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Try, and Then Try Again: Lessons from the Career of Charles de Gaulle
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When, sooner or later, one must pass away,
When one has more or less lived, suffered, loved
There remains nothing left of us than the children we leave behind
And the field of Effort which we have sown.

– Charles de Gaulle[1]Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, notes et carnets: 1919-June 1940 (Paris: Plon, 1980), p. 212.

Charles de Gaulle remains the most celebrated French statesman of the twentieth century. Whatever you think of his legacy – and this is open to legitimate debate[2]I will not get into the very critical positions one can have concerning his actions against the French Right in 1944, his botched withdrawal from Algeria, or, more profoundly, his failure to durably inflect the course of French history, the downward slide towards decadence. I will not get into counterfactuals. De Gaulle deeply understood the patterns of his time. – he was, among democratic politicians, a truly epic figure. He would prove a source of inspiration for the more thoughtful American statesmen, such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, the latter eagerly reading de Gaulle’s powerful youthful opuscule on leadership, The Edge of the Sword.

Within France, De Gaulle “saved France’s honor” during the Second World War, securing a place among the victor nations, including an occupation zone in Germany and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Returning to power in 1958, he established the presidential Fifth Republic – an unusually stable regime by French standards – extricated France from Algeria, and armed the country with nuclear weapons. His foreign policy of relative independence from the United States and an independent path in the Third World, notably Africa and the Middle East, would become the consensus view among French politicians and diplomats for a generation. His vetoing of British entry of the then-European Economic Community (EEC), not once but twice, will seem rather prescient in light of Brexit. This was occurring as France was experiencing an unprecedented demographic and economic renewal.

Today, De Gaulle remains the supreme political reference among the center-right and many patriots in France, with countless village squares named after him, as well as a Parisian airport and an aircraft carrier. Whatever one makes of De Gaulle’s historical legacy, we can all learn from his personality as a man and his personal career. And this turns out to be a rather humbling undertaking.

Learning about De Gaulle always seemed to me to be a rather forbidding enterprise, like approaching some misty, unconquerable mountain: who knows what mysteries and hidden strengths there were! Certainly, again among democratic politicians, he appeared as a titan of modern times, a man of rare depth and will. He always seems in control and undoubting, with an uncanny understanding of things.

We must scrape away at this Gaullist mythology, which the man himself did so much to create. If we look at the detail of his life, one realizes just how extraordinarily humble his beginnings were and how precarious his position almost always was. This makes his achievements all the more impressive.

That is to say, throughout his life, De Gaulle’s position was often extremely insecure, facing setback after setback. And yet, through all this, he unbelievably persistent, always bouncing back, always trying again and again. He, again and again, had every reason to be discouraged or lose confidence, but he never gave up.

De Gaulle as as a POW in German-controlled Lithuania, 1916 or 1917.
De Gaulle as as a POW in German-controlled Lithuania, 1916 or 1917.

In World War I, De Gaulle did not play the heroic role of liberator against the German foe which he had dreamed of as a youth. He fought bravely, was wounded several times, and was captured by the Germans. As a POW, he tried to escape five times. The means he used were worthy of cartoons: tearing up bedsheets to make rope to escape by the window, hiding in piles of laundry, wearing a fake moustache . . . He was recaptured every time. One has to imagine this gaunt, skinny, dirty, half-starved, and very tall Frenchman striding across the German countryside.

In the interwar years, his career did not progress particularly fast. He advised and trained the officers of the newly-formed Polish army. He lectured on history at the French military academy of Saint-Cyr. He served as nègre (ghostwriter) for Marshal Philippe Pétain, the famous hero of the Battle of Verdun, but soon fell out with him, unhappy about the edits his staff wished to bring to their shared book:

“Style makes the man.” One may comment on a man’s work, ask him to change his work in this or that respect, but above all let him make the changes himself, otherwise the edits will have the effect of removing everything personal from the work, that is to say everything vigorous. They will turn book into a university thesis, turning the style into a drafting [rédaction], which may be of interest in its way, but which will have no soul and die as soon as it is read.”[3]De Gaulle, Lettres, p. 332. 332

How neatly De Gaulle has summed up my distaste for the products of committees!

In the 1930s, De Gaulle constantly wrote and lobbied for France to have a professional army (rather than conscripts) and dedicated tank divisions (rather than having support tanks sprinkled among infantry divisions). One sees these efforts in the seemingly innumerable letters he wrote in support of politicians who wanted to modernize France’s military.

