Born in 1890, Charles de Gaulle spent the first 50 years of his life in relative obscurity. A midlevel French military officer, author of a handful of interesting, incisive, but minor books, he inhabited the political periphery of the Third Republic. Today, the French consider him the most important figure in their long history, with Napoleon a distant runner-up.
From 1940 to his retirement in 1969, writes Julian Jackson in De Gaulle, a new biography, “he was the central actor in France's two twentieth century civil wars.” Jackson means the war between de Gaulle's Free France organization and the collaborationist regime in Vichy and later the war between his Fifth Republic and the Algérie Française movement, made up of colonialists who had helped to bring him back to power in 1958.
All of which made de Gaulle both the “most revered” and the “most hated” Frenchman, targeted for assassination some 30 times but surviving to found a new and enduring republican regime in a country that had seen more than half a dozen regime changes after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in 1789.
Along the way, de Gaulle bruised British and American feelings more than once. As the only member of the last cabinet of the Third Republic to escape France and continue the struggle against the Nazi occupation, he owed his prominence to Winston Churchill's early support, but unhesitatingly established his small band of fellow exiles as a government-in-exile against the wishes of Churchill and especially of Franklin Roosevelt, who judged him a would-be military despot. As President of the new Republic, de Gaulle proved a resolute critic of “the Anglo-Saxons,” as he called them, opposing U.S. policy in Vietnam and blocking British entry into the European Common Market.
Given this history, English and American writers have tended to treat him roughly. But Jackson, a professor of history at Queen Mary University in London, has made a resolute effort to be fair, producing in a diligently researched, substantial biography that also serves as a social, political, and intellectual history of France in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. It is the best biography of de Gaulle yet written, and will likely remain so for a long time.
A Soldier Steeped in Literature
Firmly Catholic, a teacher of Latin, philosophy, and literature, de Gaulle's father Henri de Gaulle educated his children outside the anticlerical republican French public schools of the day. To the end of his life, Charles could recite long passages of Latin and French literature from memory; he was fluent in German and had what we now call reading knowledge of classical Greek, English, and Spanish. He knew not only the French standards (noble Pierre Corneille and romantic François-René de Chateaubriand being favorites) but also such contemporaries as Paul Verlaine and the Catholic patriot Charles Péguy. He took books seriously—that is, he modeled himself on the heroic characters he met in poems, dramas, and histories, admiring their courage and emulating their capacity to bridle their emotions. He never stopped reading, startling one young, prize-winning novelist in the late 1960s with a note praising his work and reminding him of the moral responsibility such talent brings with it.