Monday, June 18, 2007

18 June 1940: The Call

All my life I have cherished a certain idea of France, that is inspired by feeling as well as by reason. . . My instinct tells me that providence created her for triumphs and disasters. If, in spite of this, France behaves in a mediocre fashion, I feel that there has been an error, due to the mistakes of the French [people] rather than the character of the nation. The positive side of my mind is convinced that France is true to herself only when she stands in the first rank; that only great enterprises can neutralize the ferment of disunity which her people carry in their veins... France cannot be France for me without grandeur. France is not France unless she is great...

Charles de Gaulle, War Memoirs (Vol. I, "The Call")

The leaders who, for many years, were at the head of French armies, have formed a government. This government, alleging our armies to be undone, agreed with the enemy to stop fighting. . . But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!

. . . .

The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. . .

Charles deGaulle “The Call” Radio London, 18 June 1940

On 1o May 1940, after months of quiet following the fall ofPoland; World War II turned from a "phony war" to a real one, as the Germans launched their long-predicted attack against the western allies (France, Britain, Holland and Belgium). In no time at all, everything was going Hitler's way: the French armed forces collapsed in front of the Germans in just over a month. Belgium surrendered to the Germans on 27 May. On 14 June 1940, the Germans occupied Paris, the French government fleeing to Bordeaux. The British armies were leaving the continent at Dunkerque. For a short time, it appeared that Adolf Hitler had won the Second World War before it was really under way.

The 1940 collapse was the hour of the famous World War I French military commander Henri Phillippe Pétain (hero of Verdun) and his longtime protege, the then generally unknown Charles deGaulle, a tank general, and recently, a junior government minister. The two had once been very close: DeGaulle had named his son, Phillippe, for his mentor, Petain.

The two generals reacted to the disaster very differently. Pétain, nearing senility, was called out of rustication as Ambassador to Spain to lead a defeatist regime that accepted a humilating armistice with Germany (22 June) and hoped for collaboration with the Third Reich. However deGaulle, all his life a loyal, more-or-less conservative, obedient army officer, saw the matter differently, and took it on himself to flout the law, ignore the lawful orders of his superiors and revolt against the legitimate, more or less democratically constituted Pétain government. DeGaulle fled to London and announced his intention to carry on the war for France, despite France, with or without France. On 18 June 1940, deGaulle made "L'Appel" -- the call (quoted above)-- to fight on, from a radio studio in London.
In June 1940, the great majority of the French population were tired of the war and wanted peace, at any price. The people supported the Pétain regime and most viewed deGaulle as a dangerous rebel. There is no question whatever that deGaulle's call to fight on was unpopular at the time, and in defiance of public opinion, not to mention illegal.
The audacity of deGaulle's stand is obscured today by the truly towering figure that deGaulle became later. DeGaulle, that day in June, was a political nobody. An undersecretary of state for war in a government that had been legally replaced, a just-promoted Brigadier-General, penniless, in flight from his homeland just ahead of warrants of arrest, deGaulle had no official standing whatever to call for continued resistance. Court-martialed and condemned to death in absentia by the French Army, and ignored by French officialdom, the only assets of deGaulle's France Libre, early on, were his own determination, a few fanatically loyal adherents, and the sometimes uncertain patronage of that other great maverick, Winston Churchill.

