The Life of General Charles de Gaulle
All of the prominent world leaders during the World War II era are somewhat controversial; nothing needs to be said about Hitler or Stalin in this regard, Churchill’s irascibility and apparent ineptitude without a national crisis on his hands and Roosevelt’s often questioned social policies and worldview have all helped to make these men figures famous not only for the roles they played in shaping the modern world but for their personalities as well. These men were the lead newsmakers of their time and continue to receive ample attention from historians writing for textbooks, academia, and the popular press decades after their political prominence and indeed their lives have ended. Yet for all the fame — and notoriety — these men enjoy, one of the most intriguing and yet least-discussed leaders during World War II and after is the French general, prime minister, and President, Charles de Gaulle.
In 1940, de Gaulle went from the leader of the French forces to an exiled and twice court-martialed “traitor” sentenced to death (Spartacus Education). He returned to become the nation’s prime minister, and during a later political revolution became President for over a decade (Crawley; Timeline). His military tactics and his decisions as a political leader are still a source of great controversy, as they were when they were of direct importance, and de Gaulle as a person has been at once praised for his constancy and sense of service and accused of delusions of grandeur, extreme conceit, and ungrateful paranoia (de Gaulle & Macridis; Mahoney; Ledwidge). But regardless of how de Gaulle the man and his policies are ultimately viewed, his life presents the story of a man intriguing in his own right, and well worthy of full inspection. This is also the only way to understand his intent during his time as a world leader.
Some of de Gaulle’s character — particularly his love of France that constituted his “most sensitive” private and public concern — almost certainly came from his father, who as a veteran of the Franco-Prussia war had felt the sting of defeat in the French army (Ledwidge 57; Notable Biographies). Charles and his brothers were immersed in French history and culture from an early age; their father reportedly felt it a personal duty to restore France to prominence among the European territories and supposedly imparted this to his children (Notable Biographies). This is certainly one plausible explanation for de Gaulle’s extreme patriotism and well-documented mistrust of “Anglo-Saxons,” especially when it came to French matters.
De Gaulle grew up in Lille, France, an industrial town in Northern France where his father was the headmaster of a Jesuit school and taught physics and mathematics (Spartacus Education; Notable Biographies). His uncle, also named Charles de Gaulle, proved to be another source of guidance and ideology to his young nephew. De Gaulle was particularly inspired by a passage from his uncle’s book on the history of the Celts: “In a camp, surprised by enemy attack under cover of night, where each man is fighting alone, in dark confusion, no one asks for the grade or rank of the man who lifts up the standard and makes the first call to rally for resistance” (Notable Biographies). This type of thinking and attitude would typify much of de Gaulle’s thinking during his military career and his political service, during which he was often frustrated by superior officers and other high-ranking officials who would second-guess him (Mahoney).
Charles de Gaulle graduated thirteenth in his class from the Military academy at St. Cyr in 1912, and a year later was commissioned as a second lieutenant under Colonel Henri-Philippe Petain (Spartacus Education). His relationship with Petain would prove hugely influential in de Gaulle’s life, having an especially profound effect on his view of politics and of military strategy (Crawley). Under Petain, de Gaulle began to question much conservative and traditional military strategy, and began to see the importance of heavy armor in modern warfare especially during his time of service during World War I (Crawley; de Gaulle & Macridis). During this war, de Gaulle received three citations for valor, was left for dead on the battlefield of Verdun, and escaped German imprisonment several times only to be recaptured and eventually placed in a maximum security facility (de Gaulle & Macridis pp. 116; Notable Biographies). These experiences did noting but strengthen de Gaulle’s hatred of the enemies of France and his resolve that France should once again be numbered among the great European powers.
The period between the two World Wars did not serve de Gaulle as well as conflict seemed to, however, which has been true of many great war time leaders. While teaching the French War College, de Gaulle published and attempted to propagate his theories regarding the irrelevance of trench warfare and the necessity of developing more heavy armor and aircraft for future engagements, much to the consternation of his superiors both at the school and in the military and political world (Ledwidge pp. 42; Mahoney pp. 37). His former commanding officer and mentor Petain initially supported de Gaulle in his endeavors, but eventually Petain ended up accusing de Gaulle of stealing credit for the work of others at the War College (Spartacus Education). This falling out between the two men would eventually pale in comparison to the opposition between the two that was seen during much of World War Two.
Despite his heroic performance during World War I, Charles de Gaulle was not a well-known figure when World War Ii broke out in Europe. Not only were his military ideas and books heavily derided by many close to de Gaulle, but they were not even widely known or read in France outside of this circle (Crawley, pp. 242). De Gaulle was only a brigadier general (a step above colonel) when the war started, and was not in a position to be able to make the types of tactical decisions and commands that he would have enjoyed (de Gaulle & Macridis, pp. 150-73). The Germans, however, had been reading de Gaulle’s work and implemented their own reworking of some of his recommendations in their strategy of the blitzkriegs (Notable Biographies). Ironically, France would eventually fall under this pressure.
