France 1940: The Pitfalls of Historiography

by MAJ Mark K. Snakenberg

After more than 10 years of combat, historians are slowly writing the history of American operations in the “Era of Persistent Conflict.” Such efforts are unquestionably valuable and necessary; however, these endeavors are also fraught with danger for both historians and readers alike. Although research benefits from historical proximity and ready access to personnel participating in operations, these sources are often prejudiced by the tricks memory sometimes plays on recollections months or years after an event.

After-action reviews are another source of excellent material, but unless conducted purely for internal record and improvement, they can be subject to misrepresentation for a variety of reasons. Further, without classified primary-source documents, including operational plans and orders, it is often difficult to contextualize actions or provide insight into the underlying factors driving them. In short, writing the history of contemporary events is a difficult proposition filled with potential pitfalls for historians.

The history of the German defeat of France in 1940 provides but one example of some of these challenges. Few subjects in military history have garnered more attention,1 and the work of early historians writing during and just after World War II continue to color our understanding of events today. The speed of the German victory shocked contemporaries, especially when compared against the four years of indecisive warfare conducted over much the same ground in 1914-18. Even before signing the armistice of Compiégne June 22, 1940, observers hailed – or bemoaned – the campaign as the apogee of blitzkrieg (lightning warfare).2 Until recently, historical analyses have tended to echo this interpretation of events.

This article traces the interpretation of the campaign from the first mature historical analyses conducted in the aftermath of World War II through the present. In examining the historiography, two primary schools of thought emerge: the adherents of blitzkrieg and revisionist historians who tend to discount the campaign as representing a complete break with the past. A third view – that of the German generals – is also discussed because it bridges the distance between the two primary schools.

This work begins with a summary of the campaign of 1940 to provide readers context before exploring the seminal texts from each school in weighing the merits and limitations of each approach. The essay concludes with some thoughts regarding the approaches considered and the challenge of interpreting history to support preconceived theses.

The campaign of 1940: a summary

The German defeat of France is encompassed within a larger campaign conducted by the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) against the allied forces of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France and the British Commonwealth in May-June 1940. The ultimate objective of this campaign was “total victory on the European mainland,”3 which implied the defeat of France and the British Expeditionary Forces. After a significant debate over, and subsequent shift in, operational design from a frontal attack into the Low Countries to a penetration from the Ardennes Forest toward the English Channel coast,4 the Wehrmacht initiated Fall Gelb (Case Yellow – codename for the attack toward the channel) May 10, 1940.

The initial stages of the campaign involved feints by Army Group B and airborne forces invading the Low Countries to deceive and fix Allied armies in these countries and in northeast France, while Army Group C invaded Alsace-Lorraine to fix French forces in the east. Army Group A conducted the main attack through the Ardennes Forest, spearheaded by Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps and Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer (Armor) Division, among others. Group A forced a crossing of the Meuse River and continued its exploitation to the northwest, orienting on the Pas de Calais. This maneuver created deep penetrations in the Allied front, isolating the Allies north of the German thrust from the French forces to its south and complicating Allied command and control.

After a failed Allied counterattack at Arras, Hitler suspended the armored attack toward the channel until supporting assets could be brought forward to cover its flanks. This allowed the Allied forces in the northeast to retire upon and eventually evacuate Dunkirk after a resumption of the German attack. Following the defeat of the Allies there, the Wehrmacht reoriented on French forces farther south and defeated them while simultaneously capturing Paris. The campaign ended with the armistice of Compiegne June 22, 1940.

Emergence of blitzkrieg

The term blitzkrieg emerged well before the campaign in the west. Matthew Cooper credits a Time Magazine article of Sept. 28, 1939, with the term,5 although the New York Times used it as early as Sept. 4 to describe German operations in Poland.6 Hitler credited the Italian press with the invention.7 Regardless of its origin, the term became synonymous with German operations involving deep penetrations conducted by armored formations supported by aircraft and paratroopers employing the latest communication technology. Eventually it became a catch-all for revolutionary German operations – a coherent doctrine that guided the Wehrmacht’s preparation for and execution of modern warfare.

