By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Robin Bloodworth
Jonathan Fenby, in The General, shows Charles de Gaulle as the first among twentieth century French patriots. During Hitler’s rise to power, de Gaulle (like Winston Churchill) argues against appeasement. While leaders, Lebrun and Daladier in France and Neville Chamberlain in England kowtow to Hitler, de Gaulle and Churchill stand against the majority of their respective countrymen.
The general public mistakenly discounts the evil of the Austrian, psychopathic mama’s boy.
The majority of French and English citizens misunderstand Hitler’s threat to world peace. Churchill and de Gaulle condemn Hitler’s rise to power and his spurious invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Churchill and de Gaulle are leaders out of their time. Each lives in the past but correctly foretells the future. Each believes German’ fascism and Russian’ communism are the greatest threats to world peace. Each looks to the past and concludes that all other nations are pretenders to England’s and France’s historical right of empire. Johnathan Fenby’s biography of de Gaulle shows how much Churchill and de Gaulle share beliefs about empire and leadership.
Shakespeare notes that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. The preeminent players on WWII’s stage are Winston Churchill, Charles de Galle, Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. But, Churchill and de Gaulle are first in the fight and last to give up. Though Churchill and de Gaulle have shared beliefs, Fenby reveals how their common beliefs come into conflict because of their different journeys to similar ends.
Fenby shows that the main difference between de Gaulle and Churchill is in France’s defeat and the United Kingdom’s bulldog persistence in battling the German onslaught. Churchill takes control of a resisting nation while de Gaulle is relegated to an exiled government that exercises little control over a defeated and occupied France. Though de Gaulle does not have the oratorical skill of Churchill, he is first to grasp the value of public media-use to influence the public. Churchill’ speeches motivate allied powers while de Gaulle re-creates the myth of French’ majesty.
Fenby remarks on de Gaulle’s military ambition and unremarkable academic achievement. Fenby notes how fundamentally driven this future leader of France is, a belief that he, de Gaulle, is born to lead. Charles de Gaulle is steeped in the hegemonic history of his country. He fights as a battalion tank commander, without fear of death.
Charles de Gaulle believes he is destined to lead his country. These same characteristics are shown in Manchester’s biography of Churchill. Both men were fearless in battle, notorious academic underachievers, and ignored leaders that believed they were destined for greatness.
Both de Gaulle and Churchill wish to preserve or resurrect their countries’ national empires; each is thwarted by the course of world events and the innate drive of former colonies for independence. Patriotism based on empire fails de Gaulle and Churchill. Churchill is politically defeated when war ends and peace reigns; de Gaulle reluctantly retires after the war but is recalled when Algeria spirals out of control. But, as crises subsides, de Gaulle’s age and French prosperity render nationalist patriotism a weakened foundation for fame and glory.
Charles de Gaulle, though an empire builder, realizes the world is changing. He reluctantly adapts to change by building on the myth of royal leadership; de Gaulle, like an actor on the stage, cleverly uses words that mean different things to competing cultures and ethnicities. The actor becomes King. He rules by decree. This act suits de Gaulle’s personality and works for France until Algeria, once again, spirals out of control. The French leader’s Age and the Algerian’ fight for independence finally catch up with de Gaulle’s leadership mythology. Leadership decrees and myth are not enough to turn the tide of independence, and de Gaulle is nearing the end of his life.
Fenby shows de Gaulle to have been a man out of his time but clearly in tune with a great nation’s history. France’s defeat by Hitler is assuaged by a leader that understood his countrymen. Fenby explains how the myth and truth of de Gaulle returns France to a nation among nations; a nation to be respected and consulted in the affairs of the world. Fenby shows Charles de Gaulle as a prickly leader in the eyes of American Presidents, Russian leaders, and English Prime Ministers but with a weak hand from defeat in WWII, de Gaulle stands tall for the France he clearly loved.
Charles de Gaulle is a hero at the end of WWII. But, in the mid 1960s, the French are sick of war and become disillusioned by the idea of empire. They no longer revere the idea of a royal de Gaulle. As peace settles, France’s economic instability rises; the loss of Vietnam and conflict over Algerian independence doom de Gaulle’s nationalist agenda.
The General is a must listen for those who wish to have some understanding of a big part of French’ interests and culture that is represented in Fenby’s biography of Charles de Gaulle.