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.

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