The Heroic in France

Scarcely a day goes by with no historic figure once viewed as”good” being toppled in their own base. Nobody, it seems, is immune from being cut down to size. Those most renowned because of their deeds are judged instead by their own words, even words unknown to their contemporaries–and therefore understood, moreover, by the moral sensibilities of the present instead of the past. The higher they had once been held in our forebears’ respect, the farther they have to now collapse. –continues to be consigned to oblivion.
Yet many of us who reside in a post-heroic era are nostalgic for a more innocent time when heroes have been recognised as such and given their due. The classic text is Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841). Now, to mention Carlyle except as an example of racism or even proto-fascism is to courtroom opprobrium; even his Chelsea home which was maintained as a museum to the historian and his literary wife Jane–a distinctive Victorian time capsule–is closed indefinitely. Nevertheless Carlyle had something important to say regarding the heroic and its antithesis, which he called”valetism”–a homage to Hegel, from whose validity of History he had learned about”world-historical people” There, Hegel mentioned his particular Phenomenology of Spirit–“no person is a hero to his salvation, not because he’s not a hero, but as the valet is a valet”–including proudly that this aphorism had been quoted by Goethe. Were Hegel and Carlyle alive now, they may wonder if our civilization had been usurped by valetists: individuals who judge genius and notably its flaws in the servile perspective of their Kammerdiener.
Patrice Gueniffey does not subscribe to historic iconoclasm, which has not yet prevailed in his native France as fully as in the English-speaking world. One might deduce up to his massive biography of Napoleon, the second volume of that is eagerly anticipated by admirers of their Emperor in this, his bicentenary year. Nevertheless his much shorter recent research, Napoleon and de Gaulle, is more specifically intended as a vindication of the effect of the person in history. In its original language, the subtitle has been Deux héros français.
With this superbly written and translated essay in relative portraiture, the writer has thrown down the gauntlet to the prominent schools of modern historiography, all of which emphasize impersonal things, whether economic or social, geographic or climatological. Gueneffrey unabashedly believes in the ability of uncommon individuals–“heroes”–to change the course of events. Indeed, he barely dissents from Carlyle’s opinion that great men and women are the only cause of human progress.
On Heroes
It is no accident that Carlyle belonged to the generation that grew up in Napoleon’s shadow, so deeply affected by German thinkers who, like Hegel,’d glimpsed”the world soul on horseback” or perhaps, like Goethe, conversed with him. In 65, Gueneffrey is old enough to have lived through de Gaulle’s comeback, his first invention of the Fifth Republic, his collapse, and his passing. Tout le monde attended the General’s requiem in Notre Dame, that could never have failed to amazement an impressionable teenager. What Napoleon was to Carlyle, de Gaulle is to Gueneffrey. Yet as Carlyle wrote a enormous life of Frederick the Great but never among his near modern Napoleon, therefore Gueneffrey has dedicated his life to Napoleon but never, until today, composed about de Gaulle.
Though neither writes in Carlyle’s heroic mode, the two are fascinated by the cults that surround these terrific men–also, of course, is Gueneffrey. Roberts even qualified the British edition of his book Napoleon the Great, though this was altered for the American readership to the blander Napoleon: A Life. Gueneffrey’s study of the 2 heroes came in 2017, therefore he was unable to take account of Jackson’s job, which also needed a revealing name: A Certain Idea of France–Gaulle’s self-description of his distinctive type of patriotism. The amazement in which these two figures continue to be held–distinctively among French leaders, even as Gueneffrey educates us on the basis of opinion polls–even extends far beyond their own patrie. Both were observed in the time as saviours in adversity and unifiers in division. Now they each stand out because of their”grandeur”–a quality that Gueneffrey finds manifested as much in their lives because of their accomplishments, in words no less than actions.
“If Napoleon was French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the opposite, the very French of Frenchmen.”
Patrice GueniffeyIn the two instances, there’s a moment when their heroic qualities and standing among their compatriots unexpectedly emerges. For Napoleon, it comes during the siege of Toulon in 1796, once the young commander first displays that instinctive tactical grasp and tactical coup d’oeil that, within a couple of decades, could propel him to heights of military glory never seen as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Once the British naval squadron was driven off by his artillery, the royalist stronghold falls right into his hands like a ripe fruit. Seemingly effortless in his capacity to inspire devotion, the young Bonaparte’s allure carries his armies across Europe and outside. His own heroism creates heroes of his troops, however a number of them he sacrifices for an empire that exists only as a platform for its creator. There has been nothing like it since.
For de Gaulle, that heroic moment comes much later in life, in an era when Bonaparte was dead. A comparatively self-evident, his only prospect of activity against the German invaders is more than a footnote in the autumn of France in May 1940. Only when the panzer branches have broken does de Gaulle, commanding an armoured counter-attack, show what he’s made of. It is too little and too late. From the memoirs of his competitor, Guderian, the German writes:”The danger in this [left] flank was little…During the next few days de Gaulle remained with us and on the 19th [of May] some of his tanks succeeded in penetrating to within a part of my advanced headquarters…I handed a few uncomfortable hours before the threatening visitors moved off in another direction.” That was that de Gaulle would do–but it was enough.
