent Hitler a friendly and decisive letter, which was received on 8 January 8th. In it, Mussolini suggested that Hitler reach a negotiated peace with the Allies, leaving Poland as a demonstration of good will, and he told Hitler that Italy reserved the right to enter the war only at the most favourable moment.

Ribbentrop summoned Attolico and asked for an explanation. Did Italy think, or was Italy insinuating, that the Reich was not able to win the war? And what was that “most favourable moment?” It was clear that Italy had no intention of remaining fully allied with the German plans and desires. Unfortunately, it was too late to change Italy’s position.Mussolini’s mistake was made back in 1938, when, after the so called “Easter Accords,” where England officially recognized Italian rule in Ethiopia, and until the signing of the Steel Pact, Italian foreign policy had the opportunity – a 10 months long opportunity – to leave the rigid trap in which Germany was putting Italy, and it was mainly because of Mussolini that this opportunity was lost.

And later? One can easily imagine how the “Italian betrayal” would be repaid by the Germans.

Here, I think there is room to open a broader discussion, as to whether or not this was the major and most probable reason for Italian engagement in World War II. According to what has been discussed here, one may conclude that it was not to gain territories (by the way, Mussolini had foregone all that in January 1939), although the new situation could permit to take something, and even permitting Mussolini to think of territorial acquisition. It seems also more than possible, if not probable, that Italy declared war because Germany was going to win the war, and England was going to lose, while the United States could not enter the war because American public opinion rejected this possibility and their President had first to think of his re-election in the fall of 1940.

The American Presidential election in 1940 was gearing up to be the harshest ever had in the USA, because the Democrats had nominated Roosevelt for the third time, and the Republicans opposed him saying that no Presient had ever ruled for more than two terms. In order to win, Roosevelt inserted two Republicans – Stimson and Knox – in his cabinet, giving them the War and the Navy Secretariates, and, above all, promising the people not to involve the USA in the European war. The result was quite good in terms of State ballots – Roosevelt gained 38 out of 48 – but inferior to the previous election in number of ballots, because in Autumn 1940 Roosevelt received 27,243,466 votes and his adversary 22,304,755, that is to say, Roosevelt got 54,98%, whilst in 1936 he had received 24,751,597 against 16,697,583, that is to say, 59,71%, and he got 46 out of 48 States. Under these conditions, it is obvious that nobody in Winter and Spring 1940 could be 100% sure about the prosecution of Roosevelt’s policy after December 1940, because there were some doubts about his victory in the Presidential election in November; and, above all, it was quite hard to even suppose an American intervention after what Roosevelt had promised.

And, above all, because June 1940 was the month when the Italian fleet got four battleships the Caio Duilio, the Andrea Doria, the Littorio and the Vittorio Veneto, with a fifth one forthcoming, the Roma. This ensured naval parity in the Mediterranean, the safety of the coasts, the protection of maritime traffic with the colonies the end of the British threat, which had begun in September 1939. In effect, Italy was looking at equalling the British in weaponry, siding with the indicative winner of the war (Germany), and in order to give Germany no possibility of attacking and destroying Italy after the victory over the Allies.

It may all seem absurd now, but only because all are accustomed to think that Mussolini declared war to gain something as a jackal and no more. But if we carefully consider the situation as found in the documents and as seen in the Italian economic, political and military situation of that time, I wonder whether any doubt can still remain. Mussolini feared German victory and was practically sure that Germany’s next move would be, soon or later, against Italy; and Italy was too weak to resist. Russia was allied to Germany, the United States – better, the American people, except for their President, who was ending his second term by the end of 1940 – were far removed from the idea of going to war to support England. And, as for England – hostile – was beaten on land and sea, France was invaded and destroyed. What remained for Italy? Who would and could support Italy? Franco? Salazar? Japan? Against Germany? Unbelievable.

Let’s go back to Acerbo’s rather rhetorically written memoirs, where we find a confirmation, which, errors excepted, is the only existing one: “In taking his decision, it is also possible that he [Mussolini] feared the Teutonic dragon, which he himself had fed and which would swallow the whole of Europe, and damage, in the process, the interests of Italy which had already lost its traditional position of influence. As an effect of the incredible German victories, which embodied the Nazi concept of the ‘Lebensraum,’ Mussolini, attracted by the sound of this concept, also quickly inserted it into the list of our claims, not caring if this concept suited our specific needs, or if it strengthened the Reich’s pretension. But ‘Lebensraum’ was inherited from the Second Reich, that is, the need of the German nation to have a way down to the Mediterranean through Trieste. And one must add that the exalting of that people’s super-nationalism, grown red-hot by of the military victories, now menaced to undo the agreements concerning the Upper Adige… So, according to Mussolini, it was better not to linger anymore in taking sides with the winner, if we wanted to avoid irreparable misfortunes on us, and, at the same time, to participate in the sharing of the booty. It is not to my knowledge, by the way, that Mussolini, during military meetings or occasional talks in the days before the intervention, pointed out this argument, to support his decisions. One began talking about it only later, when the fortunes of war were taking a turn for the worse for us, to justify the irreparable step taken.”

So, according to Acerbo, the fear of what the Germans could do after their victory existed, but how should we be surprised if Mussolini does not mention it in 1940? For a long time, he had glorified Italy’s power, exalted Germany’s friendship, and attacked France and Britain. Thus, how could he now say that he was joining Germany in war because he not only distrusted it, but because he feared it? Would he not cut a very poor figure? So, it is no surprise that these two reasons are never mentioned, not even in the slightest of conversations. Mussolini did not say these reasons, because he could not lose face.

As for everything else, all that Acerbo reports is true and can be verified through, for instance, Ciano’s Diary. Thus, it is true – and Ciano reports it – that in Austria and in Germany people, from the lowest level up to some Gauleiters, openly spoke of taking Trieste and the Friuli. It is true – and Goebbels wrote it more or less clearly in his journal after September 1943 – that the Reich liked the idea of pushing its border south of Venice. And it is true that, despite the formal agreements about transferring people (those who chose to do so) from Upper Adige to Germany, the Germans were involved in chicanery, in the autumn of 1939, so that it seemed that everything was delayed until the end of 1942, while in actuality, the transfer was to proceed a lot faster.

Therefore, Mussolini chose war. Again, Acerbo reports that he was made aware, by Marshall Rodolfo Graziani, after the war, while they were both in jail, on Procida Island, awaiting trial: “…of a briefing Mussolini held on April 10th [1940] with the commanders of the military (including the Crown Prince) and the Army Corps, and that he secretly announced that Italy was going to enter the war, specifying, ‘not together with Germany, nor for Germany, but on the side of Germany.’”

Immediately thereafter Acerbo comments that it was: “One of those alliterations he loved so much, and with such clumsiness, he was sure, in his last years, to unravel however an intricate a matter might be, and thus to overcome every obstacle and pass over the steepest position!” Acerbo knew Mussolini quite well and spoke about him carefully. But we must admit that this phrase may also be explained that Italy entered the war because of the fear of Germany – thus, not allied to the Reich, not to give the Reich advantage, but on the side of the Reich; and, we might add, in order not to give the Reich a reason to attack Italy afterwards.

Was Acerbo the only eyewitness? No, there is further evidence, starting in the spring of 1939. On March 15th, Ciano and Mussolini were concerned and worried about the German annexation of

Czechoslovakia. Quoting Dante Alighieri, Mussolini told Ciano that the thing to do was “To accept the German game in order to avoid being ‘unpleasant to God and to His enemies.’” In the days that followed, Mussolini and Ciano talked about this issue. Ciano wrote: “Egli thinks the Prussian hegemony in Europe is already established. He thinks that a coalition of all the other powers, including us, could slow the German expansion but could not stop it… I asked whether in such a condition it is convenient for us to make the alliance; or, instead, to keep our full liberty of choosing in the future, according to our interests. The Duce shows himself to be clearly in favour of the alliance.”

This is not exactly an admission, but there is more. News about the bad attitude of the Germans toward the Italians came through many channels, and on August 18, 1939, five days after having seen Hitler in Berchtesgaden, Ciano wrote that Mussolini “fears Hitler’s wrath. He thinks that a denunciation – or anything similar – of the [Steel] Pact convince Hitler to abandon the Polish issue get Italy to foot the bill.”

But this too must be considered carefully, for it could be a sort of self-defence by Ciano. However, it becomes additional evidence when you we place it in context with what Acerbo wrote. Regardless, we have more.

On September 9, 1939, the Hungarian ambassador told Mussolini that, should Germany win the war, a terrible threat would descend upon the whole world, including Italy.
On September 10, the Italian ambassador to Berlin visited the Duce and told him that the German people, when told of Italian non-intervention, started speaking of betrayal.
On September 30, according to the minister of National Education, Giuseppe Bottai, when speaking of fuel supply-chains needed by the Army and the Air Force, Mussolini said that he did not want to start the war until he had them: “With whom and against whom? A quick hint: ‘… until these reserves are met, we shall not engage – not with group A, nor with group B.’ The possibility of a choice between two rivals yet existed.”

On December 8, 1939, there was a long meeting of the Great Council of Fascism about the Italian position. After an order by Mussolini, Ciano detailed the whole situation. Ciano related all the tricks and lies of the Germans up to that moment. In his Diary he briefly mentions this, but Bottai reported that Mussolini said: “Italy? She declares her loyalty to the pacts (“don’t we have, by the way, also a pact with England?”) – and waits the outcomes. Here there are two empires in a fight, two lions. We have no interest in an overwhelming victory of any of the two. If England should win, she will not leave us other than the sea for taking a bath. If Germany [should win she will not leave us] even any air to breathe. One can only wish that the two lions tear each other to pieces, leaving just their tails on the ground. And that we go and pick up their tails.”

A few more rumors of unfriendly German attitude were reported in the next few weeks. Then, on March 4, 1940, the Duce met General Marras, the Italian military attaché in Berlin. Ciano reported: “I accompany the Duce to General Marras, who is rather pessimistic about the German mind toward us. “In spite of formal respect, he is convinced that the Germans have unmitigated hate, and worse, contempt, for us, for what they call the second betrayal. No war objective would be as popular in Germany, for the old and new generations, as an armed descent to the blue skies and warm seas. These and other things Marras honestly told the Duce, who was quite badly shaken.”

According to Ciano, on April 10, 1940, after the German occupation of Denmark and landing in Norway, Mussolini said: “The King would have us join in, just to pick up the broken pots. Hope they will not break them on hour heads!”

Who were “they?” Ciano does not say; nor does he say whether Mussolini later was clearer about it. But when considering the contemporary situation at that moment, it’s hard to think that “they” could be the Allies.

It is true that after August 18, 1939, Ciano never wrote that the Duce feared the Germans. But he told other people, at least Bottai, who, on March 29, 1940 noted in his diary that Ciano, when speaking of Mussolini, told him: “Germany winning by herself alone frightens him.” Said this way, this may mean that Mussolini was frightened, as he thought that Germany could act against Italy after having won in the West. But this may also mean that if Germany won without Italian help, Italian diplomatic situation would be weaker. Which of the two? We don’t know. But there is additional evidence of Mussolini’s fear, and we get it from Filippo Anfuso who, at that time, was the Chief of the Office of the Foreign Minister Ciano. Anfuso wrote in his memoirs that when, in Spring 1940, Mussolini noticed that Goering asked the new Italian ambassador in Berlin, Dino Alfieri, the date of the Italian intervention, he said: “… if Goering spoke that way, it seems clear that we cannot back down. After France, one day, it could be our turn, and it would beat everything to have signed a Pact called a Steel Pact and then to be invaded by Germany and be on top of the anvil.”

That should be enough, but we have more. General Roatta, who had been the military attaché in Berlin before Marras and later became one of the foremost army commanders, wrote that Mussolini, during the period of neutrality: “… considered the possibility if not to enter the war on the Allied side, the at least to have to face some excessive German demands and prevarication. He perfectly realized, at that time, the German mentality and the dangers she could pose for us. In November ’39, when I was back from Berlin – where I had been military attaché – to be appointed Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Mussolini asked me what I thought about the future intentions of the Reich, and about the countries occupied during the war, and I decidedly answered that, in case of victory, the Reich will annex, in one way or in another, not only the occupied countries, but also the states nearby, excluding none, and introducing in all of them what in Berlin was called “die deutsche Ordnung,” that is to say “the German order.” This assessment the Duce heard without any surprise.”

This is important, but not definitive, because it took place about November 1939. Although this is less important, or had lesser influence, than what Marras said in March 1940, nevertheless, together with the others, it too provides additional evidence for the larger view, and underlines a continuity between what Roatta said and what Marras confirmed six months later.

The second source is provided by general Emilio Faldella, in his L’Italia e la Seconda Guerra Mondiale, first published in 1959. Faldella was a veteran who had been in the military intelligence and then was the chief, in 1937 to 1939, of the Italian Military Mission in Spain to General Franco. Later, Faldella was appointed to many important posts, and had deep inside knowledge about a lot of things. In the first chapter of his book, he wrote three times that Mussolini (in 1939 to 1940) feared German revenge or retaliation. Faldella wrote that on May 11, 1940, after having received the message dated on May 9th, announcing to him the German attack on France, Mussolini “revealed to Sebastiani his intimate thoughts: ‘If we continue with neutrality, as many would like, we too will get a nice Pope’s indignation telegram to be flapped in front of the occupying Germans!’ The fear of German revenge increased as time passed.”

