The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved
- Jonathan Fenby
- Skyhorse Publishing
- 736 pp.
- August 29, 2012
A thoroughly researched exploration of France’s celebrated statesman.
Reviewed by Robert Swan
It’s easy to loathe Charles de Gaulle. Many of his contemporaries did. His arrogance was proverbial, bordering on the kind of megalomania one usually associates with unbalanced totalitarians. He could be rude. He was power hungry. He had a messianic sense of his destiny (he liked to compare himself to Joan of Arc). Jonathan Fenby provides plenty of negative assessments of “Mon General,” ― as de Gaulle liked to be called ― ranging from the mild (“In front of him, you feel like a complete idiot”) to the blunt and frustrated (“psychopath”). Or, in Harry Truman’s words: “I don’t like the son of a bitch.”
Yet this blustering, self-important man was loved and supported by millions of French people, who repeatedly backed his policies in referendums. The subtitle of Fenby’s book implies that for all his faults de Gaulle was the essential man, carrying the burden of his country’s destiny at critical junctures when, without him, France might have devolved into anarchy, been the subject of a military coup or been sidelined by more powerful allies. Fenby’s biography is a well-written, thoroughly researched exploration of de Gaulle’s life in detail and an overview of French political, social, economic, cultural and diplomatic history during de Gaulle’s lifetime, from 1890 to 1970.
Born to conservative parents from northern France, de Gaulle was trained by Jesuits, who nurtured him in an atmosphere of Catholic piety, reverence for France and traditional values. After completing his military training in 1912 he made a name for himself as an exemplary officer whose behavior was marred only by an extreme self-regard which rankled superiors and fellow officers alike and threatened to derail a potentially spectacular career.
In World War I de Gaulle served with distinction and demonstrated immense physical courage. While leading his troops he was wounded three times (bayonet, gunshot and gas) and famously remained standing when artillery shells were falling about him and other soldiers cowered in the dust. After being captured by the Germans, he spent extended periods starving in solitary confinement and tried repeatedly to escape. Frugal and indifferent to personal luxury ― traits he maintained throughout his long life ― he weathered it all without complaint.
According to Fenby, de Gaulle’s first opportunity to “save France” came when he decamped to England after France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany in 1940. De Gaulle immediately declared himself head of the Free French and true leader of the Republic which, he said, had moved across the Channel temporarily. De Gaulle’s position in England was anomalous at best; what he had done was illegal (de Gaulle was declared a traitor by the official French government in Vichy almost immediately). Yet de Gaulle, in what Fenby describes as the key to his success in politics, had a fervent belief both in France and himself as the embodiment of her best qualities. Protecting the honor and interests of the Patrie was essential to the fate of Europe and the world.
In England de Gaulle demonstrated his usual prickliness and paranoid sensitivity to challenge or criticism, while claiming leadership of the Free French bureaucracy, of Free French units fighting in the field and of the resistance at home. After the war he put himself forward as the only reasonable alternative for prime minister of France. He provided a focal point for French loyalties ― the Vichy politicians were entirely discredited ― and strong leadership while attempting to recreate the French state. According to Fenby, he saved France from devolving into chaos and successfully pressed France’s post-war claims to a place in the new world order created by the United States, England and the Soviet Union.
Fenby seems on solid ground here. De Gaulle’s services to the allies gave him the moral ground on which to press post-war French claims, and he was a readily identifiable national figure unsullied by the ignominy associated with the Vichy regime. Fenby makes clear de Gaulle loved the exercise of power above almost everything, yet he resigned as premier in 1946. He was unwilling to play party politics, which he found sordid. There followed 12 long years of retirement at his estate, until growing political unrest created a perfect context for de Gaulle’s second opportunity to “save France” by 1958.
Though hard to appreciate for Americans today, in the 1950s a revolution in France was a very real possibility. Barricaded Parisian boulevards, repeated regime changes, systemic alterations and military pronunciamentos had been a regular part of French life from 1789. By the middle of the 20th century the French were already on their Fourth Republic.
It was the status of Algeria, considered almost an extension of France’s European territory, that would bring de Gaulle back to power. Pieds-Noirs, Europeans born in Algeria, were deeply committed to keeping Algeria part of the French empire, as were the ultra-nationalists, who viewed continued control of Algeria a matter of French honor. But in the heady atmosphere of post-World War II anti-colonialism, native Algerians were demanding independence. The National Liberation Front (FLN), representing the vanguard of Algeria’s independence movement, was willing to use terrorist violence to achieve its objectives. The French military reacted with brutal repression and torture.
By the mid-1950s the Algerian situation and financial problems had deeply polarized France. French leaders feared public unrest would lead to popular rebellion, and a cabal of disaffected colonial generals was plotting a military coup to ― in the time-honored tradition of right-wing putschists everywhere ― overthrow the government and restore order.
De Gaulle didn’t care a fig for the lawfully constituted government in Paris. He was France, as he said on more than one occasion. Fenby notes that de Gaulle “flitted with the idea of staging a coup backed by the army.” He and his military supporters did more than flit with the idea. Fenby indicates that de Gaulle finally “insisted on taking a legal route back to office.” But can what de Gaulle did be interpreted in that light? If so, we must take the meaning of “legal” very loosely.
In 1958 French colonial generals were plotting an airborne invasion of France from Algiers to install a “government of public safety” under de Gaulle. He communicated with rebellious generals behind the back of the government, advising his military compatriots to put their plans on hold pending developments. That is, they were told to wait and see whether the government would legally install him in power in light of the threat of an imminent military coup. De Gaulle as national savior would have ascended the throne on his own steam. He could restore order himself.
The government responded exactly as de Gaulle had predicted. Put bluntly, de Gaulle levered himself into power via the Algerian crisis. The constitution de Gaulle created to inaugurate the Fifth Republic should send shivers up the spine of anyone familiar with the history of the Weimar Republic. It contained a provision allowing the French president to invoke decree power in periods of national emergency, a power similar to the constitutional mechanism used by conservative forces in Germany to undermine German democracy long before Hitler came to power.
To say that de Gaulle’s behavior during the first Algerian crisis (he would face another during his years in power) places him in an ambiguous moral position is putting it mildly. A deeper exploration of de Gaulle’s authoritarian tendencies is precluded here for lack of space, but curious and careful readers will discern much to give pause in de Gaulle’s utterances and behavior. His well-developed autocratic tendencies were recognized in de Gaulle’s lifetime by friend and foe alike; he had to repeatedly assure political observers that that he was, indeed, really committed to democracy. More than one remained unconvinced.
What is undeniable is that de Gaulle represents, as Fenby indicates, a clear example of what was once called the “Great Man” theory of history: one person really can change the destiny of his nation and alter history. Anyone wishing to understand France today or Charles de Gaulle could not do better than read this magnificent biography.
Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.