In Stalin’s USSR, there was a consonance between the interests of the government and the majority of the population. And it was this consonance that was the key to victory. Whereas France, in the absence of this consonance, was doomed to defeat in advance
Interview with Annie Lacroix-Riz, doctor of history, professor emeritus at the Paris Diderot University, and author of numerous books and articles about Western elites in the context of the political and military confrontations of the 20th century
Corr.: You are the author of the book The Choice of Defeat, in which you analyze the actions of French elites before World War II. According to your research, the interests and treachery of these elites played a decisive role in France’s defeat by Germany in 1940. In the context of today’s hostilities in Ukraine and the confrontation between Russia and NATO, I’d like to revisit this topic and ask you: What lessons can we draw from France’s experience in 1940?
Annie Lacroix-Riz: To understand the situation in France on the eve of World War II, you have to look at the whole period after 1918. With France, the case is generally quite simple. Economic interests have been more decisive than ideology, although the focus is usually laid on ideology. And this does not allow for a complete understanding of what was going on between the two wars.
In my papers, which are, of course, based on archival material, I have proceeded from the idea that it is impossible to understand how a country that has withstood an extremely hard World War I, which lasted four and a half years (even though the high command had not been very combative in 1914), could have fallen so suddenly – seemingly in less than six weeks, from May 10 to about mid-June 1940, actually in less than five days, as Paul Reynaud abruptly told William Bullitt, the American ambassador, in the morning of May 15 (FRUS, quoted in De Munich à Vichy).
The postwar archives were made public in the very early 1970s. Just imagine they were made public earlier than the wartime and pre-war archives. The wartime archives were made public and very cautiously, only in the 1980s. And access to the pre-war documents was not granted officially until 1999 (i.e., until the 60-year period had elapsed). Pierre Cézard [French archivist and historian], who was, so to say, the pontiff of the archives, told me in 1976 that materials before 1939 could in no way be made public because one should “understand, there are people who [still] occupy high positions.”
The few historians who have tried to delve into the objective processes that went on in France in the pre-war period and the period of occupation – such as Robert O. Paxton, whose book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, published in 1972, was based exclusively on German archives confiscated and transported to the United States by the Americans – inevitably came to the conclusion that the French collaboration with the Germans was indeed a collaboration and not at all a “cover-up,” as we often hear today.
While studying the materials of World War II, I came across folders that clearly showed France’s defeat was utterly natural. As a specialist in the history of foreign affairs, I deal with documents of high importance, with the actions of high-ranking individuals, political leaders, bankers, etc. And it was clear that all these people felt perfectly well in the face of defeat. For example, one can see that in many fields, all the contracts concluded before the occupation between the pillars of the French economy and the Germans were extended or renewed. Everything continued as before, except that what had been less openly done in the previous period became practically open.
There is an excellent book by Marc Bloch entitled Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. Marc Bloch, a major mediaevalist, wrote this book while in military service, to which he returned of his own accord to defend his fatherland when he was already over 50. The book describes the defeat of the French army in the spring of 1940 through the eyes of an eyewitness. And the author convincingly shows that there were signs of outright treason.
For example, there is an episode in which General Blanchard, who was publicly affecting a worried look, one evening, talking to someone behind the door, quietly says, “I clearly see a double surrender” [of France and the Allies – editor’s note]. And this was in May when nothing had been finally predetermined, and France still had plenty of opportunities to wage war!
Bloch describes the incredible disorder of the troops. His testimony is significant because my colleagues highly respect him. But they hardly read his works of 1940-1944 (in 1944, he was executed by the Gestapo) because Strange Defeat and several other articles from those years is a frightening testimony.
In my studies, I drew much from his article on General Chauvineau’s book with a preface by Pétain, published in the spring of 1944 in the underground journal Les Cahiers politiques. In this article, Bloch shows that the preface that Pétain had written in 1938 for a book by a retired general who had earlier taught at the École de Guerre [military academy – translator’s note] was unequivocal evidence of Pétain’s betrayal even before the war. Moreover, in his analysis, Bloch identifies five factors that determined the fall of France.
