Arthur Koestler’s Account of the Fall of France: Closed, Intolerant, Divided. A Warning for Brexit Britain.



Britain faces a challenging time in the next few years.  We can meet these challenges if we are the best Britain we can be:  open in our minds and hearts, tolerant and united.

I am one of those who believes that history has much to teach us about ourselves and the present.  Past and present are not the same.  But by studying the mistakes of the past we have a greater to chance to do better in future.  My 3 years as a history student have formed my mind as much as 13 years as a working lawyer or 18 years as an active Liberal Democrat.

In 1940, France faced an existential military crisis.  The crises that Britain may face in the next few years are more likely to be environmental or economic.  Arthur Koestler’s book “Scum of the Earth” published in London in 1941  concerns the failure of France to meet the challenge of 1940.  It has given me pause to reflect on where our country is now and where we are going.

Arthur Koestler was one of the most important, albeit controversial, writers of the mid-twentieth century. He was originally a Hungarian Jew but by 1940 was in France as a freelance reporter for British newspapers.  As a young man he had been a Zionist then he became a communist, as many idealistic young people did in the 1930s. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as well as acting as a war reporter for Fleet Street, then captured and sentenced to death by Franco. He became moderately well known in France and Britain.

By 1939, he had rejected communism because of the murderous nature of Stalin’s regime and the requirement “to say a lake is a table if the party says so”.  He became an opponent of “totalitarianism of all kinds”, a moderate humanist and defender of democracy.  When war broke out he tried to leave France with his English girlfriend and wished to volunteer for the British Army.  Visas to travel to the UK were taking months so he volunteered for the French Army.  He was refused and interred as a foreigner.  He escaped and remained in France, on the run from the Gestapo and Vichy French police until the autumn.

His account, from a journalist’s eye view, of France before and after surrender to the Nazis on 17 June 1940 is fascinating, moving and surprisingly relevant to today.

In 1940 France was republican and democratic, with a vast empire and alliance with Britain. On paper, defeat to Germany should have been avoidable.  Koestler describes 1940 as “national suicide” or “collective nervous breakdown”.  He describes France as divided, pessimistic, afraid, intolerant.  “National suicide” was not only surrendering to Germany but also, in the unoccupied part of France, the installation of a proto-Fascist regime, who replaced “Liberty, Egality, Fraternity” with “Work, Family, Country” and surpressed all expressions of French democracy, the Rights of Man and republican values.

The roots of national suicide that Koestler describes are:

First, division between young and old.  When France surrendered a significant number of young people, including young army officers, wanted to fight on.  There was a real sense that surrender to the Nazis was a decision by the old that robbed the young of their chance to fight for freedom.  Refusal by old generals to adopt new strategy and tactics advocated by De Gaulle and a new generation (mobile armoured units, rather than static defence) was what led to the inability of France to defend itself in Spring 1940.

Second, huge political  and class division.  Left and Right in France loathed each other, distrusted each other and had rarely found common ground to move the country forward.  There was huge appetite on both sides for salacious propaganda.  People liked to share outlandish claims rather than real political facts.

Third,  a failure to give people hope. Whereas Hitler went to war promising the German working-class everyone they could want, France’s conservative establishment promised nothing to anyone.  The Right was afraid of communism and thought Hitler “was a gentleman”.  The Left was influenced by the Soviet-Nazi pact and was lukewarm about supporting capitalist Britain against the Nazis.  The part of the Left that was against appeasement was cast as “war mongers” by the tabloid press.

Fourth, xenophobia was rife.  Koestler describes the casualness of racist comments and attitudes in high and low places.  People blamed problems on foreigners.  Jewish politicians were blamed for the war and were prominent among “guilty men” executed by Vichy for having declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939.

Fifth, an obsession against “plutocrats” and tendency to blame problems on rich men, especially in Britain and the USA.

Sixth, a further obsession about “decadence” and belief that too much freedom was making society weak.

