For a time, a brief and momentous time, he was France.
It is one of history’s strangest moments. France besieged; France defeated; France capitulated; and then, four years later, France reborn.
France was reborn through a lone, tall, austere, strange figure named Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle loved his nation, having been raised in a Catholic home devoted to church and country. In the First World War, he fought valiantly, and when captured by the Germans escaped no less than five times from prison camps. Following the war, he fashioned himself as a military strategist, (unsuccessfully) pushing against the defensive posture of the French military intelligentsia. He served under Philippe Pétain, one of France’s justly famous generals, and saw his career advance because of the old warrior’s patronage.
But then came Hitlerism and an aggrieved Germany once more. Though France had major martial resources and huge numbers of soldiers—outnumbering Germany in several respects, as Jonathan Fenby showed in The General—the country had little will to fight. France collapsed. De Gaulle escaped, his wife and children following him, wriggling out of the country with nary a second to spare. In London, de Gaulle began the performance of his life. Like Winston Churchill, all his previous existence was a preparation for that hour, the greatest of hours for a fighter, and yet the most terrible of hours as well. De Gaulle announced that he was the head of the new France, the “Free French,” and called all his countrymen to rally around his banner. He gave a speech on June 18, 1940, that few Frenchmen heard then but that still echoes in history:
I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who may be in the future, with their weapons or without their weapons; I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who may be in the future, to contact me.
He concluded the point, “The flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”
This epic event, recounted chronologically and with an eye to detail by Julian Jackson in the recent biography De Gaulle (Belknap, 2018), set a new course for France. De Gaulle saw himself as nothing less than the keeper of the French flame, the custodian of the vaunted but now-embattled legacy of one of the great countries of the world. Traveling abroad for a meeting, de Gaulle was asked about his “mission” and famously replied: “I am not here on a mission, I am here to save the honour of France.” Aside from the righteous defiance of Churchill, there may be no more outsized instance of statesmanship in the last 500 years of governance.
De Gaulle believed in this project. He was an idealist (and, as later events would show, a realist). He had an idea of France, and he put everything on the line to defend and preserve it. De Gaulle, as Jackson shows, seemed to see himself as called not only to reconstitute political France (as Vichy had cut a truce with Nazi Germany) but to preserve in a singlehanded sense the dignity of the nation. In practical terms this meant cooperation with Britain but also tremendous asperity in diplomacy. Churchill and de Gaulle had numerous paint-peeling clashes, engagements in which de Gaulle intrigued for the best possible position for the Free French. It is understandable that he did so, and many of his efforts succeeded in time. But he proved himself a monumentally difficult figure, gnomic and aloof, regal and rigid, carrying his head high yet continually weighed down by the preposterous endeavor he was attempting to carry off.
Jackson chronicles and catalogs the many twists and turns of de Gaulle’s life and leadership. His is an exhaustive and judicious book, but he does sprinkle in material that allows us to draw near to de Gaulle, even if we see him always at a distance. Devoted to his wife Yvonne, de Gaulle fathered several children, including Anne, a child with special needs. The vignettes about the father’s love for his daughter are not many in number, but communicate a most tender dimension of de Gaulle. De Gaulle played quiet little games with her, told her stories, and rushed to her side when returning from his peregrinations. When Anne died in 1948 at age 20, de Gaulle told the local priest, “I am a man annihilated.” These are not the words of a self-obsessed politico. Though de Gaulle seemed (and was) a man apart, he was clearly a traditional man, bound to his family and loved ones, finding solace and strength and purpose in his role as husband and father.
Yet de Gaulle had a never-quieting ambition. He was a man of destiny, and he would not rest until France was free. That day came in 1944 when de Gaulle and Churchill entered Paris as a liberated city. Mostly liberated, that is; German snipers still stuck around, and many cowered when gunshots rang out in the public celebrations. De Gaulle did not cower. He never flinched. He did not duck. He walked out in the open in unstable Paris, hundreds of thousands of people mere feet from him. Statesmanship is assuredly more than public performance, but de Gaulle knew that it is not less than this. His performance is one of the greatest, a master-class in courage and recovered honor.
