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A Book Review… An Account Of De Gaulle Equal To The Man Himself

October 9, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


Jackson, Julian. De Gaulle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018; 887 pages.

Julian Jackson ends part one of this hefty volume with a quotation: “Without the Peloponnesian War, Demosthenes would have been an obscure politician, without the Norman Invasion, Joan of Arc would have died peacefully at Domrémy, without the Revolution, Carnot and Napoleon would have finished their existence in low rank, without the present war, General Petain would have finished his career as the head of a brigade.”
The words are taken from a lecture by Charles de Gaulle. Then Jackson adds his own thought: “Without the fall of France, de Gaulle would have become a leading general of the French Army, probably a minister of defense, perhaps even head of government, but he would not have become de Gaulle.”
Jackson then takes 700 pages to prove it.
Before examining the political and military issues confronting de Gaulle as the exiled leader of the Free French, we may look to the habits and character of the man himself.
Charles de Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux, April 7, 1921. Both had inherited small sums from their deceased parents which enabled them to consider the purchase of a home.
After searching for two years they found a property at La Borisserie, Colombey-les-deux-Églises in the Champagne region. Its price was 45,000 French francs, about the equivalent of a lieutenant’s salary of 51,000 francs. Lacking an automobile of their own, they depended on a friend to move them to their new home. The village itself had only one automobile. That belonged to the garagiste.
The house was modest with minimal comforts; no running water for the first two years, no central heating, and electricity in only some of the rooms. The de Gaulles lived modestly throughout their married life even when occupying the stately structures that symbolized his authority.
De Gaulle was an avid reader. When assigned to a command post at Wangenbourg, Alsace, he ordered two books by Ernest Psichari and books by Guy de Pourtalès on the lives of great composers, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. Even as president of France he read two or three books a week. He always read the winners of significant literary prizes. He admired Charles Péguy for his inclusive view of France and Emmanuel Mounier for his Christian personalism.
He also wrote.
His first book, in English translation, was entitled, The Edge of the Sword (1932). It sold 1,500 copies the first year. Hitler read the book, annotating his copy. That was followed by The Army of the Future (1934), and France and Her Army (1938), a study of the way governments in different periods of history were able to forge an army “worthy of the role that France was destined to play.”
From the moment of his exile in 1940, de Gaulle regarded himself as the true incarnation of France, “faithful interpreter of the wishes and hopes of our people.”
“I am a free Frenchman,” he declared, “I believe in God and the future of my homeland. The Free French must avoid political partnership. Whatever anyone’s beliefs and origins they must be a brother for all the others from the moment they begin serving France.”
De Gaulle was forty-nine when he arrived in London on June 17, 1940. His family after some mishap arrived from Bordeaux on June 20 and found accommodations at Hotel Rubens near Buckingham Palace. His son, Philip, later remembered that it was the only time he had ever seen his parents kiss in public.
The correspondence between de Gaulle and Jacques Maritain is sparse, but worth noting. Both agreed that France was not only engaged in a military conflict but in a spiritual struggle as well. In January 1941, de Gaulle wrote to Maritain, “Like you, I believe that our people are suffering from a kind of moral collapse. I thought that to climb out of the abyss the first thing was to prevent people from resigning themselves to infamy and slavery. . . . I think that we will have to profit from the national rassemblement around pride in ourselves and resistance to lead the nation toward a new democratic ideal.”
In November 1941, Maritain wrote to de Gaulle to the effect, given the fact that the bourgeoisie had betrayed France, that the country needed a “new regime reconciling Christianity and liberty, i.e., the tradition of St. Louis and the tradition of the Rights of Man.” De Gaulle wrote back, “I am not worried for the future of democracy. Its enemies are only ciphers. I do not fear for the future of religion. The bishops have behaved badly but there are good curés, simple priests, who are saving us. . . . All that is healthiest in France is the people.”
De Gaulle was not enthusiastic about the reforms following Vatican II. He worried that Pope John XXIII had been unduly influenced by a Vatican group who wanted to revolutionize everything. “I am not sure the Church was right to suppress processions and the Latin service….It is always wrong to give the impression of denying oneself and being ashamed of what one is. How can you expect others to believe in you if you do not believe in yourself?”
When President Mitterrand in 1965 proposed that the contraceptive pill be legalized, de Gaulle objected, “One must not reduce women to machines for making love. This goes against all that is most precious in women: fecundity. A woman is made to have children. If one tolerates the pill nothing will hold sway anymore. Sex will invade everything.”