The second mention of Mussolini’s fear is made by Faldella quoting the already mentioned witness by Anfuso. The third is Faldella’s own opinion. He writes: “The more the possibility of a German victory appeared certain, the more Mussolini feared Hitler’s revenge.” We have two problems here. The first is that the latter assessment, if Faldella’s own (and whoever has dealt with Italian military history knows how reliable and cautious he was), he wrote, one can easily assume, by way of personal knowledge, derived from his position before and during the war. The second problem is about Sebastiani’s quotation. As is known, Osvaldo Sebastiani was Mussolini’s personal secretary from 1934 to 1941. Unfortunately, Faldella, as was normal at that time, did not mention the source of that Sebastiani’s quotation. Sebastiani mysteriously disappeared in 1944 when some unknown people picked him up at home. It would be very interesting to know where Faldella found that information. But that is now impossible find. But we can admit that given Faldella’s uncontested reliability, what he wrote must be true indeed.

The last eyewitness is the former Minister of Colonies Alessandro Lessona, who, in his memoirs, wrote twice that Mussolini entered the war because he feared the Germans.

Here, we have an additional reliability problem, Lessona left the ministry by the end of 1937, and in 1940 was simply a professor at the university of Rome. His memoirs appeared only in 1958 and must be taken cautiously, for he could have modified facts here and there. Of course, one of Lessona’s cousins was General Pirzio Biroli, an army commander, and Lessona was on very good terms with many prominent people of the Regime, including Badoglio, Balbo and Bottai. Thus, he could have known from one or some of them about what he wrote; that is to say that in 1940 Mussolini felt the victory to be on the German side and. “Thus, convinced of serving Italian interests, he intervened in the war to prevent the winner getting his revenge on Italy, when the winner was disposing the future of Europe.” Many pages later, he says, “The tragic decision of entering the war (I, who was absolutely against it, must say that) has a moving reason: That of having thought to give the Italian people at last the hoped-for prosperity, and to safeguard the people against revenge in case of a German victory.”

It is impossible to assess whether what Lessona wrote was due to what he knew from a first- or second-hand source; and, if the latter, we do not know which source it was; nor we can determine whether (in case it was only his personal opinion) it was grounded in political reality, or was simply an attempt to justify Mussolini. Regardless, when added to other evidence. Lessona’s witness is validated, whose reliability is indirectly confirmed by all the others I have already quoted. Thus, it is an additional brick in our construction,

In order to avoid the war with Germany, the only thing Mussolini could have done was to join Germany, thus calming the Germans and depriving them of the possibility of complaining and protesting for the lack of any Italian commitment. Thereafter, he would fight a parallel war – as it was called – by continually avoiding German involvement with Italy, and to gain whatever was possible. But most of all to wait, and keep Italian forces as much intact as possible, in order to resist German encroachment, and, if possible, meet the clash with Germany which one could predict was not so far off in the future. Italy did not want such a clash and had done what it could to avoid the war. But now neutrality was no longer possible. It was either war alongside the Germans, or war against the Germans. But absolutely, war. Thus, on June 10th. Mussolini made the announcement to the world.

We know that Mussolini imagined that peace talks would begin shortly; with only a few weeks of war and a few casualties. The few casualties, however, had their own political and military impact. Moreover, as said and as an appalled Marshal Enrico Caviglia remarked in his journal, Italy had practically no money, as the competent minister admitted in front of the Chamber of the Fasci and Corporations – the new name of the Chamber of Deputies.

The situation remained critical and Mussolini decided to safeguard Italian military power in case of a German-Italian clash in the post-war era. In the best-case scenario, the current war would weaken Germany so much that Hitler would prefer not to attack Italy. In the worst-case scenario, Italy would at least have the power to resist. Conversely, the Germans looked with suspicion and derision at Italy. Marshal Caviglia wrote that under these circumstances, Italy undertook a very strange strategy – to declare war on France and Britain but only move forces when the end of the war was near. This way, Mussolini could demonstrate that his troops were fighting and it would be sufficient to claim territory as compensation for participation.

Additional proof of this approach by Mussolini may be given by the armistice with France. As is well known, the Italian offensive on the Western Alps was a failure; and it is also well known that no attempt was made against Corsica, Provence, or the French colonies, such as, Tunisia and French Somaliland. It is true that a landing in Provence would have been difficult, given the French stronghold of Toulon. But one must also remember that if Italy did nothing against France, France had a lot against Italy, despite the brief shelling of Genoa and some other irrelevant shelling along the Ligurian coast.

What happened after ceasefire ceased well known too. Italy was on the winning side but asked for only 83.271 hectares, that is to say 832 square kilometers and three quarters. It was definitely not much, especially when discovering that during the Italo-German meeting held on June 18, 1940 in Munich, Hitler recognized the right of the Italians’ demand to occupy continental France up to the Rhône, as well as Corsica, Tunisia and Djibouti. But this was not enough for Hitler: He also advised Italy to widen the occupation to a belt along the Swiss border, to link the German occupation zone to the Italian one, thus isolating non-occupied France. Hitler hoped to extend the Italian occupied zone right up to the Saône, including any good railway line which the Italians were free to take. General Mario Roatta, the former commander of Italian volunteers in Spain, who spoke excellent German, on June 20th chose the line linking Chambéry, Dijon, and Bourg-en-Bresse and submitted his project to Hitler in person, who then also approved the project of giving Italy another similar railway into Spain, such as, the Avignon-Nîmes-Perpignan line, consequently widening the Italian occupation of Southern France.

But Mussolini refused. In fact, Roatta and the Italian mission had achieved a great result, far more than what one could expect after what was done on the Alps. So, why did Mussolini not accept it? And, above all, why did he not accept, when considering that on June 23 German military attaché Enno von Rintelen gave Roatta a personal telegram from Hitler, in which Hitler asked Italian troops be sent to a zone twenty kilometers from Geneva, in order to join the German forces, and when considering that the Wiesbaden Italo-German agreements of June 29, 1940 left to Italy a portion of French territory up to the Rhône?

This seems to be quite different from what is normally known after the surviving draft of the minutes written by P. Schmidt. But while German documents were mainly destroyed during the war, practically all the Italian documents survived. So, both the Italian official accounts published by the Italian Army Staff’s Historical Service were written after a careful and long consideration of the original documents, still conserved in the Army Archive in Rome. Further details could come from General Roatta’s private archive, which is still the property of the Roatta family, and remains inaccessible. The only point the Italian documents have in common with Schmidt’s draft is that Hitler asked Mussolini not to ask the French for their fleet, explaining that he feared this could push the French to give the British all their ships.

The reason is given by the official Italian account about the occupation of France, where is highlighted an aspect previously remarked upon in other official accounts about the Western Alps campaign. When Mussolini asked Roatta how many divisions were needed to garrison occupied France, Roatta answered that, before the foreseen disarmament of the French Army, Italy must keep there at least fifteen divisions, which later could be reduced to ten, but never less than ten. Mussolini replied that he could demand from France nothing more than what had been already been taken. that is to say, nothing or a just little more. This has always been seen as a bad conscience and the acknowledgment of the poor performance by Italian troops on the Alps. But, as both the official accounts underline, in June 1940, the Italian army had in Italy only fifty-three divisions; and sending fifteen divisions would seriously deplete the army. That is, or at least could be, a concrete reason to explain why Mussolini refused. And it a far more concrete reason than either conscience or shame.

Hitler would use a widened Italian occupation as a way to reduce the number of German troops garrisoning in France. But Mussolini probably looked at it as a problem. Having a huge number of troops far from their supply points, close to the Germans and separated from Italy by the Alps meant too many troops, too far away – thus, too much risk, too many problems. Thus, best to do nothing at all. Both official accounts suggest that Mussolini acted this way because he was thinking of further conquests and needed troops. My opinion is that this was added demonstration of what was probably Mussolini’s fear – he considered the Germans more a risk and potential enemy than as an ally, and thus he preferred to keep in hand as many troops as possible. The discussion – if any – is open.

Ciro Paoletti, a prominent Italian historian of military history, is the Secretary General of the Italian Commission of Military History. He is the author of 25 books, and more than 400 other smaller works\, published in Italy and abroad, and mostly dealing with modern and contemporary Italian military history and policy.

The image shows An Italian poster of Mussolini, an aerial portrait by Mario Carli, painted 1931.

Russia’s Great Patriotic War

Of all the countries Adolf Hitler invaded, none was able to muster a sustained and successful military counterattack, except one – Russia. When the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, it was a massive three-pronged invasion from the North (to capture Leningrad), from the South (to take the Ukraine), and through the center (to seize Moscow).

The Germans and their allies came in great force – with 3.75 million troops, along with 4,000 tanks, and 750,000 horses (we must bear in mind that the German military was only partially mechanized in 1941). It is also well known that the Russians were not ready, to say the least, largely because Hitler was the only man Stalin truly trusted and could not bring himself to believe that the Nazi leader had ordered the attack. Stalin kept insisting that the onslaught was the action of rogue German generals, and Hitler would put a stop to it all, when he found out what was being done to his friend, Stalin. In fact, the reality of Hitler’s betrayal hit Stalin very hard, and he disappeared to his dacha, in a rare fit of uncertainty, leaving the country leaderless during a crucial time.

The Germans likewise squandered any advantages they might have had because of their ideology, for the invasion was at first seen by some (especially in the Ukraine) as a liberation from Stalinism. But when the reality of the true purpose of the invasion began very quickly to be implemented – the clearing out of the land of all its inhabitants, for eventual settlement by Germans – resolve toughened and military resistance began in earnest.

Hitler had come not simply to take control and include Russia in his “empire” – rather, he had come to clear the land of its native inhabitants so that he might settle it with Germans. Faced with the prospect of annihilation in their own country, how could the Russians not know the war foisted upon them as anything other than “patriotic?” Hence, the Russian term for the Second World War (a rather banal designation) is the Great Patriotic War. It was a fight to the death for the Russian homeland – for the Rodina, that emotion-laden term, which means so much more than “motherland” or “fatherland,” for it means all that binds one to family and individual purpose.

Despite early successes, by December 1941, the Germans knew they had begun what they had never wanted – a war on two fronts. The next four years were grim and bloody on the Eastern Front, with unimaginable casualty rates on both sides.

The total war dead for Russia is estimated to be between 26 to 42 million, both civilians and military. For the Germans, losses on the Eastern Front are estimated to be about 2.7 million. The immense Russian sacrifice finally led to victory, when the Red Army took Berlin on May 2, 1945 (Hitler had committed suicide a few days earlier, on April 30th).

What was the nature of the Russian resolve? What inner strength did the Russians living and fighting through those fateful years draw upon? In the grand sweep of history, the sacrifice, the courage, the suffering of individuals is often little remembered. The millions slaughtered were ordinary human beings forced into the maw of a war, from which there was no escape.

These questions of the resolve and strength of the Russians to drive back the Nazi invaders is superbly explored and elaborated by Maria Bloshteyn in her latest book, Russia is Burning. Poems of the Great Patriotic War, which is an anthology of Russian poetry from 1939 to 1945. Bloshteyn is a talented and gifted scholar and translator, whose work has appeared in the pages of the Postil, and who has previously published a collection of early short stories of Chekhov, and the work of Alexander Galich. Her translations have also appeared in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. And her study of Dostoevsky is not only immensely erudite, but delightfully readable (qualities rarely found together in what often passes for scholarship).

This combination of readability and scholarship continues in Russia is Burning. The anthology is a dual-text, Russian and facing-page translations, with two essays, at the beginning and end, both of which contextualize the role and purpose of poetry within the broader extent of the Great Patriotic War. The selections are placed into four categories: “Seven Poets Killed,” that is, poems of those killed in the war; “Voice Heard,” which include poems and trench-songs that were widely known and loved by the ordinary fighting man or woman (the Red Army had 800,000 women); “Muted Voice,” which presents poems written by emigres, by prisoners in the Gulags, and verses that were never meant to be published, that is, written “for the desk-drawer;” and lastly, “The War Remembered,” which traces the years after 1945, during which poetry took on the task of healing the Russian soul, by leading it out of its trauma and into the promise of peace.

All the poems in the anthology have head-notes that give historical and thematic context to each poet and his/her poems, This is a very helpful and rather elegant way to handle the necessary job of informing the reader, while deftly avoiding the trap of information-density that is often found in such endeavors, and which break-up the reading-flow. These head-notes also serve to stress what should be stressed – the poem itself. All-too-often, translators do not know how to wear their learning lightly and opt for intrusive footnotes, or worse, endnotes. This anthology overcomes this wonkiness by including all the pertinent information needed right in the head-notes, so that the reading experience is unobtrusive of academic paraphernalia.

