The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General de Gaulle by Charles Williams, Little, Brown and Co. £25
THERE WTI I NEVER BE a satisfactory definition of greatness. Most of us, however, can agree that two minimum requirements are an arresting even dominant presence and major achievements. By this dual standard, the greatness of de Gaulle cannot be questioned. Lord Williams, in this always readable biography goes so far as describing him as The Last Great Frenchman. Be that as it may, there has surely never been a statesman in any county in the present century whose personality was more striking.
Few would resist the claim made here that de Gaulle saved the honour of France in 1940 and in all probability saved France from civil war in 1958. But how should we rate him on a scale of virtue? Here, Charles Williams is much less positive. At the end of this mighty volume, he concludes: "Colombey, his home, was the home of a very affectionate, emotional and private man; France was the home of a very cold, ruthless and proud public man." It is a somewhat two-edged tribute to the morality of such a devout Catholic.
. The whole story of de Gaulle's life is told in vivid detail. But when de Gaulle re-appears as president the approval was soon withdrawn. His extrication of France from Algeria is rightly applauded, even though it involved misleading the army at a crucial moment But his international plans are treated by Charles Williams, rightly in my view, as having been completely disastrous in intention.
One is left reflecting again and again on the wisdom of Nurse Cavell, when she said, just before her execution: "Patriotism is not enough". To quote Williams: "The General's solution for Europe... was quite simple, as Macmillan had written as long ago as November 1951, 'He talks of Europe and means France'. The new Franco-German treaty of 'friendship and cooperation' as it was called, was the cornerstone of the recreation of the Empire of Charlemagne."
Britain had plenty to thank de Gaulle for by the end of the war, but his disappearance from office at the end of his career was highly welcome. His rejection of the British attempt to enter Europe was brutal. When the old Paul Re3,,naud, de Gaulle's champion in 1940, wrote to him protesting at de Gaulle's treatment of the old ally, he received after two weeks an envelope addressed to him in the General's hand. On the back was a message, in the same hand "in case of absence, please forward to Agincourt (Somme) or to Waterloo (Belgium)."
It is better to end by recalling nobler moments. A lesser man would have been destroyed by the sinking of the French warships on Churchill's orders in 1940. De Gaulle rose to the occasion splendidly and the British soon afterwards had the opportunity of showing how much they admired him.