He believes the army leadership is responsible for the defeat first and foremost. Because, after all, the task of the army leadership is to protect the country’s borders. It did not fulfill this task because it did not really fight, it refused to fight, etc. It sabotaged all the efforts of those who wanted to fight.
Then, he names other persons responsible for the defeat: politicians “like Laval,” journalists, industrialists, and the French pro-fascist leagues.
What does he mean by industrialists? In 1944, everyone was well aware of this. Today, ask a Frenchman about this; he will have no idea. Bloch speaks of the industrialists of Le Creusot. It is Schneider, the significant arms manufacturer in France. In 1918, Schneider was handed a young and new Czechoslovakia on a platter. It was he who actually established its borders and decided that the Teschen Basin, which had been Upper Silesia for so long, would be a part of the new Czechoslovakia. The territory was disputed between the Poles and the Czechs, but the Polish miners were on too many strikes at the time. So it was more profitable to leave it to Czechoslovakia and combine coal with metal.
Schneider was the king of Czechoslovakia, which was considered our great ally. Such alliance with the eastern countries newly formed after World War I – Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, restored Poland – was like a small Entente, a repetition of the traditional French “alliance de reverse” strategy – creating a barrier against the Germanic world. This alliance would allow forcing the German side to fight on two fronts in case of an attack. In 1870, when France had no such alliance, it was defeated. In 1914 there was such an alliance, and France won the war. At that time, Russia fought on the eastern side of the barrier.
In the 1920s, the French were repeatedly told that such an alliance would allow France to withstand Germany’s attack. But after the October Revolution, an alliance with the “damned” Bolsheviks was out of the question. Therefore, a new configuration was created. In fact, the most important and very real meaning of the alliance between the Eastern European countries was their anti-Soviet orientation. The Romanians promised to help the Poles, the Poles – the Romanians, etc. But against the USSR, not against the Germans. So, in fact, for the real defense of France, they were of no use. And everyone understood that at the time. The archives give compelling evidence of this. But Czechoslovakia was something entirely different. It was a real ally and a real military and industrial force.
And what happened next? This little alliance, which did not work, but in which Czechoslovakia played a key role, over the years became at odds with Schneider’s interests. All the Czech leaders of that time were significantly dependent on Schneider. It was the French who put them in charge of capitalist companies. Czechoslovakia, and indeed all the countries of Eastern Europe, had a strictly colonial status, which is quite similar to the status quo today, say, since 1989. That is, the whole mechanism of their existence was based on a vassal alliance between the domestic ruling class and the foreign ruling classes. Skoda was in the hands of Schneider, the second-largest arms manufacturer in central Europe after Krupp.
However, in the economic crisis of the early 1930s, Czechoslovakia, with its Skoda, began to compete in foreign markets with Schneider himself, i.e., with his French production. Skoda became a burden for him. And one always seeks to get rid of such a burden. From a purely military-political point of view, imperialist France of the 1920s was anti-German, but practically it behaved differently. In fact, ties between French and German financial, industrial, and banking circles had survived World War I and continued afterward. We know little about this longstanding collaboration, but it was real and of the same kind as the World War II collaboration. Except that a smaller part of France was occupied. So, for example, François de Wendel arranged with the Germans so that they could exploit the Meurthe-et-Moselle mines during World War I. Wasn’t that a collaboration?
France, which had won the war, quickly came to terms with the fact that its victory did not seem to interfere in any way with restoring all business ties with Germany, which had been a longstanding partner. Although the restoration of these ties was utterly at odds with the tasks of defending the new frontier territories that had passed to France and the tasks for which the alliance, which I have called the Little Entente, existed.
