The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby
I can’t ever recall reading a book that started out so promising, so enrapturing, and yet by the midway point, turned into a disappointing thud of a clunker. It might be a tad unfair to blame this sudden reversal of fortune on the author. Instead, one might concede that the life of the subject matter just became uninteresting as did the events that surrounded him at a certain point. Still, one wishes that the author may have realized this as well, and therefore had handled the latter half of the man’s life in not so quite of a meticulous fashion.
As the title implies, yes, Charles De Gaulle did save France, and he “saved” it on more than one occasion. For me, the story that was the most engrossing was the role De Gaulle played in World War II. At the conclusion of World War II, the story then shifts to De Gaulle’s political life. Sadly, this is where the book became about as interesting as picking out a pair of socks to wear for the day.
The author treats his subject matter in a fairly balanced way. He comes across in the author’s view as a positive figure (after all, he ‘saved’ France), yet it makes your head spin how many of De Gaulle’s contemporaries loathed him. Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Khrushchev, Truman….none of them had kind words for the man. As we see, however, this is mainly due to his hard, uncompromising arrogance and such a trait is necessary because of the circumstances.
De Gaulle’s early life is quickly glossed over – a bit more attention is focused on his comings and goings during the first world war. He was quickly made a commander, quickly became one of the first of the wounded, quickly resumed command and was quickly captured by the enemy and made prisoner. He then attempted an escape no less than five times. This stuff is exciting to read about.
Even better is the transition to World War II. France, the ultimate victor of World War I is basically so exhausted and fatigued, that they ignore Hitler and rival Germany as they slowly grow to become the most fearsome army in modern civilization. With revenge on Hitler’s mind, France is quickly added to his list of conquests. France capitulates – mainly because they simply don’t have it in them to fight anymore. The battle scars from 25 years ago are still fresh. Except De Gaulle. He remains the only key player that refuses any part of the puppet Vichy government and quickly sets up base in the French North Africa. Although the allies ultimately prevail, the hawk De Gaulle isn’t allowed to be a major player, and is rather upset when the U.S. and England basically leave him as a spectator on the sidelines. This is the case even during the Battle of Normandy (D-Day). De Gaulle simply can’t fathom this. It is after all, HIS ‘country’. So one begins to see why the other leaders consider him a burr in the butt. Again, exciting stuff.
I wish the book would have wound down at this point. After World War II, the book turns into a giant Wikipedia article with mostly the everyday comings and goings of the French government. There are brief bits of interesting material – such as the failures in Algiers and Indochina, but the book focuses too much on the minutia of the fall of the Fourth Republic, the rise of the Fifth Republic, etc. Yes, De Gaulle was a major player, but all of this is simply not exciting stuff. I confess that there were times where I became so bored, I would basically scan a 50-page chapter in about five minutes. At least it helped me fall asleep some nights.
Another minor irritant is that the author simply won’t refer to his subject as “De Gaulle”. He is always referring to him by his rank, title, or some other euphemism. It became confusing when he’s referred to as “The Colonel”, “The General”, and “The Free French Leader” all in a span of about 50 pages. On a positive note, a fair amount of time is spent with his immediate family, and De Gaulle does come across as quite the loving husband and father – especially with his daughter who suffered from Down’s Syndrome.
Perhaps a reader with a more thorough understanding of the ins and outs of the French government and its personalities will enjoy the latter half of the book more than I did. I still would recommend it, just be prepared to be bogged down rather heavily during the latter portions.