Though the poems in the three sections are a wide assortment of style, sensibility and perspective, all of them nevertheless are united by a common theme – that of Russia as the Motherland, the Rodina, upon whose breast is cast all the suffering, the tragedy, the bloodshed. This means that individualized instances of courage, of sacrifice, of struggle, of disappointment, of helplessness, of loneliness, but also of hope for an end to all cruel things – all these are given meaning within the embrace of the Motherland.

These poems speak not to so much of soil and of the people, concerns that marked so much of earlier Russian literary expression, but of invoking that final reserve of resolve which might lead to overcoming the enemy. In the swirl of the Great Patriotic War, there is only Russia itself – bereft of everything. It is now the task of her sons and daughters to return what was always rightfully hers – peace, happiness, and fulfillment. But it is a giving back that can only come about one hand at a time, for a hand is both limited in action but limitless in the results of that action:

Under a hillock, in a field,
a stern young boy from Moscow fell
and quietly, his cap slid off
his bullet-riddled head.

Departing for another world.
not very far from that in which he grew,
he clutched his warm, native earth
in his already stiffening hand.

The highest criterion
by which we can possibly be judged
will be that handful of earth
clutched in that young grey palm.
(Yaroslav Smelyakov, “The Judge”)

The “highest criterion” is not found in the death of young soldier, but in his clutched hand, which cannot be loosened – for he grips not agony, but the fruit of his sacrifice, and his burial therefore looks forward to resurrection which will be peace. Such is the holy wisdom that cruelty oft-times brings.

The Great Patriotic War became a grand shout of defiance by patriots, who knew just enough to never accept defeat, because a quality that inhabited each of them, their Russianness, could never be quiet because it had been betrayed:

We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what now is coming to pass.
Every clock shows the same time – it’s courage hour!
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses fall, yet we will stand –
Through it all we will keep you alive, Russian word,
Mighty language of our Russian land.
Your sounds will remain pure and free on our tongues,
To be passed on unfettered through ages to come.
Forever!
(Anna Akhmatova, “Courage,” 23 February 1942, Tashkent)

And it this wisdom which shall free Russia – a wisdom that can never come cheaply, as Olga Berggolts pointed out in 1941:

Just as you are now: emaciated, dauntless,
in a hastily tied kerchief,
holding a purse as you go out
under the bombardment.

Daria Vlasyevna, the whole land
will be renewed by your strength.
The name of this strength of yours is “Russia.”
Like Russia, stand and take heart!
(“Conversation with a Neighbour”)

This wisdom Elena Shirman, who died early in the conflict, in 1942, also knew: “…A boom – /and shards of broken streets come tumbling./… Someone will raise me from the pavement and kindly say,/ “You must have stumbled.” Such is the Rodina, the Motherland, which the community, and the family.

A helping hand, kindness, while a world shatters is the embodiment of what an earlier poet, in an earlier world conflict, called, “the pity of war,” because the 20th-century invented warfare that was scientific and industrialized, which therefore concerned itself with precision barrages, shock-and-awe, genocide, carpet-bombing, scorched earth, total war, and the headlong rush of the displaced, running away from death and often straight into death. The older message is now commonplace, and hardly ever brings comment – kill to build a better world:

All the world is going to wrack and ruin.
What, you’ve lost your nerve? Oh don’t be shy!
Come and crush it all in one fell stroke,
Pulverize, make stardust in the sky!

Poison it with mustard gas or, better,
Bomb the whole damn thing to smithereens.
Do away at once with all this art and
Anguish of our planet – by all means!
(Georgy Ivanov, “All the World is Going to Wrack and Ruin”)

It is also important to bear in mind that poetry no longer had a purpose or function among soldiers of other Allied nations by the time the Second World War came around. Certainly, there were soldier-poets (John Gillespie Magee, John Jarmain, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, John Ciardi, Henry Lee, Drummond Allison), but in the English-speaking world, whatever energy poetry once possessed now yielded to the urgent immediacy of film and photography. World War Two is known for its images; not its verse – and so unlike the First World War, where the entire experience of the trenches is still today seen through the poet’s eye; for who can imagine that earlier war without evoking the lines of John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen, Julian Grenfell, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg? Within a generation, sensibilities had changed so much.

For Russians, however, poetry and song retained what the English-speaking world had lost – words spun into meter and rhyme and often carried along with music bore meaning deeper into the soul than any image possibly could. The Nazi invasion was devasting, but not because it was murderous (for the Russian people had already endured Stalin’s purges) – for it denied the surety of community. Though Stalin killed very effectively, there yet remained for people the strength of community, a bond that can sustain no matter how bleak the reality beyond. But when a community is shattered, there is only flotsam of individual lives, seeking nothing more than survival.

It is this ruination that Arseny Tarkovsky understood only too well in 1942:

Say a German gunner will get me in the back,
or a piece of shrapnel will take out both my legs,

or a teenaged SS trooper will shoot me in the gut –
anyway, I’m done for, there is no way out.

I won’t go down to glory – I’ll be unshod, unknown,
Looking through my frozen eyes at the bloodied snow.

Thus, when the Nazis smashed their way nearly to Moscow, they came stirring a witches’ cauldron of cruelty and annihilation. Despite outward differences, both Hitler and Stalin were driven by ideology. At first their ideology coalesced (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), but in 1941 it fell apart with Operation Barbarossa. In the millstones of Nazism and Stalinism, what could the Russian people use to rally the will to survive, live, and then overcome? Poetry alone was the answer, for it provided purpose, and grim determination.

But in the meantime, there was only the business of endless brutality, so chillingly captured by Nikolai Panchenko in “The Girl Worked in our Unit as a Barber,” written years later in 1961, a memory seared into the minds of those who were there and saw a young woman raped to death by men of a unit that had sided with the Germans against the Communists. It is a brutal poem that says so much, with just a few words: “They gagged her with their fetid footcloths… Our unit used to call her ‘babyface.’ And then comes the revenge of finding the rapists and methodically killing them: “…we burst into that village in tight fistfuls…. Explosions, howls, shots…. My bayonet was bent,/ my bullets lost./ We got in the hollow of the banya,/ each of us fought to kill as many as we could./ With these white teeth/ I bit through Adam’s apples…. The girl dozed off under a greatcoat…. As if she could see anything at all…. The HQ sent us medals, one and all…. We dug them down into a hillock/ right beside her.”

Stalin understood the problem of morale well, and very quickly set up an entire “industry” of poetry, which could be fed to the people to give them the will and strength to fight and survive. Bloshteyn, in her excellent end essay, therefore observes: “War poems were published both in the civilian press…and the military press… by 1944 there were about 800 military newspapers with an output of three million issues in all… there were poems in the informational leaflets… poems on propaganda posters… Poems were read on the radio… in concert halls… poems were put to music, performed by… popular singers… sung in dugouts and trenches… All these platforms created a demand for wartime poetry that was unprecedented and unparalleled not only in the Soviet Union but in any other country.”

Even in the territory held by the Germans, there was poetry published in “270 [partisan newspapers] by 1944.” It must be borne in mind that Soviet rule was not a grassroots demand – but rather imposed upon the Russian people after a long drawn-out, bloody Civil War, in which slaughter-exhaustion alone led to any sort of peace. Thus, as mentioned already, the Germans were initially welcomed by many who hoped that they had come to throw off the Communist yoke. This is the larger reason behind what is known as the “collaborators” – those who helped the Germans against the Communists. But such collaboration was a stillborn dream, as Boris Filippov came to understand too late, in 1945:

Town after town after town,
just houses of cards bunched together.
There’s nothing I want out of life…
No one… Nowhere… Never…

I’m pushing my rickety cart,
on the road across German land,
clover stems nod as I pass,
mosquitoes keen a lament.

There is nothing I want out of life –
Never… Nowhere… No one…
Angry villages bunched up together.
Town after town after town…

And when the Germans were pushed back, all the way deep inside their own homeland; and when Berlin fell, Hitler killed himself and the war ended, what then? Shakespeare was right to speak of the dogs of war let loose, for the ravening of humanity that must come with industrialized slaughter can bear little healing. Torn flesh can at best become a scar, which is nothing other than a constant reminder of the snapping jaws of savagery – perhaps because the many and various masters of war will always hold the leashes of their dogs lightly.

Once courage is shown, the sacrifice made, there can only remain the silence of incomprehensibility, for who can clearly say what wars achieve? There is certainly a just war, and the Secord World War certainly qualifies as one. And yet, there remains the question of the price paid to achieve such justice – and whether those who survive, and the dwarfish generations that come after, no longer give thanks to the giants on whose shoulders they and their world stands:

I was there, where mines exploded,
sending howling shrapnel past.
I was fighting on the frontlines
honestly and to the last.

I’d be glad not to remember
but I live with what I saw:
crusty skin crawling with lice,
blood and corpses in the snow,

the med units where I rotted
with their disinfected grace,
the open, snarling jaws
of the hastily dug graves,

and the minutes before battle…
so that you can take my word –
I know well how much it cost us,
the salute we all just heard.

And it still feels much too early
to draw up the final bill,
when the world spreads out before us
like a wound that will not heal.
(Vladimir Bobrov, “Victory,” 1945)

But the price that all war demands of peace is also revenge and settling of scores, just a little bit more bloodshed, before the dogs can be once again firmly leashed awhile, inside the foul warehouse of politics; revenge that casts humans into roles from which they cannot emerge unscathed, or even alive. Here is David Samoilov, about a captive “bandit” women (a “bandit” was one who sided with the Germans in the hope of throwing off the Communist yoke):

I led a bandit out, to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead –
Just glared at me with pride and anger,
And bit her shawl in agony.
And then she said, “Now listen, fella,
You’re gonna shoot me anyway.
Before you lay me down forever,’
Just let me look at my Ukraine.

Let the potato-eaters [Russians] flee,
Their bridles jangling loud, like coins!
Let Commies realize their ideals
The way they want to back at home…

It’s them that came up with the kolkhoz
Where all the bums can eat for free.
For us Ukrainians, what’s the difference –
Gestapo or NKVD?

I led a bandit out to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead.
(“The Bandit Woman,” 1946)

There was a greater tragedy awaiting the Russians who heard these poems, sang these songs, and believed in what they said. The strength these words in meter had provided were not able to sustain them beyond the war. Victory is bittersweet; and Soviet society after 1945 had little use for those who had paid a grim toll with their maimed and disfigured bodies, as they “stirred the ash in [their] hearts,” as Olga Berggolts observes in “I Spent all Day at the Meeting.”

And Anna Barkova provides a monument of another sort, of whatever glory that may be garnered by a generation that once saved Russia from the Nazis:

The roads and the fields were aflood
with Russian blood, our bright blood,
with our own blood and that of our foes.
The tale must be told, but how, no one knows!

We were filthy, grimy, the worst off –
but we took Prague, Berlin and Warsaw.

We came back home with no eyes,
we came back home with no arms

and a strange foreign pain in our hearts.

– Spare some change for us, amputees,
we’re all war cripples, as you can see,
for the sake of your departed parents,
take pity on us, conquering heroes!
(“Victory Song,” 1945, 1953, Kaluga)

This anthology is filled with much emotion, much insight, much anguish, but also much hope and charity. Maria Bloshteyn has carefully and meticulously built a fitting monument to the Great Patriotic War. It should be widely read. Her translations are smooth, highly crafted and therefore well-fitted to the grand topic that is Russia in the Second World War. Buy it and read right through. You will not be disappointed.

The image shows, “For the Motherland,” a World War Two Poster from 1941.

Charles de Gaulle, Mythologized, Yet Betrayed, Part II of III

II. De Gaulle vs. Pétain – The Defeat And Rejection Of The Armistice

The trial of Marshal Pétain took place from July 23 to August 15, 1945. Prosecutor Mornet was the only magistrate who did not take an oath of loyalty to the Marshal, not out of insubordination, but because he had been retired for several month. The jurors, on the other hand, were chosen from parliamentarians who had not voted for full powers, and representatives of the various Resistance movements. Found guilty of colluding with the enemy and of high treason, the court condemned Pétain to death for national indignity and the confiscation of property. But let’s go back to 1938, the beginning of the quarrel and the rupture between Pétain and de Gaulle.

De Gaulle – Pétain, Two Opposing Destinies Linked By History

It was at the request of Daniel-Rops, editor-in-chief at Plon, that de Gaulle undertook the publication of his reflections on the military profession. He again took up the book, The Soldier, written ten years earlier for the Marshal, which the latter seems to have left in some drawer, collecting dust. He revised, completed and enlarged the manuscript and gave it the new title, France and its Army. In August 1938, de Gaulle brought the proofs to the publisher and informed the Marshal of its imminent publication. That the book was undertaken at the behest of Pétain, de Gaulle wanted to mention clearly in a Forward, the draft of which he sent to Pétain.

An exchange of letters and unfriendly words ensued. Pétain, annoyed at having been presented with a fait accompli, asserted that “this work belonged to him,” that he reserved the right to oppose its publication. In opposition, De Gaulle contended that the Marshal could give him orders in military but not literary matters. Eventually the two men met and worked out some sort of agreement.

