Book review: De Gaulle by Julian Jackson

Charles de Gaulle


Extended Book Review by Paul A. Myers

De Gaulle by Julian Jackson

Part I: The Making of a General (2587 words)

The life of Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) breaks into three parts: the professional development of a distinctly unusual general; the war years of the Second World War that brought fame and political power; and the return to power in 1958 that brought him to the summit of high political achievement and lasting glory.

Jackson makes the point in his introduction that the name “de Gaulle” is ubiquitous across modern France, he is the dominate historical figure, far outdistancing Napoleon. It’s easy to see the strong figure of the great general wearing his kepi striding down the Champs Elysée, but Jackson tells the more compelling story of a great and iconoclastic thinker who by his very distinctiveness thought his way into the center of twentieth-century world history. He was always well ahead of his contemporaries, and often way ahead of the French public.

De Gaulle’s professional development traced an arc from Saint Cyr graduate of 1912, through his experiences in World War I, and into his professional development in the 1920s and 30s. The arc shaped a political general, a position of destiny to which he was appointed on June 5, 1940 as undersecretary of defense in the French government of premier Paul Reynaud. This was a ministerial position from which de Gaulle advocated strong measures to a government reeling and off balance as French armies fell back in headlong retreat before the German onslaught. Nevertheless, the appointed launched his career as a political general.

The future general came from a traditionalist family described as spiritual descendants of the ancien régime, internal exiles from the Republic. Passion for France was a bedrock value, the army seen as a way of serving France without compromised obeisance with the detested Republic. Enmity between Catholics and Republicans was a major theme of French nineteenth century history, a tension that exists to this day. André Malraux caught the flavor of the Catholic background of de Gaulle: “He talks often of France, never of God.”

The young de Gaulle was also shaped by the plays of Pierre Corneille (1606-84) who presented moral dramas setting personal happiness against the demands of heroic duty, a theme de Gaulle later echoed when he wrote that the leader “dedicates himself to that solitude that is the sad fate of superior beings.” His was a solitary view of leadership, the leader as a rock amidst the confusing flow of events.

De Gaulle’s conservatism was distinctly different from the reactionary conservatism of Charles Maurras (1868-1952) of Action Française whose work was built around exclusions and repudiations, of the need to purge France of impurities, always a favorite theme of nationalist conservatives. In contrast, De Gaulle was always more interested in broadening the base and power of the French state and crucially saw the state as the necessary instrument to organize the energies of the French people. In one of his books he was impressed with the pragmatic use of military power made by the ancien régime to secure the French state in its modern hexagonal configuration of borders.

In World War I, de Gaulle proved himself indifferent to physical danger, a characteristic that stayed with him throughout his life; he easily could have been killed dozens of times. Nevertheless, his opening experience of combat in the murderous battles of 1914 was that all the virtue in the world was powerless against firepower. Later, when firepower migrated from the defense to the offense with the shock tactics of tank warfare in the 1930s, he quickly appreciated the potential of massed armor attack and how it shifted the strategic balance from defense to offense.

Captured at Verdun, de Gaulle spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war. During this period, he formed a powerful personal credo that the leader must become a man of character and that the way to achieve this state was by developing daily habits so that the behavior of character must necessarily dominate the individual, who is almost by definition idiosyncratic and irresolute, in all matters from small to large. Transformation began within.

In these years, De Gaulle read and was deeply influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson who thought that immediate experience and intuition were more important than rationalism. This is a mode of thought out-of-step with the fabled French belief in all things Cartesian and its implicit determinism. Bergson thought that the capability for action cannot be allowed to become paralyzed by the brake of the brain, or analysis. In modern management jargon, no paralysis by analysis for de Gaulle. In fact, if this man wasn’t moving, he was dissatisfied, stewing in his discontents, which were always many.

