Wednesday, September 29, 2010

De Gaulle Again: They Don't Make 'em That Way Any More

Aside from snarfing my head off, I spent most of my trip over the Atlantic this week finishing off the first volume of the of Mémoires de Guerre of Charles de Gaulle, revolving chiefly about his efforts to organize French overseas opposition to the Nazis in the early months/years of World War II (cf. link).  I was reading it mainly to practice my French, for which it is much to be recommended--fairly straightforward grammar and vocab, if a bit grandiose in town.  But all the time I kept saying to my self: what a near thing.  Honestly, if you ever had reason to doubt the "great man" theory of history, just take a look at how de Gaulle, personally and by main strength, stepped into the ruins of a nation and spun the remnants together into a coherent entity.

After the humiliating walkover effected by the Nazi armies in just a few spring days in 1940, there can't have been anybody who  could have expected the French to recover/   Indeed, "legitimate" France capitulated in a heartbeat, to reemerge as the client-state that persisted to the end of the war.  The emergence of de Gaulle himself as a counterforce was itself something of a happy accident.  He did have a reputation (like Churchill before him) as a Cassandra before the war, warning the French of their unpreparedness in terms that proved more true than anyone would have wanted. But the fulcrum of his campaign was the fact that at the beginning of hostilities, he was working as a kind of an ambassador to the British, with the task of trying to stiffen the Brit's own resolve.  It was in this role that the Brits, more or less by default, anointed him as the leader of what came to be known as "La France Libre"--somehow it sounds better in English as "The Free French." (de Gaulle himself later tried to shift to "La France Combattante," but it never caught on).

But the British clearly got a lot more than they bargained for.  It's pretty clear that they thought of their declaration of solidarity as something more or less cosmetic, allowing them to absorb French weaponry and technical skill--and probably also French resources and colonies--into a a more general British operation (solidarity didn't stop the Brits from slaughtering nearly 1,300 French sailors in an attack on the French navy at Mers-el-Kébir, an episode that de Gaulle refers to with surprising economy).  But it was de Gaulle who over and over again said "mais, non!" and insisted on an independent French identity.  And not just the British: the Americans, to all appearnces, were willing to let the French cause go and make whatever peace they could with the puppet government.  And individual Frenchmen themselves, at least at the beginning, were far from eager to sign onto a quixotic crusade, were far more eager to join the British, or slip away to America, or to make a separate peace.

Yet de Gaulle himself, for all his intransigence, had his limits.  Adverse as he was to the puppet state, he went to great lengths to make sure that his campaign did not degenerate into a civil war among Frenchmen--he took some heat for his reluctance to engage with the puppet forces at Brazzaville; later in Syria and Lebanon, he made it clear that former servants of the puppet would be welcomed back to the fold.  And however troubled his cooperation, he can be generous with the Brits: he seems to have genuinely liked and admired Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.  And if he concedes that Winston Churchill gave him a hard time, well, he concedes that Churchill himself was having a bit of a hard time, losisng as much and as often as he did in 1940 and 1941 and into 1942.

De Gaulle ends this volume with an account of the Battle of Bir Hakim when a French force (under a General with the anomalous surname of "Koenig") held off German attackers and inflicted more casualties than it suffered.  De Gaulle is exultant to display "La France Combattante" at last and he has every right to be.  He treats it as a great victory,.  It wasn't, exactly: it was more of a holding operation, but holding itself may have made it possible for the Brits to turn the tide against the Germans elsewhere.

Through it all we see a picture of de Gaulle as one who entertained a vision: "il veut sauver la nation," it says on the back cover, "pour affirmer les droits et la grandeur de la France..."   It says something of the politics of our own time that it is almost impossible to say that phrase in any language without a tone of bitter cynicism or at least wry caricature.  Yet there is no doubt that de Gaulle would have endorsed every word of it, and that by his own efforts he achieved everything a single person could achieve to make it true.

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