De Gaulle, 1890-1944

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles de Gaulle was one of the “Great Men” of the twentieth century, that elite who significantly affected the history of their country and the world in their time. Yet compared to leaders such as his contemporaries Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, de Gaulle often is overlooked, particularly in the United States. France’s catastrophic defeat in 1940 inescapably led to questions about its status as a great power. Certainly de Gaulle’s prickly stance toward the United States as he sought to reassert France’s greatness in Europe and in the world during his presidency in the decade after 1958 did not endear him to Americans.

De Gaulle: The Rebel, 1890-1944, an abridged translation of volume 1 of a three-volume life of de Gaulle by the eminent French biographer Jean Lacouture, leaves one in no doubt of de Gaulle’s position as the foremost French leader of his century, one capable of rising above his country’s travails and restoring its greatness when it appeared no longer to possess the national resources or will to do so. De Gaulle’s importance was evident by 1944 (at which point this first volume ends), even before his career as a statesman in the postwar era. At the centenary of de Gaulle’s birth, his successors, however capable in their own right, remain epigones, standing in the shadow of this brilliant, uncompromising, isolated, and controversial statesman. With its most appropriate subtitle, Lacouture’s volume places de Gaulle’s life from his birth in 1890 to his triumphant return to France at the head of the Free French in 1944 in the context of French and world events. It is an impressive work that all those interested in twentieth century French history should read.

Lacouture attempts to weave de Gaulle’s private and family life into the account of this public figure, but the private de Gaulle is reduced in one chapter primarily to a concerned father caring for a handicapped daughter. His wife, who must have borne the primary burden of the family, seldom appears in the book. Lacouture makes eminently clear that de Gaulle often stood alone in the world, but he does not explain what role, if any, his wife, who was with him in France and in England, played in his achievements. She remains only a cipher in this account.

Following de Gaulle’s early career in the military, Lacouture early discerns the tall youth’s rebellious temperament and his conviction of France’s mission and his exceptional destiny, and analyzes the various formative influences on the young de Gaulle—family, school, nationalism, and the intellectual currents of the times exemplified by thinkers such as Charles Peguy and Henri Bergson. Here, and throughout the book, Lacouture traces with nuance and clarity de Gaulle’s fateful and complex relationship with his first commanding officer, Colonel (later Marshal) Philippe Petain.

In World War I, de Gaulle was wounded three times and was held prisoner of war in Germany for thirty months; he later served Poland during the Russo-Polish war. Lacouture cites the lessons the young officer learned through these experiences, such as his conviction of the signal importance of national solidarity as a motivating force. At every turn it is evident that the reader is in the presence of an exceptional individual, brave and intelligent, an officer who was not afraid to defy his superiors or the military conventions of the time.

Tracing de Gaulle’s career in the interwar years, Lacouture concentrates on the relationship between the young officer and the “military god” Petain, who in his search for a talented officer to write his important work on the army settled upon de Gaulle, the best writer in the army. Despite disagreements, perhaps best symbolized in their respective attitudes toward the Maginot Linede Gaulle emphasized its importance as a pivot for offensive maneuvers against Germany, while Petain retreated into immobility, as did most of his contemporaries—the marshal’s influence helped de Gaulle’s advancement. Lacouture examines the influence of de Gaulle’s experiences and of his circle of military and civilian friends on his perspectives. In describing the influence of others, the author is always careful to emphasize de Gaulle’s independence, even from his closest associates.

Lacouture points out that previous works on de Gaulle have devoted insufficient attention to his five “essential years of apprenticeship” in the General Secretariat of National Defense in the 1930’s, where he participated in planning the political, administrative, and technical aspects of the country’s defense. The secretariat, which was initially directly subordinate to the prime minister’s undersecretary, later became a brain trust for the chief of the general staff. In the rest of...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)