Exhibition: the military disaster and political bankruptcy of 1940



Scheduled for spring, postponed due to confinement, the exhibition “As in 40 …” opens during the time of curfew. A singular telescoping of history, which should not, however, lead to bringing the year 2020 closer to the year 1940, a slope that has been too easily taken for a few months. Hence this useful reminder of the facts: the chain of circumstances that lead from a political shipwreck to a military disaster for which a series of diplomatic retreats and the derisory Maginot line prepared. The Nazi troops had no trouble getting around it to drive down a disorganized army and invade a country in disarray, which its government was fleeing. Until asking for an armistice, without fighting.

We know the outcome and the glorious fate of the improbable startled by a brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle, deserter from the government in exile in Bordeaux, stateless in London and condemned to death by Vichy, surrounded by the meager troops of resistance fighters from the first hour. By the force of words and the crazy energy of his strategic vision, in the name of“A certain idea of ​​France”, this officer, rebellious and isolated, persists in wanting to reverse the fatal course of a history very badly started.

Clear up myths and clichés about this terrible year

The exhibition at the Musée de l’Armée, seeking to dispel the myths and clichés that distort the understanding of this controversial period, is divided into two rooms (2). The first follows the chronological journey devoted to the fatal cycle, from the seizure of power by Hitler in 1933 to the succession of his internal and geopolitical coups which have gone unpunished, to the long period of anesthesia of “the strange war” the collapse of the army, then of the Republic between May and June 1940. It illuminates, thanks in particular to animated maps, the irresistible progression of Nazism in Europe by annexations, the uncertain weeks of the Battle of France (May 9 -June 24), marked by the forgotten courage of the combatants. A dark corridor unfolds an evocation of the exodus through films, photos and the sound of defeatist radio addresses (Paul Reynaud, Philippe Pétain), then those, offensively, of Churchill and De Gaulle, at the microphone of the BBC.

In this first part, we can see a casemate of the Maginot line, a copy of Mein Kampf, program fire, hear the propaganda messages from Radio Stuttgart audible in France and the recordings of the discussions of the armistice signed in Rethondes. When all seems lost, even honor. The second room shifts “from shadow to light”, from collective shipwreck to the beginnings of the Resistance and the counter-attack. Ration cards, gas masks, III fireworkse Reich, in May 1940, delirious cult of personality around the Marshal. One can see, under a window, his personal diary, opened on the page of July 10, 1940, date on which he obtains the full powers. Philippe Pétain noted with his white hand: “Great day. “

The exhibition shows that it is also with his white hand that he annotates and weighs down, alone, without pressure from the Germans, the infamous status of the Jews. She recalls that after the armistice nearly 2 million French soldiers were taken prisoner, sent to Germany. From the summer of 1940, the clocks were put forward one hour to match German time… And November 11 ceased to be a public holiday.

The trauma of Mers-El-Kébir and the line of demarcation

From London, de Gaulle, visionary, relied on the Empire to organize the reconquest of France. Nothing is won. Far from there. Out of the 35,000 French sailors present in the ports of Great Britain, only 3,000 rallied to Free France. The trauma of Mers-El-Kébir (July 3 to 6, 1940) where the English torpedoed the French fleet (1,300 dead) marked the spirits and divided opinion. We also see on large maps the continuation, after the armistice, of the German advance before drawing the line of demarcation. Assessment of the year 40: France, under the Nazi yoke, cut in two. A still dark future, but a few glimmers in the distance …

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“Filling in the ignorance of the year 40”

Vincent Giraudier
Head of the Charles-de-Gaulle Historial Department at the Army Museum

“We have placed this exhibition in the Gaullian year 2020: the counter-attack,
May 17, 1940, in Montcornet (Aisne), the appeal of June 18, the 130 years of his birth and the 50 years of his death. Recall the heroic commitment of the soldiers, then the beginnings of
the Gaullist gesture which had to fight on two fronts, the Nazi enemy and the government of its own country, until bringing France to the table of the victors of the Second World War. With 215 objects and archival documents from 35 national and private collections, we want to fill in the ignorance of the year 40 and recall how France lived and suffered this terrible year. “

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