From Jackson’s copious account, we learn much about Europe’s political struggles during the interim war years and much more about the years between September 1939 and June 1945. When de Gaulle arrived in London, Jacques Maritain, at that time living in New York, was the most famous Frenchman in exile. Maritain advised de Gaulle to confine himself to a symbolic role rather than try to form a government in exile. De Gaulle begged to differ. “Men cannot do without being led any more than they can do without eating, drinking and sleeping. Leaders have to be able to stir the imagination and excite the latent faith of the many.”
This he did in his nightly broadcasts from London.
De Gaulle regarded the Vichy government of General Petain as collaborationist and declared that he was the true leader of the Free French. The Vichy government responded in 1940 by depriving de Gaulle of his citizenship and condemning him to death.
To rally the Free French in what remained of the Western Empire, de Gaulle spent six weeks in Africa. Jackson describes it as an “epiphany,” for de Gaulle was lauded and cheered wherever he went. In Brazzaville and Gabon he discovered he was a living legend. As he recalled the experience: “There was a person named de Gaulle who existed in other peoples’ minds, a separate personality from myself.” He was emboldened by that public perception. While in Brazzaville, he issued a manifesto, setting up an Empire Defense Council and exercising powers in its name, in the name of France.
With the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, it was clear that the war had turned decisively in favor of the Allies and at some point a landing in France would be attempted. To prevent France from falling into the hands of the Communists, de Gaulle formed a provisional government which he would lead from 1944-1946. He had come to the conclusion early in 1940 that the only way to save France was to leave France. With the aid of his lectures on BBC and the support of Churchill, de Gaulle imposed himself as the only public voice to offer an alternative view to that of Petain. On June 28, 1940 Churchill agreed officially to recognize de Gaulle as the leader of the Free French.
De Gaulle may not have been a natural orator, but the oddity of his delivery and diction gave an extra weight to his speeches.
With Liberation in 1945, de Gaulle became provisional president of the Fourth Republic. When the nation was forced to choose the kind of political system it would adopt, de Gaulle advocated a presidential rather than a parliamentary one. The issue was put to a referendum. In resigning his provisional role, he expected that public support would bring him back to power with a mandate for his preferred mode of governance, but the National Assembly chose instead Felix Gouin. The history of the Fourth Republic is one of inter-party feuding, inaction, and chaos.
In 1958 de Gaulle came out of retirement at the request of the National Assembly to deal with the crisis brought on by the Algerian War. He was appointed prime minister by Rene Coty and charged by Coty to rewrite the constitution of France, which became the foundation of the Fifth Republic. He was elected president later that year and reelected in 1965, a position he held until his retirement to Colombey in 1969.
When de Gaulle was elected president of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Jean Paul Sartre was violent in his anti-Gaullism. Le Monde had become the voice of the progressive left.
The only significant “intellectual” to support de Gaulle was Francois Mauriac. As an early biographer of de Gaulle, Mauriac wrote: “As a Christian I feel confirmed in my certainty that de Gaulle is not a man of destiny; he is a man of divine grace.” Mauriac’s biography, it may be noted, was so effusive in its assessment of de Gaulle’s achievements that even Mauriac’s admirers thought of it as a hagiography.
On November 2, l964, All Saints Day, Charles and Yvonne went as they did annually to pay their respects at the gravesite of their daughter Anne. On November 9 de Gaulle worked as usual, interrupting his day’s work by two brief walks. He took tea with his wife and was writing some family letters when he shouted in pain and slumped on the table. Yvonne called the doctor and the village priest. De Gaulle received the Last Rites before he died at 7:25 p.m.
Yvonne had the body laid out in the center of the room, dressed him in his uniform and covered the body with the tricolor. On the table at his bedside were two candles, a crucifix and a cup of holy water, usually provided for the priest administering the Last Rites. She placed in his hands a rosary that had been given to him by Pope John XXIII. Yvonne maintained a silent vigil through the night and released the news of his death the next morning.

The Honor Of France

In 1940, Jacques Maritain may have been critical of de Gaulle’s attempt to form a government in exile, but by 1942 his reservation had given way to the recognition that de Gaulle’s refusal to accept defeat was “a chivalric act that gave hope to the French.”
Julian Jackson recalls Maritain’s words with approval: “Now that the rancid arguments of the Vichy apologists are long past, there cannot be a French citizen who does not recognize the truth of Maritain’s statement and who does not feel justifiably proud of their country as a result of what de Gaulle achieved between 1940 and 1944. He saved the honor of France.”
Jackson’s magnificent account of this great man is equal to the man himself.

+ + +

(Jude P. Dougherty is a dean emeritus and professor emeritus of the Catholic University of America.)

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