So, officially there was a military alliance. But if you work in the archives shortly and take a closer look at the military alliance, you will discover the economic background. You will see that the army leaders actually acted, as is often the case, as representatives of the commercial interests of major arms manufacturers. This was the case in the 19th and 20th centuries as well. Speaking of the responsibility of Le Creusot’s industrialists, Marc Bloch was referring to those who betrayed Czechoslovakia. Schneider wanted to get rid of Skoda. He was no longer interested in Czechoslovakia. But Germany found it extremely interesting. And that’s how it all worked out. The Munich Agreement [also known as Munich Betrayal] was concluded, under which the industrial Sudetenland territory of the Czech Republic was given to Nazi Germany. But in France, this aspect was completely “overlooked.”
Between the first phase, the occupation of the Sudetenland, which began on the night of September 30 to October 1, 1938, and the second phase, the complete occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Germany received 80 divisions – 40 after the first phase and 40 after the second phase. At the same time, France was deprived of its most critical defensive capabilities. In the archives, I found a stunning set of documents dated September 15, 1938, which I quoted extensively in my book The Choice of Defeat. Let me recall that the Munich Agreement was signed on September 30, 1938. These documents explicitly speak that France significantly decreased its defense capability with the surrender of Czechoslovakia. That is, as early as mid-September 1938, official documents foresee the defeat and dismemberment of France. This left one possibility that had never been implemented: the Franco-British-Soviet alliance. Without it, France’s fate was sealed in advance. So, of course, the military leadership has a huge responsibility, but it was not the complete master of the situation. It was financial capital and the management of the big companies.
What is the conclusion to be drawn from all this? The conclusion is that the class interests of the French leaders, representatives of the five forces in power listed by Bloch, forced them to prefer economic and political relations with Germany to the need to preserve state sovereignty and territory. This means that economic and political interests prevailed over purely military factors.
And the question in this case, from the point of view of interactions between different classes, should be posed as follows: Are the interests of the ruling classes convergent with the interests of the non-ruling classes? Or do they diverge?
I am not referring here to any ideology but to elementary social and economic interests. Either the state serves certain narrow groups, or it expresses the interests of the majority – the absolute majority of the population, even in case of certain internal conflicts or contradictions. In the first case, the leaders are deceiving and playing their own games, in the second case, they can address the population with something that generally corresponds to the thoughts and interests of the population: they will attack us, we will fight, we have one common goal.
Corr.: What can you say about the USSR in this regard?
Annie Lacroix-Riz: That’s exactly what happened in the USSR. For the USSR, my primary source of information is the Western archives. And here, I can draw a great example. I find it most convincing when an opponent himself serves as a source of the truth.
From 1937 to 1940, Auguste Palasse was the French military attaché in Moscow. After he arrived in the USSR – it was just after the military tribunal over Tukhachevsky – he began to explain in his reports that the USSR had restored army leadership. This contradicted the common view in the West that Stalin wanted to eliminate poor Tukhachevsky, who had cast a shadow over him, and at the same time, decided to liquidate his army. But I always thought this could not be so: it is absurd to believe that Stalin just began to destroy the army’s leadership. He was constantly thinking about the impending war. He was obsessed with this thought, and he was right. Not only in the 1930s but even in the 1920s, a new war against the USSR was already looming. And Stalin understood this better than anyone else.
Already in 1937, Palasse began to write that the USSR was equipping the army, arming the population and that the leadership and the people trusted each other. In 1938, Palasse declared that whoever set foot in the Soviet Union would be defeated and that the USSR would not attack, but if it were attacked, the attacker would be defeated. It took courage at the time to make such statements. An attaché who submitted such reports to the Minister of War was risking his career. Because the French elite, in particular the military elite, vehemently opposed the Soviets. And he was trying to make people think that an alliance with the Soviet Union would be profitable! Palasse was not recalled (I am even surprised). But they did not listen to him either. And everything happened just as he predicted.
