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The best books on Charles de Gaulle’s Place in French Culture

recommended by Sudhir Hazareesingh

Hazareesingh's book choices include de Gaulle’s "very readable" war diaries. In books of condolences after the leader's death, people wrote things like, "Goodbye Charles, you were greater than Napoleon"

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Let’s start with Army of Shadows by Joseph Kessel.

Well, Kessel was a writer and war correspondent who, when France was defeated in 1940, went over to London and joined the Gaullist Resistance, the Free French. Army of Shadows, written in 1943, is the book that made him famous and is still regarded as one of the greatest novels about the Resistance. The other thing for which he’ll always be remembered is the hymn of the Resistance, ‘Le Chant des Partisans’, that everybody in the Resistance used to sing – and, incidentally, was sung by a French military band this summer at the London memorial celebration of de Gaulle’s famous speech from a BBC studio in 1940. It was a wonderfully moving moment.

Army of Shadows really takes you to the heart of what it is to be in the Resistance and one of the book’s greatest characteristics is that it celebrates the anonymous heroes, the ordinary man or woman who hides an allied airman, carries a suitcase from one town to another… It’s absolutely gripping too, very cinematic – in fact, it was made into a very successful film by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1969. About halfway through the book it stops being a story about the different characters and becomes almost like jottings by the main character, the Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier, and you see everything through his eyes: the Germans and the Vichy police squeezing the Resistance more and more. You see his world gradually disintegrating; all the people he works with are being arrested, tortured and killed, and he tells it all. He himself is nearly captured countless times and the novel makes you feel what it’s like to lead this life, to have that kind of extraordinary pressure.

Is he based on a particular Resistance figure?

He is a composite character, based on several people Kessel knew. When he was in London with the Free French he used to fly missions across to France, taking agents over and then picking them up, so he knew these people. In 1943 and 1944, the life expectancy of the agents flying over and being parachuted into France was very, very low. The probability was that they would be caught within 24 hours. But they kept going. Kessel vividly portrays their wonderful spirit – they believe they are going to win even if they themselves are not going to survive; they believe the Resistance is a sacred cause. The other thing that comes out is that political difference doesn’t matter – workers, peasants, young and old, Communists, landowners, people who love the Republic, monarchists, all put their differences aside in order to fight this battle. And so, even though this is a kind of adventure story written by a novelist, what you get out of it as well is the real Gaullist idea of what the Resistance philosophy is – that when your country is under occupation and you’re fighting to free it, everyone is in it together. There is also a universality about the Gerbier character: there were people exactly like him in 19th-century Poland, in occupied Europe during the Second World War, in modern liberation struggles such as in Ireland, South Africa, and Palestine.

Let’s move on to de Gaulle’s war memoirs.

There are three volumes, and they’re very readable. There are portraits in there of all the great characters de Gaulle encountered – Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt.

What does he say about Churchill?

He’s very generous. Despite the fact that he was at heart Anglophobic and thought the British would screw the French if they possibly could. He believed Churchill only helped France because it was in Britain’s interest to do so.

When de Gaulle turned up in London and said, ‘I now speak for France’, it was almost an absurd situation – France had a legally appointed government headed by a distinguished old soldier, Marshal Pétain, and a lot of people in England and America thought de Gaulle was off his rocker, crazy, delusional.

In the Memoirs de Gaulle has a sentence: ‘Faced with the political disaster, I had to become France.’ He sort of carries the country on his shoulder – and that’s what Churchill saw. Although de Gaulle was actually a little delusional – perhaps you have to be in such situations – he was driven by this greater sense that only a free sovereign France could restore the nation’s pride and sense of purpose … and that he was the man to do it.

At the same time there was also a kind of modesty about him, humility even, and that comes out very clearly when you look at the way the French commemorate the Resistance after 1945. Even when de Gaulle is in power there’s no a huge fanfare – he never wants it to be about him but about all those anonymous heroes Kessel had written about.

Let’s move on to the André Malraux. What does Fallen Oaks mean?

Well, it refers to an image by a celebrated cartoonist in the Figaro, Jacques Faizant, which just showed an enormous oak tree that had been felled – no caption, just this huge oak which was the symbolic representation of de Gaulle’s death. Malraux’s book is a very epic work and he was a very epic kind of writer as well, and he had a special place in de Gaulle’s heart. He’d been a Communist sympathiser and certainly not someone you’d expect to affiliate with de Gaulle. But it was the Resistance which brought them together and after 1945 Malraux remained a passionate Gaullist all his life. His vision of Gaullism is a romantic one – he sees de Gaulle as a kind of mythical figure who belongs to a long line of French heroes like Joan of Arc, Saint-Just and Napoleon.

Fallen Oaks is based on the last conversation the two men had in 1969 at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises where de Gaulle had retired to. The key question Malraux is asking in this book is ‘What is it that makes France a great nation?’ And, according to Malraux, de Gaulle’s idea of greatness is not military force, grandiloquence or any kind of flashiness, but the idea that France stands for a set of republican values: freedom, equality, justice. He also ponders on why de Gaulle is such a great figure and it comes down to the fact that there’s an almost religious quality to him. He’s a bit like the leader of a religious cult – he’s separate, he’s solitary, but he has this ability to take ordinary events and transform them into mythical events. It’s not de Gaulle the politician that comes out of this book; it’s de Gaulle the creator of myths.

Gaullism as a political force continued for another 30 years after his death but it became very conservative, very right-wing. Malraux’s book plays an important part in separating out the Gaullist myth from the political movement. The myth lives a separate life from the political movement, which is why de Gaulle’s myth is very much alive to-day, even though the Gaullist party is dead.

Now Régis Debray, Futurist of the Nation.

