The Last Emperors

The Last Emperors

If Winston Churchill is today the icon of an American right that denounced the “appeasement” of Iraq, Charles de Gaulle is the inspiration for some of those who continue to urge European governme


Let’s begin by throwing out all the facts, and insist on the truly serious things: the legends.    –Régis Debray, À demain de Gaulle (1990)

If Winston Churchill is today the icon of an American right that denounced the “appeasement” of Iraq, Charles de Gaulle is the inspiration for some of those who continue to urge European governments to resist US imperialism. In this climate, biographies of each can be easily appropriated for political purposes.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani claimed that he began reading Roy Jenkins’s biography of Churchill on the night of September 11, 2001, when he got back to his apartment. In a recent issue of the French journal Le Débat, de Gaulle biographer Jean Lacouture imagined a conversation between the Gaullist Jacques Chirac and the ghost of de Gaulle himself about the state of France, particularly its relations with America.

British writers on the left (Clive Ponting) and on the right (David Irving) have often attacked the Churchill myth, but rarely have they paused to say much about the man behind it. John Ramsden’s Man of the Century, the first book to examine Churchill’s post-1945 reputation, is a reversal in the trend. (Unfortunately, despite its broad scope, the book ignores Churchill’s influence on the wider culture; Ramsden finds space to quote five separate reviews of Churchill’s official biography but fails to mention Howard Brenton’s Churchill Play). In contrast, Eric Roussel’s Charles de Gaulle is, at first glance, a more conventional portrait. But like most French works on de Gaulle–and unlike most works on Churchill–it recognizes that there can be no clear-cut separation between the “reality” of de Gaulle’s career and its mythic legacy.

De Gaulle and Churchill first met at a conference of British and French leaders in June 1940, and their reputations have been intertwined ever since. Churchill’s sponsorship of de Gaulle allowed this relatively obscure officer to be in London when France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany and to establish himself as the leader of the “fighting French.” June 18, 1940, the anniversary of Britain’s defeat of the French at Waterloo in 1815, was the single most important day in the careers of both Churchill and de Gaulle–the day on which de Gaulle’s “call to honor” and Churchill’s “finest hour” speech were broadcast. As time went on, de Gaulle’s rigid insistence on respect for French dignity annoyed Churchill–he remarked of de Gaulle that “he thinks he’s Joan of Arc but I can’t get my bloody bishops to burn him”–but the two men never broke with each other entirely, and they later marched in triumph together through liberated Paris.

The enduring relationship between Churchill and de Gaulle was based on a foundation of shared experiences and beliefs that stretched as far back as childhood. Born in the nineteenth century, both came of age in an era of sound money, European hegemony and cavalry charges. They began their respective careers as professional soldiers. Both established themselves as great orators and were thought, by some, to be great writers: Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature (an honor never accorded to George Orwell or Graham Greene); de Gaulle’s memoirs have recently been published (alongside the works of Proust and Gide) in the French Pléiade series of literary classics.

For most of their lives, both leaders were emphatically right-wing. Each opposed the Bolshevik Revolution early on, yet later allied with the left against Nazism. In 1940 Churchill was cheered by the Labour benches of the House of Commons more enthusiastically than he was by his own side. It is hard to believe that de Gaulle, without the support of the French Communist Party and the Soviet government, which recognized his claims to lead France before either Britain or America did so, would have returned to France in triumph in 1944. The French left did not like de Gaulle much between 1945 and 1970, but the general’s real enemies were on the extreme right–among those who held him responsible for the loss of Algeria in 1962 and who made repeated attempts to assassinate him.

There are, of course, some serious differences between the careers of these two men–contrasts rooted first in their whole conception of politics. Churchill’s morality was not one that even his contemporary admirers would be keen to espouse now: He was a racist, an opponent of women’s suffrage and, during the General Strike of 1926, a ruthless opponent of the British working class. (Churchill’s hatred of Nazism seems to have been heavily influenced by his philo-Semitism; he admired the Jews as much as he despised “niggers” and “chinks.”) Yet in his own way he was an intensely moral politician. He did not believe in the simple pursuit of national interest. His speeches were saturated with references to Nazism, and he opposed Hitler not only because of the threat Germany posed to Britain but because of the threat the Third Reich posed to humanity.

