The Gift of De Gaulle - The One True France
My admiration of Charles de Gaulle began during my childhood. He was nearing the end of his life, and the end of his time as the President of France when first I learned of him. I’d not yet heard of his heroism and fate-filled decisions to save his patrie during her Dark Years of the Occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II. At that time, the post-World War II years, and their heroes, both living and dead, had been largely silenced through their own decisions, and as a consequence of their loudmouth children, the nihilistic and narcissistic Hippie-Boomers.
The brat portion of the Boomer generation was not just an American phenomenon. I learned from a beloved friend, a Frenchwoman from Bordeaux, that the birth of her younger brother, après la guerre, became the sun upon which the life of her father rose and set. She felt crushed, devastated by not merely this grossly unfair treatment by a parent, but by its pervasiveness in post-war France. She’d been a child during the war; her inner wounds and scars became only more deeply etched by the sense of estrangement, even abandonment, due to a father who saw his life renewed, even born again, through the birth of a son after World War II.
The individuals born after the Boomers have all had to deal, to varying degrees, with the bulge in the snake, the demographic of enfants gâtés who tried to up-end and undo so much of what their parents fought and died to save for mankind. Perhaps the truer purpose for the brats, of any era, is to motivate the rest of us to protect and defend all of those precious intangibles that they so perversely loathe.
The military veterans of WWII were marked more by their self-imposed silence, a muted dignity, about their war experiences, than by any attempt to speak of their valor and their patriotism. The spoiled brats among the Boomers, and after them, took more than full advantage of the quiet gallantry of those great men and women, even attempting to “cancel” Western culture, Western civilization — civilization — many years before the despicable dullards and dolts of the Cancel Culture showed up in Digital-World. If power hates a void, and it surely does, then dead air in front of the electronic camera-and-mike abhors a closed mouth.
I therefore had to spend many years learning about this Frenchman from books, although I heard more than a few comments about Charles de Gaulle before he died. Those statements were made by people who had seen the man in action and in word. And for de Gaulle, action and word were one and the same.
I stuck those factoids into a memory file. Over the course of decades, that memory file became chock-full of comments and details that went straight into THE DAWN. Whenever people ask me where I get my ideas for fiction, I most truthfully answer:
From real life.
On the dreary, wet, rainy day of 30 March 1969, I was observing on a television, in the living room of my childhood home, the funeral of President Dwight Eisenhower. His casket was set in the center of the Rotunda of the U.S. Capital. I saw the man named Charles de Gaulle, in uniform, standing before the flag-draped coffin. His was a magnificent and magnifying figure, old, yes, and gray, but as regal as any French king might have been. And then Monsieur de Gaulle saluted the coffin.
Even as a youngster, I knew that such decorum and comportment were not to be used for an American president, by anyone, least of all by a European, and most of all, by a Frenchman. My mother was in the room at the time, and I asked her why this Frenchman had saluted the man she referred to only as “Ike”.
“Oh, it’s because of how FDR treated him during the war. Ike got along with him.”
Within the space of those 2 cryptic sentences were sown the initial seeds of THE DAWN. I inquired of many older people who knew the story, and the history — the real events — of General de Gaulle and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. My memory file was then joined by another mental file, the History File. The history of that History File is alive, for me, and always will be, for it tells just as much about me as it does the heroes I studied, and strove to emulate.
After THE DAWN, the Northern French Novel emerged in my creative psyche. My earliest work on the writing of this book, THE LAST WALTZ, began during the summer of 2014. I was engaged in very frequent written communications with a woman living in the Pyrénées-Orientales département of southern France. She wondrously became Mon Amie, a very devoted friend, as well as a profound source of inspiration for penning this northern French novel. (For more information, please see: D-Day 2017.)
Mon Amie believed this Northern French novel, set during the Battles of the Bulge, would be a lovely story — if I told it as the love story that I was not able to portray in THE DAWN. She understood perfectly, and innately, the practical and market forces that had forced me to deftly interweave the history of the Dark Years with the compelling personal dramas of the characters in THE DAWN. She understood many things perfectly, without my having to tell her, or explain to her, or write in detail the kinds of things that ought not have to explicated.
