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Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940 By Lloyd Clark. 480 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016. $27.

Blitzkrieg is a particularly successful synergy of correspondence and interviews, archival material from four countries, and the massive body of published literature addressing one of warmaking’s greatest surprises: the German conquest of France and its Low Countries in fewer than six weeks during May and June 1940. This phenomenon has been commonly explained as the result of a new form of warfare based on speed and shock: Blitzkrieg—lightning war. But building on recent scholarship, especially Karl-Heinz Frieser’s, The Blitzkrieg Legend, Lloyd Clark—a prolific military historian and a master of sources—makes a strong case for an alternative perspective.

Blitzkrieg emphasizes operational and tactical evidence to persuasively argue that the 1940 campaign was decided not by tanks and dive-bombers alone, but through an updating of German military experience infused, but not dominated, by technology. Leadership, initiative, training, fighting spirit: Clark presents these features of the German way of war as the taproots of a victory that was anything but inevitable. They were applied in the contexts of a country unprepared for war and a High Command riven by doubts and frictions—not all of the latter attributable to Adolf Hitler. These same worries and internal frictions were ones that had defied and broken the Second Reich between 1914 and 1918, and that offered every prospect of disaster in 1940.

A desperate situation called for desperate measures, for thinking outside the box. The result was Germany’s revised strategic decision to focus the main attack through the Ardennes instead of Belgium, the consistent readiness at all levels of command to take high risks for the prospect of high gains, and the unfailing willingness of German soldiers to endure the physical and emotional stress of continuous operations.

As Clark demonstrates, Germany overpowered its enemy so effectively that the adversary’s plans and orders might well have been drawn up by the Germans themselves. Mistakenly, France had prepared for an alternate form of war, defensively oriented, based on attrition and position, featuring a managerial approach to command that discouraged initiative and relied on masses of routine correspondence. Consequently, the Germans consistently set the campaign’s pace by observing, acting, and adjusting while the French and their allies were trying to determine what was happening—largely without success. Fighting on an enemy’s terms is like playing cards with the other man’s deck—it seldom ends well. In 1940, Germany’s strategic combination of technology, doctrine, and execution generated a level of effectiveness that resulted in a victory that was as much psychological as it was operational and material. Ever since, armies across the world have sought to replicate it—usually in vain. —Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College and former president of the Society for Military History.

This review was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.