Before most of France submitted to the Germans, however, de Gaulle was able to complete a “harrowing rise” to power through his promotions in the military (Crawley, pp. 271). His methodologies and philosophies had already been described as at least vaguely Machiavellian, where de Gaulle apparently believed (according to some) that the right to do something — and even the duty to do it — was granted simply in the correctness of the act (Mahoney, pp. 59-66). This led first to greater frustrations in the military, where he was at first not granted the number of tanks he needed or the air support to carry out his planned counter-offensives, and then to increasing (though ultimately empty, it must be acknowledged) victories as promotions enabled him to procure the resources he needed for success.
1940 was a career and life-altering year for de Gaulle, and indeed for every French citizen and France as a nation. In this year, de Gaulle was made war minister just before the German occupation of France became complete, with almost everyone — including de Gaulle’s former commanding officer and mentor Henri-Philippe Petain — surrendering to Hitler and the German forces (Ledwidge). De Gaulle, however, refused to surrender, and instead fled to Britain certain that that island nation would never surrender, and believing that the entrance of the United States would turn the tide dramatically in favor of the Allied cause (Spartacus Education). He also caused a massive split in French politics and leadership by broadcasting a speech via radio calling on all loyal Frenchmen to resist the Nazi occupiers and the Vichy government that supported and collaborated with them in France, and declaring himself the leader of “Free France” (Mahoney, pp. 67-8). His power was not merely self-claimed for very long, however, as he gained sway in many French territories during the war (Timeline).
His power was solidified still further when the war was in its final phase; through some bullying and unilateral action, de Gaulle had already managed to insinuate himself into world politics as the leader of the free government of France, and in 1945 he was unanimously elected the prime minister and head of the French government by the Constituent Assembly (Spartacus Education). His time in this position was short lived, however, and de Gaulle resigned from the office in 1946 to form what would quickly prove an unpopular and ineffective right-wing political party (de Gaulle & Macridis; Spartacus Education). Many, including de Gaulle himself at moments, considered his career and life in leadership over, and many — especially those in the British and United States government that had been opposed to many of de Gaulle’s actions — were not too upset by this (de Gaulle & Macridis, pp. 74-83).
Their joy persisted for over a decade, but in 1958 de Gaulle again managed to climb to the top of the French government through his involvement in the Algerian Crisis (Spartacus Education). De Gaulle managed to negotiate an unpopular but necessary piece by granting freedom to all thirteen African colonies still under French possession, though the war in Algiers itself did not end until 1962 (Notable Biographies). His prominence during the height and resolution of the crisis allowed him to be propelled to the new office of the Presidency, and in fact de Gaulle was instrumental in drafting a new French constitution and establishing the Fifth French Republic (de Gaulle & Macridis; Crawley). During his time in the presidency, de gaulle was fairly successful in what has come to be seen as his main objective, namely to navigate French foreign policy freely and to establish a Europe that was not dependent on British and American whims and principles (deGaulle & Macridis 213-19; Mahoney, pp. 111-23).
In 1969, following student riots that he helped to quell and rectify, de Gaulle resigned from the office of the presidency and ended his public life. After completing his memoirs, he passed away in November of 1970 (Spartacus Education). Though perhaps not internationally as familiar as Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, or Hitler, de Gaulle was an equally important figure in Europe during World War II and in the decades following. Whatever one believes about his perspectives, his strategies, and his political ideals, it is clear that de Gaulle lived his life with a complete and largely selfless dedication to a singular purpose. He loved and lived for his nation, for France, and his intentions — misguided or no — were only for the betterment of his country.
Crawely, Aidan. De Gaulle: A Biography. London: Collins, 1969.
De Gaulle, Charles and Roy Macridis. De Gaulle: Implacable Ally. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
Ledwidge, Bernard. De Gaulle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
Mahoney, Daniel. De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000.
Notable Biographies. “Charles de Gaulle.” 2009. Accessed 16 September 2009. http://www.notablebiographies.com/De-Du/de-Gaulle-Charles.html
Spartacus Educational. “Chares de Gaulle.” 2009. Accessed 16 September 2009. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWdegaulle.htm
“Timeline results for General de Gaulle.” Google timeline results. Accessed 16 September 2009. http://www.google.com/search?q=general+de+gaulle&hl=en&safe=off&client=safari&rls=en&sa=X&tbs=tl:1&tbo=u&ei=XzOxSt6pHZHqsQON4OjICw&oi=timeline_result&ct=title&resnum=11
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