When the Second World War broke out, the British government commissioned W. Somerset Maugham (who was then living in France) to interview military officials, politicians, and the general public to asses their moral and abilities.
France fell much quicker than anyone expected, and Maugham was on one of the last boats out. When he got back to England he published a short autobiography covering the short time before and during the fall, and included his own thoughts on why the end came so suddenly.
He put a lot of the blame on a demoralized working class and an intransigent leisure class.
Below are excerpts transcribed from Strictly Personal by W. Somerset Maugham, ©1940:
(p. 204) It is notorious that the French have always quarreled bitterly among themselves on political and social questions, but they have always asserted that, when the country was in danger, they laid their disputes aside and presented a united front to the foe. So they said this time. It wasn’t true. Such unity as existed in parliamentary circles was only on the surface; below it, the animosities that had been left behind by the Blum government raged fiercely. In the cabinet there was an ignoble struggle for position, and when the effort of all should have been to prepare France for the struggle, ministers were stabbing one another in the back. The Communist party was dissolved, and the deputies who belonged to it, regardless of the effect it might have on the workers, were arrested or put to flight.
Until the Blum government brought in reforms that in other countries had been secured long since, the condition of the workingman in France was very bad. Few employers ever gave a thought to the welfare of their employees. In one of the biggest department stores in Paris the employees, as the first of their demands, asked that separate lavatory accommodation should be provided for men and women. Hours of work were excessive, and the workers insufficiently paid to lead decent lives. To indicate the state of mind of the moneyed classes, I shall relate a conversation I had with a friend of mine, a kindly, upright, and generous man who was a banker by profession. One afternoon I went to a communist meeting at Père Lachaise, the great Paris cemetery, and I noticed that on banner after banner were emblazoned these three words: “Peace, Work, Well-being.” I met my friend that evening and said how strange I thought it that a hundred and fifty years after the Revolution, the French working classes should still be making this minimum demand.
“Surely that’s not much to ask,” I said.
He grew very angry.
“Peace certainly,” he said, “and work of course; but well-being, no– that’s out of the question. They can’t expect that.”
Is any comment necessary? I don’t think so. Of course the Blum government went too far and too quickly; the forty-hour week was impracticable in France; the moneyed classes grew frighted and hurried to place their money abroad; the franc fell and with it the government. The well-to-do heaved a sigh of relief, but the working classes were sullenly resentful. The wealthy had had a bad fright and from that time were haunted by the dread of bolshevism. When war broke out, it was the spectre of this that loomed before them. Big business was in close relations with Germany, and among the aristocracy and the prosperous bourgeoisie there were many, very many, who had an admiration for the dictators because they thought they saved their respective countries from the horror of Russian communism. They hardly made a secret of their conviction that, if they had to choose between a victory for Germany and the bolshevism they foresaw as a result of the war, they preferred a German victory. So stupid were they that they thought the victors would leave them their fortunes, which a communist revolution would certainly take away from them.
(p. 212) I need not speak of the lack of armaments in the places they were needed. I had myself seen the factories where tanks were being manufactured in what seemed to me great quantities. Where were they when they were wanted to withstand the German attack? Large numbers were kept in the vicinity of the big factories. Why? There is only one plausible answer: to crush the workers if they should attempt to revolt.
(p. 214) But what is the use of going into this tortuous story of terrified, shortsighted men who put private interests before their country’s welfare? Their cause was lost when, rather than blow up the bridges and factories, which represented money, they left them to the use of the enemy.
(p. 216) If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.