Charles de Gaulle: A Biography, by Don Cook

Four stars

In an attempt to look outside of North America, I sought to educate myself about a man who played a key role in the European Theatre during the Second World War and in the decades thereafter. Having already looked at Churchill and Hitler, it is time to wade into Don Cook’s world of General Charles de Gaulle. In this detailed biographical piece, Cook seeks not only to tell the story of de Gaulle’s life, but portray the man in three distinct fashions, which are elucidated throughout the numerous chapters on offer. Cook presents the General as a life-long militarist, a staunch nationalist, and an ardent leader. These three roles intersect on numerous occasions and in a variety of ways, as Cook explores some of the key events in de Gaulle’s life, as well as showing how Europe changed dramatically following the Second World War. Cook utilises a great deal of research as well as his vast experience to offer the reader a strong piece that presents the great role de Gaulle played in ensuring France was not forgotten after shedding its Vichy cloak, as well as pushing France to the forefront of the continent’s economic and trade policies well into the 1960s. Definitely a book for readers who seek a deeper understanding of a key European player in the political and military spheres.

To call de Gaulle a life-long militarist would not be an exaggeration on Cook’s part. From as early as he could be accepted, de Gaulle entered military training and scholastic endeavours, with the backing of his parents. Receiving much of his training on the cusp of the Great War, de Gaulle served France during some key battles, but was injured and away from fighting for much of the conflict. He was sent away to a prison camp by the Germans and left there to ponder his fate, which he did until his release. Thereafter, his life within the military was secured as he rose the ranks, crossing paths with the likes of Philippe Pétain, who would one day lead the Vichy Government under Nazi occupation. As de Gaulle rose within the military, his passion for his native country grew, as shall be documented below. Becoming a general, de Gaulle readied himself for the Second World War, though he was seemingly emasculated during France’s early capture. Working of his own volition, de Gaulle refused to cede to the Vichy Government and its puppet nature, choosing to strive for the Free France movement. That de Gaulle did not seek to plot military strategies is not lost on Cook, though there was a strong push to ensure a powerful military and political force waited to resume power in the vacuum that was post-Vichy France. Cook argues that de Gaulle played that role well and plotted his return more than a military effort to keep the country in order. Even after his triumphant return to France, and in the years of his leading the country as a political head of state, de Gaulle did not flex his muscle and create a military state. As Cook exemplifies, de Gaulle sought the peace and order any military man might expect in times of calm and the ability to strategise in times of crisis. These traits, though somewhat nuanced in the larger picture, show that de Gaulle remained a life-long militarist, whose fight for France did not end when the Nazis were repelled from his homeland. 

