Neal Ascherson: Charles de Gaulle Remembered

Roundup: Talking About History

[Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003).]

It’s seventy years since a reedy, strained voice came from the BBC in London, telling the French to fight on. Almost nobody in France heard it. Almost nobody in France had heard of General Charles de Gaulle, either. It was not even a great speech, but rather a set of quite disjointed, sometimes disconcerting remarks. But those who did hear the broadcast of 18 June 1940 picked out what mattered, and were astonished.

“Is defeat final? No!” France was not alone. De Gaulle repeated that line: “La France n’est pas seule!” With American and British industrial might, Germany could be overwhelmed. The tank-commander in him was speaking. “Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force”. He, General de Gaulle, was now in London. He asked French “officers, soldiers, engineers and specialised workers” to make contact with him.

That was the Appeal of the Eighteenth of June 1940. A few days later, de Gaulle spoke again, and this time was heard much more widely. His oratory improved. Nonetheless, almost all the French soldiers and sailors stranded in Britain after Marshal Pétain’s surrender chose repatriation rather than Gaullist exile. One could go home to mum, or one could stay on to be bombed in this cold, perfidious country which - as they saw it - had deserted the French army at Dunkirk and then murdered the French navy at Mers-el-Kébir. In the summer of 1940, this choice seemed like a French no-brainer.

And yet de Gaulle won through. The tiny faithful remnant who stuck by him gradually grew much larger. The appeal, dropped across France by the Royal Air Force, became a clandestine message of hope, then a call to resist and eventually a sacred text in the myth of post-war France....

De Gaulle reminded me of Józef Pilsudski, a classic White Horseman who had led Poland back to independence in 1918 and then dominated it, erratically, until his death in 1935. He had retreated in a sulk to his own Colombey at Sulejówek, but when he came riding back in 1926 to snatch full power, there was much more bloodshed than de Gaulle caused in 1958. Verbally, Pilsudski was irascible and could be coarse. De Gaulle, in contrast, preserved glacial good manners. He had his own sinister squad of goons and heavies (the “Barbouzes”), but - unlike the Pole - he did not throw his opponents into internment-camps.

The two men had known each other slightly. Charles de Gaulle had been a young officer on the French military mission to Poland in 1920, during the Polish-Soviet war. When he returned to Poland on a delirious state visit in 1966, some in Warsaw still remembered him. Known as Duzy Karolek (Long Charlie), he could be seen on Sundays after Mass, a stork-like figure striding along fashionable Nowy Swiat with a tiny packet of cake from Blikle, the best patissier, dangling from his gloved finger. I never found out the name of the Countess he was going to visit, but some very old Varsovians think they know....

De Gaulle was a colossus for most of my life. Sometimes he was malign, sometimes worth dying for, sometimes maddeningly aloof and conceited. But I think of the scene when the Frenchwomen who had survived Ravensbrück were brought out of the train in Paris. De Gaulle was supposed to make a triumphalist speech of welcome, but when he saw them, he could only weep. I remember him looking out over sunlit crowds in Normandy and calling out in a strong voice to “votre belle et nombreuse jeunesse”. And I think of his prose, for - like Pilsudski - he was a marvellous writer. This is what he wrote about the fate of his country seventy years ago this month:

“Old age is a shipwreck. So that we should be spared nothing, the old age of Marshal Pétain would soon be identified with the shipwreck of France”.

The man who wrote that understood the tempests of his century well.

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