Seventh, poor morale. All of these attitudes produced soldiers  and people who at the outbreak of war had poor morale, poor equipment and limited appetite to fight.  Peasant soldiers had nothing to defend.  Too many middle class officers had not belief that immigrants in France rather than Germany were the real enemy.

Eighth, most of all France had a rabid press that drove home anti-immigrant, anti-jew, anti-war messages while being at best lukewarm that parliamentary democracy had much to offer.

The parallels to Brexit Britain seem clear.  Today, we have diverging views between young and old, who tended to vote differently in the recent referendum and who polls show are more polarised in which political parties and policies they support.  Our main Left and Right parties are distant from each other, advocating policies where they know there is no common ground to be found with the other side.  In the referendum, Leave promised much, Remain promised nothing.  Xenophobia is a problem we are all aware of.  The obsession with plutocrats is matched by Leave’s inane/insane claims that the EU is a conspiracy by the super-rich.  The obsession with decadence has some parallel in beliefs held by some that this country’s ills warrant reduced human rights, conscription or to “bring back hanging”.  I hardly need say anything about the existence of an anti-immigrant press.

France in 1940 was unable to meet a national crisis.  It was closed-minded, intolerant and divided.

We have the capacity in Britain in 2016 to be better.


* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in News.


  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Sep '16 - 7:10pm

    Sorry, you’ve totally lost me here. Firstly, you appear to have two, ‘sixth,’ points and saw, ‘two,’ much freedom when presumably that should be, ‘too.’ And in the third point, ‘everyone,’ should read, ‘everything.’ And I take it that in the final paragraph you mean Britain in 2016, not 1940.

    That aside, aren’t you describing trends in your third-final paragraph that all emerged prior to the referendum – in most cases considerably prior? And for that matter, couldn’t these points be said of other EU countries now?

    I just fail to see what all this has to do with our present situation. Even if this were unique to the UK (which I don’t think it is) I just fail to see what leaving the EU has to do with military defeat to Nazism.

    More generally however this just seems like part of a bad trend at the moment, to over-read historical comparators. Look, let’s be blunt here – a lot of people don’t like the political construct that is the EU, no more no less. They may have many different reasons for doing so. Amongst those are good ones (egregious policy failure) and not so good ones (xenophobia). However if they wish to say so at the ballot box they are free to do so, and to surreptitiously associate that stance with Vichy France seems to me to be to be a cheap shot of the worst kind.

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Sep '16 - 7:11pm

    Edit function please! – ‘saw,’ = ‘say’ at line 2.

  • jedibeeftrix 25th Sep '16 - 8:12pm

    @ LJP – “part of a bad trend at the moment, to over-read historical comparators. Look, let’s be blunt here – a lot of people don’t like the political construct that is the EU, no more no less.”

    So true. You are not the only person saying this here, and yet it seems to make no dent in the earnest yearning for pessimism.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '16 - 8:25pm

    Informative but EU-phoria after a vote to leave the EU poses similar problems.

    Apparently in France their decision to surrender is largely blamed on Britain running away at Dunkirk, but the issues listed here matter a lot too. I’m pleased to see communism mentioned because anything about early to mid 20th century fascism has to address fear of communism.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 25th Sep '16 - 8:28pm

    Hi Martin, thanks very much.

    It was recently reprinted by Eland. I have seen their edition in Waterstones.

  • I’m with Little Jackie Paper here.

  • Barry Snelson 25th Sep '16 - 10:02pm

    Personally, I don’t yearn for pessimism. I’m desperate to see something to cheer me up about Brexit but I see no sign of any credible plan even three months on. May says they’ve got one but it’s a secret.
    You could not make this situation up. How far have the British fallen since the days we were the proudest nation on earth.
    We are relying on Johnson, Davies and Fox to find a way out of the swamp we have marched into.
    What is left but pessimism?

  • I don’t think we should be pessimistic.

    But we should reject the Conservative Party which has led us to a point where so many feel pessimistic about their lives in this country.

  • Thanks Anthony. It rings some bells but probably not for cave dwellers.