Afterwards, the Marshal sent the Foreword which he wished to see placed at the beginning of the book. For his part, de Gaulle directly sent to Plon, without warning Pétain, a slightly modified dedication which would finally be published (it excluded the allusions, desired by Pétain, to chapters II to IV and to the years of writing, 1925-1927): “To Marshal Pétain, who wanted this book to be written, who directed, with his advice, the writing of the first five chapters, and thanks to whom the last two are the story of our victory.”

The battle of egos ended in a definite break between the two men. The dedication disappeared in post-war reissues. For Pétain, de Gaulle would henceforth be “a vain, presumptuous and ungrateful young man.” For de Gaulle, Pétain was “an exceptional man, an exceptional leader,” but who was “finished by 1925,” an “old man,” a “sad husk of a past glory,” who “chased after honors.”

In March 1935, Pétain already confided to the future General Alfred Conquet, “I know de Gaulle has height, confidence, a tenacious will, fine talents, an incomparable memory. But I have a problem with him myself.” Still according to Conquet, Pétain would have agreed to allow de Gaulle for promotion in 1938. De Gaulle’s admiration for Pétain seemed to gradually fade during the Rif War (1925). He did not reproach the Marshal for the success in pacifying Morocco, obtained in collaboration with the Spanish forces of the directorate of General Miguel Primo de Rivera.

De Gaulle was not and never would be a primary anti-colonialist. His son Philippe, explained that, on the contrary, he praised the prodigious example of the Romans in Gaul, “from which they learned so much,” and even said: “Only imbeciles do not recognize colonization, even if it was not always tender, because of their own barbarism. They forget that they were colonized because they themselves were incapable.” And again: “Americans have always considered colonization to be exploitation. But it is first of all development! It is clear that they were not colonized by the Romans.”

The policy of the American colonists and their government towards the Amerindians had been, it is true, ruthlessly and indelibly marked by massacres, the ripping up of treaties and deportations. After this treatment, the Indians of North America existed only in homeopathic doses (unlike those of Hispanic America), and the American leaders could not be inclined to imagine the possibility of a humanist and developmentalist colonization.

But anti-colonialism was not at the heart of the dispute here. What de Gaulle criticized Pétain for was having accepted the mission of the Republican-Socialists Painlevé and Briand to go to Morocco to replace Marshal Lyautey. De Gaulle sided with Lyautey, the monarchist, the anti-assimilationist colonialist, respectful of local culture, who wanted to spare Abd El Krim, against Pétain, the republican, obeying the orders of the Left Cartel, and a government that was secularist and assimilationist, and who wanted at all costs to put an end to the revolt.

The comparison between Pétain and de Gaulle did not fail to arouse the indignation of many adulators and despisers, but it was nonetheless rich in lessons. These two soldiers, these two statesmen, triggered all kinds of passions, adulation and recognition as well as hostility and hatred. Two lives, two opposing destinies, which nevertheless remain linked by history. One, Pétain, son of a plowman, “victor of Verdun,” glorious Marshal of the War of ‘14, “pacifier of Morocco,” academician, old head of state of Vichy who had been recalled, condemned to death, struck with national indignity for collaboration with the enemy, who died covered with shame, isolated in his cell, at the age of 95 (1951).

The other, de Gaulle, son of a professor in khâgne, rebel general, rebellious, leader of Free France, winner at the Liberation, who resigned in 1946, returned in 1958, was elected first president of the Fifth Republic, retired after having being disowned in a referendum (1969), and who died alone in his residence in La Boisserie at the age of 79 (1970). One, Pétain, the Republican soldier, agnostic, great seducer of women, a handsome man, a hardened bachelor, who married a divorced woman at sixty, Annie, the faithful and loving companion throughout the years of glory and sordid mess-ups. The other, de Gaulle, the Republican soldier, fervent Catholic, man of letters, brilliant lecturer, charismatic leader with ungrateful but distinguished physique, married at the age of thirty-one to a young woman, the advisor and unwavering support of all his life, “Yvonne without whom nothing would have been done.”

Two exceptional careers, two dazzling but late ascendancies. Colonel Pétain was 58 years old and in early retirement when the First World War broke out. He was elevated to the rank of Marshal of France in 1918 for services rendered to the Republic. Twenty-five years later, an 84-year-old man was elected by the National Assembly to bring about a new Constitution of the Republic (a draft Republican Constitution, which was signed by Pétain in January 1944, but never brought into effect).

In 1945, definitively on the sidelines, the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, remarked that everything was done in form only – the change of government, the armistice, the scuttling of the assemblies. During the vote for full powers “to the government of the Republic under the authority of Pétain,” on July 10th, 1940, out of 649 parliamentarians present, 569 voted for and 80 against. [Among the favorable votes 286 were from the Left and from the Center-Left, 237 from the Right and Center-Right, and 46 were left blank.

The deputies of the Left were those who were elected on May 3, 1936 under the colors of the Popular Front, with the exception of the Communists who were excluded from the chamber by the Daladier government, following the German-Soviet pact. Refusing to see the conflict as a patriotic war, the Communist Party was then seen as an objective ally of the enemy. By the decree of September 26th, 1939, the deputies who had not broken with the PCF were stripped of their mandate and interned, along with many nationals of enemy nations, regardless of their race or religion]. But in June 1940, the support for Pétain was nearly complete within the political class and almost total in public opinion.

When General de Gaulle founded and led Free France, in June 1940, he was 50 years old (he was thirty-four years younger than Pétain). But on the other hand, in 1958, he is a relatively old man – he is 69 years old – who, after being invested on June 1st as President of the Council by the National Assembly (329 votes in favor and 224 against), had the Constitution of the Fifth Republic adopted on October 4th and was elected President of the Republic by an electoral college of 80,000 electors on December 21st of the same year.

Pétain, de Gaulle, two warlords, two statesmen with the same firmness of character and the same independence of mind, at least when they were young. Two officers who had similar physical courage and the same detestation of privileges and compromises. Two leaders who, when they believed that the interests of the nation, the Republic and the people demanded it, could be inflexible, if not ruthless. Pétain, reputed to be thrifty in life, did not hesitate to have 50 soldiers shot to put an end to the 1917 mutinies; military above all, he suppressed the revolt of the Rif under the orders of the Cartel des Gauche; head of the French state during the Occupation, he was held responsible for the deaths of nearly 60,000 deported-resistance fighters and the disappearance of 75,000 Jews out of 330,000 Jews present in metropolitan France. [25,000 French Jews and 50,000 foreigners , including 12,000 foreign Jews who took refuge in the Free Zone, who were handed over to the German authorities after the general invasion of November 1942; the Jews of the Maghreb countries, some 400,000 remaining beyond the reach of the Occupier; a lower proportion than that of the other occupied European countries but nevertheless higher than that of Mussolini’s Italy, where 7,800 Jews disappeared during the German occupation of Italy, from September 1943 to May 1945].

The American and Canadian historians, Robert Paxton and Michaël Marrus, and their French heirs, Henry Rousso and Jean-Pierre Azéma, claimed to upset the reading of the history of the Vichy regime by asserting against Robert Aron that the French State not only collaborated but even anticipated German orders. Paxton, on the other hand, avoids dwelling on the fact that his government refused entry to European Jewish refugees into the United States and made it very difficult for them to obtain visas. Anxious to better reflect the complexity of things, Franco-Israeli historian Alain Michel has cast aside many of Paxton’s blunt assertions. We know the hysterical reactions of many mainstream media when journalist Éric Zemmour allowed himself to severely criticize the Paxtonian doxa.

De Gaulle, for his part, remained silent in the face of the extrajudicial repression of 1944-1946 (from 10,000 to 40,000 deaths depending on the sources). He was indifferent to the exodus of a million French people from Algeria (in 1962) and the disappearance of 2,000 to 3,000 of them. He refused to repatriate Muslim “refugees” who do not return to “the land of their fathers.” sacrificing 60,000 to 80,000 Harkis massacred by the FLN and the ANP. He did not hesitate either to eliminate his enemies of the OAS (which five times tried to assassinate him), with the help of the “long arms” of the SAC (Civic Action Service) or even secret agents, and “barbouzes” of the SDECE. However, all of these facts need to be put in their proper perspective, or “contextualized” as we say today. Were de Gaulle and Pétain more implacable in the conduct of war or in internal repression than the great politico-military leaders of the twentieth century, such as, Clemenceau, Joffre, Foch, Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill or Mussolini, to name a few? We can discuss this. Either way, we are also light years from the death tolls of the twentieth- century berserks Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Pol Pot, etc., with their loyal collaborators.

The Rejection Of The Armistice And The Reasons For The Defeat

The Épinal print caricatures pitting Pétain the defensive against de Gaulle the offensive, forged after World War II, must be qualified. Pétain was not fundamentally against the offensive; he wanted it to be efficient and as inexpensive as possible in human life. His doctrine was to avoid attack at all costs in favor of a more rational combat in which preparation and firepower prevailed. It was thanks to this method that French losses decreased year after year during the First World War. But in November 1918, the positions were reversed: Pétain advocated attack, while General Foch held him back. The defensive method, Pétain would later say, “corresponded to a period when our equipment was completely insufficient.” If he did not get “his” offensive, which was set for the morning of November 14, it is because three days earlier, on November 11, 1918, the plenipotentiaries signed the Armistice in the Rethondes Glade.

It seems that the opposition of Pétain and de Gaulle over the importance of the use of armored units has been exaggerated. In the 1930s, military writings on the use of armored units were abundant in France, as in Great Britain and Germany. Generals Jean Estienne and Edmond Buat, or Colonels Michel Bouvard, Aimé Doumenc and Pierre Dufour, to name a few, were all, like de Gaulle, supporters of a motorized army, followers of tank and armored squadrons. On the other hand, the effectiveness of the tank-plane pairing in “Lightning War” (Blitzkrieg of Guderian and Rommel) would be clearly demonstrated in the campaign in Poland, in 1939.

Pétain was probably not so out of step as some have said, judging by some of his words. On April 9, 1935, in a speech at the École supérieure de guerre, he warned against the temptation to freeze military art, under penalty of being surprised by the adversary: “Mechanized units are capable of giving operations a pace and amplitude hitherto unknown. The plane shattered the framework of the battle, formerly limited to the range of artillery shots, and changed the conditions for strategic action. The essential rules of the art of war risk being deeply affected. One can even wonder if the plane will not dictate its law in the conflicts of the future… In fact, victory will belong to the one who will be the first to exploit the properties of modern machines and combine their action, at whatever level (on the technical level as well as on the strategic level), to eliminate the means of resistance of the enemy.” The ideas he expressed in a speech in Saint-Quentin on October 4, 1936, even seem very close to those of de Gaulle. The thesis of the defensive army, which prevailed after Versailles, “has had its day,” he said, “While using and developing as much as possible the fortifications fortunately established on our borders, we must orient our activity in such a way as to deploy a powerful force on land and in the air immediately, which will be of a nature which will evoke respect in the potential enemy.”

Historians have not ceased to wonder about the circumstances of the defeat, but many questions remain to this day still undiscovered or undiscerned. As Temporary Minister of War, in the government of the radical-socialist Gaston Doumergue, Marshal Pétain clearly declared before the Senate army committee on March 7, 1934: “The forests of the Ardennes are impenetrable, if we make special arrangements.” These ambiguous and unfortunate remarks were later used to criticize him, for having agreed to reduce the army budget to allow a recovery of public finances. And from here, to blaming him for the defeat, there is only one step that some have not failed to take: The transfer of the “original fault” to Pétain is practical, for it enables the debate to be closed by prohibiting opening it.

Historians are still divided on whether France’s rearmament began in 1934 or 1936, but the military budget did not really increase dramatically until 1938 and 1939. In order to lessen the responsibility of the military, Vichy presented defeat as inevitable, claiming that the Wehrmacht was superior in numbers and weapons. Conversely, after the Liberation, radical and socialist politicians responded that the governments of the time had provided all the necessary funds. According to them, the equipment existed in abundance, the responsibility for the defeat rested exclusively with the soldiers unable to use the weapons placed at their disposal.

However, this must not lead to the conclusion that the high command of the French army was just a bunch of sissies or old skinflints. The possibility of the Germans crossing the Ardennes had been known and feared by the French military since the early 1930s. As early as 1932, the question had been asked by General Weygand, but the balance of power was then still in favor of France. After Hitler came to power, this concern increased. Weygand’s staff felt that the Sedan sector absolutely needed to be strengthened and that 15 days would be needed to ensure an appropriate response.

In January 1935, Weygand retired and his rival, General Gamelin, succeeded him. But the question arose again, in March 1937, with Colonel Bourguignon, who commanded the tanks of the 2nd Army in the Sedan sector, and then in 1938, with General Prételat, who was designated commander of the 2nd Army in the event of war. Prételat even organized a “framework” exercise with his staff to find out under what conditions the 2nd Army could stop a German Blitzkrieg attack across the Ardennes, at the limit of the Maginot line, and then resist until the arrival of reinforcements.