There is no doubt that de Gaulle loved France or sought to keep it from complete dissolution. Cook depicts the struggles de Gaulle had for years, living in exile in Algeria, while the British and (eventually) Americans fought to push the Nazis back and free France from Hitler’s clutches. General de Gaulle remained adamant that he play some role, more political than military, in the Free France movement and became the face of the French Resistance. Cook depicts, in detail, the strain Roosevelt and Churchill were under in dealing with de Gaulle, who was the only ‘government in exile’ that would not sit back and wait for the removal of the Nazis from their native soils. These struggles left de Gaulle bitter towards Roosevelt and at regular odds with Churchill, but, as we shall discuss momentarily, could have helped secure his place in the European political arena in a post-war world. General de Gaulle sought to ensure France got its piece of the pie and was not given an Allied puppet government to replace the Vichy organisation, though his pushing could at times fall on deaf ears. Even in the early days of France’s freedom, de Gaulle sought to rally his people and ensure that they knew he had been with them all along. Radio addresses kept him in contact with the French people and all the colonial inhabitants she possessed, with de Gaulle as its de facto leader. France always came before Europe or even the Allied cause for de Gaulle, as Cook exemplifies in the numerous clashes at the end of the War and into the Cold War period. That de Gaulle would not allow France to fall prey to its allies is also strongly laid out throughout the book. While the Soviet sphere of Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain, de Gaulle would not allow anyone to bully him into standing silently, especially when the integrity of France was at stake. As he pushed to reinstall France’s honour in Europe into the 1960s, de Gaulle would not cede anything to diminish France or its importance on the world scene, showing his nationalist colours at every turn.
The leadership qualities that de Gaulle held were honed over a long period, but remained deep rooted. The qualities Cook shows repeatedly include de Gaulle’s tenacity to keep France from falling into the hands of its enemies a second time, from being dissolved, and from political neutering at the hands of the Allies. As Cook shows, de Gaulle remained a thorn in the side of the Big Three (Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin) as he advocated for France, but also appeared to be a ‘kicked dog’, seen but often abused, by others. He sat patiently during the Free French movement, though would not sit idly by. His tours of French colonies and BBC broadcasts, as well as meetings with the Big Three went far to show his leadership abilities and ensconced a strong hold on the country into the 1950s, when he could lead France in a quasi-civilian manner. He never shed his military title, though France was not run by a military government at any point post-1945, which is a true curiosity to the reader. When de Gaulle made a triumphant return to the French presidency, he restructured the constitution into the Fifth Republic and ran as a president with string political powers, keeping the country on track to flex its muscle in the European arena. Blocking Britain’s entry into the European Common Market, developing a nuclear program, and insisting on standing toe to toe with some of the world’s most influential leaders did dampen de Gaulle’s ability to act as a fervent leader of his people. Even in his waning years in power, de Gaulle pushed the envelop and wreaked havoc with two major countries. As Cook depicts in one chapter, de Gaulle’s pro-Arab stance froze relations with Israel at one point, though de Gaulle did not stand down or change his views, looking to even the playing field. Additionally, while on a state visit to Canada during the country’s centennial, de Gaulle fanned the flames of the separatist movement and called from Montreal’s City Hall balcony “Vive le Quebec Libre!” an blatant step to exemplify Quebec’s occupied territory status within the larger Canada. And yet, as Cook explores for the rest of the book, he did not apologise, for that was not in the de Gaulle nature. He was a man without fear and one who spoke for his people, which Cook insinuates made him the wonderful leader he was until his retirement.

Would de Gaulle have become so prominent a man had the Nazis not invaded and taken over France? Had he waited for the Allies to liberate the country before pushing for a new and fresh start, could de Gaulle have become the powerful leader that changed the face of France? Cook does not speculate, though the narrative and the detailed analysis of historical documents, as presented in this book, leads me to think not. General Charles de Gaulle left his imprint on France and the world because of his adamant fight to free France from its shackles and used that rallying cry to shapes popularity. He forged a relationship with the Big Three and pushed his way to the table thereafter all because he was heading up a Government in exile, though he did little to wait for his rescuers. That de Gaulle was proactive and would not stand idly by helped shape the man who rose to power, for it was in his genes. A fighter to the end whose passion for France was second to none, de Gaulle would not allow anyone or anything stand in his way to return France to its greatness of centuries past. As Cook shows throughout, de Gaulle inherited a country rife with political insurrections and change, wrestling it from its past foibles to set it on track for future glory. Has the de Gaulle legacy withstood the test of time? It is hard to say just yet, though the country does remain a major player in Europe and on the world scene. 

As early as the introduction, Cook shows how de Gaulle adopted the phrase French monarchs used for centuries, “L’État c’est moi!”. However, de Gaulle did not seek to use it to show that he was the be all and end all of France, but more to show how interwoven he was with the country and its people. That is, perhaps, the true legacy that Cook leaves with the reader. Charles de Gaulle left his blood, sweat and tears in France, giving it his all, as a true military man would do, fighting to the end for the country he loved.

Kudos Mr. Cook for this fabulous biography of a true European powerhouse politician. I have a new respect for the man and hope to explore more of his influence in the years to come.