The motivation behind de Gaulle’s philosophical journey was a search for the intellectual reasons behind the rigid doctrinaire thinking, and its reliance on abstraction, that led the French army into murderous assaults on the Germans early in the war. He rightly discerned that there had to be a failure in thinking behind the failures on the battlefield. He had instantly recognized its failure as bullets whizzed about him in the opening battles. De Gaulle grasped that there was a vital link between current thinking and future battlefield outcomes. Accordingly, he put a lot of thought into trying to be a leader current in his thinking and a person who was not be trapped in the failed thinking of the past. The crucial philosophical takeaway was the central role of contingency in the path of events and the need to escape from a priori assumptions because this rigid outlook blinds one to current circumstance. De Gaulle was preparing to be a leader who would move forward during the haphazard events of modern war as they chaotically unfolded. De Gaulle was one of the few generals unsurprised by the German blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939 and its success against France in May-June 1940. He was intellectually prepared, and thus had a resolute assurance about his person while others were cracking under the pressure.

Later after the Great War, de Gaulle was critical of the Ecole Militaire and its curriculum that in his opinion marched from abstraction to abstraction rather than pragmatic lesson to pragmatic lesson. In contrast, de Gaulle wrote that the leader’s role was to understand the nature of each particular case, to focus on the concrete. Action is then constructed on contingency and circumstance. Again, thinking is organized to lead to action, not inaction.

The relationship between civil and military power in France during World War I also led to analyses from which important conclusions were drawn by de Gaulle. Parliament’s oversight of the war had an “extremely salutary” effect over the conduct of military operations starting in 1915. Only a civilian government could coordinate with the Allies and provide for the rational organization of the war economy. A military autocracy was too narrow for such wide-scope endeavors. De Gaulle was able to frame the issue from a wider civilian point of view, rare for a professional military officer.

After the war and active service in Poland in 1919-20, de Gaulle returned and wrote his first book, “The Enemy’s House Divided.” De Gaulle studied why Germany lost and concluded the Germans had not achieved the correct balance between civil and military power. The military took advantage of the Kaiser’s weaknesses and destroyed the balance of the state. The book’s five chapters focus on turning points illustrating principles of leadership, politics, and warfare. De Gaulle used a technique similar to the case study approach later used by leading business schools; he used historical example to dramatize key conclusions from analysis.

Late in the 1920s, de Gaulle was introduced into the salon of Colonel Emile Mayer, a retired officer and nonconformist military thinker. This brought the young thinker into contact with the broader horizons of Parisian intellectuals and journalists.

After two years of duty in the Levant in the late 1920s, de Gaulle returned to Paris. The 1930s were the signal years in de Gaulle’s intellectual development, a time where he developed a rich and varied thinking deeply rooted in a realistic assessment of the world. He had a coldly realistic if not cynical outlook on the European political situation of the time.

With regard to the idealism at the time, he was out of sympathy with the movement for international peace through the League of Nations and international treaties led by long-time French foreign minister and sometime premier Aristide Briand. De Gaulle observed that the “century-old hatreds will revive in a more extreme form and one day peoples will hurl themselves at each other again determined to destroy each other.” He believed pacificism was a fantasy contrary to the laws of history. He saw war as a motor of history and part of the endless cycle of decline and renewal.

The instigating incident to the international politics of the 1920s and 30s was the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty, which de Gaulle saw as a peace of exhaustion. His assessment at the end of the 1920s with a colleague was: “We disagree on whether there will be war again: the army of the Rhine is not for much longer [this was the French occupation of the Rhineland in the 1920s mandated by the Peace Treaty]; Anschluss is close and then Germany will want back what she has lost of Poland and then Alsace … This seems to me to be written in the stars.”

In 1932, de Gaulle was appointed to the Secretariat of the CSDN, the civilian-military planning staff operating at the highest level in the government. He characterized his experience: “From 1932 to 1937, under fourteen ministries, I found myself involved  … in all the political, technical and administrative activity concerning the defence of the country.” This was the education of a political general.

Despite the political turmoil in the Third Republic, he once again commented favorably on the role of parliament in wartime government: “It showed also that the investigations and the pressure of parliament were not without value despite their often confused and passionate nature.”

