Perhaps the best verdict passed on Charles de Gaulle was one he penned himself in 1934, long before he achieved international fame. “Every man of action has a strong dose of egotism, pride, hardness, and cunning,” he wrote. But he quickly added, “all those things will be forgiven him, indeed, they will be regarded as high qualities, if he can make of them the means to achieve great ends.” Charles de Gaulle could and did.
“The General,” veteran British historian and journalist Jonathan Fenby’s masterful, highly readable biography shows us how. It might just as well have been titled “The Resurrectionist” because on three occasions, Charles de Gaulle brought his beloved France back from the brink of death. In doing so, he was sometimes more maddening to his allies than to his adversaries. Winston Churchill famously observed that, of all the crosses he had to bear, the Cross of Lorraine (emblem of de Gaulle’s Free French movement) was the heaviest.
Interestingly, amid his many wartime critics, it was a non-flamboyant, understated career soldier from the American heartland, Dwight Eisenhower, who understood de Gaulle best and respected him despite the countless annoyances he caused. At a 1943 meeting in which Eisenhower promised that Free French troops would be part of the Allied entrance into Paris, de Gaulle actually condescended to respond to Eisenhower in English with a compliment eloquent in its simplicity: “You are a man.” A shared sense of patriotism and honor united these two very different men who, each in his own way, would come to personify his nation as both soldier and statesman.
French author Andre Malraux called de Gaulle a man from the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow. Like Churchill, he came to adulthood in the years before World War I, a true son of the old order. The child of conservative Catholic and royalist parents who saw the church, the army and the ancient monarchy as the foundations of French greatness, it was almost inevitable that young Charles would choose a military career. Wounded and captured during World War I, he was one of the first soldier-intellectuals to recognize that static trench warfare was about to be replaced by an entirely new kind of war. His words fell on deaf ears in France, but Germany was listening. The result would be the blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) armored tactics that led to the failure of the Maginot Line and the collapse of the French army in World War II.
De Gaulle was one of a handful of mostly junior officers who determined to fight on from abroad. From London he broadcast a message of defiance: “France,” he told his fellow countrymen, “has lost a battle. But France has not lost the war.” At the time it must have seemed a hollow boast but, bit by bit, de Gaulle crafted an increasingly effective government and army in exile. Its military significance may have been minimal, but it gave millions of French patriots trapped at home a sense of hope and pride.
An indestructible belief in national grandeur, the ability to snap back from defeat and rise to the heroic occasion, the vanity, suspiciousness and stubbornness that characterized de Gaulle were the perfect fit for a vain, suspicious and stubborn people in the grips of humiliating bondage. So the man of the past again became the man of the future, leading Free French forces into a newly liberated Paris to nearly universal acclaim. That was the first resurrection; disgusted by the squabbling of postwar French politicians, de Gaulle soon retired to private life only to re-emerge in 1959 — resurrection number two — to return to power in a France again on the verge of disintegration after humiliating defeats in Indo-China and at Suez, and a bitter colonial struggle in Algeria that spilled over into domestic political violence.
As the empowered president of a new Fifth Republic constitutionally tailored to suit his needs, de Gaulle became the uncrowned king of France and presided over a modernization, rejuvenation and centralization of his country that was good in some respects and bad in others, but which left it politically and economically stronger and stabler than at any time since the end of World War I. Before he finally resigned in 1970, he managed — resurrection number three — to bloodlessly overcome a mob uprising of leftists, dissident students, Marxists and militant trade unionists that nearly overthrew the duly elected French government in 1968.
Yet, by his own standards, Charles de Gaulle was a failure. Just as Churchill won the war but could not preserve the British Empire he so passionately believed in, de Gaulle had saved France but could not restore the global power and prestige he yearned for. What he did restore — not once, but three times — was far more important: civil order and national self-respect. And that was legacy enough.
• Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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