In short, in Stalin’s USSR, there was a socioeconomic consonance between the government and the majority of the population. Therefore, government discourse was naturally honest at its core. And it was this consonance that was the key to victory. Whereas France, in the absence of this consonance, was doomed in advance to defeat
Corr.: What can you say about the history of the West’s purely economic interest in Russia as a raw materials appendage?
Annie Lacroix-Riz: Since the 1890s, Russia had been like an Ali-Baba’s cave for imperialist countries. Since the reforms of Witte in 1892, Russia had been a kind of treasury, which had everything: coal, metals, any raw materials, all the best and the most necessary. Since 1892, this treasury had been considered to belong to international imperialism. And in international imperialism, the masters are the biggest, most powerful, and greediest. Take a look at the American archives. Of course, not everything has been published, but there is enough publicly available on the Internet today. They show that from the 1890s to 1914, the French, the British, the Germans, the Americans, and the Japanese predatory divided Russia’s wealth among themselves. And others, smaller ones too – Switzerland, Belgium… We find them in 1918 among the fourteen countries which had intervened [Russia] after the October Revolution.
Russia was a weak imperialist country before the revolution, and it remained a weak country after it. Who will get the spoils? This is an image of Russia through the eyes of the West. And despite the stunning victory over fascism, Russia came out of it weak in many ways, if only because it lost under thirty million people. After the phenomenal growth in the 1920s and 1930s, World War II was still a colossal blow for the Soviet Union.
Corr.: So after the USSR’s victory over fascism, the West continued to seek opportunities to establish control over the USSR’s resources? It was not only an ideological confrontation, was it?
Annie Lacroix-Riz: From the many books, articles, and archival materials that I have read, it became clear to me that after World War II and even before that, the US elites believed that they were now able to achieve the global goals that were already set in 1914, but that could not be fully achieved then. Just because, at that time, Europeans still had their empires and still were strong. World War I did not make it possible to destroy all the empires of the Old World, as the US wanted. It had to wait for the next war.
Imperialism, as represented by the USA, took shape on a monstrous scale, and it tirelessly repeated that there was nothing in the world that did not belong to it. The archival documents freely available on the Internet today (Foreign relations of the United States) clearly speak of that.
I’ll give you an example. In the discussions of 1942-1944 in the United States, very well analyzed by brilliant American historians like Martin J. Sherwin and Michael S. Sherry, the US military, like General Arnold, said that they owned the whole world, that they would have bases all over the world, no one can avoid them. These high-ranking military commanders are, in fact, commercial officers of US financial capital. That is, they retire at 50 to become a member of the boards of corporations. This is still the case today. In the 1940s, they already had predatory plans concerning the USSR. But the USSR managed to withstand. And the “terrible” Stalin was not so stupid in the sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
Eventually, the United States got rid of the other empires definitively between 1945 and, say, the 1960s. After that, only the USSR remained. Well, now the goal was obvious – to conquer this damn Russia, whether Soviet or non-Soviet and loot it.
Already from the moment, the prospect of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany became clear, say, from 1944, the US elites were plotting a war against Russia. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you to have a look at the Foreign relations archives. Of course, this was presented under the guise of the Communist threat, etc. By the way, one cannot understand today’s conflict in Ukraine without understanding this.
Unfortunately, there are very few good American books translated. Americans have a wealth of historical literature. Most of it is ideologically anti-Bolshevik. But when you are a real historian and a part of the intellectual apparatus of the dominant country, you can be quite loyal to your system and simultaneously allow yourself to say many things – things that historians in France would not even dare to think about.
And when you’re a decent historian, reading all this and working with the archives, you can’t help but see that the contemporary plot for the destruction of Russia took shape in the 1940s. This began, as I said, around 1944. In 1947-1948, the US intelligence services got their final shape. There was the transformation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) into the CIA through a short-lived interim structure existing in 1945-1946. The CIA became the backbone of the State Department and the Department of War. Between the spring and June of 1948, the program for destroying the USSR was clearly defined. But if it had been all about the “Communist threat,” then after 1991, Russia would have been left in peace. And this, as you can see, is not the case.