In 1934, de Gaulle published his second book, the much discussed Towards a Professional Army, which was a manifesto for the modernization of the French army. He grasped that the combination of speed and firepower of mechanized forces had revolutionized warfare. When the Germans added attack aircraft to their blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939, de Gaulle quickly understood its revolutionary potential. The big idea de Gaulle advanced in his book was the proposed formation of six heavy armor divisions into a single corps with a professional complement of 100,000 career soldiers. This was sharply at variance to the deeply held belief that the French army should be “of the people” and raised from the people in time of national peril. The Socialist party leader Leon Blum attacked de Gaulle’s professional army in tandem with the conscript army repeatedly in the party paper. The political response was “No to two armies.”

But de Gaulle also made another salient point: without the capacity to launch offensive action, France could neither defend itself against German encroachment or contain Germany. France would be a toothless tiger. That was the key shortcoming of the citizen army of conscripts. This weakness was fully realized in March 1936 when Germany remilitarized the Rhineland as France stood helplessly by, unable to forcefully respond. The French army was not organized to call Hitler’s bluff.

De Gaulle’s book finished with a view that a stronger and possibly more authoritarian state was required to mobilize the nation. This part of the book with the whiff of the strongman about it carried through to the Second World War and there was a substantial group of influential French leaders, particularly in exile in the United States, who saw de Gaulle as a potential dictator and strongman, a view that colored Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view of de Gaulle.

De Gaulle read the world through the lens of geography, not ideology. He remarked on the geographical vulnerability of France’s north-eastern frontier with Belgium and Luxembourg, “So the map of France reveals our fate.” For geographical reasons he was in favor of alliance with Russia from 1934 on: “We do not have the means to refuse the help of the Russians whatever horror we have for their regime.”

Appeasement was anathema to de Gaulle. “We are heading towards war with Germany and … all that matters is to survive.” He saw that the success attending Hitler’s displays of force came from the cowardice of others.

The 1930s lead to evolution and sophistication in de Gaulle’s political thinking. As a realist, he nevertheless never ceased efforts to reform and improve. With the rise of mass rally politics in the 1930s, he saw a need for leadership in a society now dominated by the politics of the mass movement. He saw the power of the compelling personality at the center of populist movements reacting to the failures of the times. He felt elitist and managerial authoritarianism had to function under a mantle of charismatic leadership, the only avenue available to connect with the mass of the people.

In 1934, French politics had exploded with the ugly anti-parliamentarian riots in Paris. But it was also a year when de Gaulle met and came into the circle of parliamentarian Paul Reynaud. De Gaulle channeled his thinking on political change through Reynaud, particularly when Reynaud returned to government as a minister in 1938. He was the coming man in de Gaulle’s estimation. De Gaulle urged on the future premier the need for root-and-branch reorganization of the military that did impress upon Reynaud that de Gaulle thought large, an important trait when facing overwhelmingly large problems.

Posted to a tank regiment in Metz in 1937, de Gaulle undertook to publish another book, “France and her Army,” a project first undertaken with Marshal Philippe Pétain in the 1920s. Seven chapters from each major epoch of French history were profiled to draw out lessons, which included the importance of the state, the role of pragmatism, and that strength proceeded from order and discipline. The book is another example of de Gaulle’s use of the historical case to advance historically grounded arguments. And again, an assault on a priori thinking.

As war clouds gathered, de Gaulle urged full exploration of alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, but Hitler got there first with respect to Russia. When war came, the Allies planned for a long war and the use of blockade. De Gaulle long held a poor view of Poland from the time of his service there after World War I and said, “Poland is nothing, and anyway she is playing a double game.” He was not surprised by the collapse of Poland in a matter of weeks instead of months as thought by the French General Staff. He grasped that the strategic landscape had suddenly and completely changed.

The education of a political general was now complete and the gallop of events would bring him to the fore. Events of the greatest war yet seen would propel him forward to the pinnacles of political power. De Gaulle had articulated during the interwar years some profoundly correct views which stood him in good stead as the future unfolded. His perceptions as an acute realist were sharpened against the grindstone of clashing events, the environment in which his entire future as a political leader would be lived.

Paul A. Myers


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