Monday, May 10, 2021

Charles De Gaulle: The Oddity

When leaders fail, new leaders are projected upward out of the eternal spirit of France: from Charlemagne to Joan of Arc to Napoleon, Poincaré and Clemenceau. Perhaps this time I am one of those thrust into leadership by the failure of others.

Charles De Gaulle


The First World War resulted in a pyrrhic victory for France.  During the course of the war, it lost about one and half million men which equates to roughly one thousand men a day, about ten percent of the male population. Six and half million men were wounded of which over a million were mutliés, i.e. maimed or disfigured. The experience of war had deeply traumatised the  country and and had and had changed its national  temperament, similar in the way the U.S. was affected after Vietnam.  The country's strong sense of militant nationalism gave way to a malaise. Whereas before the war, the military were held in esteem, the experience of war and sense of national grief lead to a loss its prestige and an air of pacifism and hedonism took its place.

The needs of war temporarily put aside the national conflict between left and right, which gradually asserted itself again with the onset of peace. Further complicating matters was the relationship between the religious and the secular, which while still tense, was not as poisonous as in the pre-war years. And even within the French Catholic Church there was a broad division between the traditionalists and the liberals.

With regard to the French Left, and I'm painting in broad strokes here, who were the the lackeys for soviet communism, they worked to co-opt pacifistic trends for their masters advantage. Through economic and industrial sabotage the damaged the french economy, policy and national will.  There loyalty was primarily to a Soviet France and they danced to the tune played by Moscow. Their loyalty to France was conditional on soviet directives. and when the soviets wanted them to support Germany they did.

The Right in France were an all-together different beast. The main right organisation was Action Francaise.  It was pro-monarchy, pro-France, pro-Catholic and anti-Left. Led by Charles Maurras, a brilliant writer and journalist, he had dubious distinction of advocating a Catholic France while being totally contemptuous of religion.  Despite regarding belief with disdain, Maurras regarded it as valuable because of its social utility. He supported Catholicism because it was the historical religion of France, but but to him this was just an accident of history, and if France had had an Islamic tradition, he would have supported it as well.  The fact that the leading advocate of the largest right wing organisation in France was openly contemptuous of religion did bother some  of the religious, but that didn't stop many clergy--some of them at extremely high levels of the French church-- from supporting it and singing its praises.

The picture that I'm trying to paint is of a divided, depressed, hypocritical and wounded society which had deep social, economic, moral and religious problems. Two books which deal with the subject matter well are Eugen Weber's The Hollow Years which tackles the subject from a sociological level, and Yves Simon' brilliant book, The Road to Vichy which tackles it from a moral one. Simon's book is better, in my opinion, in understanding the near utter corruption of France's cultural institutions and population. A good summary of it can be found here.

The bottom line is that the France was a deeply traumatised country which seemed to want to forget the war and enjoy itself, all the while avoiding the menacing reality on its eastern border. What also strikes you, when you read the biographies of De Gaulle, is just how "culturally" different he was both to his contemporaries, and outside the temper of his own times. In many ways he was a throwback to values from before the war--though from the avant-garde* conservative element -- possessing a sense of realism that was lacking in many Frenchmen.  While he was not a "popular" fellow, he had superiors who recognised his intellect and abilities and ensured his progression through the ranks. By the eve of the war in France, he was a brigadier general commanding a tank division, attaining his rank from success in armoured combat. His success in battle earned him a promotion as the government minister. Even in government he was an oddity, because when the French finally capitulated against the Germans he decided to fight on.

The point that I'm trying to emphasise here is that De Gaulle  was an outsider and not someone  cut from the same prevailing cloth that made up the French governing classes of the time. He possessed a different set of values and this is the key to understanding the man and his subsequent actions.

It is very important to understand that the French ruling class of the 1930's--both right and left--was rotten.  De Gaulle was an outsider, and his rise through the ranks was not political but driven by the force of circumstances which highlighted competency in a time of crisis and rendered "political" skills inconsequential . And when I reflect on his rise, it always strikes me as remarkable how this oddity, this man who was different, ended up being in a position where he were he could with legitimacy speak for a France that did not want to capitulate.

There were Frenchmen who wanted to fight but it appears to be that there were none in Government. What further emphasises this point, it that when he put out his appeal for men to join him in England, not one intellectual, politician or senior diplomat wanted to join him.  As Don Cook, in his biography of him wrote:

In those early days, it was not men of experience or leadership, it was not the intellectuals or politicians or administrators or serving officers who were the first Gaullists and rallied to the Cross of Lorraine. They did not come from the châteaus or cathedrals, but from the parish churches and the synagogues, the French of the Paris Métro, the fishing villages, the factories, for whom all was clear and simple.
By and large the French educated and administrative classes were rotten and De Gaulle seemed to be the last vestigal element of what was good in it. I'm not trying to be melodramatic here but the facts speak for themselves. As De Gaulle took off from french soil for England, Churchill's comments were close to the mark.
He carried with him in his small air plane the honor of France

When De Gaulle arrived in England he was looking for an officer or official to serve under. He wrote to various French officials who could of assumed the role but none replied. Then he realised he was on his own. He didn't seek power, it was thrust on him. Realising he was on his own he made the decisive choice:

It was up to me to take responsibility for France
All his subsequent actions can be understood as the application of his principles to the custodianship of France. The reason why he baffled and infuriated his allies is because he was not like them.

*I think a point that doesn't get emphasised enough is just how well read and intelligent De Gaulle was. What really surprised me as I looked into him more deeply, is just how intellectual actually he was and just how influenced he was by the small coterie of French dissident Right thinkers who were repelled by Action Francaise and yet did not drift to the Left.


MK said...

Charles Maurras...had dubious distinction of advocating a Catholic France while being totally contemptuous of religion...The fact that the leading advocate of the largest right wing organisation in France was openly contemptuous of religion did bother some of the religious, but that didn't stop many clergy--some of them at extremely high levels of the French church-- from supporting it and singing its praises.

I don't get your concern here. Myself, I have the humility to separate political leaders from my religion without angst. Trump seems similar to me here; clearly not a religious man, it wouldn't surprise me if here were secretly contemptuous of all religion...but I have no trouble supporting him, and I hope my Church leaders do as well. I often think of Mormon political leaders this way - does anyone really think intelligent Mormons actually believe all that crap? But regardless they can be very good leaders and support the political agenda I (and the Church) prefers.

MK said...

The picture that I'm trying to paint is of a divided, depressed, hypocritical and wounded society which had deep social, economic, moral and religious problems.

I get everything but the "hypocritical" and "religious" problems part. Said another way, can you give an example of any nation that doesn't have this issue? To me, this is simply level ground, nothing unique to France at this time. Unless I'm missing something?

The Social Pathologist said...


I don't get your concern here. Myself, I have the humility to separate political leaders from my religion without angst.

Action Francaise wasn't just a political organisation such as the Democrat or Republican Party, it was more an ideological one that wanted to co-opt Catholicism for nationalist aims. It's "Catholicism" was subordinated to nationalistic interests.

As this interesting article in Commonweal states:

Action Française was a form of Gallicanism, or ecclesial nationalism. Its idea of Catholicism was more tribal and political than mystical. As philosopher Étienne Gilson put it, “they are very interested in Rome, but have no interest in Jerusalem.” For Action Française, it was the church as an institution and political power that mattered, not the Gospel. This is why they could simultaneously celebrate the majesty of Rome and revile a pope whose teachings they found inconvenient.

You weren't just signing on to support a man, you were signing on to support a vision.

Note, Charles De Gaulle was sympathetic to them but was philosophically apart.

Said another way, can you give an example of any nation that doesn't have this issue?

There are degrees of graduation between political differences and civil war. In England the Left and Right differ but the hostility is not so great as the differences between the Left and Right in the U.S. France was in the preparatory stages of a cold civil war. That book, The Road to Vichy, highlights the state of affairs quite well.

MK said...

co-opt Catholicism for nationalist aims...degrees of graduation between political differences and civil war.

Thanks for expounding. I guess my experiences in both religion and politics are so different I can't decide if this national Catholicism is a religious or political fantasy (or both). Perhaps I'm just too American.

Marcus Montisursinensis said...

I did not read the book Road to Vichy but I must say that I did not much like that old linked article in the Crisis Magazine. I am from Croatia and in 1941, when WW2 finally started there, one could be pro-Axis or pro-Soviet or just passively wait to be taken to the first army that came for you. It is nice to be outraged with Pius XII or Garrigou-Lagrange from that nice safe distance of the Atlantic Ocean. It is also nice to speak against Franco, who had many flaws, but unlike my ancestors, Simon did not have to live in a country ruled by the communists the most dreadful of whom were the "heroes" of Spain. Of course, how could anyone in the 1930s even think that the French/American/British style of democracy was not the only possible way of government. Still, I concur with the general idea of your post, Doc.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Marcus Montisursinensis

I did not read the book Road to Vichy

I suggest that you do since the political environment and ideological approaches use by left and right parties are helpful in understanding the dynamics of events in Yugoslavia before WW2.

My family are from the Sijnska krajina

Both of my grandfathers were caught up in the war.

My paternal grandfather was nearly hung by the Italians, accused of being a bomb courier he was saved by an Italian officer who vouched for his innocence.

My maternal grandfather who had 8 children and was busy enough trying to feed his family, wanted to stay out of the War, but he was religious and that was problem with the local commies. He joined the Ustaše after the commies tried to kill him. It was more an issue of gang protection than anything else. After being wounded in the war fighting the Italians and seeing most of his friends killed, he was hoping to be invalided out from the fighting. He was on leave when the commies declared an amnesty and came to his house and put a gun to my grandmother's head, threatening to kill her if he did not "join" them. He then fought all the way up the Dalmatian coast on the side of the communists, in the "prve redove" as he was considered expendable. He fought all the way up to Italy. At the end of the war, the command wanted to execute him because of his past history but he was saved by one of the most brutal communists who had befriended him through a mutual love of hunting. When he returned from the war the local commies gave him shit for the rest of his life.

My father was actually herded up into his family's house with the rest of the women and children and the building was set alight. I'm not sure if it was the Ustaše or Germans who saved them but they were rescued in the nick of time.

So guess I'm quite familiar with the social pressures that affected people at the time, especially in that part of the world.

The problem is not so much with the people (though it is to a certain degree) but with the leaders, of which Garrigou-Langrange and Pius XII were. To whom much is given much more is expected. What you find in the interwar period was an almost complete failure of the Catholic right to recognise the menace of the "Right wing" versions of socialism. In fact there were many cases of outright complicity. I was a period of where the Church became spiritually "hollowed out". The question is why were they that stupid.

Don't get me wrong, in laying the boot into these guys I'm not in any way excusing the communists. They were bastards and Yves Simon takes too harsh a line, in my opinion, on Franco.

De Gaulle and Franco operated in different circumstances and it would have been interesting to see how De Gaulle would have acted if he were in Franco's situation. But the point is that De Gaulle embodied a "Right" and "Catholicism" that loathed the Fascism that held many other conservatives under their spell. And this is why he is worth studying.

By the way, you might be interested, many of the posts on this blog have come about from meditating on Croatia's problems in the 20th C.

David Foster said...

A good source on France in the 1940 campaign is General Edward Spears, who was Churchill's close friend and military liason. His two-book series, 'Assignment to Catastrophe', is indispensable for insights into the psychology of the society of the time, as well as the military factors.

See also my post An Unexpected Defeat:

John Rockwell said...

Somehow related is this excellent analysis of how the Soviet Union was able to carry out it's directives:

Would be interested in your commentary. It seems they are able to do far more than the man in France for this reason.

David Foster said...

John interesting post. But why, other than branding and historical continuity, is China 'Marxist" or 'Leninist'...seems to me that 'Fascist' or 'Corporatist' would be a better description? After all, Mussolini supposedly made the trains run on time, and the same kind of Americans who are admiring the Chinese regime today were big Mussolini-admirers.

The Social Pathologist said...


Thanks for popping in.

One of the things I find really interesting is the eerie similarity between the politics of France in the 1930's and what's currently going on in the U.S. Indeed, though not as powerful, the current alt-right could be considered a distant relative for Action Francaise.

As for Spears, I personally would take any of his recollections with a grain of salt.

One of the things that perplexed me after reading Jackson's book was why did De Gaulle develop such a hatred of Spears. The way that Jackson portrays it, it would seem yet another anglophobic character fault of De Gaulle.

Yet the detail is far more interesting.

There are two interesting papers that fill in the gaps that Jackson left out.


Executive summary. Spears was Free French when it was to his advantage and then screwed them over when it wasn't. Spears was an opportunist.

To quote from one of the papers. (Both written by U.S. historians)

Spears' role in the politics of the Levant during the Second World War was, by any standard, an unusual one. An oddball who was neither a professional diplomat nor a member of the top-level military establishment,Spears used his personal friendship with Churchill and his natural knack for political intrigue to create his own power base in Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, Spears' political outlook appears to have been shaped to a large extent by personal factors. .....Spears had confronted the diplomatic and military establishments in his role as protector of the Free French. In the Levant, He was suddenly presented with the opportunity of bringing the local British power structure under his own control. From that point on, any Free French loss became Edward Spears' gain. Spears was accordingly transformed into the quintessential British Arabophile, championing the cause of Syrian and Lebanese independence within the framework of a British-protected, Arab federation. One should take care not to exaggerate the impact Spears had on the Free French position in the Levant. As Elie Kedourie has pointed out, Spears' policy fitted in neatly with a strong current of opinion in the British establishment which favoured the integration of Syria and Lebanon into the British sphere of influence in the Middle East.... The point is, however, that Spears' overtly hostile conduct made the French perceive their collapse in the Levant as the direct result of a concerted and preconceived British plan to oust them. Although it was clearly the intention of the foreign office to lend some measure of support to French influence in the Levant, the French found it hard to believe that Spears was acting largely on his own initiative and in disregard of his instructions from London. .....In the absence of Spears' constant encouragement, it is unlikely that the Syrians and Lebanese would have challenged French authority so flagrantly in the middle of the war. The French collapse would probably have come about more gradually and the Levant issue would not have embittered de Gaulle's relations with the British so badly during the war. Perhaps de Gaulle's post-war policies would also have contained a smaller element of Anglophobia had it not been for the humiliation he had suffered in the Levant in the wake of Spears' conduct there.

Spears betrayed De Gaulle in a classic example of perfide Albion, but here it was also personal in that De Gaulle had thought of him as a confidant.He so antagonised the French in Syria that he was dismissed by the foreign office. When he realised he had miscaclulated he then tried to ingratiate himself with De Gaulle. De Gaulle's rebuff was then portrayed as just another example of his his petty anglophobia.

The Social Pathologist said...


It seems they are able to do far more than the man in France for this reason.

I don't think that Spandrell's ideas are appropriate in this context. 20th C France lacked the cultural preconditions to produce a homoculture through mass liquidation.

and I broadly agree with DF's comment.

is China 'Marxist" or 'Leninist'...seems to me that 'Fascist' or 'Corporatist' would be a better description?

I actually think Nationalistic Socialist is a better description.

The Social Pathologist said...


That second link should be:

You need to get access but its quite easy.

I think Spears may have embellished a few things to make himself look good.

John Rockwell said...

@Social Pathologist


Marcus Montisursinensis said...

Thank you for your answer, as well as for sharing some interesting, yet very personal details of your family past (I thought earlier that only one of your parents had Croatian ancestry). WW2 in Yugoslavia started only in April 1941, after British secret services staged a military coup in late March because the Regent and the government, after an enormous pressure, signed an agreement to join the Axis (it had some favourable secret provisions for Yugoslavia). Well, less than a month after that, this fragile conglomerate country was partitioned, while the several dozens of people who staged the coup flew safely to London. However, Maček, the leading Croatian politician, who was the Deputy Prime Minister in the government that was deposed by the coup joined tacitly the new, short-lived government, and then, when Yugoslavia was attacked, returned to Zagreb. He rejected Hitler's (rational) offer to be the head of the government. So, Hitler gave way to Mussolini backed Pavelić and his national-socialist Ustaše (lit: Insurrectionists). Maček was interred shortly to Jasenovac concentration camp, then to house arrest by the arrived Ustaše. He managed to leave Zagreb in the chaos of May 1945. A kind of Croatian Adenauer (his party was anti-clerical, though). Yet, the Allies made their way to West Germany and Adenauer became chancellor. The Russians came to Belgrade, and Tito's commies were backed by the same old Winston of Blenheim, the hero of Gallipoli, the guy who arranged for Germans to run over us. And yes, the commies were well organized and had their sympathizers everywhere. Some of Maček's former party members joined Tito, some of them joined Pavelić. Most of them probably supported some kind of independent Croatia, hoping to get a chance to turn the coat the way Italy did in September 1943. There was also a young and capable generation of civil servants who just graduated from the university and got a prestigious job in the bureaucracy of the newly established state (remember, the majority of the bureaucracy was in Belgrade until 1941). Meanwhile, Ustaše (analogous to SS) and Wehrmacht, even Waffen-SS themselves drafted young Croatians, although a regular army existed. In the chaos of May 1945 those soldiers, accompanied with civilians), retreated to Carinthia, where the British did not want to accept them as POWs and simply repatriated them to commies. Very ugly things followed. All important Ustaše went safely to Argentina of course, they went their separate ways, while young drafted boys went to surrender like sheep to get their revenge. Yet, at that very moment, any power vacuum that would happen within the lifetime of people surving this would mean that they snd their families, hundreds of thousands, wanted communism and Yugoslavia to perish. Tito did not leave a strongman heir and as soon as he was dead the breakup of Yugoslavia started. Now, back to Maček and to those Serbian (and also Croatian) politicians who went to London. Yugoslav or Croatian Adenauers? De Gaulles? No one remembers them. Likewise, had the Germans won, had the Russians come to France, or had some elements of the Vichy regime managed to turn the coat... no-one would read Mr. Simon's books. The winning side writes the history, while the indignation hits the loosers. But some people do not get mentioned. Eventually, communism and fascism were the second and the third-born children of the French Revolution. Fierce, violent, both dead now. The firstborn, the only true heir lives on. But it seems that somehow this swap between Dorian Gray and the portrait stopped working, and that Western liberalism looks old, ugly, evil, hateful and vindictive.