Mon Amie comprehended me, and my life; and during those moments when I could not understand myself, she was able to reach across many miles and tenderly touch me, and help me. Because Mon Amie understood the quality of mercy, the honor of the self, the saving grace of forgiveness, and all of the unspoken miracles of Christmas.
There are times when I must remind myself of those too often ignored essentials of life, even during the celebration of this sacred holiday season, and especially during the frivolity of Christmas. We, in this nation of liberty and abundance, have been blessed in ways that the nations of Europe have not. It becomes all too easy, facile, if you will, for anyone, in the New Country, to point a judgmental finger of mockery at anyone, in the Old Country, and thereby besmirch the family of man that unites us and makes us all one, be it on Christmas Day or on any other day of the blessed year in this journey called life.
Along with a highly measured sense of justice, one must nourish a profond sense of forgiveness. If Charles de Gaulle possessed one glaring fault, a flaw that he owned with arrogant pride, it was a want of mercy, miséricorde, in matters where humans of low character were concerned, and wherever compromise had to at least be attempted, not necessarily achieved.
It is possible that the virtues in this Frenchman were very evenly and symmetrically paired, in inverse order, with his flaws. If so, then his quest for honor, dignity, and justice demanded too much of a passionate heart to allow that heart any tendresse, tenderness, where many people were concerned. His visionary passion was at once mystical and pragmatic, but not always loving. In his lofty and resolute opinion, faith, if it was to have any worth of value, had to lead to action. Action oftentimes precluded the more delicate sentiments that this Frenchman might have felt.
His frailties were not the marks of an overly developed ego. In many ways, his ego was submerged for the purpose, the noble goal, of saving France — from her enemies, and from herself. He bluntly and sagely cautioned against over-investment in the ego:
“Do not think of yourself as indispensable or infallible. The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable men.”
Did this Frenchman see himself as indispensable? My best and educated guess is: At times, yes; at other times, no. He was a mystery even to himself, and therein resided the greatest force of his greatness.
With an unbreakable ardor that was the edge of his sword, De Gaulle believed fervently in the grandeur of France. This grandeur had to be informed, and shaped, by realism, restraint, and that elusive quality so venerated by the French: mesure, or moderation.
The following words about Charles de Gaulle come from the heart. They were written during the winter of 2014, with the intention of including them in THE LAST WALTZ. I realized during this past summer that this passage cannot be used for a work of fiction; it forms text for an essay. These words are intended as a gift, from my heart — to everyone, but especially to the hearts of the valiant French of today, of yesterday, of always — de toujours — who can hear the immortal heartbeat of the man connu sous le nom du général de Gaulle.
Charles de Gaulle was the heroic Frenchman who exemplified both heroism and the best of « le monde intérieur » : « L’oeuvre d'une nation, c'est pour réaliser de grandes idées ».
Charles de Gaulle was loyal enough to France, conservative enough to tradition and to the fundamental laws of governance, and virtuous enough in his desire for a free France that he waited until the foundation of government – beneath him and beneath France – crumbled. He then became the true revolutionary leader by waiting, not for the moment when he could seize power; but for the moment when power had to be seized.
And he did so as the nation of France perched on the edge of the abyss of a German Europe in 1940. The Free French may have been born in June 1940, but Charles de Gaulle had been preparing its delivery for over seven years. Published in 1932, Le fil de l’épée is his eloquent treatise on the somber, silent glory called leadership, and especially war leadership. His written philosophy of L’Histoire – History – would become his magnificent plan, his decisive action, to make History. The composing of this monumental work was basically his “accouchement avec douleur” – childbirth with pain.
The need, the desire, the belief, and the urgency to destroy the enemy « d’un seul coup » – all at once, in one fell swoop, expressed without a doubt the severe doubts, even fears, that the French military held regarding their abilities to wage war and to win war. In the decades following the defeat of the Grande Armée of Napoléon, the French military enacted, with compelling disaster, the compulsion to swiftly meet the enemy head-on, using as many Frenchmen as matériel, cannon fodder, that the French nation could pour from the French Army onto the field of battle, le champ de bataille.
