Book Review: The General – Charles De Gaulle: Jonathan Fenby

A bit different from the literary reviews and poetic musings, but after all I have a History degree and am politically active. I was just about beginning to be politically aware when General De Gaulle came to power in an ambiguous situation in 1958 (was he saving the democratic Republic or on the way to becoming a dictator, and having come to power on the back of a revolt by opponents of France leaving Algeria, what actually was his Algerian policy?) He resigned as President around the time my student days ended. He was a huge figure for all that period, often strange to Anglo-Saxons and often giving offence to them.

I’d better not make this a discussion of De Gaulle’s record and character, if only because he was a complex man who had an enormous effect on history from 1940 when he refused to accept France’s defeat at the hands of the Nazis to 1969 when he finally went into retirement. I will say though, that there is something about military men in politics that fascinates me. I don’t mean your common Latin American caudillo coming to power by a coup (such men are often militarily incompetent anyway), but people who have taken on the lonely responsibilities of military command while remaining caring humans, and then have made a mark in democratic, or at least representative and not authoritarian, politics. I include Cromwell in that along with Wellington, De Gaulle and (despite his presiding over huge corruption) U.S. Grant.

Jonathan Fenby is an author and journalist who is an expert on China, but knows France well (not just because of his French wife). He does an excellent job on De Gaulle and seems at home both in the details of military campaigns and in high and low politics. He rightly stresses De Gaulle’s enormous contribution to reforming the French political system, while not glossing over his vanities such as making himself the supposed saviour of French-speakers in Canada and Belgium.

I perhaps learnt most from his description of the Second World War years – how divided the British authorities were on this awkward, headstrong but inspiring Frenchman who was already claiming that he “incarnated” France, and how much reason De Gaulle had to mistrust the Americans (my very favourable view of Roosevelt took a bit of a knock when I learnt he was proposing that liberated France, which had joined war against Fascism nearly two years before the USA, should be run by American military governors or that part of Northern France should be split off to join a new state based on French-speaking Belgium).

This is a thoughtful and very readable book (if you’re even slightly interested in politics or history) and achieves an excellent balance between narrative and analysis. Just one question: the blurb quotes several enthusiastic reviews, but none by French people. Were there any, and if not, I wonder why!