Unfortunately, when General Prételat reported back to Gamelin on the conclusions of this exercise, his findings were condescendingly referred to as “his dear, little pet theories.” Generalissimo Maurice Gamelin decided to play the defense card to the limit, taking refuge behind the Maginot line. In the final analysis, it was not Germany’s numerical or technological superiority, nor the general incompetence of high-ranking military personnel that led to France’s defeat, but rather the strategy of the high command, the inability to manage or control the clash of egos, and the incredible stubbornness of Gamelin who had repeatedly received information from Belgium, indicating that the German offensive would target the Ardennes.

There is also a crucial factor that must be taken into account here: The wave of pacifism and anti-militarism which overwhelmed France in the 1930s and for which the political class (socialists, communists and radical socialists alike) was largely responsible. To understand this, we must not be fooled by the fact that the pacifists and anti-militarists of the interwar period became patriots or even nationalists in 1944.

But the weight of this attitude is not measured only by the yardstick of the more or less passive fraternization of the PCF leaders with the occupiers until 1941. Let us not forget that. Twelve of the seventeen socialist ministers (SFIO) of the Popular Front government in March 1938 were removed from the party at the time of the Liberation; 60% of Radical and Radical Socialist parliamentarians prudently withdrew from political life under Vichy; 20% supported the regime; and 20% resisted. The group of eighty parliamentarians (self-qualified at the Liberation as “the first resistance fighters on French soil,” a designation which rightly irritated many Gaullists), voted against full powers (“To the government of the Republic, under the authority and signature of Marshal Pétain, has the power to bring in a new Constitution”). But the majority government voted this way, not in the name of national defense, of patriotism or of warmongering, but out of fear of “authoritarian temptations,“ or “fascist drift,” or a military coup.

This made all the difference in de Gaulle’s own fight. The General had little esteem for the politicians of the Third Republic, or for the “routine” Right, which “does not want to change anything,” and “understands nothing;” nor for the “Left of the“ Popular Front, “which ended with capitulation: The abdication of the Republic into the hands of Pétain.” He refused the Armistice, and his fight and resistance were above all anti-German. Conversely, the “Group of Eighty” waged a primarily political struggle, by defending the institutions, the status quo of the Third Republic. All-in-all, he wanted to continue to perpetuate the system of parties and assemblies without really reforming it.

The example of the socialist Leon Blum deserves to be cited in this regard. “I think, for my part,” he wrote in 1931, “that, in the moral dispositions in which the war had left the peoples of Europe, it was possible for a great nation to take the initiative of total disarmament… I think that if a Nation had offered itself in this way, that it had, of its own accord, threw down its arms, without prior agreement with the other States, without stipulation of reciprocity, it would in reality have run no risk, because the moral prestige that it would have won would have made it unassailable, invulnerable, and the strength of the example set by it would have forced all other States to follow suit.” (“Problems of Peace, Security through Disarmament”).

This was the same Blum who deplored in Le Populaire of March 3, 1934: “The old men whom the fascist mob [of February 6, 1934] brought back to power [Doumergue and Pétain] have returned to the arms race.” Or again, on October 30, the day after Pétain spoke before the House Finance Committee: “Marshal Pétain cynically declared that very soon he will request a special budget to increase supplies and equipment.” It was also the socialist Jules Moch who called Pétain to the rostrum and protested against “your obvious desire to return to the professional army.” It was the Communist newspaper l’Humanité which proclaimed that “the scarecrow Hitler is a pretext,” and that the first duty of youth is to oppose all plans for militarization en masse. It was Thorez who recalled Lenin’s slogans in 1934: “To transform imperialist war into civil war.” Such words, irresponsible and reckless, could not but fail to arouse contempt and even hilarity from Hitler and his colorful officers. But as we know, France from 1933 to 1938 was thinking of much more than war.

An important point must now also be stressed: The Third Republic was a system of assembly; It was from the Chamber of Deputies that all the ministerial staff, who set the rules of the game, were recruited. The military, on the other hand, was nothing more than the “boot” of the politicians, and thus unable to awaken the indispensable patriotism of the French. After the Liberation, Georges Bernanos would say: “If there had been more Darnand in 1940, there would have been no militiamen in 1944.” Paraphrasing the author of Under the Sun of Satan, we may say that “if the French had fought like de Gaulle during the Battle of France, they would not have been ultimately victims of the weakness and cowardice of their political leaders.”

The alleged vast plot of Pétain intended to seize power at all costs to destroy the Republic, establish the dictatorship and throw France into the arms of the occupier is cheap propaganda. (The former socialist, who became a patriot, Gustave Hervé, author, in 1935, of C’est Pétain qu’il nous faut! (It is Pétain That We Need), was a supporter of the struggle on African soil, in 1940. The radical minister of the Popular Front, Pierre Cot, who also advocated the appeal to Pétain in 1935, ended up as fellow-traveler with the PCF and the USSR). The “providential man,” the eighty-four-year-old chosen by the parliamentarians of the Third Republic in June 1940, was never more than someone expedient.

The truth about this affair was expressed bluntly, as early as 1945, during the Pétain trial, by one of the freest and bravest minds of his generation, the future General Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, who had returned from the concentration camp in Mauthausen, where he had been deported for acts of resistance: “I owe nothing to Marshal Pétain, but I am disgusted by the sight of the men who, in this enclosure, try to pass on to an old man, nearly a hundred years old, the full slate of all their mistakes.” On August 17, 1945, de Gaulle commuted the death sentence pronounced against the Marshal to life imprisonment, thus putting an end to thirty-three years of at first good, then distant, and finally antagonistic and hostile relations.

Appointed Brigadier General the day before his death in 1955, the Béarn native, Georges Loustaunau-Lacau was one of the most decorated French soldiers of the two world wars. The 203rd class of Saint-Cyr (2016-2019), which had chosen to bear his name to honor him, was renamed by the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces because of Loustaunau-Lacau supposed anti-communist and anti-Semitic stances in the 1930s. Loustaunau-Lacau was nevertheless cleared of these accusations, before his official funeral at the Invalides, more than sixty years ago.

This precedent is unique in history, de Gaulle had even refused to rename the Pétain class. In fact, where things are now going, other censors, jealous guardians of single thought and political correctness, should not fail to demand that we also rename the Clémenceau class, or that Voltaire be removed from the Pantheon for the same reasons. A large number of figures, among the most illustrious of French culture, could then find themselves thrown into the garbage, in the name of anti-racism, anti-Semitism or anti-colonialism.

As President of the CFLN, since October 1943, de Gaulle signed on April 21, 1944, the ordinance on the organization of public powers, after the Liberation, providing to grant the right to vote to women and on September 30, 1944, the ordinance creating social security. De Gaulle’s role has sometimes been contested in the case of social security, but it was he who provided the impetus. Other promises of war would then be quickly realized: The creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, nationalization of Renault factories, nationalization of the major deposit banks and the Banque de France, nationalization of air transport, creation of works councils, expansion and unification of family allowance systems, health insurance, accident insurance, and pensions for employees, etc.

All these reforms are best explained as the will of de Gaulle than by the program of the National Council of the Resistance (March 15, 1944), drawn up by resistance members of the PCF and the SFIO. Significantly, the General avoided any reference to the CNR program, when announcing the principles of his government’s actions in the speech of September 12, 1944, at the Palais de Chaillot.

On November 13, 1945, de Gaulle was unanimously elected President of the government by the members of the Constituent Assembly. But very quickly a serious political crisis broke out within the tripartite government (Gaullists, Socialists and Communists). De Gaulle was, as we know, hostile to the assembly regime which had led to the disaster of 1940, to the return of the party system and to anything resembling the restoration of the Third Republic.

For him, the cup was full; as a result, he resigned: “The exclusive party regime has reappeared. I disapprove of it. But unless I forcefully establish a dictatorship which I do not want and which would undoubtedly turn out badly, I cannot afford to prevent this experience. I must therefore withdraw.” His absence from the political scene would last twelve years.

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The image shows a statue of Charles de Gaulle in Bucharest.

Translated from the original French by N. Dass.

Charles de Gaulle, Mythologized, Yet Betrayed, Part I of III

The Military, Man Of Letters, Leader Of Free France

Since the start of the pandemic, essayists, journalists and politicians have kept repeating that “a new page in history has now been opened;” “that nothing will be the same as before;” and that “we must prepare the world for ‘after’.”

Minions and sycophants let the media believe that the crisis was most skillfully handled by the authorities, while heedless of the deluge of harsh criticism. Shortsightedness, irresponsibility, belated and erratic management of the health crisis have all been constantly pointed out. Many observers have announced the end of happy globalization and the dictatorship of the markets, the death of Maastricht, neoliberal Europe and globalization, the death knell of financial capitalism, the ecological collapse—worse, the signal of the “convergence of disasters.” Pessimists, such as the philosopher Marcel Gauchet or the writer Michel Houellebecq, predict that “nothing will change;” on the contrary, “we will not wake up, after confinement, in a new world, [but] it will be the same, even a little worse.”

“Official” personalities, hitherto reputedly well-meaning and among the most unexpected, seized the ideas of their adversaries whom earlier they crushed under the weight of contempt. Doing a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, they proclaimed the urgent need to reconsolidate the nations, to relocate production, to recover the autonomy and independence of the strategic State in order to meet the needs of a world become multipolar.

Others, more irreducible, the convinced “globalizers,” the self-proclaimed “progressives” (in fact neoconservatives, neoliberals and neo-social democrats lost in past reveries), wanted to see in the crisis only the demonstration of the imperious need to relaunch as quickly as possible an updated, reformed version of global “governance” and the EU “big market.” Listening to them, the maintenance of the freedom of movement of capital and people, the defense of the euro, the regularization of the “undocumented” (illegal immigrants), and above all, the precept “do not close the borders,” key dogma of liberal-libertarian ideology, remain inescapable, irrefutable requirements.

In short, everyone went about their analyses and their predictions according to their ideological reading grid. With or without a “war on the epidemic.” the metapolitical and cultural struggle knew no truce. “When the crisis is over,” some imagine, “the upper portions of the state will be held accountable!” One can always dream about intentions. Was it not said in 1940, the day after the rout, and in 1945, after the Liberation, that those responsible were to be tried? And, finally, what did we see? Nothing, or almost nothing, except politicians and soldiers who invariably passed the buck—eighty years of debate and research on the causes and responsibilities of defeat, without a semblance of consensus among historians.

It is by chance that 2020, the year of disruption and the health debacle—which will come to shed more light on the extent of the general crisis (political, economic, cultural and moral)—coincides with the triple commemoration of General Charles de Gaulle: His birth on November 22, 1890; the Appeal on June 18, 1940, and his death on November 9, 1970. De Gaulle who is, with Napoleon, in France and outside France, the most famous of the French, even more so than Saint Louis, Louis XIV, Joan of Arc, Clémenceau, Molière, Racine, Pasteur and many others.

De Gaulle who, in public opinion in France, is a giant among the dwarfs, despite his often controversial choices and his sometimes Machiavellian methods. De Gaulle, whose qualities as a statesman cannot be disputed with regard to history, despite the age-old, litany and angry recriminations of the Gaullophobes, who are ever ready to rant against “ambition, presumption, vanity, arrogance, contempt, arrogance, self-centeredness, bitterness, resentment, ingratitude, meanness, the spirit of division, despotism, etc.” And against the “Grand Constable,” “the Idiot on High,” “the Two Meters Tall,” “the Big Asparagus.” And let us not forget of course the extravagant invectives against “the follower of totalitarianism,” the “anti-nationalist fanatic American,” the “Henchman of Communism,” the “Ally of the FLN,” the “Apprentice Dictator,” the “Fascist General,” and so on and so forth.

De Gaulle, who contrasts with the mediocrity of his successors by his actions, his charisma, his energy, his voluntarism, his rectitude, his honesty and his morals without reproach. De Gaulle the statesman with integrity, incorruptibility, who distrusted luxury and money, abhorred prejudices, privileges, the influence peddlers, and made it a point of honor to pay out of his pocket the electricity bills for his private apartments at the Élysée. The General wished to observe a strict separation between his private life and his function as president. As soon as he arrived at the Élysée Palace, he had a tiny chapel installed so that he could attend mass regularly. He had asked his aide-de-camp to find him all the objects necessary for religious service and had paid for them himself. We know that his wife had even bought an ordinary table service for private meals, and that De Gaulle scrupulously paid for guests during the few family meals.

De Gaulle, finally, the great unknown, the little known, the apostle of the Third Way between liberalism and socialism, whose political thought was shamefully distorted, basely betrayed, emptied of its ideological content, reduced to a conventional attitude (the so-called “love of France” and the “refusal of the inevitable” that only serve to camouflage abandonment and renunciation in everyday life). De Gaulle, reduced to a vulgar pragmatism or even opportunism, a mixture of neoliberalism (Balladur, Sarkozy) and neo-social-democratism (Chirac, Juppé), and as such has been praised, mythologized and instrumentalized by the whole of the political class.