  • Barry Snelson 26th Sep '16 - 8:16am

    Thank you for your advice not to be pessimistic, but, to be fair, your op-ed was about the Fall of France an unlikely parallel for “and it all ended happily ever after” story.
    It didn’t for them.
    It won’t for us
    I am waiting to hear the Leavers say something that isn’t just the infantile piffle to which the Daily Express clings.
    The real bad news is being quietly prepared, in these days, in foreign boardrooms and will be revealed in a year or two as major investment decisions switch to the single market zone.
    The Leavers will then discover that “our” industry hasn’t been “ours” for years.

  • Alan Depauw 26th Sep '16 - 9:29am

    Eddie Sammon: Yes, here in France a small minority still blame the defeat on the British. This is pure buck-passing and avoidance of the very issues raised, according to this article, by Koestler.

    Barry Snelson: Well, the disaster did eventually lead to the complete annihilation of the Nazis thanks to the combined efforts of the Allies; and to the birth of new societies such as the Welfare State. In the present day, it is conceivable that when the dire consequences of Brexit on employment and social spending become manifest; when, on another front, Marxist dreams hit, as ever they did, the buffers of reality; then we may hope a return to the politics of sense rather than feeling.

    Anyway, this welcome article has prompted me this instant to download Koestler’s book.

  • All the major economies were beset by similar fears and anxieties it the 30s. Was imperial Britain really more open than France or what about segregated America and Stalinist Russia. The pre WWII era was full of politicians and thinkers decrying decadence, jazz, the young etc. BBC radio for various spurious reasons even limited airplay for crooners! In America had just had prohibition and introduced the Hays Code because politicians were obsessed with the idea of too much Freedom weakening morals and the nation. The point being none of the tensions were really unique to or even more prominent in France. Germany swept through mainland Europe by Blitzkrieg. France fell largely because its military was quickly overwhelmed due to a mixture of poor equipment and poor tactics. Where British forces were in a similar position they were swept aside and forced into mass surrender just as quickly by Japan.

  • William Ross 26th Sep '16 - 11:01am

    I am an SNP supporter who vigorously supported Leave in the recent referendum. By the way, around 40% of all SNP supporters were Brexiteers and all of Scottish parties, the SNP supporters were most likely to support Leave. ( not that you`d know it) To be fair, we did have the support of some 30% of Lib-Dems across the UK ( not that you`d know it). I quite often visit this website because it is ” zaney comic relief”.

    I would not normally comment on a Lib-Dem article but this absolutely mad article takes the biscuit. To try to compare the current situation with 1940 is crazy. The UK is not an anti-immigrant country, but Leavers wanted to control our borders. My wife and son are immigrants. If I am a racist then I think the Fuehrer must be very disappointed. I didn’t want to be part of a mythical country called Europe with a Parliament which represents no-one, led by an unelected EU Commission. The Brexit I voted for is simple and everyone knows what it means: not a page more of Brussels law; not a penny more to Brussels; no more free movement of people; and the total supremacy of UK ( or, some day, Scottish) law.

    The comparison with Vichy France is bewildering.

  • OK, I’ll be the one to lay the Godwin’s Law card.

    On pessimism – “Happy the eyes that can close”.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to           show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Charley
    Bit of a straw man there Mick given at no point was anyone seeking to force their views on anyone else. Asking someone what their views are is not the same as i...
  • Lorenzo Cherin
    Andrew Appreciate your response. I understand. My view though is your opinion and mine, or Mick's, is as valid as any other. Young middle aged, middle aged, ...
  • matt
    As much as I want to see Boris go for his blatant disregard for the rules and failing to stand in solidarity with the Public. And the fact that he is a weak Pr...
  • Andrew Hickey
    Michael Taylor: "FGM could never be tolerated in our party, This clearly violates the harm principle." So does forced pregnancy. So does taking away the rig...
  • Steve Trevethan
    Thanks to Frank W for pointing out the inherent dangers of triumphalism and letting ourselves be distracted by the "showbiz" of politics. Might we work to deve...