De Gaulle, by Julian Jackson (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 928 pp., $39.95)
Charles de Gaulle was perhaps the most thoughtful and impressive statesman of the twentieth century. His only possible rival in this regard is Winston Churchill, another statesman-thinker, though Churchill presided over a longstanding, stable, and free political order in the United Kingdom, something on which de Gaulle could not depend in the French case. De Gaulle has been the subject of fine biographies in the past, among them a somewhat mythologizing three-volume work by Jean Lacouture, a well-researched but less than sympathetic account by Eric Roussel (who clearly prefers the supranationalist Jean Monnet to de Gaulle’s passionate partisanship for the nation), and a more popular and readable account in English by Jonathan Fenby. Added to these now is this superb and equitable portrait by the British historian of twentieth-century France, Julian Jackson.
Jackson writes with verve, avoiding the turgidity of typical academic prose. He respects, even admires, de Gaulle but never succumbs to hagiography. He allows de Gaulle’s greatness to speak for itself and treats the general’s writings and military, political, and philosophical reflections with the seriousness that they deserve. His judgments on de Gaulle’s thought and action are almost always illuminating and always measured. Jackson’s is likely to be the authoritative biography of de Gaulle.
Jackson recognizes that, for de Gaulle, “word” and “deed” were inseparable. De Gaulle’s prewar writings, especially The Enemy’s House Divided (1924) and The Edge of the Sword (1932), are important sources for understanding his thought and character. That he came from a dignified, Catholic, bourgeois background—one that was, to cite Jackson, “austere, traditionalist, suspicious of ostentation”—is also relevant. This milieu was nostalgic for monarchy without hating the Republic; wary of revolutionary excess; and open to a middle path between a liberalism that often ignored the needs of the soul and the dehumanizing tyranny that inevitably accompanied socialism. Yet if De Gaulle was influenced by these origins, he was not reducible to them.
As a young man and officer, de Gaulle read widely, forming what would become his mature view of France, the world, politics, and the soul. From the French Catholic poet and philosopher Charles Péguy (“an author who mattered immensely to de Gaulle”), he learned a generous patriotism that tried to bring together the best of France, before and after 1789. Like Péguy, de Gaulle loathed pacifism and loved France. He drew upon Péguy’s admiration for Joan of Arc, the saint and warrior who loved God and France with almost equal fervor. For de Gaulle, again like Péguy, France had a “mystical vocation” to bring liberty, civilization, and enlightenment to humanity: in his words, it had “an eminent and exceptional destiny.” This Catholic patriot never succumbed to anti-Semitism, any more than he confused the martial virtues, noble within their own sphere, with hatred of other peoples and nations. Totalitarianism of the Left and Right was never a temptation for de Gaulle.
De Gaulle was committed to keeping grandeur and moderation together, to doing full justice to both. In his first book, The Enemy’s House Divided, which he began to research in prison libraries while a prisoner of war in Germany between 1916 and 1918, the future statesman explored the reasons for Wilhelmine Germany’s defeat in World War I. He admired the courage of the enemy but not its Nietzschean disdain for “the limits marked out by human experience, common sense and the law” that had permeated and corrupted German political and military culture before and during the Great War. At the beginning of the book, de Gaulle defended “a sense of balance, of what is possible, of measure” that “alone renders the works of energy durable and fecund.” This was to become his political creed, his animating political philosophy: grandeur must be informed by realism, restraint, and mesure.
In his subsequent interwar writings, de Gaulle expressed a mixed judgment about Napoleon Bonaparte. He admired his courage and military genius but faulted him for leaving “France smaller than he had found her.” Napoleon had little appreciation for restraint, and like the German military elite in World War I, he was undone by “outraged principles,” by the “tragic revenge of measure,” as de Gaulle so eloquently put it in his 1938 book France and Her Army.
The French conservative liberal Raymond Aron once feared “the shadow of Bonapartism,” as he put it in a 1943 article, that surrounded de Gaulle and the Free French movement during their days of wartime English exile. But in 1958, after de Gaulle’s return to power as the founder of the new French Fifth Republic, Aron differentiated the “classic ‘Bonapartist’ conjuncture” that paved the way for the general’s return to power (“a climate of national crisis, the discredit of parliament and politicians, the popularity of a man”) from any suggestion that de Gaulle aimed to be a new Bonaparte. As Aron framed it, Bonaparte was an “adventurer” and tyrant; Boulanger, who almost took part in a coup against the French Republic in 1889, was a “ditherer”; and Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun and leader of Vichy France, was “an old man.” By contrast, de Gaulle was “an authentically great man.” Those are the exact distinctions that needed to be made, and they are well borne out by Jackson’s nuanced narrative.