By 1944 of course, it was Pétain's pro-German regime that was the farce, and deGaulle's exile provisional government that had the support of the bulk of French public opinion. DeGaulle's public standing increased despite his erstwhile allies Roosevelt and Churchill, who thought to use the France Libre movement for their own purposes and planned to undercut deGaulle by establishing an allied-run occupation regime in liberated France. DeGaulle also had to contend with communist elements in the resistance, who had their own plans for liberated France. All these schemes were scuttled when Paris fell that August, and that city's inhabitants gave deGaulle a tumultuous welcome: his walk down the Champs-Elysées was truly one of the finest triumphs any man could ever receive and completed the work he began in June of 1940.
The magnitude of this man's achievements cannot be understated. Starting in June 1940, DeGaulle over the next several years took a ragtag band of penniless rebels and adventurers, and somehow built an army, and made a real government. He accepted the help of America and Britain, but managed to avoid being their stooge. He dodged a take-over, under circumstances made to order for it, by the strongest Communist Party in western Europe. Finally, deGaulle re-established the French Republic and obtained for this beaten, bankrupt, disarmed and humilitated country a seat in the councils of the great powers, and at the peace table. Because of deGaulle, France got a UN veto as good as that of the US or the Soviet Union. All of this was based on little more than force of personality.
Predictably, deGaulle soon fell out with the polticians, and retreated to private life after the war. Recalled to power in 1958, to deal with a political impasse over the revolt in Algeria, deGaulle assumed quasi-dictatorial powers, and ultimately established the Fifth Republic. His constitution governs France today. DeGaulle put down an attempted military coup in 1962, dodged an assassination attempt, and successfully managed France's withdrawal from Algeria.
Finally, in that year of chaos, 1968, President deGaulle survived left-wing student and union demonstrations in Paris that threatened to topple the Fifth Republic by calling successfully for a bigger demonstration by France's "silent majority" in his favor. DeGaulle died peacefully at home in 1970. His memoirs are considered a literary masterpiece in both English and French.
DeGaulle's legions of detractors criticise his alleged authoritarian personality, and compare him with his contemporary, the Spanish dictator Franco. This is unfair. Franco's chief concern was always Franco, deGaulle's was always France. But deGaulle was concerned always with France as a nation, as a historical construct, and did not necessarily view the interests of France the nation as identical with those of the current French people
Vindicator of the national honor in the darkest hour of modern French history, deGaulle cannot be easily categorized as liberal or conservative, in the sense that the terms are understood. His basic political outlook is best summed up by the quotation from his memoirs above; the one constant in his military and political life, through two world wars, a depression, and the national trauma of de-colonization -- was that his whole life was at the service of the grandeur, as he understood it, of France. As things turned out, deGaulle's view of the situation was usually right, and 20th Century French and European history largely vindicated him.

NOTE: Much of this was borrowed from an earlier post on the occasion of deGaulle's birthday. It was as appropriate there as here.


el jefe said...

Nice post - In my reading I have been left with the impression that de Gaulle did have support in 1940 from the French population, but it was driven far underground by the initial force of the occupation. A great man.

(We share an online name, more or less, which is how I got here - cheers!)

El Jefe Maximo said...

Hey thanx, el jefe.

I think as time went by, you would be more and more correct: but in June 1940, I don't know about that. DeGaulle got few volunteers from French troops in Britain and other places he could influence, and the countryside as a whole was quiet.

The French, I think, were still operating under Petain's false assumption that the occupation would be relatively brief, and that all the French would have to do is re-run 1870 -- cede Alsace/Lorraine again, pay some kind of indemnity and adopt some kind of more right wing regime. Nobody figured on the British actually fighting on, or the war continuing.

When the initial shock of defeat --remember how very rapidly the collapse occured -- wore off, things began to be different, particularly when Petain's regime began to be perceived as simply an agent for German rule.

Keir said...

Read this week that Churchill gave orders that, should he die before De Gaulle, his procession would start from Waterloo Station.

El Jefe Maximo said...

The relationship between Churchill and deGaulle was a rocky one, no doubt about it. Churchill had to wage his war on a shoestring till the Americans came in, and after that, he had to be cognizant of American views on everything. I'm away from my books at the moment, but I recall reading of a conversation between deGaulle and Churchill in which Churchill declared that given a choice between deGaulle's wishes and those of Roosevelt -- he would always come down on Roosevelt's side. Churchill had little choice.

DeGaulle had no choices either. As leader of an exile movement always operating on its own shoestring, in competition with the Vichy-ites for political legitimacy, he did not dare appear weak in dealing with his allies, lest he lose all credibility as a serious nationalist leader. DeGaulle HAD to be proud, difficult and outspoken, very much upon his dignity, because he had precious little else in terms of hard power assets.

As the reader might gather: I find Charles deGaulle worthy of great admiration -- to me probably the greatest leader of any western state in the modern era. He played a tragically weak hand perfectly