Since I have been a little kid, I have always been passionate about history. The Second World War fascinates me particularly, for several reasons. First, being born, as my entire family, in Northern France in the 80’s, it means that my grand-parents (all born in the 30’s) lived a part of their childhood under the Nazi Occupation. When I ask them about details of this tragic past, it is mesmerizing to imagine the experience they lived between May 1940 and August 1944. Second, the geopolitical settlement that ended this global tragedy had so many impact that understanding the cause and aftermath of WWII is compulsory to understand our World today.
As far as I’m concerned, as a European, there are 5 majors figures that illustrate this conflict: Hitler, of course, Churchill, Staline, F.D. Roosevelt and de Gaulle. Churchill and de Gaulle both wrote their own memoirs of the conflict period, and it’s been a long time since I want to read them. I finally started with de Gaulle a month ago. It was so fascinating that I read the 3 volumes in 10 days.
The book is divided into three main sections:
- L’Appel (The Call) 1940–1942
- L’Unité (The Unity) 1942–1944
- Le Salut (The Salvation) 1944–1946
Even if the core story is France-centered (of course), the global issues are well addressed, and all along, everything is presented in such a clear and detailed way that sometimes it feels like reading a novel. This is no surprise that we learnt in 2014, decades after he passed away, that he has been proposed to be the 1963 laureate of the literature Nobel priz.
The first volume starts by explaining how France ended up with such a poor preparation in the dawn of the conflict, when Hitler decided to invade Poland in September 1939. De Gaulle reminds us how, several times during the 30’s, he and a few others tried to convince all the different French governments to prepare for a terrible German revenge, powered by unprecedented warfare techniques: fighter jets, Panzers, submarines… He makes immediately clear that, according to him, the weakness of France at the end of the 30’s was due to a weak political power, itself due to the parliamentary regime that he always hated. After detailing how fast the country went down during the Blitzkrieg of May/June 1940 (also known as Battle of France), and not without mentioning his insistent, but unheard, suggestions to the government of quickly moving the power to Africa, where France at this time had a lot of colonial territories and could carry on the war from there, he explains how he decided to leave France for London, refusing to admit the armistice that French “officials” decided to sign.
He relates how Churchill and the rest of the British government have been helpful to him and the tens of thousands of French people who ended up risking their life crossing the Channel to keep fighting against Nazism and Fascism. At this time, the USA had not entered the war yet, and Churchill was pleased to have on his side a determined military power, no matter how weak it was compared to the British military power (the vast majority of French equipment and soldiers being blocked in a Nazi occupied France, or having been destroyed during the Blitzkrieg). Few weeks later, these French forces would end up being very helpful to the British Empire during the Battle of Britain, as Churchill felt it.
This volume is also largely filled with internal affairs. De Gaulle explains precisely how he managed to build in a few months (with the help of all the valuable people that joined him in London) a parallel administration that quickly ruled the majority of the French colonies (especially in Northern and Central Africa and Middle East). What the Free France achieved in such a small amount of time, with so little means is really mind blowing. As an entrepreneur, I could almost relate that to “bootsraping” a startup to compete with the gigantic global companies, war tragedies apart…
Some chapters could almost form a handbook for “How to negociate efficiently with the most powerful people on Earth”
In the second volume, we see a newcomer arriving in the story, and not just any: the United Stated of America decided to enter the war after the Japanese (allied of Germany and Italy) attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. From now one, the relationship between de Gaulle and Churchill will suffer, sometimes being close to a total break up. Thanks to the explanations given by de Gaulle, we understand how Churchill was willing to comply to almost all Roosevelt’s concerns, being aware of how the US military power would be decisive in the planned Western Europe offensive against Nazis. Roosevelt had a negative bias toward de Gaulle: he has been extremely disappointed when French “official” government decided to sign the armistice in June 1940, and was not willing to recognize de Gaulle as an official France representative. For Roosevelt, this was not just an emotional response to a disappointment: by refusing to deal with de Gaulle and his government, he intended to facilitate the task of establishing new rules in Europe as soon as the Nazi would be defeated. And of course, in his mind, those rules would be very profitable to the Americans. As much as Churchill loved France and respected de Gaulle’s mission, he didn’t want frontal opposition with the Americans, so he ended up minimizing de Gaulle’s concerns, repeating that France and the UK both needed the US to be fully committed in the war against Nazis. I couldn’t detailed here every fights that France, the UK and the US had between 1942 and 1944, but let’s just say that the WWII outcomes of France would have been terrible without de Gaulle’s relentlessness determination to not yield to any unacceptable settlements, were they concerning France, Europe, Middle East, Africa, or even Pacific.