Two figures above all were responsible for the expansion of this concept into the historiography of the campaign. Both J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell-Hart had a vested interest in this interpretation of German operations. An early practitioner and exponent of armored warfare, Fuller developed the notion of using armor to induce what he termed “strategic paralysis.” He saw in German operations – and particularly in Guderian—a complete validation of his theory. Guderian himself attributed elements of his thought regarding armored warfare to Fuller in his 1937 book Achtung-Panzer!, thereby lending further credence to Fuller’s argument.8

This interpretation found its way into his many and widely influential post-war works, including The Second World War (1948), A Military History of the Western World (1954) and The Conduct of War (1961), where he linked the term blitzkrieg with German operations, explained how its objective of psychological paralysis instead of physical destruction contrasted with the practices of World War I, and took credit for inspiring the revolutionary concept.9 Fuller used the campaign of 1940 and Guderian’s conduct in particular to advance his notion of strategic paralysis. He argued that instead of seeking battle, the Germans employed their forces “not to kill but to move; not to move to kill, but to move to terrify, to bewilder, to perplex, to cause consternation, doubt and confusion in the rear of the enemy. … Its aim was to paralyse [sic].”10 Fuller thus introduces a key element of historiographical blitzkrieg: the idea that German forces preferred movement to battle.

Liddell-Hart likewise employed the blitzkrieg concept toward his own ends. A disciple of Fuller, Liddell-Hart was wounded in World War I and came to blame the excessive bloodletting of that conflict on the dearth of imagination displayed by that era’s generals. In particular he blamed the generals’ ineptitude on a preoccupation with “the battle of annihilation” (vernichtungsschlacht) first advanced by German philosopher Karl von Clausewitz in 1832. As Liddell-Hart saw it, this notion favored direct approaches – accepting battle under any terms – with attrition as the endstate.

In 1929 he proposed as an alternative the idea of the “indirect approach” that sought to maximize surprise in operations by advancing on the line of least expectation and striking at enemy weaknesses instead of strengths.11 In more than a dozen widely read publications during and after the war, he interpreted successful German operations through the lens of the indirect approach. The early German blitzkrieg victories were exalted as models of his theory. The campaign of 1940 was particularly instructive. Here the Germans conducted an attack from an unexpected direction – the Ardennes – and against the weakest point along the Allied front. The unexpected attack caused psychological paralysis – Fuller’s thesis – allowing the Germans to capitalize on their mobility to split the Allied armies, causing one to withdraw at Dunkirk and neutralizing the other by maneuver until the armistice was reached. Compared with 1914-18, this war of movement was nearly bloodless, “fresh evidence of how mechanized mobility had revolutionized strategy.”12 Liddell-Hart’s role as the prophet of this kind of war – shunned at home but adopted abroad – was implicit.

Both Fuller’s and Liddell-Hart’s theories were widely read outside Great Britain before World War II. During and after the war, their theories seemingly validated by the use of armored warfare by all the major European protagonists, both men’s reputations soared. As a result, both retained significant currency in historical circles, and their ideas were seldom challenged.13 Thus, the identification of blitzkrieg with France 1940 was ingrained in a generation of readers’ minds and was reinforced in the public psyche by the media’s constant use of the term during the war’s early years. Their former enemies’ memoirs seemed only to reinforce this interpretation.

A nascent counter-interpretation: the German generals

Following World War II, senior officers on all sides of the European conflict began publishing their memoirs. Like all wartime leaders, the German generals approached publication with an agenda. Their army was the most recognizable tool of Nazi aggression to the peoples of Europe. Senior military leaders were imprisoned and even executed in the war’s aftermath. Generals such as Guderian and Manstein needed friends in the West to help promote their story, seeking ideally to prevent prosecution as war criminals – or to reduce the terms of sentencing, as occurred in Manstein’s case.

For their part, the proponents of the blitzkrieg interpretation – Liddell-Hart in particular – were eager to show how their theories impacted the operations of Germany’s best minds. This convergence of interests produced a symbiotic relationship whereby the practitioners allowed the historians to subtly associate them with the blitzkrieg interpretation of history. Three of the most influential accounts of the campaign of 1940 – Rommel’s wartime papers, Guderian’s Panzer Leader and Manstein’s Lost Victories – were heavily patronized by Liddell-Hart, whose influence, combined with each general’s individual reputation, assured wide dissemination among Western audiences. He authored the foreword for two of the texts and edited the deceased Rommel’s wartime papers for publication. Unsurprisingly, in his introductions, forewords and notes, he clearly links his concepts with each general’s actions and thereby furthers his claim of representing the intellectual genesis of blitzkrieg.

Interestingly however, the body of each memoir paints a much more ambiguous relationship between British prewar theory and German operations. Although advancing many of the same ideas as the blitzkrieg theorists, the authors differ as to the influence British pre-war thought had upon their approach to warfare in 1940. Even in Rommel’s heavily edited papers, Liddell-Hart is mentioned only once by name; and in that instance, Rommel simply refers to having read a paper of his during the war.14 The only other instance where Liddell-Hart is mentioned is in a footnote (ostensibly inserted by himself), attributed to GEN Fritz Bayerlein, which fantastically calls Rommel “Liddell-Hart’s pupil” and describes the Briton’s tremendous influence upon Rommel’s thought – an unlikely proposition given the scant mention of the man or his theories anywhere in the body of the text.15

Guderian’s memoir is similar: early on, he acknowledges Liddell-Hart’s role in helping develop his theory of armored warfare by writing, “[It was he] who emphasized the use of armored forces for long-range strokes, operations against the opposing army’s communications. … Deeply impressed by these ideas, I tried to develop them in a sense practicable for our own army. So I owe many suggestions of our further development to Liddell-Hart.”16 However, Liddell-Hart is mentioned only one other time in the text.

