Churchill and de Gaulle

Martin Walker | Published in History Today

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'.

In the end, of course, all ended happily, the proud and happy couple walking arm-in-arm down the Champs Elysees to celebrate the liberation of Paris. That they stayed together was mainly to the credit of Eden, who softened the tone of Churchill's peremptory commands, blurred over the horrific tales of torture and Gestapo tricks that seeped out from Free French HQ in London, and even managed to smooth the viciously turbulent relations between de Gaulle and Roosevelt. Churchill's anger with de Gaulle was part of the usual ups and downs of Alliance politics, and as the historian of similar difficulties faced by his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill knew it. But the real anti-de Gaulle pressure upon the British premier came from Washington, where de Gaulle was seen (not without justice) as a quasi-Fascist, a would-be dictator, a militarist and an exceedingly dangerous man. Roosevelt, until events proved him wrong, tried every trick he knew to impose Giraud upon the Free French movement instead of de Gaulle. The only cards that de Gaulle possessed, and he played them all well, were his knowledge of Churchill's vulnerability to an emotional appeal, his capacity to obstruct, and in the end, his power to undermine all the good work that British propaganda had done to build him up. He could refuse to broadcast over the BBC (a regular threat) and he could hold a press conference.

For a man of evident intelligence and resource, M. Kersaudy has a blind spot common to many historians. He trusts the official documents; he shies away from newspapers. His book is speckled with references to the pro-de Gaulle campaigns in the British and American press. Churchill came under the strongest pressure from the newspapers and from Parliament to recognise de Gaulle's movement as the effective government of France. There was a public opinion in the Second World War and de Gaulle played it like a master – a trick he was to repeat with Le Monde's Beuve-Mery during the crisis of 1958. It may seem churlish to M. Kersaudy's excellent (if a little racily written) book to suggest that he has not seen the wood for the trees, but one main thrust of his work is to show that de Gaulle was very much the creature of propaganda, and that the media finds it almost impossible to kill off those whom they have been persuaded to create. De Gaulle may not have had Stalin's 200 Divisions, but he had awfuI lot more column inches behind him than the Pope.

Martin Walker


Churchill and de Gaulle

Collins, 1981; 476pp.

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