Each field and each battle was a horror, one which the French could and would never forget. This crippling compulsion of the French Army to avoid more horror only led to more ghastly horrors of the war dead. The war dead led to even more severe doubts and deeper fears that the military of France could survive another assault – n’importe où, n’importe quand – anywhere, anytime.
After defeat, after victory, after victory after defeat, the French sought refuge in the cult of the absolute, the rigidly fixed answers deduced from abstraction and not from experience. This vision perceived not the concrete and the tangible but instead the theoretical and the intangible. It was a manner of thought that was already imbedded in the French mind, but after the Great War this thinking became surcharged with the extremely costly investment called the Maginot Line.
Within the minds of the French military high command, their vision became transcendent. One could not attack their transcendent vision of defending la France, just as one could not attack the Maginot Line. Charles de Gaulle would prove otherwise regarding their vision, just as the Wehrmacht would prove otherwise regarding their concrete fortification.
Quelle ironie! The only concrete thing in which the French military placed faith was concrete material, not concrete thinking!
Given the chance to adapt to circumstances, to change the plan of attack because of contingencies, and to seize the opportunity of advantage, the French military consistently allowed the opportunity to slip through its hands, choosing instead to adapt to a circumstance for a while until contingencies both alarmed them and engulfed them: they then retreated to the dogmatism of absolute doctrines that were based not in reality or in experience, but in logic and the misunderstood lessons of the past. In spite of all that circumstances and contingencies had attempted to burn themselves into the minds of these men in positions of leadership (one can hardly call them leaders), they resisted to an unimaginable degree the most obvious lessons of war history.
Their logic could not be refuted, even though reality did not submit to the linearity of it; and the lessons of the past were plumbed for all the wrong conclusions, which is to say, the answers that the French wanted from the highly selective questions that they wished to ask themselves. Such intellectual dishonesty did not flatter the French during any period of time, but especially during wartime.
This way of thinking was like indelible ink in the minds of the French military leaders: taking forceful and furiously fast action conceived after – not before – contingencies that presented themselves with the suddenness of a lighting strike. The hindsight actions were vigorously applied as if to compensate for the alarming lack of foresight. On and on, again and again, the pattern repeated itself, until the enemy, namely, the Germans, must have smirked each time that the French succeeded in being so French.
Charles de Gaulle studied with profound depth, insight, and foresight the lessons which the French had not learned or, more significantly, had mis-learned from 1870-1871 (the Franco-Prussian War) and from 1914-1918 (The Great War). He decided not to wait for the French, and their history, to repeat themselves a third time. From 1932 onward, this son of France prepared himself for the movement of war – action – to liberate and deliver France from not just her mortal enemy, Germany, but from her immortal flaws and sins.
Here was “the interior life,” the mind of the French. Charles de Gaulle grappled with the worst of the French military, the worst of the French mind, and the worst of the history of France until he succeeded in being, not merely French, but the essence of what the French wished to be: heroic in grandeur and grand in heroism.
In essence, Charles de Gaulle became France. In his own words -- words which embodied the revolutionary fervor of Georges Danton’s « Il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l’audace! » —
General Charles de Gaulle said, quite simply, “I embody France.”
De Gaulle opened his war memoirs with the words: « Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France ». All my life, I have had a certain idea of France.
That certain idea of France, the one true France, was the shining light in the vision of this solitary and audacious Frenchman during those Dark Years in his patrie. His flame of French resistance was the fierce fire of rebellion. That rebel act was an inspiration to countless patriots to save France from a fate that this intrepid Frenchman could not, and would not, accept, even as so many of her other sons and daughters bartered away their priceless heritage as Frenchman and Frenchwomen.
He was a gift from God to France, to the world — and to America. That gift of Charles de Gaulle inspired me to aspire toward as much grandeur as any American can hope to realize.