The Myth and Reality of Charles de Gaulle

Myth often usurps reality with men clinging to the former and ignoring the latter. For instance, most persons seem to persist in thinking of Ireland as still a Catholic country even though Mass is now celebrated in largely empty churches, voters made the nation the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, and last year elected an openly gay prime minister. That’s being Catholic?

As with nations so with leaders of nations. The ones who loom largest in history textbooks are those whose lives and deeds are most steeped in myth. An example in American history (perhaps the supreme example): Abraham Lincoln. The myth: Honest Abe, the rail-splitter, the pious man of the people born in a log cabin, the Great Emancipator. The reality: He was a wealthy attorney who made his money representing railroad interests, never joined a church (according to his law partner, he wrote a book denying the divinity of Our Lord and denouncing Christianity as a fraud), and his Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave (anyone who bothers to read the document can see that for himself).

In the second half of the twentieth century the reality of no figure on the world stage was more camouflaged by myth than France’s Charles de Gaulle. To be sure, the world came to know him earlier as leader of the so-called Free French during World War II, but as undisputed leader of the nation he took power in May, 1958, sixty years ago next month. It will be instructive for us to consider here the myth and reality of de Gaulle. Why? Because the myth of him still colors the political and social life of France and Europe as that of Lincoln as America’s “greatest” President, the one against whom others are measured, still colors ours.

An example of the de Gaulle myth: When he left his country home for Paris to assume power in 1958, his driver took off so fast that the two gendarmerie motorcyclists escorting his car fell behind and didn’t catch up until the car was stopped so that de Gaulle, age 67, could take a roadside pee. The myth: France’s savior speeding to the capital in order once again to rescue the nation. The reality: an old man with a weak bladder.

Unlike some mythic figures (Lincoln is again an example) there are no boyhood legends about de Gaulle. His story begins with World War I when he was a captain. He spent thirty-two months of it — nearly three years of its five-year duration — in a German prisoner of war camp, having been captured at the Battle of Verdun. In the camp he met a Russian military theorist, a future commander of the Red Army, who argued that the deployment of mobile forces spearheaded by fast-moving tanks operating offensively would be decisive in future conflicts, at least in Europe. De Gaulle embraced this idea and advocated it after the war as if it were his own, but to no avail as the French general staff remained wedded to the notion of defensive warfare. The Maginot Line, a chain of fortresses on France’s eastern border, was the result. Unfortunately for the French, Germany’s generals thought along the lines of the newer idea. Their tanks simply outflanked the Maginot Line and virtually raced to Paris in 1940. The Germans called this blitzkrieg.

De Gaulle was an under-secretary in the Ministry of War when Paris fell. As such he theoretically outranked senior generals and even Marshal of France Philippe Petain (a French marshal is the equivalent of a U.S. five-star general). With the capital now under German occupation, the parliament of the Third Republic, holed up in Bordeaux, voted itself and the republic out of existence, calling simultaneously on Marshal Petain to assume the duties of Chief of State (chef de l’etat), his only title during the four years he headed the government of France. That government was seated in the spa town of Vichy, it being out of the question that it should operate in German-occupied Paris. (Under terms of an armistice a disarmed and neutral France was divided between a German-occupied zone in the north and west, and a southern zone under direct Vichy control. In theory, Vichy governed the entire country, which is why the U.S. had an ambassador in the town until we broke off diplomatic relations after Pearl Harbor. Even then a state of war never existed between the U.S. and France, although that didn’t keep American planes from bombing French cities.)

Since our subject is myth and reality, there is a temptation at this juncture to speak of the reality of the endlessly misrepresented Vichy government. Even though it made abortion a capital crime and mandated religious education in the schools with a crucifix on every classroom wall, I shall resist it, but two points must be made. 1) Petain emerged a national hero from World War I whereas almost no one outside military circles had heard of de Gaulle in 1940 when he fled to England and, in a speech broadcast from London heard by very few, he called on countrymen to rally to a so-called Free France headed by himself. To Frenchmen who did hear de Gaulle’s speech, he looked like what he was: an unknown general without troops who fled the country while Petain, who came from peasant stock, planted himself in the soil of France to wrest from the conquering enemy the best possible terms for national survival. 2) Once upon a time de Gaulle was close to Marshal Petain. In the 1920s he joined the Marshal’s staff as a ghost-writer and worked with him in other capacities. He resigned when Petain rejected the text of a book as de Gaulle drafted it. De Gaulle was acting as if it was to be his name, not Petain’s, on the book. (In 1932 when de Gaulle did publish a book of his own, Edge of the Sword, he sent a copy to Charles Maurras, leading intellectual light of the royalist movement, Action Francaise. De Gaulle signed the copy “A mon maître”. We shall want to remember this when we speak later of de Gaulle’s relations with Henri, Count of Paris, pretender to the throne of France.)