Briefly co-opted into the Cabinet by his friend Paul Reynaud, he’s ousted by the new plan of Marshal Pétain, who sues for peace. Unbowed but still unknown, he spans the Channel and, even without the power but his own sense of destiny, issues his immortal Appeal of 18 June on the BBC:”Moi, Général de Gaulle, actuellement à Londres…”
Amid chaos and humiliation, the French heard a voice of hope, telling them that their duty was supposed to join him and la France Libre, the Free French, in London if possible, to resist if not. The battle of France was over, but the war was not:”This is a war.” This international conflict was a God-sent opportunity. The planet could empower the liberation and he’d lead French soldiers into Paris. De Gaulle’s kind of heroism has been thenceforth always about France.
As Gueniffey puts it:”In sum, if Napoleon was French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the opposite, the French of Frenchmen.” The Revolution was about humankind as a whole and also the armies who fought Bonaparte’s banner was as heterogeneous as the Empire that he created. Although he embraced Charlemagne’s gesture using a coronation by the Pope in Rome, the parvenu Emperor put the crown of his head in Paris. There was nothing Christian about Napoleon–each of his symbolism wasn’t classical. His cavalry fell Cologne Cathedral to a steady.
A devout Catholic, he contested the alliance of their clergy under Vichy France. Whenever the General prophesied success, he was believed. In 1934, he had warned Pétain and other army grandees of the danger from a new type of mechanised war. The prophecy had come to pass, the prophet had been vindicated and the French followed him.
But only for as long as it satisfied them. While the war lasted, the prophet-general had no need of coverages since he uttered them. Yet only a year after the German soldier, de Gaulle had resigned. No war, it appeared, there was no unity and no grandeur either. He tried to begin a new movement. When it failed to sweep him back into electricity, he retreated to his house in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in northeastern France. Only a decade later did return to save France again, now from the danger of a military coup mounted by the army in Algeria. Only the war hero can save the country from civil warfare. The price of his comeback was a new Republic, the fifth as 1789, made in the image of the General himself.
Had it not been for its shock and disillusionment of les évenements in May 1968, could the founding father of the Fifth Republic have quieted power voluntarily?This last stage of de Gaulle’s career has left its mark on France, but his legacy continues to be a mixed blessing. Just as Napoleon’s transformation of a revolutionary republic into a royal monarchy turned France into a despotism and put an intolerable burden on the Emperor, therefore de Gaulle’s mix of an elective presidency along with a parliamentary system, with only a feeble separation of forces, has escalated an unforgiving light on the lesser men who have succeeded him. Napoleon was, Gueniffey reminds me , at first in comparison to Washington as the victor of a revolutionary warfare; although the American refused the crown, the Frenchman seized it–and, even after his abdication, returned from exile to regain it.
The same, both Napoleon and de Gaulle are infrequent in having even tried comebacks. In the event the Hundred Days was always likely to end in defeat, then it was at least the most spectacular individual in history–indeed, we still say of leaders that they have”met their Waterloo.” As for de Gaulle, after his equally striking revival from the dead in 1958, he enjoyed a decade of nearly untrammelled authority in which to form his country. Raymond Aron, amazing liberal-conservative intellectual of the afternoon, had warned of the General’s dictatorial tendencies, either during the war and on the eve of his return in 1958. But Aron later confessed that he had been wrong to dread”the shadow of the Bonapartes”: de Gaulle has been”a charismatic leader par excellence” however he resembled Washington over Napoleon. Aron was possibly too generous to the General. Had it not been for its shock and disillusionment of les évenements in May 1968, would the founding father of the Fifth Republic have relinquished power willingly?
From what could happen to be mere jeu d’esprit, Gueniffey has conjured a beautiful and profound reflection on the significance of heroism. He reveals the way his compatriots transformed Bonaparte into a mythical conqueror of Roman nobility, while de Gaulle was transfigured into a chivalric legend by the Chanson de Roland. Regrettably, in the four years as it appearedthat the eclipse of such values has become almost total. Napoleon’s bicentenary has been overshadowed by the cancel civilization, which focuses on his endeavor to reintroduce slavery in the early colonies, to the exclusion of anything.
The group of De Gaulle was donned by Emmanuel Macron, who nevertheless disdains virtually everything that created the General particular, except for his aversion to”les Anglo-Saxons.” Nevertheless it was Churchill, that quintessential Anglo-Saxon statesman, who showed a true instinct for its heroic theme in history. It was he extended every assistance to de Gaulle in wartime, regardless of the latter’s intransigence that provoked his infamous remark that”the toughest cross I need to bear is that the Cross of Lorraine.” After de Gaulle showed him the grave of Napoleon in Les Invalides soon after the liberation of Paris, Churchill bowed his mind and announced:”In the entire world there’s nothing grander.” Because of Gueniffey, we too have been educated, for most of the flaws of these heroes, humanity could be the poorer without the illustration of their grandeur.
Editor’s Note: The review was updated to clarify the positioning of Napoleon’s coronation.