Let us remember these few words from the General’s War Memoirs: “Since everything always starts over, all that I have done will, sooner or later, be a source of new ardor after I have disappeared.” On the occasion of the triple Gaullian commemoration, it may be useful to mention the main facts and dates that marked the life and action of Charles de Gaulle, and to recall the great contours of his political thought. Obviously, we must avoid the double pitfall of apology and rant, hagiography and denigration, even if that is not an easy task. So, let’s try to be, if not perfectly objective, at least rigorous, honest and sincere.

From 1962 to 1969, when I was a young ordinary citizen, I saw, heard and faithfully followed the first president of the Fifth French Republic. Almost all the students of my generation—at least activists and the most politicized—hated him. For my part, I was one of his devotees, in 1968. Since then, I have of course stepped back with age. I know the successes of Gaulle. I hold him to be “the last great figure in the history of France.” But I also recognize, without reservations, his dithering and his errors. One can be an admirer of the Great Charles, and/or a supporter of historical or philosophical Gaullism, and consider that De Gaulle was right and that he was visionary (to use the suggestive title of Gérard Bardy’s book), without being “Gaullite.”

If we want to take the measure of the unusual, exceptional character of the man, it is enough to refer to some major works. There are of course those by declared sympathizers, like Michel Tauriac, Arnaud Teyssier, Jean-Paul Bled, François Broche, Éric Branca, Chantal Morelle, Paul-Marie de la Gorce, Alain Peyrefitte or François-Georges Dreyfus. There are those by repented antigaullists, like the ex-communists and ex-socialists Marxists, Max Gallo and Régis Debray, the ex-admirer of the Khmer Rouge, Jean Lacouture, or the ex-president of the Institut Mendés France, Éric Roussel. There is also the biography of British historian Julian Jackson who, at the risk of straining credulity a little, says, “In France he is a figure even more revered than Churchill in Great Britain.” Finally, there are the very critical works, such as that of the ex-OAS activist, Dominique Venner, author of one of the most severe indictments, who nevertheless was forced to admit de gaulle’s “the stature” of a “special character.”

Military Man And A Man Of Letters

Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille, on November 22, 1890, into a family of petty nobles, or even the old French bourgeoisie, Catholic, monarchist-legitimist, which had recently joined the Republic. He was the son of Jeanne Maillot and Henri de Gaulle, a civil servant, a lawyer at the Paris Court of Appeal, a teacher of literature, history and mathematics at Stanislas High School. Charles, the third of the couple’s five children, went to primary and secondary school in Paris, at private Catholic institutions. In 1909, he was enrolled 119th at Saint Cyr Military Academy, from which he graduated 13th in his class, in 1912. The young second lieutenant was then assigned to the 33rd Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Philippe Pétain. For almost twenty years, the future Marshal, who made note of him favorably and even saw him as “the best hopes for the future,” became a role model for de Gaulle.

On August 15, 1914, less than a month after the declaration of war, the young lieutenant de Gaulle was wounded in Dinant. Decorated with the Croix de Guerre in January, he was again wounded in the hand, in the Somme, in March, and promoted to the rank of captain on September 3. On March 2, 1916, he was again injured, this time in the thigh, and taken prisoner in Douaumont. Despite five escape attempts, he remained detained in Germany until the end of the war on November 11, 1918.

In July 1920, de Gaulle was assigned to the staff of General Weygand, and participated in Polish army operations on the Vistula. The purpose was to contain the Red Army which had invaded Poland. Back in France, in February of 1921, he was responsible for giving history lessons at Saint-Cyr. On April 6 of the same year, he married Yvonne Vendroux, daughter of an industrialist from Calais, with whom he had three children (Philippe, Élizabeth and little Anne, who unfortunately remained mentally handicapped all her life and died of bronchopneumonia at the age of twenty).

At the École de Guerre, which he entered in 1921, his independence of mind soon attracted the enmity of a few professors, who wrote notes criticizing him severely when he left in 1924. Marshal Pétain, also known for similar independence, trait, was Marshal Pétain took umbrage at this and made it known. His intervention probably led to the correction of these critical notes.

1924 was the year when de Gaulle, an excellent connoisseur of the German language, published his first book, The Enemy’s House Divided. He explained the last months of the war and the causes of the enemy’s defeat. Among Pétain’s staff, Colonel Laure read the young captain’s writings. He knew that good writing was hardly a common trait in the army and therefore recommended de Gaulle’s name to the Marshal, who was vice president of the Supreme War Council. Invited to work on his staff, on July 1, 1925, de Gaulle was responsible for drafting articles and speeches and even writing a book on “the Soldier” that Pétain had been pondering for some time. Satisfied with the first drafts, the Marshal only asked for a few changes. Twelve years later, the project of this book would become the reason for a rupture between the two men.

During the summer of 1926, Marshal Pétain took de Gaulle on a tour to plot fortified sites in the East. “I will,” he wrote, “go over to front with the most intelligent officer in the French army, to find out what he would have done if, before me, he had been the Kronprinz.” In April 1927, at the request of Pétain, de Gaulle gave three lectures in the large amphitheater of the École Supérieure de Guerre. In the fall, he began again his lectures at the Sorbonne, at the invitation of the Cercle Fustel de Coulanges, a satellite organization of the Action Française. Promoted to the rank of Commandant in September, he then left to take command of the 19th Chasseurs Battalion, in Trier.

From 1929 to 1931, de Gaulle was assigned to Beirut in the intelligence service (2nd and 3rd Bureaus) of the army of the Levant. From his experience, he co-wrote with Commander Yvon, Histoire des troupes du Levant (A History of the Troops in the Levant), published in 1931.

Back in France, he was appointed to the 3rd Bureau of the Secretariat of the Superior Council of National Defense. In July 1932, de Gaulle published, The Edge of the Sword, in which he compiled and completed the lectures given at the École de Guerre. In his dedication, erased in 1945, he expressed his gratitude to Pétain: “This attempt, Monsieur le Maréchal, can only be dedicated to you, because nothing shows better than your glory what the virtues of action can draw from the light of thought.” On copy number one, he added in his own hand, “a tribute to a very respectful and very deep devotion.”

In 1934, a book appeared that became famous, Vers l’armée de métier (Towards the Professional Army, but strangely translated into English as The Army of the Future), in which de Gaulle defended the creation of a professionally powerful motorized and mechanical army. At the same time, he met the former vice-president of the Council of Ministers, Paul Reynaud, member of the Democratic Alliance, a moderate right-wing party, and gradually became his adviser on defense and strategy. Lecturer at the Center for Advanced Military Studies, from 1935 to 1936, de Gaulle was subsequently assigned to the command of the 507th tank destroyer regiment of Metz and promoted to colonel in December 1937.

In September 1938, de Gaulle published La France et son armée (France and Her Army), a work in which he traced the war episodes of France. We will return to the difficult and ambiguous circumstances of this publication. On September 2, 1939, the day before England and France declared war on the Third Reich (September 3), Colonel de Gaulle was appointed acting commander of the tanks of the Fifth Army in the Lorraine-Alsace region.

On May 10, 1940, after eight months of the Phoney War (the Sitzkrieg), the real war began. In less than five days, the 19th Army Corps, Panzer Group Guderian, crossed the Meuse out of the Ardennes (May 12) and broke through the French defenses in the Sedan sector (May 14). On May 19, faced with the magnitude of the disaster, Reynaud (chairman of the board since March 22) dismissed General-in-Chief Gamelin and appointed Generalissimo Maxime Weygand (73 years of age) in his place. Simultaneously, on May 18, he recalled, from his embassy in Madrid, the old Marshal Pétain (84 years old) and brought him into the government as vice-president of the council of ministers.

On May 17, 1939, de Gaulle launched the Montcornet counteroffensive near Laon, at the head of the 4th Armored Division, the best French armored unit. Facing the rear of the 2nd Panzer, it had to fall back with heavy losses, the enemy having decimated two thirds of its tanks. On May 25, Reynaud and General Weygand appointed de Gaulle brigadier general and acting commander of the Fourth Armored Reserve Division.

On May 28, de Gaulle launched a new offensive against the Abbeville communications node. But after an appreciable advance of its tanks, the Germans regrouped. In 10 days, the Fourth Armored Division lost 40% of its force and came to know the limits of exhaustion. In Dunkirk, British and Canadian troops were evacuated between May 24 and June 4. On June 6, Reynaud entrusted de Gaulle with the portfolio of Under-Secretary of State for War. Then, Reynaud de Gaulle went to London on June 9 to meet Churchill and obtain air reinforcements.

On June 10, 1939, stabbed in the back, Italy declared war on France. In the evening of the 13th, the Council of Ministers was told about a possible transfer of the government to North Africa, but the project was rejected, as had been the idea of a withdrawal to Brittany earlier, which was deemed unrealistic at the time, and where the French army was defeated. Pétain, vice-president of the council, categorically refused any government-in-exile project. For him, to abandon French territory, to go into exile was to desert.

Two cliques were formed; one, favorable to the departure to Africa and the Empire, around the radicals Édouard Daladier, Édouard Herriot and Jules Jeanneney; the other, for staying on in France, around Adrien Marquet, the radical-socialist, and Pierre Laval, the defector from the Socialist Party (SFIO) who went to the center-right.

On June 14, de Gaulle was again charged with the difficult mission of obtaining essential reinforcements from England, but his attempts in London remained unsuccessful. When he returned to Bordeaux, where the government of Paul Reynaud had withdrawn, he was the bearer of a surprising offer from Winston Churchill, an offer that seems to have originated with Jean Monnet, the future American agent. This was the political union of Great Britain and France. Arousing suspicion in the Council of Ministers, due to France’s catastrophic situation and its imbalance vis-à-vis Great Britain, the proposal to merge the two nations into a Franco-British nation was quickly dismissed.

At the front, the debacle was in full swing. Nine million civilians were scattered on the roads. Two million prisoners had already been captured. On June 14, 1940, the Germans entered Paris, an open city. On the 15th, Paul Reynaud expressed the possibility of putting an end to hostilities. He even mentioned for the first time in the Council of Ministers the word “armistice.”

The radical socialist, César Campinchi, Minister of the Navy (who was given this position by Léon Blum and Camille Chautemps), also expressed the opinion that it was advisable to start talks quickly with the Germans, and asked if a man, who had not been involved in the pre-war political struggles, would not be more likely to make this terrible solution accepted in the country. On that day, the idea of an armistice was put forward by two parliamentarians (one from the left, Campinchi, and one from the right, who would later reverse, Reynaud). The two designated the man who could do it best, the old Marshal Pétain, now eighty-four years old!

At the exit door, Reynaud went straight to Weygand: “General, as we agreed earlier, you are going to ask for the capitulation of the army.” Weygand, in agreement with Pétain, shouted, it was out of the question: Capitulation is a military act of surrender, while the armistice is a political act which puts an end to hostilities without definitively ending the state of war. Capitulation would allow the army to be defeated; it would be infamy, for it would place the country at the mercy of the winner. The armistice, on the other hand, a political ceasefire agreement resulting from negotiations, could help to protect the interests of the defeated.

Head Of Free France

On June 16, 1940, Paul Reynaud (now in favor of the continuation of the war in North Africa but now a minority view), tendered his resignation, after having advised the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, to get Marshal Pétain to constitute a government. According to Lebrun, it was with the agreement of the presidents of the chambers, Édouard Herriot (Chamber of Deputies) and Jules Jeanneney (Senate), that he appeal to the Marshal, who would agree to constitute a government of national unity ranging from conservatives to socialists.

The next day, through the Spanish ambassador to Paris, José Félix de Lequerica, Pétain ordered an armistice with Germany. At dawn on June 17, the French request for an armistice reached German headquarters. The same day, at nine in the morning, de Gaulle left Bordeaux for London, in the airplane of General Spears, personal representative of Churchill in France.

Also on June 17, 1940, Marshal Pétain addressed the French on the radio: “I give France the gift of my person.” The next day, June 18, the BBC opened its studios to de Gaulle who launched a first appeal to French soldiers, which has remained famous in history, even though few French have heard it: “Whatever happens, the flame of resistance must not go out and will not go out.”

The armistice was signed on June 22, 1940 with Germany (on the one hand, by General Charles Huntzinger and Ambassador Léon Noël, and on the other, by General Wilhelm Keitel), and on June 24, with Italy (by General Huntzinger, Marshal Pietro Badoglio and Minister Galeazzo Ciano).

On June 23, the appointment of Charles de Gaulle to the rank of general on a temporary basis was canceled for having left France without authorization and for having carried out a political act on London radio. Demoted to the rank of colonel, de Gaulle, was automatically retired by a decree signed by the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun. But on June 28, 1940, Churchill’s British government recognized de Gaulle as “leader of the Free French.”

For de Gaulle, the armistice was dishonorable and unacceptable. Once the army was demobilized, the fleet, the planes, the tanks, all the weapons had to be delivered intact to the Nazi adversary, who would be able to use them against the allies of France. The homeland and its government would be reduced to servitude. This was cowardice. This was forfeiture. This was a crime. Creating the French National Committee, a government body in exile, Charles de Gaulle did not hesitate to challenge the legality and legitimacy of the government of Pétain, formed at the request of the President of the Republic and confirmed on July 10 by the vote of the two chambers (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) gathered in Vichy.