It is illuminating that when he referred to the enemies of Free France during the war years, de Gaulle always spoke of Petain by name. Petain never referred to de Gaulle except as a “false friend.”

Another myth one is tempted to write about is that of the so-called Resistance. We don’t want to speak of it at too great length, but the reality is that there was no armed Resistance until a year after the Occupation began when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. At that point Stalin ordered French Communists to begin a campaign of bombings and assassinations with the aim of tying down German troops in the west so they would not be available for fighting on the Eastern Front. The first victim was a German sailor on shore leave who was shot in a Paris Metro station. Communists would remain the backbone of the Resistance, not the Free French. In fact, the Free French were such a negligible force they had no real role in the 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy. De Gaulle wasn’t even briefed on the invasion, but even as he made his own way to England in 1940, he returned to France on his own in 1944, followed close on the heels of U.S. and British troops as they pushed back the Germans, and was able to position himself at the head of a march down the Champs Elysees when Paris was “liberated”.

Then began one of the darkest periods in modern French history. De Gaulle set himself up as head of a provisional government, but by virtue of their having been the backbone of the Resistance, it was the Communists who exercised real power at first. In what the French know as the epuration (Purge), they used their power to liquidate, first of all, French men and women who had supported Vichy, or were said to have done so. After them came potential foes of Communism regardless of their political allegiance. All these persons were branded as “collaborators”. Many were tried by kangaroo courts. Many others were shot out of hand.

The exact number of victims will never be known. Estimates vary all the way from 30,000 to 500,000. Historians who have looked at the question closely seem to have settled lately on a figure of 250,000-300,000. All during the killing de Gaulle strove to give the impression that it was he who was in charge of a “liberated” France, which was supposedly returning to normality.

Of all the victims of the epuration we shall speak of the case of one, that of Robert Brasillach, the best known apart from those of Marshal Petain himself and Pierre Laval, Petain’s prime minister. As a novelist, playwright, critic and poet, he was the most brilliant young writer in France in the 1930s, and he was fiercely right-wing (something like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound rolled-into-one in the Anglophone world, but angrier). He had been an adherent of Action Francaise but left the movement after the debacle of the Place de la Concorde riots of February 6, 1934 (about which I have written for this website). He then became a supporter of Rexism, an explicitly Catholic Belgian political movement whose name was inspired by the Mexican Cristero battle cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Wikipedia’s description of Rexism: “It rejected liberalism which it deemed decadent and was strongly opposed to Marxism and capitalism, instead striving for a corporatist economic model, idealizing rural life and traditional family values.”)

Marshal Petain labored to keep France neutral during the war, which is why American movies like Casablanca banned by the Germans in Paris could be seen in cinemas in Marseilles. (It also led to the Gestapo arresting Petain and hauling him off to Germany in 1944.) Brasillach differed from Petain. He believed the Germans and their allies would win the war and that the best chance for France’s survival as an independent nation in a postwar, German-dominated Europe lay in being allied with them. He became a true collaborator. To say this is to touch on an extremely sensitive matter, and I don’t want to dodge it. If I did, it could invite the attention of persons and groups who raise money for themselves by branding as “fascist” or “extremist” all who hold that Christian social order was superior to the liberal democracy regnant today. They could claim I was hiding the “truth” about Brasillach. So, let me acknowledge: He was anti-Semitic, but not on racist grounds. It had nothing to do with genes. Racism, which does, is simply another modern substitute for God. Rather, Brasillach saw Jews as exercising an influence in finance, politics, culture and society disproportionate to their number, and believed their influence was deleterious because it diluted what remained of the Christian character of France and Europe.

In any event, having spent the Occupation years in Paris expressing his views in print, he was arrested after the “Liberation,” put on trial for collaboration, found guilty and sentenced to death. This is where de Gaulle as nominal head of the provisional government comes into the picture.

The mainstream Catholic novelist and man of letters Francois Mauriac, appalled at the prospect of a brilliant writer being executed because the ideas he had espoused were “wrong,” circulated a petition pleading for clemency for Brasillach. It was signed by scores of France’s leading intellectual figures of the day, including numerous ones readily identified with the political left (among them Albert Camus). Mauriac presented the petition to de Gaulle. De Gaulle assured Mauriac he would give it consideration, and then almost immediately ordered Brasillach shot.

Many have speculated over the years as to why de Gaulle did it. We shall refrain from that and instead concentrate on other questions, like why did Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre call Charles de Gaulle “the snake” (le serpent in French)?

Read Part II Here