August 20, 2012
Le General Charles De Gaulle: “The World would not see his like again” (Fenby)
‘Le General,’ a Biography of de Gaulle, by Jonathan Fenby
NY Times Sunday Book Review: Charles de Gaulle by Josef Joffe
Reviewed by Josef Joffe
Dare I call a 707-page biography a page turner? For once, the fake enthusiasm of blurb prose rings true. I did “finish the book in one sitting,” as another chestnut has it, though the sitting was a very long flight of 16 hours. And why? Because Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of The Observer of London and a prolific author, knows how to turn breadth and depth into enthrallment.
Academic historians tend to shy away from the grand sweep, while journalists like to stick to the chatty and topical. Fenby has blended the best of both crafts — the historian’s gravitas, the journalist’s feel for drama — into a magnificent book that will rank alongside a classic like Jean Lacouture’s multi-volume biography of Charles de Gaulle.
Fenby actually gives us two books, masterfully intertwined, for the price of one. “The General” isn’t just the story of a 20th-century giant who captivated the public’s imagination even while he was still alive. It also traces the course of a great nation that refused to come to terms with the loss of the strategic pre-eminence it had once enjoyed. This is history with an almost literary flavor.
Think of Booth Tarkington’s “Magnificent Ambersons,” which charts the waning fortunes of an aristocratic family in 19th-century America, and more particularly think of the movie that was made of it. Fenby hasn’t written a novel, but one can imagine how Orson Welles might have turned “The General” into a movie classic. Hollywood, take note.
Le Grand Charles (Statue in Champs-élysées, Paris right) looms so large because his nation kept shrinking. Humiliated by Prussia-Germany in 1871, France was barely saved by America’s intervention in World War I. Succumbing to the fatigue of the 1920s and 1930s, France was done in for good by Nazi power in 1940.
The shame of collaboration followed, but rebirth after D-Day was not to be. Instead, the end of the war signaled the death of an empire, from Indochina to Algeria, and the relentless decay of the Fourth Republic while the world became English with an American accent.
Enter Charles de Gaulle, a man from the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow, as his admirer André Malraux put it. A comrade from de Gaulle’s early army days recalled: “He stood out not so much because of his size but because of his ego, which glowed from afar.”
At 6-foot-3, naturally he could see farther than his contemporaries. As France hunkered down behind the Maginot Line after World War I, de Gaulle preached the armored offense Hitler’s panzer armies would use with devastating efficiency. When Nazi Germany rearmed, de Gaulle railed against appeasement as an “irreparable disaster.” He told his family: “We have capitulated without fighting.” It was all in vain.
This is the stuff from which tragedy is made. When Hitler subdued France in a matter of weeks, de Gaulle escaped to London. “It was for me,” he wrote while Vichy France half resisted, half embraced Hitler, “to take the country’s fate upon myself.” He and who else? De Gaulle’s war years in London read like “Don Quixote Doing Achilles at the Court of St. James’s.”
Hitler was the enemy across the Channel, Churchill the enemy next door. He (and Franklin Roosevelt) barely suffered the general’s antics. “The P.M. is sick to death of him,” a minion wrote. Even the Free French headquarters, another Churchill aide noted, were “getting nearly as tired as we are of their chief’s ungovernable temper and lack of balanced judgment.” Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, politely asked him: “Do you know that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?” De Gaulle smiled: “I don’t doubt that. France is a great power.”
France was not. De Gaulle perfectly embodied an economy-class power that insisted on flying first class. With Germany’s defeat in sight, the general triumphantly returned to Paris (Roosevelt and Churchill let his troops march at the head of the parade), but soon both the man and the country were found wanting.
De Gaulle, who probably never heard of the deadly sin of pride, would either rule or retire. After only a few days as head of the government he huffed “I’ve had enough,” and not long after he abruptly resigned. For him, none of the demeaning wheeling and dealing with those little men in the legislature. So it was off to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where he would hole up for the next 12 years.
While de Gaulle sulked, his country sank, going through about two dozen governments with an average life span of six months. France lost Indochina, Suez and l’Algérie française and was obliged to watch as the heirs of Prussia-Germany regained economic primacy and rose to become America’s “continental sword.”
By 1958, on the cusp of civil war over Algeria, the Fourth Republic was ready to collapse, and it did — right into the hands of Le Grand Charles. “Great circumstances bring forth great men,” he declared. “Only during crises do nations throw up giants.”
De Gaulle reigned over the Fifth Republic for the next 11 years — a latter-day Sun King forced to suffer the ornery ways of democratic politics. The “man from the day before yesterday” remained stuck in the 19th century, his consuming passion being the chessboard of realpolitik. Alternately, he would court and confront “les Anglo-Saxons,” the West Germans, the Soviets and the Chinese.
It was power politics without war, and its name was “leverage” — either by collaring new allies (like West Germany) or betraying old ones (like Israel).
As his various grands desseins faltered, de Gaulle fell back on a classic from his days in London: maximizing his nuisance value. Bribe me, or else! His “readiness to go to the brink,” Fenby writes, “created an exaggerated impression of power,” a power France did not have, never mind the atom bomb acquired in 1960. So the United States finally called his bluff. Dean Rusk, John Kennedy’s Secretary of State, said: “We learned to proceed without him.”
And so did his people. Les événements of May 1968, the mightiest student revolt in the West, brought up to 10 million students and workers into the streets. In the midst of the revolution, de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, declared: “The General doesn’t exist anymore; de Gaulle is dead.” Not quite.
The last few chapters read like a thriller with footnotes. De Gaulle escaped back to Colombey, then to French Army headquarters in Germany to plead for the support of the military. Meanwhile, the faithful rallied in Paris, and the general returned, winning a huge majority in the parliamentary elections of June 1968. But he was the nation’s savior no more, as he had been in 1940 and 1958.
When he called a referendum on his reforms — actually, on himself — he lost, and resigned on the same day. In November 1970, just short of his 80th birthday, he died in Colombey.
Fenby has written a story that is learned, incisive and gripping — an intellectual pleasure as well as a French window, so to speak, on Europe’s demise and rebirth. The dramatis personae are Churchill, America’s Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Konrad Adenauer and, of course, de Gaulle, the outré hero, who could have sprung from the imagination of Homer or Cervantes.
There is no more fitting epitaph than Fenby’s last sentence: “The world would not see his like again.”
Josef Joffe is the editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg and a fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford. He is completing a book on the false prophecies of America’s decline.
A version of this review appeared in print on August 19, 2012, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Charles in Charge.