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 remains the most celebrated French statesman of the twentieth century. Whatever you think of his legacy – and this is open to legitimate debateI 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.
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.”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.
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)
 Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, notes et carnets: 1919-June 1940 (Paris: Plon, 1980), p. 212.
 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.
 De Gaulle, Lettres, p. 332.