Manstein is even less charitable; he fleetingly mentions Liddell-Hart twice while referencing post-war encounters. Even more telling, he never used the term blitzkrieg in the body of any of the memoirs except to explain that the term was an invention of Germany’s enemies to describe their type of warfare.

If the British theorists were not the intellectual forbearers of the campaign of 1940 as they claimed to be, who was?

Manstein’s work offers a clue. As chief of staff of Army Group A during the planning phase, he often receives credit for creating the plan that ultimately became Fall Gelb and is therefore the best source of the three when investigating the Germans’ operational design. Although Manstein addresses the potential advantages of surprise – one aspect of Liddell-Hart’s indirect approach17 – his thought addresses much else. He constantly returns to the idea that the destruction of the French army must be accomplished to result in victory18 – an idea more Clausewitzian than indirect. Further, he is conscious of the threat the Ardennes penetration presents to his flanks – and he takes precautions to guard them.

The blitzkrieg theorists would argue this threat is inconsequential because of the psychological disruption the penetration causes in the enemy command-and-control apparatus. Equally surprising, Manstein continually returns to the thought of Helmut von Moltke – the ultimate practitioner of Clausewitzian warfare – in his treatment of the plan. In fact, between Manstein’s and Guderian’s books, Moltke and Alfred von Schliffen – the two greatest exponents of the traditional battle of annihilation – are mentioned no less than 20 times. Again, this is surprising from a blitzkrieg perspective since the revolutionary new theory supposedly supplanted traditional vernichtungsschlacht. These distinctions provide a glimpse into the limitations of the blitzkrieg interpretation – although it would be another two decades until they were seriously explored.

Bewegunskrieg emerges

Matthew Cooper’s 1978 book The German Army represents a landmark in the historiography of the 1940 campaign. Drawing upon three decades of research and German-language sources either unavailable to or dismissed by British historians, he argues that German operations had less to do with blitzkrieg and more to do with a century of German experience and thought dating back to Moltke. He is therefore among the first authors to explode the blitzkrieg “myth,”19 arguing that German operations in 1940 represented the traditional concept of vernichtungsschlacht instead of pre-war British doctrine.20

He goes on to argue that the attack from the Ardennes represents a classic German battle of encirclement (kesselschlacht), with Army Group B fixing the Allies in the northeast while Army Group A aimed at the enemy’s destruction between themselves and the English Channel. Under this interpretation, German forces moved not to produce terror or strike communications but to destroy their adversary under advantageous terms. This interpretation directly challenged the prevailing understanding of the 1940 campaign and inspired a new generation of historians to reinterpret both it and the concept of blitzkrieg as a whole.

An excellent contemporary interpretation is Robert Citino’s The German Way of War in which he argues that vernichtungsschlacht (or more precisely, kesselschlacht) is a characteristic of the traditional German doctrine of bewegunskrieg (war of movement) in which German (and earlier, Prussian) forces sought to “maneuver large units to strike the enemy a sharp, even annihilating blow as rapidly as possible. It could be a surprise assault on an unprotected flank or, better yet, both flanks – or even better than that, his rear” – a definition fully describing German operations in 1940.21 The roots of this concept date back to the 17th Century,22 and unlike the term blitzkrieg, it is a historically acknowledged component of German military thought and represents a coherent doctrine actually employed in campaigns.

Thus from Citino’s point of view, the campaign of 1940 is a logical extension of traditional German operational design instead of a revolutionary break with the past: “Since 1650 Brandenburg-Prussia-Germany had fought wars innumerable and had attempted to win each one with a rapid offensive blow in the opening days. We must stop treating that fact as a mere coincidence.”23 Backing his argument is nearly 600 sources – many in German and, of those, many of them primary – making Citino’s book among the best-researched works on the subject. Ultimately Citino contends that the revolutionary technology of the early 1940s “simply provided the tools the German army needed to get back to what it had always done best: prosecute a short, violent bewegunskrieg.”24 Thus, like Cooper, he treats the concept of blitzkrieg as nothing more than a myth.