The reason I chose this book is that Debray is one of the most eminent left-wing intellectuals alive now in France. He comes from a very radical tradition: in the 1960s he trained with Fidel Castro, he went and fought with Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia… His left-wing credentials are absolutely impeccable, and yet in 1990, the centenary year of de Gaulle’s birth, he brings out this book in which he celebrates de Gaulle’s memory. This quite a big shock because up to this point his political background seemed to be opposed to all the things it seemed de Gaulle stood for. What Debray does in the book is to go over his own trajectory and all the people he worked for and he comes to the conclusion that the left in France had never really understood the nation, what it means to be part of a nation, and that the person who understands this best is de Gaulle. Debray is not talking about ‘nationalism’ but rather something the French call ‘fraternity’, which is an ideal which also involves justice and solidarity.

It’s very striking not least because it’s so unexpected. But there are personal elements involved. When Debray was in Latin America in the 1960s he was caught in Bolivia and ended up spending four years in jail. And de Gaulle actually interceded with the Bolivian government and launched the process of getting him freed.

Did the French left see the book as a betrayal?

Well, the reaction was mixed. I think many on the left, who saw de Gaulle as a kind of fascist dictator, were surprised that one of their own should sing the praises of such a man. But what was happening more widely on the French left was that in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a reappraisal of what the left stood for. Mitterrand had been in power by then for nearly a decade and a lot of things had gone wrong, and so Debray’s association with de Gaulle symbolises a search for something pure, something untainted. If one is being unkind you could say that Debray was always in search of a father figure – first of all it was Fidel, then Che, then he went to Chile and was with Allende, and then lastly Mitterrand. In his memoir, Praised Be Our Lords, he offers a reappraisal of each of these four figures and in the end it’s a negative view that predominates. So, if you think of it like that, Debray turns to de Gaulle in the end because all his father figures have disappointed him. And it’s a father figure that de Gaulle has become today for many French people, someone who represents the kind of old-fashioned virtues you would associate with a father – austere and tough but pure and incorruptible.

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Having spent so much time working on his myth, I sometimes have to remind myself of some of the bad things about him. This is why having a biography on my list is so important because a biographer looks at the whole of the life, not just the good bits.

Yes. Let’s talk about Jonathan Fenby’s Charles de Gaulle.

A biographer can dig around and find interesting things about a person’s private life, and Fenby does this very well. For example, he shows how close de Gaulle was to his daughter who had Down’s Syndrome. She died in 1948, when she was only 20. But for her whole life de Gaulle was completely devoted to her. From the photographs and family memoirs you can tell there was a very special affinity between the two of them. When her father was with her she was much calmer and happier than when she was with anyone else. And, of course, he was totally distraught when she died.

It’s a very thorough book and also very readable, especially when he’s describing dramatic moments in de Gaulle’s career, like in 1940, or 58 when he comes back to power, or 68 when he’s faced by this crisis on the streets of Paris. He tells it like a thriller, the pace changes and you feel transported into the moment. It’s very well written, and overall it’s the best available biography in English.

It was the crisis in 68, wasn’t it, that was his undoing?

Yes, and that’s what I mean when I say a biographer can look at the shortcomings of the man. Jonathan Fenby shows how de Gaulle completely misunderstood, misjudged 68 – he just didn’t see it coming. He had lost the plot. I think his biggest mistake is to have clung on to power for too long – he should have retired in 1965. But great men often think they are indispensable.

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Part of de Gaulle thought the French were great, made for greatness, but there’s a whole other side to him that believed the French could also be mediocre, decadent. Of course, he’d seen both sides of France in his life… when he looks at Vichy and the French collaborating with the Germans, that’s not the better France. By the late 1960s you can see that he’s starting to feel the French have given up. There’s a glorious arrogance about him – he takes the fact that the French no longer support him as evidence that they’re no longer a great people. It’s almost like he thought: the French are not worthy of me. He resigned in 1969, after losing a referendum which he did not need to hold, so it was a kind of suicide. He died in November 1970.

Tell me a bit about your own book, Le Mythe Gaullien.

Well, it all started with Napoleon. I wrote a book called The Legend of Napoleon, which basically was about how the Emperor came to be celebrated as a national hero by the French people after his death. And it led me to see that his celebrity ended, in a way, in the 20th century when de Gaulle replaced Napoleon in the French hit parade of historical figures. And I wanted to explore this idea of how national myths are created. When de Gaulle died there were books of condolence opened all over France and often people would write whole paragraphs about what the General had meant to them, what values he represented. And many of them also said things like: ‘Goodbye Charles. You were greater than Napoleon.’

December 17, 2010

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Sudhir Hazareesingh

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Sudhir Hazareesingh was born in Mauritius. He has been a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, since 1990. He has written extensively about French intellectual and cultural history; among his books are The Legend of Napoleon, In the Shadow of the General and How the French Think. He won the Prix du Mémorial d’Ajaccio and the Prix de la Fondation Napoléon for the first of these, a Prix d’Histoire du Sénat for the second, and the Grand Prix du Livre d’Idées for the third. He won the Wolfson History Prize in 2021 for Black Spartacus: The Epic life of Toussaint Louverture.

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Sudhir Hazareesingh was born in Mauritius. He has been a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, since 1990. He has written extensively about French intellectual and cultural history; among his books are The Legend of Napoleon, In the Shadow of the General and How the French Think. He won the Prix du Mémorial d’Ajaccio and the Prix de la Fondation Napoléon for the first of these, a Prix d’Histoire du Sénat for the second, and the Grand Prix du Livre d’Idées for the third. He won the Wolfson History Prize in 2021 for Black Spartacus: The Epic life of Toussaint Louverture.