The Edge of the Sword, de Gaulle’s most famous work—written between World Wars I and II—took aim at a facile pacifism that ignored the harsh realities of a world where conflict formed an essential part of the life of nations. De Gaulle knew that the Great War, bereft of humane and prudent political leadership, had highlighted many of the horrors of armed conflict. But de Gaulle could not imagine a political world—a human world—“without force.” He did not glorify war and never endorsed conflict or imperialism as ends in themselves. Still, he asked in his preface to the book: “How can one conceive of Greece without Salamis, Rome without her legions, Christianity without the sword, Islam without the scimitar, the Revolution without Valmy?” (Valmy was a French revolutionary battle well known to all French readers, at least in those days.)
A reader might ask: How did de Gaulle’s opposition to pacifism cohere with his Christian faith? Like Péguy—and like the French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, whom he also admired—de Gaulle believed that the Christian, too, was called to the path of chivalry and personal and political honor. De Gaulle viewed the condition of his daughter Anne, born with Down syndrome, as a trial from God. He loved her dearly and saw a humble greatness in “poor Anne.” He wept with terrible grief (he told the parish priest he felt “annihilated”) when his daughter died at 20 in 1948. De Gaulle told one of his aides in 1946 that Christ’s sacrifice was at the center of universal history: “He opened up the horizons of religion beyond the hearts of men towards vast regions giving a place to human suffering, to human anguish, to human dignity.” Jackson’s de Gaulle is a croyant, a believer, whose personality, thought, and action were “impregnated” by his Christian faith.
At the same time, “the man of character,” the model of political magnanimity that de Gaulle embodied and presented in chapters two and three of The Edge of the Sword, was an ideal of heroic leadership marked by the most ascetic of stoicisms. Jackson compares de Gaulle with Corneille’s Augustus, a model of public service informed by solitude and some sacrifice of personal happiness. No Nietzschean overman, de Gaulle suffered as only the “born protector” of a great and free nation can suffer. He was pained, as was Churchill, by Munich and the democracies’ choice for dishonor and peace at any price. “Step by step,” he wrote in the fall of 1938, the French had chosen the path of “humiliation and retreat so it had become a second nature.” He would choose the path of personal and political honor, as a Frenchman, a Christian, and a good European. He had warned about Germany’s bellicose intentions in the years after 1933 and pushed for the modernization of the French armed forces with new tank and air capacities that could take the war to the enemy. The French instead hid naively behind the ineffectual Maginot Line. There was more than a little moral corruption hiding behind this passivity, as de Gaulle argues in the first volume of his War Memoirs.
De Gaulle rose to the moment in June 1940. A terrible political, moral, intellectual, and military crisis called this “born protector” to lead a damaged France—at least that part of it that refused to surrender to a Germany far worse than the one of 1914. As Jackson observes, “without the fall of France, de Gaulle would undoubtedly have become a leading general in the French army, probably a minister of defense, perhaps even head of the government—but he would not have become ‘de Gaulle.’” De Gaulle, of course, was sensitive to the role of contingency, chance, and choice in the unfolding of human affairs, as all his writings suggest (the philosopher Henri Bergson was a key influence here). On these themes, Jackson quotes from one of de Gaulle’s most insightful prisoner-of-war lectures in 1917:
Without the Peloponnesian War, Demosthenes would have remained an obscure politician; without the English invasion, Joan of Arc would have died peaceably at Domrémy; without the Revolution, Carnot and Napoleon would have finished their existence in lowly rank; without the present war General Pétain would have finished his career at the head of a brigade.