Modern scholarship on the campaign in the West has tended to disparage the British theorists’ interpretation of German operations. No longer is blitzkrieg the universally acknowledged underpinning of the campaign. Assertions that traditional German thought and practice were the genesis of the campaign seem much more accurate given contemporary research. The fact that the German generals themselves tended to look to their predecessors rather than foreigners – a natural tendency in military thought – only bolsters this contention. That said, the veracity of this argument is only apparent when the actions of 1940 are compared with other German operations over the long-term – in some cases, centuries. Developing such arguments is contingent on decades of research not available to early historians of the war, who were writing only years after its conclusion. Myopia is therefore to be expected – even tolerated – by historians writing after the fact.

With their recent experience in 1914-18 as a backdrop, the campaign of 1940 seemed truly revolutionary to Fuller and Liddell-Hart, as well as to their audiences. In six weeks, the Wehrmacht accomplished what no Army on the Western Front could accomplish in four years of fighting: the destruction of the enemy’s army and a conclusive outcome to a war. The shock of such a dramatic contrast cannot be overstated, and in some ways was bound to produce “exalter” history, especially on the losing side, as a means of explaining the defeat. In this respect, the classic interpretation is instructive as a caution against taking history written right after an event at face value.

It is also a lesson in motive. Because the British theorists had a stake in perpetuating the notion that Germany’s operations represented a dramatic shift from the past – a shift their thoughts stimulated – their writings naturally emphasized what was different. One must therefore approach any interpretation of history with a bit of skepticism. That said, German use of the tank, plane, modern communications and etc. was revolutionary; the historians simply confused revolutionary means with revolutionary concepts.

As mounted-maneuver professionals, these themes resonate with our core mission to “close with and destroy the enemy using fire, maneuver and shock effect.”25 As critical consumers of information, we must constantly reassess our understanding of both historical and contemporary events. This remains true as our Army is in its second decade of conducting combat operations, and it is critical in framing the continuing debate over Army transformation and the future of warfare. Our understanding of contemporary operations is extremely limited, historically speaking.

The France 1940 historiographical debate illustrates the challenges of employing history to support preconceived theses. Without first understanding all the underlying historical circumstances, readers are liable to be sucked into the debate, accepting interpretation as fact. To avoid this pitfall, one must remain ever-mindful of evaluating events on their own merits rather than through the lens of historical interpretation. All mounted-maneuver professionals would be wise to keep this in mind when applying the emerging history of operations in the Era of Persistent Conflict to contemporary decision-making.


MAJ Mark Snakenberg is currently a student at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. He has served in various command and staff positions, including commander, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, Fort Benning, GA; assistant operations officer, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Benning; chief of operations, 2-69 Armor, Fort Benning; executive officer, B Company, 2-69 Armor, Fort Benning; and platoon leader, B Company, 2-69 Armor, Fort Benning. His military education includes the Cavalry Leader Course, Infantry Captain’s Career Course, Airborne School and Air Assault School. He received a bachelor’s of arts degree from Indiana University and is pursuing a master’s of arts degree in diplomacy and military studies from Hawaii Pacific University.


1 A cursory search of the term “France 1940” at the Google Website Feb. 27, 2010, yielded more than 25,000 publications and 35.3 million Website hits. This compares with just over 4,700 publications and 5.59 million Website hits for the term “Gettysburg 1863” and just under 2,100 publications and 1.27 million Website hits for the term “Austerlitz 1805.”

2 A search of the New York Times from Sept. 1, 1939, to June 22, 1940, produced 363 hits for the term blitzkrieg, the earliest coming Sept. 4, 1939. From the New York Times Website,, accessed Feb. 27, 2010.

3 Von Manstein, Erich, Lost Victories, Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994.

4 This subject is a continual source of debate among historians. See particularly Manstein, Chapter 5; Cooper, Matthew, The German Army: 1933-1945, Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1978; Liddell-Hart, B.H., Strategy, New York: Meridian, 1991; and Citino, Robert M., The German Way of War, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005.

5 Cooper.

6 See Note 2 above.

7 Cooper.

8 Guderian, Heinz, Achtung-Panzer!, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1995.

9 A good example of this may be found in Fuller, J.F.C., The Conduct of War: 1789-1961, New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.

10 Ibid.

11 Liddell-Hart, Strategy.

12 Ibid.

13 Cooper.

14 Liddell-Hart, B.H., editor, The Rommel Papers, New York: Da Capo Press, 1953.

15 Ibid.

16 Guderian, Heinz, Panzer Leader, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

17 Manstein.

18 Ibid.

19 Cooper.

20 Ibid.

21 Citino.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Regulation 600-3, Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management, Washington, DC: Army Publishing Directorate, 2010.

Reply to this Article

Send us your Feedback

Vote for this Author