Similarly, de Gaulle held some views that his present-day enthusiasts would find pretty unpalatable–particularly his unapologetic racism, of which Roussel produces some striking evidence. However, realpolitik was his only guide when it came to politics, and promoting the interests of France was his only aim. Most French citizens today would approve of the results of his actions; his distaste for Arabs did not prevent him from reaching an agreement with Algerian nationalists. However, it is disconcerting that his worldview lacked any ethical framework. De Gaulle saw Hitler as a threat to France, but he took little interest in the wider moral questions raised by Nazism. (Discussing Resistance attacks on German soldiers, he remarked, “If the Germans want us to stop killing them, they have only to go home.”) For his part, Churchill was willing to ally with Stalin in the extraordinary circumstances of 1941, but he condemned Communist dictatorship in Europe almost as soon as the war was over. De Gaulle was worried by Stalinism only in the late 1940s, when there seemed to be a prospect that the Red Army would invade Western Europe. When it suited French interests, he was willing to consort with the most monstrous tyrants; as students began to tear up the cobblestones in May 1968, de Gaulle was having tea with Ceausescu.

Unlike his French counterpart, Churchill thought in international terms. At his most ambitious he was a defender of “Christian civilization”; more frequently he talked of the “English-speaking peoples” (in practice this came to provide a convenient reworking of the empire that would include North America but exclude the independent states of India and Africa). He supported European integration, though it is not clear he thought Britain belonged in a unified Europe and, more than anyone else, he underwrote the alliance between Britain and the United States. De Gaulle didn’t think beyond France’s borders. He pulled his country out of NATO’s joint command structures in 1966 and insured that the European Economic Community was confined to being a collection of independent states. He was hostile to the United States whenever he feared that it threatened French interests; when de Gaulle met Roosevelt in North Africa in 1943, secret servicemen with machine guns were posted behind a curtain in case he should physically attack the American President.

When de Gaulle made his first broadcast from London in June 1940, he was practically unknown in France; although his speech came to play a huge part in Gaullist mythology, it was not actually heard by all that many people. As the war dragged on, and as de Gaulle gained the support of the French Resistance, his reputation grew, but even so, it was uncertain whether the French public would welcome him back in 1944. That it did explains de Gaulle’s euphoric speeches in Bayeux and Paris immediately after the liberation, when large numbers of French people set eyes on him for the first time.

Churchill’s “finest hour” speech was an end where de Gaulle’s “call to honor” had been a beginning, and the anticipatory elegy about how people would look back on Britain in a thousand years suggests that Churchill himself knew this. Before long, Churchill’s star began to fade. Ramsden points out that while nearly the whole British population tuned in to Churchill’s radio speeches of 1940, his audiences dropped sharply later on. The nature of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War–industrial mobilization with increasing power given to trade unions–made Churchill’s style seem less attractive.

After the war ended, Churchill’s career became a shambles. His ungracious and tactless 1945 speech, in which he compared the Labour Party to the Gestapo, probably made the defeat of his party in the general election that year even worse than it need have been. Clement Attlee, the Labour leader who succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, thanked Churchill for reminding the country of the difference “between Winston Churchill the great war leader and Mr. Churchill the leader of the Conservative party.” Churchill’s subsequent return to power, between 1951 and 1955, marked the most calamitous segment of a career that had contained more than its fair share of disasters. He was old and sick, and his entourage hid the extent of his infirmity from the country. Churchill still wanted a large role on a world stage that was, in reality, now dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. Consequently, he neglected the economic and social changes that would affect the future prosperity of Britain.

De Gaulle, too, left power soon after the end of the war (though he did so of his own free will), and for a time it seemed that he would never again return. When he did, however, it was a triumph. In 1958 de Gaulle became first prime minister and then president of France; in the next four years he introduced a new constitution and removed France from Algeria. This period of de Gaulle’s leadership hailed an era of rapid economic growth unlike any that France had, or has since, experienced. Even though de Gaulle was bored by economics, he understood that economic modernization was crucial if France was to enjoy domestic stability and international prestige. More generally, he understood that changing France’s fortunes meant something more than simply restoring an order that had existed before 1914. Everything that de Gaulle did while in power–from testing France’s first nuclear bomb to maintaining a direct relationship with the French people via television–involved the embrace of modernity.

