The General vanishes

Douglas Johnson

  • De Gaulle. Vol. I: Le Rebelle by Jean Lacouture
    Seuil, 869 pp, fr 99.00, April 1984, ISBN 2 02 006969 5
  • De Gaulle. Vol. II: Le Politique by Jean Lacouture
    Seuil, 724 pp, frs 120.00, April 1984, ISBN 2 02 008933 5
  • Charles de Gaulle: A Biography by Don Cook
    Secker, 432 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 436 10676 0
  • Jean Moulin et le Conseil National de la Résistance
    Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent/Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 192 pp, frs 40.00, February 1983, ISBN 2 222 03428 0
  • De Gaulle et la nation face aux problèmes de défense 1945-1946
    Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent/Institut Charles-de-Gaulle, 317 pp, frs 110.00, May 1982, ISBN 2 259 01109 8
  • De Gaulle by Sam White
    Harrap, 239 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 245 54213 2

An interesting moment has been reached in de Gaulle studies. That the traditional approach has by no means been exhausted is shown by the biography by Don Cook, a journalist on the Los Angeles Times. It is still possible, and some would say still desirable, to write about the General using the same evidence and the same anecdotes that have already been used by scores of other writers. As the music-hall comedian said to his partner who was complaining about their act, ‘it was good enough for my mother and father and it’s good enough for you.’ But with the research organised by such bodies as the Institut Charles-de-Gaulle and the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent bringing together those who knew and who worked with the General and historians with an interest in establishing their own analyses and narratives, we are able to proceed to new assessments both of de Gaulle himself and of those long periods of history with which he was associated. New documents and témoignages have become available, and we are now in a position to look more sceptically at sources, such as the General’s own memoirs, which earlier had demanded almost uncritical acceptance.

The biographer who has the most directly benefited from this situation is Jean Lacouture. Having written a small and somewhat critical book on de Gaulle some years ago, he has now published two volumes of what is one of the most impressive exercises in biography to have come out of France in recent years. The second volume stops at the moment when de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, and it will be followed by a concluding volume which will certainly be as massive as its predecessors.

This is not to say that Lacouture has revolutionised our way of thinking about the General. There are few surprises in a text that is more a synthesis than a revision. But some episodes, such as de Gaulle’s childhood and upbringing, are examined in greater detail than before. There is also, for the first time, a full account both of the friendship between de Gaulle and Lucien Nachin, and of the important relationship between de Gaulle and Nachin and the man who was in many ways their guru, Colonel Emile Mayer. It does not seem that de Gaulle had many close friendships at Saint-Cyr or during the First World War. It is therefore all the more surprising that he should have become linked with Captain Nachin, which he probably did very soon after the Armistice (they had both been prisoners of war), since Nachin left the Army in 1923 and began to work for the Paris transport services. De Gaulle’s devotion to Mayer is even more significant. Mayer had had an unusual career, having frequently been in trouble with the military authorities because of his unorthodox views and his readiness to express them in countless newspapers and reviews. The fact that he was Jewish, that he knew the socialist Jaurès and the pacifist Romain Rolland, and that his daughter was a close friend of Léon Blum, must also have caused him to appear suspect in some military circles. But de Gaulle was a regular visitor to the meetings which he organised in the Boulevard Beauséjour on Sunday mornings, and to the more specialised officers’ group which met in the Brasserie Dumesnil opposite the Gare Montparnasse on Monday evenings. From Mayer de Gaulle learned that the old methods of warfare were over, that there were no longer any fixed rules and that it was improvisation and speed which counted. Although he did not follow Mayer in his somewhat obsessional idea that the defence of France should be entrusted to aircraft carrying out chemical warfare, and although he would certainly have developed his ideas on tanks and motorised warfare without knowing Mayer, he did not hesitate to describe himself as Mayer’s élève and disciple.

There are three areas with which historians and witnesses have recently been particularly concerned. They are de Gaulle’s relations with the Resistance movements as they developed inside France; his policies at the time of the Liberation and his failure to impose himself as the accepted leader of a new republic; and his actions during the famous événements of May 1968. In all these areas historians are obliged to take an interest in the personal element. However strong the pull of events, a great deal of importance has to be attached to de Gaulle’s own intentions.

It has long been assumed that one of the reasons why the adventure of Free France ended in triumph, with the unknown and isolated general of June 1940 striding victoriously down the Champs-Elysées in August 1944, was that de Gaulle had succeeded in taking over all parts of the French Resistance movement. He had always led the résistance extérieure: his position changed when the résistance intérieure accepted his leadership. This made it possible for him to establish his authority in Algiers in 1943 and in France the following year, and was of far greater significance to him than the neurotic disapproval affected by Roosevelt and Cordell Hull. It is regrettable that so many biographies (including Dan Cook’s) should treat this part of de Gaulle’s life with scant attention.

