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Churchill and de Gaulle

By Martin Walker | Published in History Today 1982 
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Francois Kersaudy

The career of Charles de Gaulle was rooted in the curious interplay that Realpolitik must make between legitimacy and propaganda. The essence of British propaganda in the Second World War was the Britain stood for democracy, self-determination (except in its own Empire) and the legitimacy of self- government. The first task of British diplomacy was to discredit the legitimist pretensions of the Nazi client government.: like that of Quisling in Norway. Only then could the client governments in London exile become useful allies. This was more difficult than it sounds. Diplomatic habit kept the Foreign Office hankering after some kind of rapprochement with Vichy in the early years of the war. But Churchill, with his customary blend of Realpolitik and romance, was quite clear about his politico-strategic requirements. Tending to see war as a kind of personal combat between heroes and champions, he needed a new French hero, an heir to Marshall Foch who had given the Allies of 1918 a brief, successful and even magical unity of command. But once having sold de Gaulle to the French and to the world as the legitimate representative of France, would the man remain safely under British tutelage? De Gaulle became a kind of Frankenstein monster for Churchill, out of the control off the British support and propaganda that had created him.

Francois Kersaudy's researches have unearthed the least temperate comments and reactions of the war's superstars. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he finds a furious Churchill storming, 'Put de Gaulle on a plane and send him back to Algiers – in chains if necessary. He must not be al lowed to re-enter France.' We have the Churchillian growl, in his idiosyncratic French, 'Si vous m'obstaclerez, je vous liquiderez'. We have Churchill instructing his Cabinet 'Consider urgently whether we could not now eliminate de Gaulle as a political force'. And in equally characteristic tones, we have de Gaulle's rather snooty rejoinder, 'You have insulted France and betrayed the West. This cannot be forgotten'.


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