To leverage his position in all the negotiations (from which Roosevelt always tried to put him apart) he had very little assets compared to the other stakeholders (Roosevelt, Churchill and Staline). But still, using the Free French small but motivated military power, the lands in the Indian and Pacific oceans, but also and mostly the obvious and unconditional support he was receiving by the part of French people who could express themselves freely at the time (and by the others, under Nazi oppression too) de Gaulle managed to hold firmly his position to defend French interests all over the world. This is definitely the most important lesson I gained from this reading: some chapters could almost be a handbook for “How to negotiate efficiently with the most powerful people on Earth, when you have little — or nothing — to offer.”
The third and last volume starts in June/July 1944, after the Liberation of France, and soon Europe, thank to American, British and Free French soldiers has began. Still fighting to defend the French interests with the Allies, de Gaulle has now the capacity to see how devastating the Nazi occupation was for French economy. He explains again very clearly how hard it was to try to set up a new temporary government in France (even though this government has been set up few months before, when Free France was still installed in Algeria — a French colony at the time) while trying to improve the military power (that would be used besides the Americans and British soldiers under Eisenhower commandment, to liberate the entirety of France, and to be involved in the future Germany occupation) and re-launching diplomatic relations with the rest of the World.
Until the very last few days of his life in April 1945, Roosevelt was still reluctant to acknowledge de Gaulle as the French Leader, now installed in Paris, despite every evidence that the French people were almost unanimously rooting for him at the time. Now that the war was almost over, Churchill, however, was willing to publicly appear in favor of the new French temporary government, his visit in Paris on November 11th 1944 to commemorate the end of World War 1, just 10 weeks after the Liberation of Paris from the Nazi forces, being the most obvious symbol.
On the diplomatic side, the chapter where de Gaulle narrates his visit in Moscow, as a guest of Staline, definitely worth the read! The spectacle described is hard to believe, and helped me having a better view of how was the USSR under Staline’s regime.
But the most challenging issue that de Gaulle and his government had to tackle during the Liberation, and after the war ended, was a socioeconomic matter. The state of France in 1944/1945 is catastrophic: demolished cities, millions of French prisoners (and potential workers) held in Germany, public finances plundered by the Germans, deep willing of revenge from the French Resistance toward the “collaborationists”… All of these problems were so dramatic when France recovered its freedom that it was close to fall apart, and to let its cultural, economic and military power to dislocate behind a global famine and a civil war. French communists (who had an important role in the Resistance) started to pressurized the new government, and all of the political parties from before the war intended to start working on a new Constitution.
After voting and enacting important symbolic laws (such as a public borrowing to boost public finances, creating the Social Security, allowing the right of vote to women, organizing lawful trials for punishing the “traitors” that let the Nazis took advantage of France, planning a way to avoid a dramatic inflation…) de Gaulle decided to resign in January 1946. He refused to be part of the soon-to-be-proclaimed 4th Republic, as it was going to be another parliamentary regime (the very root of France deliquescence in 1940, according to him).
The last chapter is very emotional, as we read the end of an extraordinary adventure that, almost miraculously, managed to keep France alive despite all deadly difficulties that it had to overcome. De Gaulle retires in his house in the French country-side with his family, and will stay aside from any political affair during 12 years. During this time, he took the time to write these amazing Memoirs. In 1958, the 4th Republic, close to a total collapse because of the Algerian War, begged him to come back, and left him the power to create the regime he always wanted. This regime would be the 5th Republic, still ruling France nowadays.
As I said in my introduction, this book was so fascinating that I read it in 10 days… and it’s a big one! My next “Historic” book will be Churchill’s Memoirs, as I’m looking forward to comparing their views on some critical topics.
Read it! It won’t be a waste of time to remember how during the 40’s, the vast majority of Nations fought against totalitarian and fascists regimes. As Churchill said:
“A nation that forgets its past has no future.”
This last quote may be very appropriate considering the current era we are living in Western democracies…