The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved
By Jonathan Fenby
(Skyhorse Publishing, 707 pages, $32.95)
Jonathan Fenby’s The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved maybe doesn’t offer a lot of new historical detail about the remarkable career of the great de Gaulle. But its insights into the Free French leader’s character, personality, faith, and domestic life make it a wonderful addition to the canon of de Gaulle literature.
The outlines of de Gaulle’s military and political trajectory are well known. He valorously served in WWI as a young officer, seriously wounded and imprisoned by the Germans, from whom he attempted escape numerous times, foreshadowing future decades of stubborn determination. In the inter-war period he crafted his aloof style of leadership as well as his theory of massed tank warfare, which the French Army rejected while the Nazis replicated. As France collapsed in 1940, de Gaulle became a junior cabinet minister inveighing against capitulation, prompting Winston Churchill already to hail him as a “man of destiny,” a vision that de Gaulle fully shared about himself. Upon France’s capitulation, de Gaulle escaped to Britain, pronouncing himself the legitimate French government, and appealing on the BBC radio in his famous June 18 broadcast for France to resist.
During WWII Britain and America viewed the intransigent and fearless de Gaulle as their most difficult friend. But his unswerving, maddening perseverance made him indispensably the leader of Free France. Despite setbacks, such as failure in a British supported naval assault on Vichy-controlled Senegal, he almost single-handedly crafted the notion of a Fighting France that was a worthy ally. Upon Paris’s liberation, led by French troops with Eisenhower’s acquiescence, de Gaulle became liberated France’s prime minister. He insisted that even a fallen France should continue as a great power, to the sometimes irritation of the other skeptical Allies. In 1946 he quit government in frustration over France’s feckless parliamentary system, after having helped prevent communist domination.
For 12 years de Gaulle remained in the political wilderness, writing his wartime memoirs, scheming against the regime of petty “parties,” and awaiting a return summons to power from a French people who had not forgotten he incarnated their loftiest national aspirations. France’s colonial conflict in Algeria shattered the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle adroitly created a new Fifth Republic with a strong presidency suited to himself, and which he held for 11 years. He suppressed a coup and the renewed potential for civil war by French officers unwilling to abandon French Algeria. And he survived multiple assassination attempts by French Algerians enraged by his shrewdly maneuvered abandonment.
De Gaulle presided over a recovering, prosperous, nuclear-armed France transitioning away from colonialism and insisting on an independence from U.S. or European domination. He was an irritant to America for refusing to serve as a junior partner. And yet he was the bulwark against France’s pro-Soviet Communist Party, which commanded support from up to one third of French voters. His final glory was against the student radicals and communist labor unions that almost toppled his regime in 1968. Although elderly and tired, he summoned his final energies to defeat their “totalitarian enterprise” with one final blast of his oratory and political savvy. After winning a smashing election victory for his party, he suddenly resigned in 1969 for contrived reasons and died in 1970, gloomy over France’s prospects absent his tutelage.
An egotist who imagined himself the embodiment of his nation and who coldly subordinated personal loyalties to statecraft, de Gaulle was a devout Catholic, faithful husband, and devoted family man. Unlike nemeses like collaborationist Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, vacillating Premier Paul Reynaud, and socialist opponent François Mitterrand, he didn’t have mistresses. His own parents were ardent French patriots, monarchists, and Catholics who never accepted the secular regimes following the French Revolution. After his distinguished WWI service he married Yvonne, herself a conservative Catholic from a wealthy family. She was nearly always at his side across five decades, carefully guarding his privacy and family life. During her husband’s rule, she told an admiring Richard Nixon that the presidency was temporary but the family was permanent. After the infamy of French surrender in 1940, she work black until her country’s liberation. She shared her husband’s confident courage, getting herself and her daughters to Britain in 1940 without his help. A 1962 assassination attempt entailed at least 14 bullets entering their presidential limousine, leaving husband and wife covered in shattered glass. Upon leaving the car, she asked her son-in-law to see to the chicken stored in the trunk. During their wilderness years, she thriftily reversed the worn cuffs and collars on his shirts. And she made sandwiches for visiting dignitaries, carefully omitting ham for a North African Muslim. During his presidency, she did her own shopping in Paris shops, enduring indignities during the 1968 student uprising. She kept divorced people and officials with mistresses out of their social circle. Her rare attempt at political counsel provoked his riposte that she stick to her “sauce pans.” But he yielded to her often arbitrary firings of domestic staff, trying to defend the presidential gardener but relenting. She hoped her husband’s government might ban mini skirts. He warned that legalizing birth control pills meant “sex will invade everything.” Both de Gaulles faithfully attended mass every week. He sometimes went to confession at a rectory for retired priests.
