In the New York Times, Die Zeit's Josef Joffe is duly impressed with Jonathan Fenby's The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved.
“The General” isn’t just the story of a 20th-century giant who captivated the public’s imagination even while he was still alive. It also traces the course of a great nation that refused to come to terms with the loss of the strategic pre-eminence it had once enjoyed.
… Le Grand Charles looms so large because his nation kept shrinking. Humiliated by Prussia-Germany in 1871, France was barely saved by America’s intervention in World War I. Succumbing to the fatigue of the 1920s and 1930s, France was done in for good by Nazi power in 1940. The shame of collaboration followed, but rebirth after D-Day was not to be. Instead, the end of the war signaled the death of an empire, from Indochina to Algeria, and the relentless decay of the Fourth Republic while the world became English with an American accent. Enter Charles de Gaulle, a man from the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow, as his admirer André Malraux put it. A comrade from de Gaulle’s early army days recalled: “He stood out not so much because of his size but because of his ego, which glowed from afar.”
At 6-foot-3, naturally he could see farther than his contemporaries. As France hunkered down behind the Maginot Line after World War I, de Gaulle preached the armored offense Hitler’s panzer armies would use with devastating efficiency. When Nazi Germany rearmed, de Gaulle railed against appeasement as an “irreparable disaster.” He told his family: “We have capitulated without fighting.” It was all in vain.
This is the stuff from which tragedy is made. When Hitler subdued France in a matter of weeks, de Gaulle escaped to London. “It was for me,” he wrote while Vichy France half resisted, half embraced Hitler, “to take the country’s fate upon myself.” He and who else? De Gaulle’s war years in London read like “Don Quixote Doing Achilles at the Court of St. James’s.”
Hitler was the enemy across the Channel, Churchill the enemy next door. He (and Franklin Roosevelt) barely suffered the general’s antics. “The P.M. is sick to death of him,” a minion wrote. Even the Free French headquarters, another Churchill aide noted, were “getting nearly as tired as we are of their chief’s ungovernable temper and lack of balanced judgment.” Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, politely asked him: “Do you know that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?” De Gaulle smiled: “I don’t doubt that. France is a great power.”
France was not. De Gaulle perfectly embodied an economy-class power that insisted on flying first class. With Germany’s defeat in sight, the general triumphantly returned to Paris (Roosevelt and Churchill let his troops march at the head of the parade), but soon both the man and the country were found wanting. De Gaulle, who probably never heard of the deadly sin of pride, would either rule or retire. After only a few days as head of the government he huffed “I’ve had enough,” and not long after he abruptly resigned.… By 1958, on the cusp of civil war over Algeria, the Fourth Republic was ready to collapse, and it did — right into the hands of Le Grand Charles. “Great circumstances bring forth great men,” he declared. “Only during crises do nations throw up giants.”
De Gaulle reigned over the Fifth Republic for the next 11 years — a latter-day Sun King forced to suffer the ornery ways of democratic politics. The “man from the day before yesterday” remained stuck in the 19th century, his consuming passion being the chessboard of realpolitik. Alternately, he would court and confront “les Anglo-Saxons,” the West Germans, the Soviets and the Chinese. It was power politics without war, and its name was “leverage” — either by collaring new allies (like West Germany) or betraying old ones (like Israel). As his various grands desseins faltered, de Gaulle fell back on a classic from his days in London: maximizing his nuisance value. Bribe me, or else! His “readiness to go to the brink,” Fenby writes, “created an exaggerated impression of power,” a power France did not have, never mind the atom bomb acquired in 1960. So the United States finally called his bluff. Dean Rusk, John Kennedy’s secretary of state, said: “We learned to proceed without him.”And so did his people. Les événements of May 1968, the mightiest student revolt in the West, brought up to 10 million students and workers into the streets. In the midst of the revolution, de Gaulle’s prime minister, Georges Pompidou, declared: “The General doesn’t exist anymore; de Gaulle is dead.”