Both Churchill and de Gaulle were great nostalgics who knew that their sense of belonging to a vanished world contributed to their political appeal. But where de Gaulle was ruthless about imposing change when he thought it necessary, Churchill was not. While Churchill railed against feminism and the dissolution of the British Empire, de Gaulle dissolved the French Empire, gave French women the vote and, perhaps more significant, legalized birth control in 1967.

More interesting is how differently these two men appealed to those beyond the borders of their own countries. The cult of Churchill held strongest sway outside the British Isles, and the most interesting parts of Ramsden’s book concern America and Australia (the two key countries in Churchill’s alliance of “English-speaking peoples”). Admirers could also be found in France, where de Gaulle’s supporters often placed the two men on the same pedestal; the Avenue Winston Churchill near the Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Paris is much grander than any road named after Churchill in Britain. Churchill is venerated in Prague; Czechs assume that any enemy of Neville Chamberlain is a friend of theirs. There was even a Churchill cult in many Communist countries: Arpad Goncz, future president of Hungary, began translating Churchill’s war memoirs when he was a political prisoner after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. In his own country, however, feelings about Churchill have always been reserved. De Gaulle, by contrast, is the subject of intense commemoration in France, but he is rarely discussed, except in terms of faint derision, outside its frontiers.

The difference is reflected in the attention accorded to June 18 in France and Britain. The anniversary of de Gaulle’s “call to honor” is an important date in the political calendar; the movement for the legalization of cannabis even holds demonstrations to mark le 18 joint. I doubt if one British person in a hundred knows that Churchill’s “finest hour” speech was broadcast on June 18. The French have named an institute, an airport, a part of central Paris and an aircraft carrier after de Gaulle. In Britain, Churchill’s name is mainly commemorated in the name of pubs.

Churchill’s internationalism went with a conscious cultivation of his reputation overseas. His mother was American, and he worked hard to build his reputation in the United States; the Australian prime minister Robert Menzies was one of the few men he cited by name in his “finest hour” speech; subsequently Menzies became, as Ramsden puts it, the “worldwide leader of the Churchill appreciation society.” De Gaulle was too busy building a reputation in his own country to concern himself much with what was thought of him abroad. He almost invariably refused to speak English in public (Churchill never missed an opportunity to display his atrocious French).

The fact that de Gaulle is more admired in his own country than Churchill is in his has to do with how countrymen see the whole careers of these men. Outside Britain Churchill is remembered almost solely for what he did in the early part of World War II. Hitler remarked in 1942, “Had this war not come, who would speak of Winston Churchill?” The British, by contrast, remember all the less glorious episodes in his past–his support for the suppression of the General Strike, his involvement in the military disaster of Gallipoli, his opposition to Indian nationalism. The French, on the other hand, see de Gaulle as a great peacetime reformer as well as a war hero (about half of Roussel’s biography concerns events after 1945).

There is, however, a more profound difference to consider: The cult of the great leader was weaker in Britain than in France. Mockery of those who purported to be great men played a large part in British public life, informing Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (published in 1918), Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That (published in 1930) and the magazine Private Eye, which was founded in 1961 specifically to poke fun at British public figures. Two facts explain Britons’ rejection of the cult. First, Britain has never in modern times (not even in 1940) been in peril to the same extent as modern France. Joan of Arc, Clemenceau and de Gaulle all ejected invaders from French soil, but Britain has not been invaded since 1066–a date that Sellars and Yateman define as the last “memorable” date in British history. Second, Britain has a collegiate ruling class that does not take kindly to any individual member who elevates himself above his peers.