De Gaulle, who had enjoyed an estimable military career until then, was to prove himself, as head of Free France an outstanding politician, to be the most gifted of all French politicians of the 20th century. “In times of revolutions,” writes Talleyrand, “one finds skill only in boldness, and greatness only in exaggeration.” His path was to be strewn with pitfalls and obstacles, for there are always more thistles and thorns than flowers.

But de Gaulle did win most of the political battles he waged. On July 3, 1940, without informing him, the British navy captured, in quick succession, the French fleet at harbor in Alexandria; then the marines of his Gracious Majesty seized French ships which had taken refuge in the English ports; and the English fleet, at the orders of Admiral James Somerville, sank unarmed French ships harbored at Mers el-Kébir (1300 French sailors were killed).

On August 2, de Gaulle was stripped of his rank and sentenced to death in absentia, by court martial, under General Aubert Frère (the future head of Organisation de résistance de l’armée, who died in deportation to Germany). September 23 saw the failure of the Franco-British landing operation in Dakar, which was repulsed by the troops of the Vichy government, under the command of Pierre-François Boisson, Governor of French West Africa (AOF).

A year later, in June 1941, when the Anglo-Gaullist forces entered Syria and Lebanon, they encountered the army of the Vichy government. An armistice was concluded, but only between the English and Vichy, which led to a serious crisis between Churchill and de Gaulle, the leader of Free France, when the latter was confronted with a fait accompli.

In July 1940, in the early days of Free France, the supporters of de Gaulle were only a handful of men. The 50,000 French people present in England were mostly repatriated. Only 1,200, mostly young nationalists or patriots on the far right, chose to stay with him. Ever careful, the General sadly admitted years later: “Out of 39 million inhabitants, this was very little.”

But three years later, in the summer of 1943, there were between 50,000 and 70,000 (including 32,000 AOF colonials, who were not French citizens). After the American landing in North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent joining of the Vichy African Army (generals Jean De Lattre, Alphonse Juin, Henri Giraud), the headcount increased to more than 300,000 men.

De Gaulle’s authority was finally admitted, but not without numerous open conflicts and severe friction. In London, the first form of antigaullist opposition came, on the one hand, from intellectuals and journalists from the review, France-Libre, founded by André Labarthe and Raymond Aron; and, on the other hand, from certain hosts of Radio-London (Robert Mengin). These Free French, who had the ear of the American State Department, did not stop criticizing the “Bonapartism” of the General, even “the fascist tendencies” of “the apprentice dictator,” “the child of the Action Française,” and “la Cagoule.”

For their part, the Vichyssois of North Africa, who found also themselves in the fight against Germany, after putting up a limp resistance to the American landing (November 8, 1942), and blundering with the help of the German invasion of the Free Zone (November 11, 1942), were not very convinced either. Algiers was once a veritable nest of vipers. General Maxime Weygand, a supporter of the “National Revolution” and loyal to the Marshal, embodied an attempt at “Pétainist resistance.” He tried to strengthen the French Armistice Army, more particularly that of Africa, but arrested by the Gestapo, he was placed with Daladier, Reynaud and Gamelin under house arrest in the Austrian Tyrol (Itter Castle). Admiral François Darlan, ex-successor to Pétain, went to Algiers and joined the Americans in November 1942, after much hesitation and about-turns.

After the invasion of the Free Zone, the scuttling of the French fleet in the harbor of Toulon was ordered, on November 27, 1942, by the admiralty of Vichy in agreement with the instructions of 1940 (which had been ordered by Darlan himself, justified as a foreign power trying to seize French assets). A month later, Darlan was arrested and murdered in Algiers, on the orders of the royalist resistance fighter, fiercely anti-Vichyist, Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie.

General Giraud, who had escaped from Germany with the help of members of the 2nd Vichy office, came to embody the resistance of the traditional right. One time seen by the Americans and the English as a counter to de Gaulle, Giraud was definitively excluded from the French Committee of National Liberation (CFLN) in April 1944.

Two other generals, both ex-Vichysts, Juin and De Lattre, may serve as examples, one at the head of the French expeditionary force in Italy; the other, during the landing in Provence and during the Rhine and Danube campaigns. In fact, one of the few officers rallying from the very beginning to de Gaulle was Captain Philippe Leclerc, a former sympathizer of Action Française who became general in August 1944. His division (2nd Armored Division), landed in Normandy on August 1, 1944, a month after the Allies, and participated actively, with the Americans, in the liberation of Paris and Strasbourg.

De Gaulle’s authority over Free France had been debated among the Allies for a long time as well. The double game of the English and the Americans was almost permanent throughout the war. Roosevelt never stopped riling Marshal Pétain, not ruling out the idea of relying on him to rebuild France when liberation came. He won some time, hoping to find a more docile French representative, less irreducible than de Gaulle. There were the Vichysts, who rallied after 1942 to the Allies, such as, Generals Weygand and De Lattre, then Admiral Darlan, then General Giraud.

The Americans planned to administer France liberated by the armies, and they did not give up on this idea. In this regard, de Gaulle confided to his son: “Roosevelt only cares about occupying France as he will occupy Nazi Germany. He wants to transform our country into a condominium [a territory over which several sovereign states would exercise joint sovereignty, NDLA], and Churchill is not far from advocating the same thing.” In fact, Churchill seemed to agree with him when he said: “Whenever we have to choose between Europe and the open sea, we will always choose the open sea.”

During the landing in North Africa on November 1942, de Gaulle was kept away by the Americans. In May 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill demanded de Gaulle cooperate with General Giraud. In June, Vice-Admiral Émile Muselier, a free Frenchman from the outset, joined General Giraud’s camp.

The White House secretly conspired, until the very end, against de Gaulle. His only true ally, the only important American friend, seems to have been General Dwight Eisenhower. Ever the realist, de Gaulle noted: “Until the last day of the war, we should have fought on that front too. But it must be said that in a war of alliance, each ally is actually waging his own war and not that of others.” He added, without mincing words: “The English who died while liberating France, gave their lives for Great Britain and the king. The Americans who died in liberating France, died for the United States of America and for no one else. Just as all the French who died on the battlefield, including for the independence of the United States of America, died for France and the king who personified it.”

On June 6, 1944, on the eve of the Normandy landings, de Gaulle was still kept away by the Allies. On February 4, 1945, at the Yalta conference, France was absent. It was so also at the Potsdam conference in August 1945. But on May 8, 1945, in Berlin, during the German capitulation, de Gaulle, the French representative was a signatory and not just a witness, as in May 7 in Reims. De Lattre signed, along with the three Allied generals—A.W. Tedder for the British, G. Zhukov for the Soviets, and Carl Spaatz for the Americans. De Gaulle, who had always been aware of France’s weaknesses and the size of the armed forces mobilized during the Second World War, said to Georges Pompidou in 1950: “We just bluffed.” Be that as it may, in 1945, after eight months of tough negotiations, he managed to bring France’s voice into the United Nations. Thanks to him, France became one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Until 1943, the resistance fighters inside France were more or less unanimous far from unanimous supporters of General de Gaulle. In 1941, resistance, especially fueled by young patriotic and nationalist idealists, was relatively marginal. Then, after the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, a first group of Communists joined the fight. Up till then, the French Communists fraternized with the occupier, in the name of the “struggle against the capitalist bourgeoisie.”

The PCF political bureau even wrote a letter to the German Kommandantur in Paris, on June 25, 1940, asking for authorization to publish the newspaper L’Humanité, in the name of the German-Soviet Pact (August 23, 1939). This did not prevent the PCF from presenting itself at the Liberation as the first resistant party in France, tirelessly promoting the myth of the 75,000 Communists shot by the Germans; while, in actuality, historians count less than 4,000.

Communist propaganda also claimed that the Secretary General of the PCF, Maurice Thorez, was the “first of the communist resisters,” when he had actually deserted on October 3, 1939 and had spent the entire duration of the war in the USSR (Pardoned by de Gaulle, in the name of realpolitik, he became minister of State with three other PCF ministers in the second provisional government of the head of Free France, from November 1945 to January 1946, then, vice-president of the council in 1947).

In reality, it was only after the invasion of the Free Zone in November 1942, and especially after the great German defeats on the Eastern Front, in 1943, that we can really speak of an anti-German and anti-Pétainist resistance. Many historians agree on this point: Pétain’s capital fault was not leaving France in November 1942. “If he had left,” said de Gaulle, “he would have returned on his white horse, winning as in 1918.” Until the end of 1942, you could be both Petainist and belong to the Resistance.

The Pétain doctrine was above all a wait-and-see attitude, which ulcerated, as happened with the Gaullists of London and the internal Resistance, and as happened with the authentic fascists, anti-Vichyssois and ultras of the collaborationists of Paris. As a stubborn old man, Pétain imagined that he would be able to allow France to rebuild its forces apart from its neutrality. He waited until the deals were made among the various belligerents, hoping to be able to reappear one day. A striking example of a Pétainist passing on Resistance, while also being anti-Gaullist was the future Minister of the Fourth Republic, and President of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand. In the spring of 1943, sponsored by two members of Marshal Pétain’s cabinet, Mitterrand was decorated with the Order of the Francisque, the highest distinction of the Vichy regime. But in November, he approached the ORA (Organization of Resistance of the Army which was Giraudist) and went into hiding.

At the beginning of 1943, the various Resistance organizations brought together 40,000 people, a number which soon rose to 100,000 and then to 300,000 at the time of the Liberation. Of course, as de Gaulle would say, of these 300,000 resistance fighters, “many resisted without having carried arms.” In addition, half fled the STO (Compulsory Labor Service), while 700,000 men went to work in German factories, either forced or voluntarily (like the future Secretary General of the PCF, Georges Marchais).

Against all odds, de Gaulle resisted. His tenacity, his perseverance, was ultimately crowned with success. In the difficult process of unification of the Resistance, two stages were essential: The creation of the National Council of the Resistance, on May 27, 1943, by Jean Moulin, the delegate of De Gaulle, and the creation of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), on February 1, 1944, by his other delegate, Jacques Bingen. In Algiers, de Gaulle won over all of his competitors. On October 3, 1943, he became the only undisputed president of the French Committee for National Liberation (CFLN). A year later, on June 14, 1944, in Bayeux, he had the immense pleasure of delivering a first speech on the soil of liberated France. On August 26, de Gaulle triumphantly walked the Champs-Elysées.

On November 13, 1945, he was unanimously elected President of the provisional government by members of the Constituent Assembly. The General presided over two governments, from June 1944 to January 1946. Being a supporter of a regime with a strong executive, he soon ran up against socialists, communists and Christian Democrats who wanted nothing from the world. The old ruling caste of the Third Republic, once believed to be definitively discredited by defeat and occupation, resurfaced and once again took over the great levers of power of the state. De Gaulle, who denounced the exclusive party regime, was forced to resign on January 20, 1946.

The original version of this article appeared in Le Cercle Aristote. Translated by N. Dass.

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The image shows a portrait of Charles de Gaulle.

Count Friedrich von Schulenburg

In September 1939, Count Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg, a 63-year-old German diplomat serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union, couldn’t have been happier. Germany and the USSR had just signed a non-aggression treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Schulenburg strongly believed that peace with Russia was crucial for Germany’s well-being.

“This is a diplomatic miracle… I hope that no circumstances will ruin the situation, which is just fine now. At least, we [the diplomats] fulfilled our task… I hope something good will come out of this!” he wrote emotionally to a friend after the pact was signed.

Unfortunately, nothing good was to come out of it in the end. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany would violate the treaty, attacking the USSR with all its might, and all of Schulenburg’s efforts to prevent such an outcome were in vain. But why did such a man serve under Hitler in the first place

Schulenburg would likely have agreed with something Joseph Stalin’s said during World War II: “’Hitlers,’ they come and they go and the German nation will remain.” Schulenburg’s diplomatic service began in 1901, long before the Nazis came to power. A descendant of an old noble family, he worked as a diplomat his entire adult life with just one break to fight in World War I, for which he received an Iron Cross for bravery. Governments changed, but Schulenburg worked professionally with all of them.

He served as ambassador to Iran from 1922-1931 and then to Romania from 1931-1934, but the real challenge for him came when he was appointed to Moscow in 1934. While Schulenburg was no Russophile, he did share Otto von Bismark’s belief that in order to preserve its strength and abundance Germany must stay at peace with Russia.

“He attached a lot of importance to German-Soviet and German-Russian ties… For him, there was no alternative to the fruitful co-existence of those two great countries at peace,” Rüdiger von Fritsch, the German ambassador to Moscow, wrote in an article for Novaya Gazeta in 2014. However, since the Nazis were in charge of German foreign policy from 1933, maintaining good relations between Moscow and Berlin proved extremely difficult.

“No one else could represent Germany in the USSR in those hard times so sophisticatedly, with such caution and dignity, as Schulenburg,” noted Gustav Hilger, a German diplomat who worked in the Soviet embassy during the 1930s. Schulenburg did his best to reduce tension between the two countries in 1938-1939, as they were teetering on the brink of war.

