Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Great Men: a Matched Set

Once again I'm indulging my curiosity about General Charles de Gaulle who, among other achievements, personally created "the free French" in World War II by spinning threads out of his own gizzard.   You don't build such an unusual resume without being a difficult person and de Gaulle  was surely difficult.  People remember Churchill saying that "the heaviest cross I have to bear is the cross of Lorraine." Apparently it wasn't actually Churchill (it was somebody close to him).  But it's one of those remarks that lives because it sounds so right.  Here's a memorable occasion when the two alphas lock horns.  Churchill had become, shall we say, profoundly disappointed with de Gaulle, but he felt tht circumstances demanded that he try to path things up. 
 He ... carefully choreographed the meeting at Downing Street, telling [his secretary, Jock] Colville that he would rise and bow slightly but not shake hands, while indicating to the General the chair in which he should sit on the other side of the big table in the Cabinet Room. He would not speak in French but would converse through Colville as interpreter
Churchill went through this rigmarole when de Gaulle came into the room. ‘General de Gaulle, I have asked you to come here this afternoon,’ he began. Colville translated, ‘Mon Général, je vous ai invité à venir cet après-midi.’ Churchill broke in to say: ‘I didn’t say Mon Général, and I did not say I had invited him.’ 
After a little more from Churchill, de Gaulle began to speak, also correcting the translation. So the secretary left the room and called in a linguist from the Foreign Office. When he arrived, the two leaders had been sitting looking at one another silently for several minutes. After a short time, the interpreter emerged red in the face, protesting that they must be mad: both had told him he could not speak French properly so they would have to manage without him.
Fenby, Id.
The Prime Minister warned that some British figures suspected that his visitor had ‘become hostile and had moved towards certain fascist views which would not be helpful to collaboration in the common cause’. Rejecting the charge of authoritarianism, de Gaulle said he ‘begged the Prime Minister to understand that the Free French were necessarily somewhat difficult people: else they would not be where they were. If this difficult character sometimes coloured their attitude towards their great ally . . . [Churchill] could rest assured that their entire loyalty to Great Britain remained unimpaired.’ It was just the kind of statement designed to melt his host’s anger.
Outside, Colville tried to eavesdrop, but the double doors defeated him. He decided it was his duty to burst in – ‘perhaps they had strangled each other’. Just then, Churchill rang the bell for him. Entering, Colville found the two men sitting side by side, ‘with an amiable expression on their faces’, smoking cigars and speaking in French.
Fenby, Jonathan (2012-06-20). The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved (p. 175). Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

And on a separate occasion:
[W]hen the writer and politician Harold Nicolson said that, for all the problems he caused, the General was a great man, the Prime Minister responded: ‘A great man? Why, he’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the centre of the universe . . . You’re right, he’s a great man!’
Fenbyn Ibid., 133. 

1 comment:

The New York Crank said...

I rather enjoyed reading that. It reminds me of a marriage I was once in.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank