Julian Jackson has written the definitive biography of the mythic general who refused to accept the Nazi domination of France. De Gaulle draws on unpublished letters, memoirs, and papers in the newly opened de Gaulle archives that show how this volatile and inspiring leader put his broken nation back at the center of world affairs. We asked Professor Jackson about de Gaulle and his process in writing the book.
The last major biography of de Gaulle was published in French in 2002 but since then the de Gaulle archives have been opened. While the English speaking world has been far less interested in de Gaulle than in Churchill, it is certainly not true to say that he is ignored in France: books come about him literally every week, of varying quality. In France he is a figure revered on an even greater scale than Churchill in Britain.
It is a good time to re-visit de Gaulle for many reasons. One of these is that many of the questions he posed are still relevant today, and indeed possibly more relevant than ever: He governed at the height of the Cold War but was convinced that the Cold War would not last and that it was necessary to work to achieve a stable and balanced post-Cold War order, and we are still trying to achieve that; he was seen as anti-American but in reality he was looking forward to a time when the US would not necessarily see its interests bound up with those of western Europe and NATO, and felt that Europe must organize its own affairs and its defense. In the era of Donald Trump that seems more relevant than ever. For the British, who are in the process of leaving the EU, de Gaulle’s views about Britain and Europe seem prescient in the extreme, as do his comments on the consequences for the Middle East of Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in 1967.
That is not to say de Gaulle was always right but the questions he posed still matter today. For me the interests in reading about him lies in exceptional nature of his career. He led a truly fascinating life at every level.
De Gaulle was, with FDR and Churchill, one of the three great leaders of the second world war. Both FDR and Churchill found him deeply difficult to work with and their opinions of him – as aloof, egotistical, prickly to a fault – have largely defined his reputation in the English-speaking world. Is that fair? Or was Churchill’s de Gaulle a terrible caricature?
De Gaulle was indeed a prickly and aloof personality who found it hard to show his feelings. But this was exacerbated during the Second War by his sense of humiliation at the defeat of France and by his ambition to re-assert France’s role as a great power. One way of doing this was to be almost obsessively vigilant in defense of France’s interests even if this meant opposing his own allies. He often bit the hand that fed him because he wanted to show that France still had teeth. In this way, he turned his own personality into an instrument of policy.
In the case of Roosevelt, de Gaulle felt justifiably bitter that the Americans continued to gamble – mistakenly – that the collaborating Vichy regime would in the end rally to the Allies. De Gaulle said this would not happen; and he was proved right. He was not an easy personality but in the end Roosevelt’s attitude towards him was almost unhinged whereas for all their quarrels Churchill did appreciate de Gaulle’s stature. I am a great admirer of Roosevelt but his treatment of de Gaulle was not one of the more glorious or perspicacious aspects of his career.
You write that during his thirty years in politics, de Gaulle was brutally divisive. Why and how?
De Gaulle found himself at the heart of two bitter civil wars and for this reason it was inevitable that he would be seen as divisive: civil wars are by their nature divisive. His ambition was in fact to unite the French – it was his obsession – but this was simply not possible.
The first of those civil wars occurred between 1940 and 1944 over whether or not to collaborate with, or resist, the Germans. Some people afterwards reproached de Gaulle for creating a national myth that all the French had resisted except for a few traitors. He knew this was false but he invented the myth to bind the French together again. The second conflict was over the independence of Algeria: de Gaulle was never forgiven by the one million white Europeans in Algeria for conceding that Algeria would be independent. It is true that de Gaulle moved towards Algerian independence in a rather zig-zag manner which led many of these people to feel he had betrayed them. But however he had done this he would have faced their bitter hatred – leading to several assassination attempts against him. One of the guiding mantras of all his political action was the need to accept reality, however painful. But these were people living in a denial of reality. De Gaulle had tried to be a teacher but they were unwilling to listen to his lesson.
What did previous biographers get right, what did they get wrong, and what new revelations does your book introduce?
Previous biographers have tended to oversimplify de Gaulle whereas my biography shows his complexity and ambiguity. There are some new documents revealed in my biography: for example, an amazing telephone conversation between him and his ministers negotiating with the Algerian independence fighters. The conversation, which I cite in its entirety, shows de Gaulle’s desperation to end the Algerian conflict at almost any price. But overall my book is not offering lots of new revelations – the basic facts of the story are confirmed by my research in the de Gaulle archives – but more about offering a more nuanced and complex interpretation. Good history is not about ‘scoops’ but about explaining and interpreting the past.
De Gaulle is perhaps most famous in France today for his decision to pull out of Algeria. Tell us about that decision. As the leader of the Free French, he had called on the French empire to support the resistance. Was that a difficult decision for him? Why did he do it? What do you think he would make of the Iraq war—or the war in Syria?
The decision to leave Algeria was a painful one for him because it represented a defeat for France even if he tried to dress it up as a decision that he had taken of his own free will. He did it because he believed that the Algerian war was poisoning French politics and that decolonization was a necessity. He could see that the war was also turning France into a pariah in the Third World and impeding his ambition to give France a role of moral leadership against the United States. That is why he decided that Algerian independence was necessary.
There was also a rather cynical side to this. The defenders of so-called French Algeria argued for what they called ‘integration’: that Algeria should be fully integrated into France and its Muslim population become fully French citizens. This was a bit hypocritical on the part of Europeans who had done all to deny rights to Algerian Muslims for decades. But de Gaulle’s objection was a pragmatic (one might even say racist) one. As he put it once to one of his Ministers: ‘Have you seen the Muslims with their turbans and their djellabas? You can see that they are not French. Try and integrate oil and vinegar. Shake the bottle. After a moment they separate again. The Arabs are Arabs; the French are French. Do you think that the French can absorb ten million Muslims who will tomorrow be twenty million and after tomorrow forty? If we carry out integration, if all the Berbers and Arabs of Algeria were regarded as French, how would one stop them coming to settle on the mainland where the standard of living is so much higher? My village would no longer be called Colombes-les-deux-Eglises but Colombey-the-two-Mosques.”
But de Gaulle came to his views about the Empire slowly. In 1940 he did indeed hope that the Empire would rally to him, and was disappointed when it did not. He did all he could to hold on to the Empire after 1945 and part of his resentment against the British was that he believed (wrongly) they were trying to oust the French from the Middle East. He had tried to hold on to French Indo-China after 1945 and was opposed when French forces pulled out. In other words, he was not really, as he later claimed, a prophet of decolonization, but he was ultimately a realist.
It is dangerous to try and make any historical figures speak from the grave and I cannot say what de Gaulle would think about the current Syrian situation. But one thing is certain: he would not have allowed France to be dragged into the Iraq War in the wake of the United States. He would have seized the opportunity to assert France’s independent policy. When the French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin went to the United Nations in 2003 and refused any French participation in the Iraq War he sounded almost like de Gaulle speaking from the grave. De Gaulle could also have moments of really prophetic intuition which came from his deep immersion in history. This is what he said about Iraq in 1964: ‘The Sunnis with the Shias and the Kurds. These are countries destined to be divided because they contain altogether different peoples who do not have the same religion, the same past.’
(This is the first of a two-part interview)