Ben Macintyre: De Gaulle would have hated the Saville inquiry

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ben Macintyre is Writer at Large for The Times and contributes a regular column.]

Charles de Gaulle would have been baffled and outraged by the Saville inquiry. Not by its findings, but that any country would go to such lengths to explore a painful and complicated chapter from the past.

This week a handful of surviving members of the French Resistance will come to London to commemorate the 70th anniversary of de Gaulle’s famous radio address from London, in which he told the French people: “The flame of French Resistance must not and will not be extinguished.”

The great French leader changed history in more ways than one: after the war, he assiduously nurtured the fable of national self-liberation, ignoring the realities of French collaboration: the myth of French Resistance should not and would not be extinguished.

De Gaulle and Lord Saville of Newdigate represent diametrically opposed attitudes to history: one sought to soften and simplify the past, the other has worked to expose the truth, however ugly.

The Saville inquiry into the fatal shooting of 13 protesters by British troops in Londonderry on “Bloody Sunday” in January 1972, has been stupefyingly expensive (£191 million) and painfully protracted (12 years). It is scandalous that a single senior counsel was paid £4.5 million, almost half the original estimated budget. The final report weighs in at a staggering 45lb and 5,000 pages, making it the most unpickupable publication of the year.

But there can be no doubting the nobility of the inquiry’s purpose, the thoroughness of Lord Saville’s methods and his determination to dig as deeply as possible. Some 2,500 people were interviewed, amassing 30 million words of evidence. Lord Widgery’s 1972 tribunal was accused of applying a thin layer of whitewash — no one could say that of Lord Saville.

De Gaulle, by contrast, allowed his country’s traumatic wartime history to be distorted by the demands of politics, leaving France with what one writer has called a “poisoned memory”.

The Resistance included individuals of supreme heroism and patriotism. That they were few in number only underlines their extraordinary bravery. “I love France,” declared the captured fighter Boris Vildé, shortly before he was shot by the Germans. “For the true France to be reborn one day, sacrifices will need to be made.”

But Vildé spoke for a minority. Most French people acquiesced under Nazi occupation and some enthusiastically collaborated. The Resistance was hopelessly fragmented, made up of myriad groups with competing aims. The partisans, undisciplined, disunited and capable of hideous brutality, were seen as dangerous bandits by many ordinary Frenchmen and women, who feared (rightly) that they would provoke German reprisals.

When Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, was asked to assess the impact of the French Resistance, he responded: “What French Resistance?” He had a point. The Resistance was a moral and national necessity, but a military irrelevance. The sabotage and assassinations carried out by the underground had little impact on the course of the war.

De Gaulle persuaded Eisenhower to say that the Resistance had been worth an “extra six divisions”. Both knew it wasn’t true.

None of this should detract from the significance of de Gaulle’s rallying call on June 18, 1940. The BBC did not consider the speech important enough to record, but it would be seen by many as the moment when France began to recover her honour...

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