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Battlestar Galactica: The Road to Vichy

Last updated:  Sun 01 Oct 2006, 23h22 PDT

With the third season almost upon us, the analogies to Vichy France and the Nazi Occupation in general will start to fly fast and furious.  It might be helpful to remember a few salient facts about what led to the Fall of France and its consequent subjugation and collaboration.

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While the atrociously voluntary collaboration of the Continental French with the German occupation has been the greatest target of recent condemndation, at the time the most heinous consequence of the armistice was seen to be the assumption by French forces in North Africa and other overseas territories of near-co-belligerent status with the Axis.  That French troops hundreds of miles from the Axis sphere of influence would offer armed resistance to the Allies as late as November 1942 requires greater explanation than the maladroit diplomacy of Churchill and DeGaulle.

While the French correctly assessed the threat posed by revanchist Germany in 1939 and were as willing as any nation to fight, no country was as ill-prepared to trust their political and military leadership as France.  With the telling exception of Russia, no country directly experienced greater physical and spiritual devastation during the First World War than France.  Almost six million casualties, the French lost more men on their single front than Germany did in all theaters.  Undone by such technological advances as the machine gun and fragmentation ordnance and spurred by Napoleonic fever-dreams of the defeat of 1870, French generals became infamously inflexible in strategy and tactics, ordering thousands of men to needless deaths.  The French troops were as ultra-nationalistic as their leaders—even more so—but the sheer insanity of the outmoded tactics forced skilled and loyal men and officers to mutiny, which was punished with the greatest severity.  Read Liddell Hart’s A History of the World War (chillingly written between the wars) and marvel how the French High Command could be so murderously stupid for months and years on end.

The governments of the Third Republic were often unstable before the Great War, and afterwards they resumed their radical experimentation.  Italy, another Great War "victor," embraced Fascism in the 20s, while Spain in the 30s became the proxy battlefield for all of Europe’s political causes célèbre.  During the Depression, paramilitaries stalked the streets of Paris, and threats of a coup d’etat from either the Right or the Left were never very distant.

The French in the overseas territories, on the other hand, were relatively removed from both the devastation of the war and the radical politics of Paris.  As with most colonials, they saw themselves as civilizers as well as keepers of "true" French culture.  They also had a stronger memory of the 19th century colonial rivalry with Britain.

Few in France had any illusions about Hitler’s ultimate intentions during the Sudeten crisis in 1938, and the Daladier government’s assurances in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement showed it to be divorced from what we now call the "reality-based community."  There seemed to be no question about whether to declare war when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but there were many questions about France’s generals and politicians, who did little to reassure their citizens during the Sitzkrieg.

When the Blitzkrieg came in May 1940, French forces fought bravely and competently according to the defensive strategy pursued by Gamelin.  Again the French were unready for new military technology, notably the Luftwaffe, but the Battle of France was much closer than is often realized.  The Panzer spearheads were dangerously exposed immediately following the breakthrough across the Meuse, and DeGaulle himself was preparing a counter-attack that might have blunted the German advance.  In 1914, Paris was spared by the thinnest of margins, a feat which became a goad in the hands of French generals demanding ever greater sacrifices.  In neither 1914 nor 1940 would the fall of Paris have necessitated the surrender of France, but the symbolism of failing to defend the capital that had heroically withstood the Kaiser’s artillery was too much for the Reynaud government.  More importantly, the vast majority of France’s few veteran and well-trained troops had been killed, captured, or encircled beyond reach of any possible relief.

Churchill begged the Reynaud to carry on the fight from North Africa, but the French government had long since bankrupted its credibility.  Reynaud resigned and Pétain—hero of the First World War—formed the Vichy government and agreed to the armistice.  Southern France and North Africa would remain unoccupied, and French forces everywhere would remain neutral.

This neutrality would be tested several times over the next two years.  Less than a month after the armistice, Churchill—skeptical of Vichy assurances that the French Navy would remain out of Axis hands—ordered British forces to intern the French fleet in Algeria or destroy it, and French resistance compelled the latter.  To further enlarge his claim as the leader of the Free French, in September 1940 DeGaulle persuaded Churchill to provide him with token naval support for an invasion of French West Africa at Dakar, which was resisted and failed.  In June 1941, German support for the pro-Axis coup in Iraq used Vichy Syria as a base of operations, provoking the British invasion of Syria and Lebanon.  The possibility of German and Japanese submarines and surface raiders operating from Vichy ports compelled Britain to invade Madagascar in May 1942, which the French resisted until that November.

Only after lengthy and delicate secret diplomacy, followed by the overwhelming Anglo-American landings of Operation Torch, did the French in North Africa agree to rejoin the war agains the Axis in November 1942.  All of Continental France was immediately occupied, but the Vichy regime persisted (and collaborated) until August 1944.

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What parallels does this offer to Battlestar Galactica?  We don’t know much about the First Human-Cylon War, but aside from the fact that humanity was at war with their own creation, there is no evidence of folly comparable to that of France during the First World War.  The security breach that permitted the Holocaust that kicked off the Second Human-Cylon War, however, is a splendid example of the credibility-destroying incompetence that, should it be revealed, would severely hobble any human claim to leadership.*

Of particular interest to me is the role of honor to a military culture that sees itself as separate from and often superior to the society it defends.  From Roslin’s appeals to Revealed Prophecy™ to the junta led by Cain and Pegasus, we’ve seen this theme before.  But what happens to a society that interprets a military defeat as evidence of a moral failure?  That it might be humanity’s "destiny" to be ruled by Cylons?  Would they appreciate attempts by Adama/DeGaulle to "liberate" them?

Of course, the comparison of the "Occupation" in BSG to Vichy France fails in that the former lacks a parallel to the Anglo-Americans (or the Soviets, for that matter); no one else is going to mount Torch or Overlord.  On the other hand, we have every reason to expect greater disunity in the Cylon cause, and I imagine the New Caprican Resistance will have as least as much trouble accepting assistance from the Cylon White Rose as the Résistance did from the SOE.

* Before the "Occupation" arc is concluded, I predict that Baltar’s role in the Holocaust will be outed, at least to Roslin, and probably to a few strategic others (Zarek for certain, and, let’s say, Calley and Sharon).

I suppose I ought to conclude with a link to this survey.  Afterwards, check out how Eric did.

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Copyright © 2006 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.