Recent French history, meanwhile, contains a series of sharp breaks–moments when the country was, in some way, refounded. De Gaulle saw his country governed under three different constitutions (one of which he instituted himself). Each new regime generated opportunities for the creation of new national heroes. British history, on the other hand, is marked by continuity. The institution of monarchy has not been seriously challenged since the seventeenth century, the same dynasty has been on the throne since the eighteenth centuryand the powerful aristocratic families–of which Churchill’s own family was one of the most notable examples–have outlived a whole series of political regimes.

Churchill sometimes liked to think of himself as an outsider, and foreign observers often thought of him as distinguished from the gray blur of the English establishment. In truth, however, he was always an insider. The son of a Cabinet minister, he was educated at Harrow (a school that has provided two other British prime ministers in the twentieth century, not to mention a prime minister of India). He entered the House of Commons in 1901 and remained in it almost without interruption until his death in 1965. He refused ennoblement after the Second World War (he could have been Duke of London) so he could remain there. Churchill was, to use a word that reveals much about the British ruling class, “clubbable.” He enjoyed gossip, jokes, smoking and, of course, drinking. He was one of the first British Cabinet ministers to address some of his colleagues by their first names.

De Gaulle, however, was a true outsider. He came from a family of Catholic right-wingers who were deeply hostile to republican France. His exile did not begin when he fled Pétain’s France in June 1940 but in 1907, when he went to school in Belgium because the Jesuits had been excluded from education in France. De Gaulle went into the army partly because it was one of the few careers open to a man who wanted nothing to do with the institutions of the Third Republic. On a personal level, according to Roussel, de Gaulle didn’t feel particularly at home in any social circle. He was aloof and formal even as a young man. Perhaps his daughter Anne (who was born with Down’s syndrome and who died in 1948) was the only person with whom de Gaulle allowed himself to show his feelings.

De Gaulle despised the république des camarades of banquets and backslapping and buying rounds of drinks for electors at the Café du Commerce. He disliked Parliament, and his aides had difficulty in persuading him to humor it with a brief speech in 1958. The president of the Fifth Republic (the only political position that de Gaulle held for a significant length of time) is almost the antithesis of the British prime minister. Whereas the prime minister is a “first among equals” who works by persuasion without clearly defined constitutional powers, the president is a head of state who stands at the apex of the French Constitution. De Gaulle’s Cabinet meetings were coldly formal occasions where ministers who dared to speak about matters outside the remit of their own department were slapped down. De Gaulle’s prime ministers were comparatively junior men and were sacked if they showed too much independence of judgment.

Oddly, however, de Gaulle’s extreme haughtiness was not accompanied by personal vanity. Indeed, de Gaulle the man seems to have regarded de Gaulle the myth with a curious sense of detachment. In this respect he was very different from Churchill. Churchill believed in his own legend–AJ Balfour once said of him, “Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Churchill loved dressing up in the uniforms that belonged to his various offices–Lord of the Admiralty, Warden of Cinque Ports, Knight of the Garter. He changed his costume several times on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and he was peeved that the young Queen attracted more attention than he did. De Gaulle never wore any uniform except that of a two-star general, a rank he had earned on the battlefield. In the 1960s de Gaulle, in an uncharacteristic attempt to mend transatlantic relations, sent the Mona Lisa to the United States; at about the same time, Churchill sent a collection of his own watercolors.

De Gaulle disliked the personalization of politics that came so easily to Churchill. When Churchill tried to develop de Gaulle’s reputation among the British public in 1940, de Gaulle complained, “He is launching me like a soap.” De Gaulle knew how important myths were, but he also knew how to keep them in their place, and the most important myth of de Gaulle’s career–that the French had “liberated themselves”–was one that drew its power from the fact that everyone knew it to be untrue. Churchill was Falstaff, sentimental underneath his earthiness; de Gaulle was Henry V, ruthless with everyone including himself and conscious that the past must be buried.

In his memoirs Churchill recalls his first meeting with de Gaulle. He claims that he went up to the tall, melancholy French general at the chaotic Franco-British meeting as the Germans advanced into France in 1940 and referred to him as l’homme du destin. Asked about this incident by a historian, de Gaulle denied that any such words had ever been uttered. He added dismissively, “Churchill is a romantic.”

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