As Lacouture points out, de Gaulle was slow to realise the importance of the Resistance. He understoood very well how to stand up to Churchill or to take action in the African territories which La France Libre controlled, but he found it difficult to grasp what was going on in the various clandestine movements that were active in France. The reluctance of a militaire to entrust civilians with a military role was encouraged by the fact that many of the most active civilians, whether they were working with the British, in some separate French organisation, or in association with the Americans, were anti-de Gaulle. Charles Tillon, who led the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français, wasn’t in fact anti-de Gaulle, but he must have been typical of the greater part of the Resistance movement: ‘De Gaulle?’ he was later to write. ‘Je l’écoutais, mais je m’occupais de mon église à moi.’

Naturally it has always been claimed that de Gaulle was slow to recognise the importance of the Resistance (it should be said that he was quicker than the British Government) because he was reluctant to accept it. Here was a rival to La France Libre: a movement which was revolutionary as well as being patriotic, and which thought in terms of insurrection rather than in terms of an Allied victory. This, it is said, explains his order of October 1941, instructing his compatriots not to kill individual Germans. His aim was to restrain the Resistance, to persuade it to adopt a policy of attentisme until the Allies were ready to organise a landing in France and he was in a position to establish his government. Lacouture does not accept this interpretation and it is obvious that de Gaulle’s attitude made sense both in military and in humanitarian terms. What was needed was effective support, not martyrs. Lacouture’s explanation of why de Gaulle chose Jean Moulin to be his principal representative with the different Resistance groups is worth taking seriously. Moulin, like de Gaulle, had always rejected the Armistice. Like de Gaulle, he spoke of the need for unity. Perhaps most important, Moulin was from the prefectoral corps. He therefore represented the French state. Without such a representative the Resistance would have broken with the continuity and legitimacy of French history – a constant Gaullist theme.

The story has many beginnings and many individuals could be described as central to it. From July 1940 onwards, Colonel Passy had thought in terms of organising military action within France, and he set up the Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action Militaire in London. In November 1941, Philippe Rocques, who had served with Georges Mandel, the Minister of the Interior in the last government before the Armistice, was sent out to organise political opinion in France. Several members of the Socialist Party were prominent in trying to unite the different Resistance groups: Boris Fourcaud, Yvon Morandat and Pierre Brossolette took important political initiatives towards this end. It is usually believed, however, that it was Jean Moulin who was the real creator of the Conseil National de la Résistance. Recently, while Moulin’s alleged murderer, the Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, was awaiting trial in Lyons prison, a colloquium was held in Paris which examined Moulin’s role in founding the Conseil – it met for the first time at 48 Rue de Four in Paris on 27 May 1943. The chief witness at this colloquium was Daniel Cordier, who for several months acted as Moulin’s chief assistant and who, at this late hour, has produced a number of documents whose existence was unknown.

What the evidence submitted to this gathering, and the discussions which followed, reveal most clearly is how difficult it was to bring the different Resistance movement together under one leadership. It is impossible even now to establish an account of these events which all parties will accept, and those leaders of the Resistance movement who were present, Charles Tillon, Christian Pineau, Fernand Grenier and the widow of Pierre Brossolette, could not agree either with Cordier’s chronology or with his interpretations. At a time when London, Algiers and Vichy were in dispute as to which of them represented the real France, when brave and patriotic Frenchmen were at odds with one another over the way the future should be organised (the Americans expected to play a vital role), Jean Moulin came to the conclusion that de Gaulle was the only person who could forestall the dangers of anarchy and create an effective sense of national unity. But further difficulties followed from this. The Conseil National de la Résistance had to include all parties, including the representatives of those which had dominated political life before 1939. It also had to include the Communists. Any hope that the non-Communist Resistance and the Gaullists, neither of whom had any precursors in French history, would dominate the future government of France had to be abandoned. It would appear that de Gaulle and Moulin only accepted these measures with reluctance, and one is struck by the patience, tenacity and realism that were shown by both men. After the Liberation, de Gaulle was to feel the constraints which these agreements brought in their wake.

The socialist leader, André Philip, had foreseen these difficulties. In a sequence of somewhat hectoring letters to de Gaulle, he claimed that de Gaulle would enjoy wide popularity when he arrived in Paris, but that within three months of the Liberation, the difficulties of governing and the necessity of adopting a whole series of unpopular measures would be such that everyone would be discontented. De Gaulle, he stressed, would have to work with others, no matter how much he despised them or disapproved of their political loyalties. In September 1944 he accused de Gaulle of having failed to come to terms with the Resistance, of being ‘trop brutal et trop froid’. Later he was to plead with de Gaulle to try to understand ‘la psychologie de l’Assemblée’, and to insist that there had to be some equality in his relations with Parliament.

In De Gaulle et la nation face aux problèmes de défense there is naturally a great deal of emphasis on the disagreements that arose between the political parties and the General. These culminated in de Gaulle’s resignation on 20 January 1946. Historians like Jean-Pierre Rioux do not believe that there was any specific conspiracy to force de Gaulle to resign, although it is well established that many Socialists believed that his insistence on re-organising defence at the expense of re-organising the economy was harmful to their party. On the other hand, de Gaulle’s son-in-law, General de Boissieu, who was there at the time, does believe in such a conspiracy. He recalls his visits to the Salle des Pas Perdus in the Assemblée Nationale, when he saw the enthusiasm with which Deputies greeted the prospect of de Gaulle being obliged to ‘avaler son képi’. He claims that de Gaulle wished to resign earlier than he did, and it is curious to see that André Philip, in a letter written in October 1945, added, ‘Vous savez bien que cela est impossible,’ and his son, Loic Philip, who now teaches at the University of Aix-Marseille, claims that his father never wished for de Gaulle’s resignation.