What the USSR demanded after the war – that is, Stalin and the apparatus around Stalin – is essentially very simple. It is a program of peace, defined at the beginning of the war: “you give us back our lost territories, including Sakhalin, because we need the borders of the empire. We are not angry, we do not need Finland that much. On March 12, 1940, we recognized the state borders we proposed in 1939. That is enough for us. We prefer Finland to be not Soviet, as after 1918. And we take back the rest [of the territories], it is ours”. That was, in principle, all. And, of course, there had to be a buffer zone: one put an end to everything that the West had built up in the form of fiercely anti-Soviet border states [before World War II – translator’s note], determined to attack it [the Soviet Union] with the support of the dominant imperialisms. The USSR would control their foreign policies. This will be the Soviet zone of influence: the same cordon sanitaire of 1919-1941, no more and no less.
But the program assigned to the CIA by Kennan and Wisner was the destruction of the USSR and the destruction, of course, of territories under Soviet influence. This was the intention from the beginning. To make it clear, I will quote what Armand Bérard, one of our best diplomats, said back in 1952. It is a fragment of a telegram addressed to French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. It is published in my book Aux origines du carcan européen (1900-1960) [The origins of the European harness (1900-1960)].
Keep in mind that Bérard was in principle quite a pro-US diplomat, and listen, this is February 18, 1952 – Bérard held a foreign service post in Germany, “Accepting the American theses, the staff of Chancellor [Adenauer] generally believed that when America was capable of amassing superior forces, the USSR would have to submit to an order in which it would leave the Central and Eastern European territories that is now under its control.” This was all finally decided by the Americans in May-June 1948: to destroy the Soviet state and deprive it of its zone of influence.
How were they going to accomplish this? Immediately after the war, a study was conducted in the UK, which lasted three months. The final report is simply an anthem of recognition of the Soviet state. It testified that the people in the Soviet Union really did support the regime very much, that the majority of the population called the Soviet state “our government.” But at the same time, there was a split in the population: there was a small, privileged group of disaffected intellectuals. This was the upper, very educated strata, who believed that having many diplomas and titles, they lived not much better than the miners. Or sometimes even worse, because salaries for certain working professions could be very high. So how did the Kennan-Wisner program propose to act? One had to target these top intellectuals, i.e., seduce them.
Corr.: And they succeeded. You have to admit that the Western elites of the time, the ones who seduced them [the Soviet intellectuals], were intellectually powerful. And how do things stand today, in your opinion, if we compare the elite of those days with the contemporary elite?
Annie Lacroix-Riz: The situation today in France, and in the West in general, is in many ways similar to past pre-war periods of 1914 or 1939. And yet it is in some respects unprecedented. It is a comprehensive crisis, which came after decades of systemic crisis. And in particular, the degree of intellectual decline, I would say, in all strata of society, including the highest one, is unprecedented.
Even the highest social strata today show absolutely no historical culture. And the general level of education is extremely low. I find it ironic that Ukrainian students who went to French schools as refugees were somewhat taken aback by what is required of them here in, say, mathematics.
The West has indeed lost its intellectual superiority. Previously, this superiority had an objective basis because there was a certain level, though only among intellectuals, at least in the form of existing cultural achievements and knowledge that could be flaunted. Today there is almost nothing left of this. We have not only approached the United States in terms of the uncultured masses, but we have also lost a level in the higher intellectual spheres. Take, for example, the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), the forge of the French elite. Its level of historical knowledge is strictly zero. This is history without archives, without scientific and critical thinking. There remains the US elite, but it is incomparable in quality to past periods. This can be called decay – the highest stage of decay of imperialism.
The conversation was led by Celestin Komov
This is a translation of the interview with Annie Lacroix-Riz, doctor of history, professor emeritus at the Paris Diderot University, first published in The Essence of Time newspaper, Issue 503, on October 14, 2022.