In de Gaulle’s view, Providence, destiny, and chance act as restraints even upon a “prince” filled with the capacity for effective thought and action. De Gaulle was an unusually reflective man of action, contemplative far beyond the capacities of most of his military and political contemporaries. Like Churchill, he knew that he was a “man of destiny” meant to leave his mark on history. The two statesmen were “shepherds” obliged to do battle with totalitarian “wolves.” As Jackson demonstrates, “word” and “deed” converged in the great “appeal” to honor and resistance that de Gaulle delivered from the BBC studios in London on June 18, 1940. A new “adventure,” for de Gaulle, began at age 39, as he observed in his War Memoirs. On June 18, de Gaulle reminded his listeners (and posterity) that the war was a global conflict. What was lost by mechanized force—the planes and tanks of the Axis powers—could be won in the future by the combined mechanized strength of the Allied powers. He knew that Britain and France could rely on their extensive empires and “the immense industry” of a United States that would be inevitably drawn to the cause of European liberty. He spoke simply but eloquently for French independence, for honor, and for the nobility of continued resistance. De Gaulle will always be remembered as the “man of June 18th,” Jackson believes—even more than as the founder of the Fifth French Republic in 1958 (with its energetic, if distant and oligarchic, executive institutions) or as the statesman who reconciled France to the end of empire, if not to a radical diminishment of France’s continuing “rank” in the world.
De Gaulle was not especially anti-American, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to appreciate in the late 1960s. He worried about French, and European, dependence upon American military protection long before others became aware of this problem. He unhesitatingly sided with the West during the various Berlin crises from 1958 to 1961, and again during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. He may have been right about the imprudence of a long American military involvement in Indochina in the 1960s, but the man who warned Georges Pompidou in the early 1950s about a potential “Asian Munich” might have shown more respect for American efforts to stymie the totalitarian tide. Were Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong merely nationalists, as de Gaulle suggested at Phnom Penh in 1966? Jackson establishes that de Gaulle genuinely hated Communism and did not like what he saw in the Soviet Union when he visited in 1944 and 1966. He thought, rightly as it turned out, that Europe would outlast a Communist ideology so at odds with human nature and the wellsprings of European civilization. But he was wrong in the 1960s in thinking that leaders such as Alexei Kosygin, Władysław Gomulka, János Kádár, and Nicolae Ceausescu were beginning to think and act like nationalists, even patriots. These men combined Bolshevism, no small dose of cynicism, and a lust for power. None was an authentic patriot, and none could be said truly to love his country. This was wishful thinking on de Gaulle’s part, and Jackson is not sensitive to this point. It goes too far to say, as Jackson does, that de Gaulle was somehow vindicated by the antitotalitarian revolutions of 1989.
As Jackson makes clear, de Gaulle was a traditionalist in his social leanings and sensibilities. He hesitated to legalize contraception (what would happen when marriage was just about sex and not at all about fecundity, he asked?), and he thought that the Catholic Church had gone too far in accommodating the excesses of the modern world in the aftermath of Vatican II. Yet he presided over the rapid economic modernization and cultural liberalization of France. As Jackson notes, when people think of postwar France, figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean-Luc Godard come to mind—men who hardly shared de Gaulle’s vision of French grandeur informed by moderation and respect for tradition. And the student-driven events of May 1968 unleashed a radical assault on everything de Gaulle held dear. But he remained the man of June 18.
Today, de Gaulle is an uncontested hero for the French, something he hardly was in his lifetime. Yet French elites owe more to the secular antinomianism of May 1968, with its utter contempt for Gaullist austerity (moral and political), than to an authentically Gaullist vision. Emmanuel Macron, the current resident of the Élysée Palace, praises de Gaulle and claims that his War Memoirs provide continuing political inspiration. Macron undoubtedly loves the monarchical trappings of the French presidency, but he is hardly a partisan of the “greatness,” “independence,” and “rank” of France in the manner of de Gaulle. De Gaulle probably would be appalled by Macron’s easygoing accommodation to the behemoth of the European Union and the dictates of a politically unaccountable Brussels Commission. He might even be a supporter of a “French exit” from Europe in its present form.
De Gaulle was an authentically great man, as revealed in his interwar writings, in his stoicism, in his passionate love for France, in his choice for honor and resistance in June 1940, and, above all, in the myriad ways he kept greatness and moderation together in his thought and action. But his efforts were somewhat Sisyphean. De Gaulle even feared that he had amused his contemporaries with flags, as he told André Malraux in a final conversation, recorded in that writer’s fascinating Fallen Oaks. Still, de Gaulle’s writings, and a stellar biography such as Jackson’s, provide enduring witness to a life lived in service to France and to the enduring verities that inform Western civilization.
Photo by Keystone Colour/Getty Images