Yet de Gaulle, who had already seen and done enough to fix his place in history, had much more to do. The next 25 years saw him reestablish constitutional government in France, a massive accomplishment; abruptly leave power in 1946; build a new political party that never quite captured mainstream prominence, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF); subtly oppose the spread of communism and socialism in France, always while maneuvering carefully; return to power from 1958–68 as French president; embrace the burgeoning movement for Algerian independence; broker lasting peace with Germany; and outlive fellow world-leaders Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler by a long shot (in most cases). Churchill was the last Victorian, and the last lion; de Gaulle was the first European television politician, incredibly. Though born in 1890, he took to the medium instinctively.
Jackson’s De Gaulle is a worthy and commendable book. Balanced but gently favorable to de Gaulle, it functions as the extensive recounting of de Gaulle’s existence and career that we have needed (nearly 800 pages in the telling). Jackson does not permit himself the grand flights of a William Manchester; his is the chronicle, always with an eye to illusion, irony, turnabout, and mystique. Yet though Jackson offers us a decidedly modern perspective on the great Frenchman, he also carefully sidesteps the deconstructionist approach that might render de Gaulle an impostor or mere showman. Jackson’s de Gaulle really is a great man, albeit one with real contradictions, flaws, opacity, and quirks. If the text is rather dense in yielding this portrait (and distant from certain conservative commitments, for instance economically), it is still valuable for its detail and overall depiction.
De Gaulle’s narrative is richly meaningful for our time. It is certainly meaningful for France; it is also needful for those of us in America. We have not suffered through a military takeover by a hostile power; instead, we are facing an intellectual takeover by a hostile power. American children are now growing up with education and indoctrination that tells them their country’s past is shameful beyond recovery. American children now learn in public schools and public libraries that manhood and womanhood are fictional, that homosexuality and transgenderism are normal, and that traditional manhood in particular is the root cause of what ails us. American children hear that “whiteness” is a close cousin to original sin, and that there is no hope of racial unity (despite significant on-the-ground, non-social-media unity in real time and space). American children grow up in a country that has embraced abortion, with the killing of children being the one sacrosanct cultural right and the greatest ritual act of our ascendant neo-pagan death cult.
America was never a truly Christian nation, has real and tragic sin in its past, and will never be what we wish it would be. But America is nonetheless a country that has done real good and offered real liberty to many people. America has prized and promoted religious liberty and free speech in unprecedented fashion; the very presence of the ideology mentioned above in generalized form is itself an ironic witness to just how free our free speech is, for we will truly tolerate nearly anything, including even speech and thinking that would destroy our body politic from within. Yet much as we love free speech and seek to preserve it, we who love this country must also ask, What is happening to our society, our culture, our people? How long can this diseased and battered country still stand on its feet?
If you burn America down, what is left in its place, exactly?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Further, as Christians we freely and gladly confess that our hope is not in America; it is squarely and solely in Christ. Yet we do well to ask such things, for we live here and are to make a temporal home here. In civilizational terms, we need to think once more about Charles de Gaulle. For a brief time, he was very France itself. When good men became cowards, when a once-great nation became the client state of the Nazis, de Gaulle alone stood in defiance. De Gaulle alone made his way through gnarled landscapes and fiery skies to London. De Gaulle alone defended and preserved the honor of France. De Gaulle alone rallied Frenchmen to their flag. De Gaulle alone fought for his country and allowed something of historic France to endure and survive and later thrive once more.
But who will stand for us? Who will speak for us? Who will defend what is worth defending of America? Who will preserve the honor of this culture, this society, this people? Many of us give thanks for certain victories in the last several years, with Roe v. Wade possibly near its end as only one example of real gains made. But what of our children? What of their future beyond this term, this cycle? Will they receive from us the strength and virtue needed to preserve the honor and dignity of this country?
America is not eternal; only the New Jerusalem is eternal. Yet until we inhabit the New Jerusalem, we are called to live here, pray for our rulers, live as salt and light, and love God and neighbor. Who will rise now and in future days to defend the country that allowed us to taste some serious measure of earthly liberty, earthly peace, earthly happiness? Until we know the answer, we are America embattled; America besieged; America buckling, staggering under the burden of its own internal travail.