Was it possible, then, that de Gaulle possessed some inner compulsion to withdraw from the world of affairs, some nihilistic urge to isolate himself? ‘Solitude has been my temptation,’ he once said. ‘It became my friend.’ This has always been denied by those who thought that the resignation of 1946 was a plot, and that de Gaulle expected that a movement of public opinion would insist on his return to office and would frighten and shame the régime des partis into accepting both his presence and his policies. But the events of 1968 have given a new credibility to the theory. On 29 May, the day when a massive Communist union demonstration had been planned, de Gaulle left Paris and made a short visit, lasting little more than an hour and a half, to Baden-Baden, where he discussed the crisis with General Massu, the commander of French troops stationed in Germany. Since this journey was organised in conditions of extraordinary secrecy, with de Gaulle concealing his intentions from his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, and from all his other ministers and close advisers, and since he was accompanied by his wife and several other members of his family, there have always been those to suggest that he was intending to give up the Presidency and literally to flee the country. Pompidou’s memoirs, which were published after his death in a fragmentary and unrevised form, offer confirmation of this story. Pompidou hints that he had always known of the General’s susceptibility to psychological crises and of his periodic desire to give up power and responsibility. General Massu has written an account of the General’s unexpected arrival at Baden-Baden in which he stresses de Gaulle’s demoralisation and claims that it was their conversation which helped him to recover his courage and resolution. De Gaulle returned to Paris from Colombey and the next day he broadcast a vigorous speech in which he affirmed his determination to stay in office. The immediate outcome was a sweeping Gaullist victory in the elections of the following month.

Obviously, admirers of de Gaulle do not care for the idea that in a moment of crisis he had panicked and run away. Still less do they like the picture of him taking refuge in Germany, like Louis XVIII heading for Ghent or Louis-Philippe taking ship for England. Nor do they relish the claim that it was only after a few inspiring words from General Massu (and there could only have been time for a few) that de Gaulle took a grip on himself and was able to return and face the crisis. But all biographers of the General now have to consider this problem, and one would expect that those, such as Don Cook, who see in him some sort of flawed genius, a great man whose greatness was marred by particular weaknesses, would seize upon this episode as an example of the General’s uneven personality. Cook refuses to be stampeded by the posthumous testimony of Pompidou, or by the statements which Massu has repeated more than once. He insists on one undeniable fact, which was that de Gaulle had always said that he would return to Paris the next day. It was only because of bad weather conditions that the meeting with Massu did not take place in the Vosges region, and it was only because of a telephone strike that they did not arrange a meeting at Strasbourg. It was therefore entirely by chance that he had to go as far as Baden-Baden. Don Cook concludes that de Gaulle always knew what he intended to do. He needed time, and he needed to throw a smoke-screen around his intentions so that he could stimulate the loyalties of his supporters.

This is probably correct. De Gaulle might well have thought it advisable to absent himself from Paris on 29 May, together with his wife and son. A big demonstration had been planned for that day, and in the heady moments of 1968 it was not inconceivable that the unions, or other groups which were convinced that power was there to be seized, might attempt to invade the Elysée Palace. De Gaulle was prudent. But he was also aware that even in government circles there were those who believed that the conflict had gone too far, that a settlement was necessary, and that he had become an obstacle to such a settlement. De Gaulle acted boldly. His secret, dramatic journey to see General Massu was intended to strike the imagination of the nation and to force his fellow-countrymen to realise that his leadership was indispensable. He had succeeded in appropriating this role for himself in 1943. He had failed to do so in 1946. He was to succeed in the immediate crisis of 1968.

It is only to be expected that in such a complex and volatile situation, the journalist who has to send his copy in, day by day, is going to make mistakes. Sam White, who has re-published the pieces he wrote for the Standard over many years, is no exception. Thus, during the crisis of 1968, we find him stating as an absolute certainty that de Gaulle was about to resign, that the Government was falling apart, that troops were marching on Paris. On the other hand, on the very day the General disappeared, White wrote that the move might have been intended to scare the French nation into thinking about what would happen if he abandoned power. He frequently remarks on the General’s extraordinary (‘almost mystical’) prescience and on his fundamental detestation of political parties and his equally fundamental detestation of French political and social élites. These feelings were at their strongest when he was in London in 1940. While stressing the political guile which was one of the General’s chief assets, Cook also makes the point that few statesmen have stated their intentions so clearly and followed the course of their ideas so closely. Apparently Stalin once said that de Gaulle was really a very simple man. This was probably true. But there was grandeur in that simplicity and in recognising this the most recent writers on de Gaulle do not differ from those who have preceded them.