While De Gaulle was frustrated by the French Republic’s conservative and defensive approach to military matters, General Heinz Guderian, the German officer promoting a similar tank strategy, enjoyed ample support from Adolf Hitler in favor of tank warfare. The results were visible in May-June 1940, when the famous German Blitzkrieg tanks steamrolled the Anglo-French forces through their astoundingly superior mobility. De Gaulle’s own tank battalion fared well at the battle of Abbeville, but this scarcely enough to turn the tide.

At this point, as a very junior general and undersecretary in the government, just shy of fifty years old, De Gaulle in effect defected to the British. As leader of the “Free French” in London, De Gaulle’s experience was also extremely humbling. Scarcely anyone or any territories joined him (namely the colony of Chad, a huge expanse of Central African desert under the black governor Félix Éboué). He had to accept the British bombing of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir – killing 1,300 French sailors – which Winston Churchill feared would fall to the Germans.

The Free French attack on Dakar to claim French West Africa was a total failure: the local French colonial and military authorities preferred to remain loyal to the (legal and effective) government of Vichy. When the British and Free French conquered French Syria, scarcely any of the French soldiers serving Vichy joined De Gaulle. The Americans excluded him from the liberation of French North Africa and the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944. After that however, De Gaulle was able to rapidly form significant forces and be recognized as the leader of France. Thus did De Gaulle secure France’s seat at the victor’s table: all through pigheaded determination and never giving up, despite remarkably humble beginnings and repeated humiliations. Fake it till you make it!

And then fickle the French rejected him as early as 1946. Then begins the “Crossing of the Desert” (la traversée du désert), a quiet period during which De Gaulle wrote his memoirs and agitated against the Fourth Republic and its feckless parliamentary politicians.

It was only by historical accident – namely the existence of French Algeria and the parliamentary politicians’ inability to deal with it – that De Gaulle was brought back as a savior in 1958. Then he securely established himself with the Fifth Republic’s constitution as a plebiscitary ‘monarch,’ wasted four years extricating himself from Algeria (a botched affair), finally granting six years of secure rule and glorious presidential “grandeur” in foreign policy.

This is the time when De Gaulle withdrew from NATO’s integrated command, twice vetoed Britain’s entry of the EEC, slowed European integration with the Empty Chair Crisis, and famously criticized the U.S. war in Vietnam in his speech in Phnom Penh.

President de Gaulle with President Richard Nixon and his staff.
President de Gaulle with President Richard Nixon and his staff.

All of this is nothing if not humbling. It’s easy to be a critic, it’s very hard to get much of anything done. Whatever one makes of De Gaulle’s historical legacy, on the personal level he was a perfect success, within the limits of Enoch Powell’s famous dictum that all political careers end in failure.

De Gaulle’s beginnings were so humble and his conditions so insecure, I cannot help make a possibly facile comparison with the actor Jean Dujardin. Before playing the hilarious French spy OSS 117 (a kind of anti-Bond) and winning an Oscar for starring in The Artist (a bit of tinsel splendor, admittedly, but the most any actor can hope for, let alone a French one), he played the goofy niçois surfer Brice de Nice (there are no waves in the Mediterranean, get it?). I didn’t even realize Dujardin had been the one playing the rather ludicrous Brice character before he did OSS 117. As I said, one must not be afraid to get started with a humble beginning before one breaks through.

De Gaulle combined adaptability and willpower to the nth degree. I draw this lesson from his life: there is nothing to be gain by losing confidence, there is nothing to be lost from trying even in the worst of circumstances, again, and again, and again . . .

With this, I leave you with some quotes from De Gaulle’s letters and speeches (translated from Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, notes et carnets: 1919-June 1940 [Paris: Plon, 1980]).

* * *

“I’ve passed the age when one wishes to watch the days pass by . . . even if they’re empty, they’re days all the same!” (p. 11)

On his lazy fellow officers: “Concerning my personal situation, I’m happy about this general lassitude, because it will, I am certain, allow me to quickly break ahead of this sad peloton of runners.” (p. 17)

“I kiss you a thousand times, my dearest Mum. In the end the soldier’s fate [destinée] is quite melancholic, always wandering. But one must accept one’s fate. It’s the finest work one can do on oneself, and also the most necessary.” (April 1919 letter from Poland, p. 25)

“[F]ree Poland, after 120 years of slavery, is rising up again, united and resolute, proving that by her rebirth that a people never died, if it has preserved, whatever the cost, the components of its nationality.” (p. 62)

“It’s a fact that the German abroad loses his nationality with disconcerting ease. The example of German emigrants to America, for example, shows this, among many other cases.” (p. 64) Adolf Hitler observes something very similar in his Second Book.