The de Gaulles had a daughter with Down syndrome who, until her early death after WWII, remained their focus. They later established a foundation in her name to benefit other similar children. Their son, who’s still alive, fought with the Free French during WWII and later was an admiral in the French navy. Their other daughter, recently deceased, and who headed the foundation honoring her sister, married a distinguished Free French officer, who earlier had led a French cavalry charge against the invading Germans in 1940, and who later was a general and close advisor to her father. During the 1962 assassination attempt, it was he, in the front seat, who implored his in-laws to duck. During the 1968 crisis, it was he, as at other tense moments, who encouraged his sometimes despairing in-law, whom he called father.
De Gaulle was well read in French history and literature, which led him sometimes to speak in the cadence of earlier centuries. He derided the 1968 riots with an 18th century word meaning carnival but that others misinterpreted as defecation in bed. He was constantly formal, almost never appearing in public or private, even on holiday at the beach, without a suit or uniform. His own son was startled to see him in pajamas after prostate surgery late in life. The family retreat starting in the 1930s was The Boisserie in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, a medieval village in northeastern France. To its unpretentious elegance de Gaulle added a hexagonal tower somewhat shaped like France that served as his personal study, with stunning views of the countryside. The family escaped there nearly every weekend, even leaving word during the Cuban Missile Crisis not to be disturbed. Up until his death at age 80 he went for long walks in the surrounding woods, sometimes twice a day, a hike often lasting 100 minutes. During the early Cold War years after WWII, his supporters worried that invading Soviets could easily capture him there and planned for his rescue. Yvonne had escaped in time from invading Germans in 1940. During the Algeria crisis, when rebellious French officers threatened, anti-aircraft guns were mounted in the nearby woods, alarming de Gaulle’s granddaughter, and prompting him to order their camouflage with hay bales. The only death from the 1962 assassination attempt was the local police chief, who collapsed from frenzied excitement. It was here that de Gaulle entertained West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, creating a new national partnership after centuries of hostility. And it was here that de Gaulle died rather suddenly, surrounded by his wife and daughter, plus the village doctor and priest, who also conducted his simple funeral, where his casket was born by village neighbors. He was laid to rest next to his Down syndrome daughter, who had died 20 years before.
Author Fenby extols the conventional wisdom that de Gaulle saved France, not once but several times. His book supports that wisdom, and de Gaulle is a constant rebuttal to historicists who prefer abstract forces to great men. De Gaulle understood his own importance, which his enemies denounced as authoritarian vanity, but which his friends and eventually most impartial observers agreed was critical to his success and his nation’s survival. His flaws included an inability to accept that others could lead as well, even within the Fifth Republic structures he created. But to his credit, he did quietly resign at age 79 rather than die in office, perhaps tacitly recognizing his own limits, while also preferring an exit on his own terms.
Critics often accused de Gaulle of aspiring to dictatorship. But as he once remarked, dictatorships never end well. De Gaulle ultimately, and exasperatingly even to his often rebuffed allies like Britain and America, was a friend to liberty and to Christendom. In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev disrupted a Paris summit with a red-faced Eisenhower and a nearly tearful Harold Macmillan to loudly rant over a downed U.S. spy plane. Visibly bored by Khrushchev’s posturing vulgarity, de Gaulle coolly reminded him that the room’s acoustics did not require such volume and that Soviet spy satellites routinely passed over France. After Khrushchev stormed out, de Gaulle grabbed Eisenhower to assure him that no matter what the Soviet did, “I will be with you to the end.” After getting into his car, Ike remarked: “That de Gaulle, he is somebody.” Indeed he was.