In 1938, he reached an agreement with Maxim Litvinov (the Soviet foreign minister from 1930 – 1939) that the two countries would refrain from lambasting one other in the press. He also helped to prolong the trade treaty of 1938. But, as with any diplomat, Schulenburg couldn’t go beyond fulfilling orders from his government, and this is why he was so supportive of Germany and the USSR signing a non-aggression pact.

The thaw between the USSR and Nazi Germany was to be short-lived. In 1941, as new tensions emerged when Moscow rhetorically supported Yugoslavia following its invasion by Germany, new rumors of war filled the air. Schulenburg tried to address Hitler directly, writing him a note on how dangerous a Soviet-German war would be.

Hilger wrote the following in his memoirs: “On April 28, 1941, while on a work trip to Berlin, Schulenburg met Hitler in person. The ambassador saw his note lying on Hitler’s table, but he couldn’t tell if Hitler had read it. However, while saying goodbye, Hitler, pointed, unrelatedly to the previous conversation: ‘One more thing, Schulenburg. I am not going to go to war with Russia!’”

He lied. Schulenburg, though a de jure member of the Nazi Party, wasn’t a true Nazi and so Hitler didn’t trust him. As Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister and Hitler’s close associate, would later write in his diary: “Our ambassador to Moscow had no idea Germany was going to attack… He insisted that the best policy would be making a friend and an ally out of Stalin… There is no doubt that not informing diplomats about our real intentions is the best policy possible.”

On June 22, 1941, Schulenburg came to the Kremlin to inform Vyacheslav Molotov, Litvinov’s successor as foreign minister, that war had begun – by this time, German troops had already stepped on Soviet soil without any declaration of war. The ambassador himself had just received the order from Berlin and felt absolutely crushed. While talking to Molotov, he “raised his hands towards the sky with an expression of powerlessness on his face,” Hilger remembered.

Schulenburg had to leave Moscow once the war broke out. He served in the foreign ministry in Berlin from 1941-1944, leading the Russia Committee, a formal post without any political influence. Not surprisingly, he was dissatisfied with Hitler and his policies.

This dissatisfaction led the old diplomat to join the ranks of the German anti-Nazi resistance. In 1944, by which time it was clear Germany was losing the war, several high-ranking officers and officials hatched a plot to assassinate Hitler. Schulenburg’s participation in the plot was minor, but he could have played an important role had it succeeded – several sources named him as possible foreign minister. The assassination attempt was not successful, however, and Schulenburg, like many other conspirators, was executed.

Although Schulenburg’s career was abruptly terminated, his wisdom and principles were praised in post-Nazi Germany. As Ambassador Fritsch writes, “If you visit Germany’s embassy in Moscow, you will meet Ambassador Schulenburg: His monument stands in the chancellery and his portrait hangs in the ambassador’s residence, next to the portrait of his great predecessor Otto von Bismark… Schulenburg’s personality and his principles serve witness: He deserves such a memory.”

Oleg Yegorov, writes for Russia Beyond.

The Battle Of Berlin

The Battle of Berlin was the final large-scale military operation to take place in Europe during World War II. The British and American allies did not participate in this offensive, leaving the Soviet army to conquer the city alone.

The Battle of Berlin was one of the largest battles in human history. It began on April 16 in the outskirts of the city. By April 25, Soviet troops had entered the Third Reich’s capital. About 3.5 million soldiers from both sides participated in the fight with more than 50,000 weapons and 10,000 tanks.

Soviet troops stormed Berlin while the rest of the Allied army remained more than 100 kilometers outside the German capital. In 1943, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the U.S. must obtain Berlin.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the Nazi capital must not fall into Soviet hands. However, in the spring of 1945, these Allied forces did not make any effort to take possession of the city. British historian John Fuller called it “one of the strangest decisions ever made in military history.”

However, this decision had its motives. In an interview with RBTH, Russian historian Andrei Soyustov said that there were at least two reasons for this decision.

First, according to preliminary agreements, including the accords made in Yalta, Berlin was located in the zone of Soviet military operations. The demarcation line between the USSR and the other Allied forces went along the Elbe River. “Rushing into Berlin for the sake of status, could have, at minimum, backfired and may have resulted in a USSR decision not to fight against Japan,” explains the historian.

The second reason for not storming the giant urban center was that the Allies had been fraught with casualties as the end of the war approached. In the period between the Normandy landing and April 1945 the Allies “were able to avoid storming large cities,” Soyustov notes.

Soviet casualties in the Battle of Berlin were indeed very high with 80,000 injured and at least 20,000 killed. The German side suffered just as many losses.

Berlin was captured by Soviet troops on three fronts. The most difficult task fell to the soldiers from the First Belarus Front, commanded by Georgy Zhukov, who had to charge the well-fortified German position in Seelow Heights on the outskirts of the city.

The attack began during the night of April 16 with an unprecedentedly powerful and coordinated artillery barrage. Then, without waiting for morning, tanks entered the battle supported by the infantry.

The offensive was conducted with the help of floodlights, which were set up behind the advancing troops. Even with the use of this clever this tactic, several days were needed to seize Seelow Heights.

Initially, almost one million German servicemen were concentrated around Berlin. However, they were met by a Soviet force that was 2.5 times greater. At the very beginning of the Berlin operation, Soviet troops succeeded in cutting off the majority of the German units from the city.

Due to this, the Soviet Army encountered only a few hundred thousand German soldiers in Berlin itself, including the Volkssturm (the militia) and the Hitler Youth. There were also many SS units from different European countries.

Hitler’s troops worked desperately to defend themselves with two lines of defense organized in Berlin. Many homes were equipped with bunkers and these houses, with their thick walls, became impregnable strongholds.

Of particular danger for the advancing Soviet troops were the anti-tank weapons, bazookas and hand grenades since Soviet forces were heavily reliant on the use of armored vehicles during the attack. In this environment of urban warfare, many tanks were destroyed.

Following the war, commanders of the Soviet operation were often criticized for relying so heavily on the use of armored vehicles.

However, as emphasized by Soyustov, in such conditions the use of tanks was justified: “Thanks to the heavy use of armored vehicles, the Soviet army was able to create a very mobile unit of support for the advancing troops, which helped them break through the barricades into the city center.”

The tactics used in the Battle of Berlin built on experience from the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet troops established special assault units, in which tanks played a critical role.

Typically, maneuvers were carried out in the following manner: The infantry moved along both sides of the street, checking the windows on both sides, to identify obstacles that were dangerous for the vehicles, such as camouflaged weapons, barricades and tanks embedded in the ground.

If the troops noticed such impediments up ahead, the Soviet infantry would wait for the arrival of their self-propelled tanks and self-propelled howitzers, known as “Stalin’s sledgehammer.”

Once this support arrived, the armored vehicles would work to destroy German fortifications at point-blank range. However, there were situations where the infantry could not keep up with the armored vehicles and consequently, the tanks were isolated from their cover and became easy prey for the German anti-tank weapons and artillery.

The culmination of the offensive on Berlin was the battle for the Reichstag, the German parliament building. At the time, it was the highest building in the city center and its capture had symbolic significance.

The first attempt to seize the Reichstag on April 27 failed and the fight continued for four more days. The turning point occurred on April 29 as Soviet troops took possession of the fortified Interior Ministry building, which occupied an entire block. The Soviets finally captured the Reichstag on the evening of April 30.

Early in the morning of May 1, the flag of the 150th Rifle division was raised over the building. This was later referred to as the Banner of Victory.

On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Until the last moment, Hitler had been hoping that troops from other parts of Germany would come to his aid in Berlin, but this did not happen. The Berlin troops surrendered on May 2.

Calculating the losses involved in the Battle of Berlin at the end of such a bloody war, some historians doubt whether the Soviet attack of the city was necessary.

In the opinion of historian and writer Yuri Zhukov, after the Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe river, surrounding the German units in Berlin, it was possible to do without the offensive on the Nazi capital.

“Georgy Zhukov… could have just tightened the blockade circle on an hourly basis… But for an entire week, he mercilessly sacrificed thousands of Soviet soldiers… He obtained the surrender of the Berlin garrison on May 2. But if this capitulation had occurred not on May 2 but, let’s say, on the 6th or the 7th, tens of thousands of our soldiers would have been saved,” Zhukov continues.

However, there are other opinions that contradict this view. Some researchers say that if the Soviet troops had just besieged the city, they would have lost the strategic initiative to the Germans.

Nazi attempts to break the blockade from the inside and outside would have resulted in just as many losses for the Soviet Army as the attack, claims Soyustov. It is also not clear how long such a blockade would have lasted.

Soyustov also says that delaying the Berlin operation could have resulted in political problems between the Allied forces.

It is no secret that towards the end of the war the Third Reich’s representatives tried to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Americans and British forces. “In these circumstances, no one would have been able to predict how a blockade of Berlin would have developed,” Soyustov is convinced.

Alexey Timofeychev writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Storming of the Reichstag by the Red Army, 1945,” part of a diorama in the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst.

How Many Russians Died In WWII?

It is clear that during the most horrendous war in the history of mankind, the USSR suffered greater losses than any other country – but the exact number of victims remains disputed.

In 1946, reacting to Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech that marked the start of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin mentioned the Great Patriotic War (how Russians refer to the war with Nazi Germany) and stated that “as a result of the German invasion, the Soviet Union irrevocably lost… around 7 million people.” That was the first ever official Soviet stance on war casualties. And it was fake news.

“In fact, Stalin had knowledge of the other statistical data: 15 million casualties. This number was contained in a report delivered to him in early 1946, by the commission led by The State Planning Committee’s president Nikolai Voznesensky,” Professor Viktor Zemskov of the Institute of Russian History notes. Zemskov supposes that Stalin was eager to hide the real scale of losses from both the Soviet citizens and the world – in order not to show the USSR as a state weakened by the war.

Nevertheless, the official 7-million estimate of casualties didn’t last long, as most Soviet people believed that number to be too low. In 1965, Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin as USSR’s leader, mentioned a higher number: 20 million. Essentially, this is the number that became the official evaluation for the rest of the Soviet era – Leonid Brezhnev adhered to it too, but added “more than” to the 20 million casualties.

Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev used the phrase “the war cost the country…” to lump everyone together, not separating those who died in the battlefield, victims of German occupation, those who starved to death, etc.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the estimate grew again. According to the latest statements that Russian authorities officially acknowledge, overall losses (both among soldiers and civilians) amounted to 26,6 million people. That’s the official evaluation of the losses today (in 2019) – at least, it’s the number Russian state officials mention on Victory day, commemorations and so on.

While dealing with those numbers, they didn’t take the whole World War II into account, but rather only the war between the USSR and Nazi Germany between 1941-1945, excluding the Soviet operations between 1939-1941 (the invasion of Poland and the Winter War with Finland) and the Soviet-Japanese war of 1945. 

Another important nuance is that the official estimate, given by the Ministry of Defence in 2015, separates the number of losses (26,6 million people) into the two following categories:

– Around 12 million soldiers were killed in the battlefield, captured (not having returned) or gone missing.

– The rest (approximately 14,6 million people) were civilians who died in the occupation zones, were forcefully moved to Germany (and did not come back) or lost their lives to starvation, illnesses and so on. 

The 26,6 million estimate of losses clearly is official (as of now), but far from being the only one. Though the Great Patriotic War ended almost 75 years ago, the war of numbers still goes on, with different historians proposing different ways to measure the number of losses. 

On the one hand, from time to time occurring versions suggest even bigger losses than the official estimate. For instance, in 2017, Nikolai Zemtsov, Deputy of the Russian State Duma, stated that “the USSR irrevocably lost almost 42 million people due to [the Great Patriotic] war factors.” That version, however, is very doubtful – Zemtsov included in that enormous number not only people who actually died, but children who were not born due to the war – which is incorrect, as professional demographers state. 

On the other hand, there are opinions that suggest 26,6 million is already an overestimation. In his 2015 article, Viktor Zemskov suggested that the estimation of war casualties (11,5 – 12 million) is correct, but the number of civilian losses due to war factors includes too many people: “Such statistics include the increased mortality in the Soviet home front because of malnutrition, overburdening work and so on… I disagree with such an approach.” 

According to Zemskov, it is too hard to distinguish between deaths caused by war and natural reasons in this case – so to be more precise, historians should have only included in the number of civilian deaths caused by war, i.e. those killed directly by Germans, by bombardments, those who died during the Siege of Leningrad – that amounts to 4,5 million victims. Combined with actual war casualties, that gives us 16 million people. Nevertheless, official statistics embrace a larger number of people.

While the argument on the evaluation methods can go on forever, one thing is undeniable: during the Great Patriotic War, the USSR lost a great number of people – strong and passionate men and women in their prime – but it saved the world from German Nazism. The price of victory was terrible, but the price of defeat would have been unthinkable.

Oleg Yegerov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “A Nameless Height,” by Alexey and Sergei Tkachev, painted latter part of the twentieth-century.