On Paul Deschanel becoming President of the Republic: “I believe he has all the competencies for this position. And, first of all, he is married with children.” (p. 69)

“Diplomacy is the art of making cracked tiles last forever!” (p. 88)

“To think, one must withdraw from the crowd,

And blend in to act.” (quoting Lamartine, p. 213)

“We soldiers are like coats. They only remember us when the rain comes.” (quoting Marshal de Saxe, p. 209)

“We are powerful only by going against nature. The natural tree does not bear good fruit. The tree produces them when it is an espalier.” (quoting Renan, p. 214)

“The feeling of solitude is the misery and the pride of superior men.” (quoting Faguet, p. 215)

“The great leader needs virtue less than greatness.” (p. 215)

There is no great public show other than the military one. Take the army away from national marches, there is nothing left but the grotesque and tumult.” (p. 215)

In the Buddhist religion, Skanda, the god of war, has three faces. One furious, the other mortified, the third serene and artistic. This can serve as a symbol.” (p. 282)

“He who is not a father is not a man.” (quoting Hegel, p. 283)

“It is easy to think, it is difficult to act, but to act according to one’s thought is the most difficult thing in the world.” (quoting Goethe, p. 285)

De Gaulle asserts that Raymond Poincarré, who served as president and prime minister of France, would have served a great master (like Louis XIV) well, “But left unto himself, [he is] half-great, half-honest, half-understanding. In short a statesman worthy of the Republic.” (p. 286)

On biographies: “Why go on and on about the stories of a writer’s life? He does not count as a person, but rather his work counts.” (p. 287)

A quote about a Cuban communist: “His tastes are so subversive that, though he is of pure white race, he feigns to be a Negro.” (p. 288)

A rare quote in English: “In war and in love everything is fair.” (p. 288)

“The worst [parliamentary] Chamber is preferable to an antechamber [e.g. of an autocrat].” (quoting Cavour, p. 288)

“I have not known anyone who was strong on theory who would not have been improved by being a little less strong.” (p. 289)

“The dignity of men of our kind is to be exclusively attached to certain intense feelings [frissons]which other people do not know and which we need to multiply in us.” (quoting Barrès, p. 291)

“There is, in the personality of the man of action, a part which defies analysis. Intuition, the military leader’s temperament, and the power he wields over others, these escape reasoning.” (p. 336)

“But it was during a long peace that [Marshal Ferdinand] Foch trained himself for war. He had to draw, through reflection and study, the doctrines and methods that practice did not teach him and, lacking endured hardships, to shape his character in the silence of inner life. An effort without source material [à vide], an obscure effort, and by this, thankless and praiseworthy, to which so many men of the first rank in the army, after 1870, committed themselves and which was the ferment for the rebirth of our military.” (p. 337)

On French World War I strategy: “The French mind’s tendency to reduce everything to systems and phrases led to excesses.” (p. 338)

“Like Hamlet, we will be great in quietly undertaking our great struggle.” (p. 352)

“We will need to create and nourish public spiritedness, namely the voluntary submission of everyone to the general interest, the condition sine qua non of rulers’ authority, of true justice in the courtroom, of order in the streets, and of the conscience of civil servants.” (p. 362)

“Many would think it very good to smother the ideas by strangling the speaker.” (p. 440)

Notes

[1] Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, notes et carnets: 1919-June 1940 (Paris: Plon, 1980), p. 212.

[2] I will not get into the very critical positions one can have concerning his actions against the French Right in 1944, his botched withdrawal from Algeria, or, more profoundly, his failure to durably inflect the course of French history, the downward slide towards decadence. I will not get into counterfactuals. De Gaulle deeply understood the patterns of his time.

[3] De Gaulle, Lettres, p. 332.

 
• Category: History • Tags: Charles De Gaulle, France 
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  1. Thanks for the finishing quotes !
    Any development on the actions against the French Right in 1944 would be most interesting. This might explain the overwhelming power of the Communist intellectuals after the war in France. The intellectual life was way more diverse between the two wars than after. Le General n’aurait il pas lu Gramsci ?

    • Replies: @TGD
  2. “the overwhelming power of the Communist intellectuals after the war in France. ”
    It wasn’t merely intellectuals. I believe the US spent quite a bit of money keeping communists from winning seats after the war. As in Italy, communists were popular . Why? In part because people knew they had been in the forefront of the partisan fight against Nazi occupation.

    • Replies: @Sya
  3. France would not have had a De Gaulle without Marshall Pétain, who did much to hold together enough of a France to make it worth De Gaulle’s while to liberate; it is a true shame the former did not find within himself the courage to use a little bit more of the glory he gained at the latter’s expense to spare Le Vieux Maréchal the ignominious end he unjustly suffered.

    • Replies: @houston 1992
  4. dearieme says:

    It’s a fact that the German abroad loses his nationality with disconcerting ease.

    But then many Germans may have felt they lost their nationality when Bismarck contrived the Prussian Empire to rule them. Berlin didn’t have much time to impose Germanness on Germans in the way that Paris had imposed Frenchness on the French.

    On the point of his having helped to train the Polish army: he gets some credit, presumably, for the Poles’ great victory over the army Lenin sent to invade Western Europe in 1920.

    As for animalogic’s point about commies being popular: when you promise to rob Peter to pay Paul you often gain Paul’s enthusiastic support.

  5. PPB says:

    If torn between the maxim “If you try and don’t succeeed, try, try again” and the oft-quoted definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, what’s to do but to discard both these fragments of human advice and plod along in whatever direction naturally suggests itself. Something tells me that the world may follow a similar logic in treading its own unpredictable path.

    • LOL: Dieter Kief
  6. Sya says:

    Atta Turk? Or one of the young Turks?

    Maybe both and more

  7. Sya says:
    @animalogic

    Very subtle………no Muslim not Christian was demonized which means the communist are anti antisemitism crypto j

  8. Sya says:

    I’ve never in my entire life heard anyone talk about Hitler, Nazism WWII other than “Dairy…”

    In the Netherlands

    I’ve learned the truth about this period on the internet from Israeli American “intellectuals”

    Unfortunately

  9. @The Alarmist

    I sense there is no real lobby to transfer Petain’s remains to Verdun from the small island off the western coast. Might that change?

    Churchill chose globalization and entering an alliance as a weak partner with the USSR and US whereas Chamberlain wanted to choose empire. Is not the Brexit vote an admission that the Brits/ Churchill made the wrong choice in 1940. (or had it made for them…)

    Are not DeGaulle and Petain analogous to Churchill and Chamerlain, and the rejection of globalization and EU etc a vindication for Chamberlain-Petain?
    https://www.nytimes.com/1973/02/20/archives/body-of-petain-stolen-from-island-grave-off-france-body-of-marshal.html

  10. Armoric says:

    “D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944. After that however, De Gaulle was able to rapidly form significant forces and be recognized as the leader of France. Thus did De Gaulle secure France’s seat at the victor’s table: ALL THROUGH PIGHEADED DETERMINATION and never giving up”

    Throughout the war, the Gaullist and communist “resistance” had engaged in terrorism against fellow French people. Radio London would give lists of people to kill. Their aim was not to help get rid of the Germans, but to be prepared for a power grab when the Germans would go home. Most French people were loyal to Marshal Pétain and did not see him at all as a traitor.

    I wonder about this: How come the French administration, with its police and its military, was not able to destroy the communist and Gaullist militia? How come the terrorists were able to kill so many people at the end of the war, and call it “épuration” (=purge, purification, cleansing)? This is never discussed and I haven’t read anything about it, but it can only be because the Americans themselves toppled the French administration and handed the power to an alliance of Gaullists and communists, who proceeded to destroy the French Right, that is to say “the antisemites”.

    When the German army left France, the Americans could have decided to keep the Vichy regime in place so as to avoid civil war. New elections would have been organized so as to get back to the pre-war political situation. But that is not what was decided.

    Through pigheaded determination, and by working with the Jews, De Gaulle finally managed to be chosen by the Americans to get the top position and destroy the right. But he didn’t personally have to win any fight against the French administration and its police. He didn’t accede to power thanks to his popularity either.

    • Agree: houston 1992
    • Replies: @houston 1992
  11. Thekid says:

    ‘the more thoughtful American statesmen, such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’. That IS a joke, right?

    • Agree: for-the-record
  12. TGD says:
    @Tuipers_Montreal

    Here’s something to warm your Quebec heart, Tuipers Montreal, courtesy of Charles DeGaulle.

    Note: Most Canadians wouldn’t mind if Quebec left the confederation.

  13. @Armoric

    there remained one million French POWs captured in 1940 in German captivity. Should the Germans not have released more of them to bolster Petain’s/ Vichy popularity? Perhaps their labor was needed more than the bolstering of Vichy

    (the POW experience was okay to excellent for officers; for non-officers : for many it was five years of slave labor in farms or factories.

  14. A nice, worthwhile sketch. Thanks. Without wanting it to serve as anything other than an endnote, I’d like to add a remark that Martin Peltier said in his book addressed to Eric Zemmour: You admire Napoleon and De Gaulle, Eric, but both of them left France smaller in territory than when they took power.

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