The Heroic in France

Scarcely a day goes by without some historical figure once seen as”good” being toppled from their pedestal. Nobody, it appears, is immune from being cut down to size. Those most renowned for their deeds are judged instead by their words, even words unfamiliar for their contemporaries–and therefore understood, moreover, from the ethical sensibilities of the present rather than the past. The higher they had once been held within our forebears’ esteem, the further they must now collapse. –was consigned to oblivion.
Yet many people who live at a post-heroic age are nostalgic for a more innocent time when heroes have been called such and given their due. Today, to mention Carlyle except for an instance of racism or even proto-fascism is to court opprobrium; even his Chelsea house which was maintained as a museum to the historian and his literary wife Jane–a distinctive Victorian time capsule–is now closed indefinitely. There, Hegel cited his particular Phenomenology of Spirit–“no man is a hero to his valet, not because he’s not a hero, but because the valet is a valet”–adding proudly that this aphorism was nominated by Goethe. Why were Hegel and Carlyle alive today, they may wonder if our culture was usurped by valetists: individuals who estimate genius and its defects from the servile standpoint of the Kammerdiener.
Patrice Gueniffey does not subscribe to historical iconoclasm, which has not prevailed in his native France as completely as in the English-speaking world. An individual might deduce as much from his massive biography of Napoleon, the second volume of which will be eagerly awaited by admirers of the Emperor in this, his own bicentenary year. Nevertheless his considerably shorter recent research, Napoleon and de Gaulle, is much more explicitly thought to be a vindication of the effect of the individual in history. In its original language, the subtitle was Deux héros français.
With this beautifully written and translated essay in comparative portraiture, the writer has thrown down the gauntlet to the dominant schools of contemporary historiography, all of which emphasize unbiased aspects, whether social or economic, geographic or climatological. Gueniffey unabashedly believes in the power of rare people –“heroes”–to alter the course of events. Indeed, he hardly dissents from Carlyle’s view that great women and men are the sole cause of human progress.
On Heroes
It’s no accident that Carlyle belonged to the generation that grew up in Napoleon’s shadow, deeply affected by German people that, like Hegel,’d glimpsed”the planet soul on horseback” or even, such as Goethe, conversed with him. Tout le monde attended the General’s requiem at Notre Dame, which cannot have failed to awe an impressionable adolescent. What Napoleon was to Carlyle, de Gaulle is to Gueniffey. Yet just as Carlyle composed a huge life of Frederick the Great but not one of his close contemporary Napoleon, therefore Gueniffey has committed his life to Napoleon but not, until now, composed regarding de Gaulle.
Although neither writes in Carlyle’s epic manner, both are intrigued by the cults that surround these amazing guys –as, clearly, is Gueniffey. Roberts even entitled the British version of his novel Napoleon the Great, although this was altered to the American readership to the blander Napoleon: A Life. Gueniffey’s study of the 2 heroes came out in 2017, therefore he was unable to due to Jackson’s work, which also had a revealing name: A Certain Idea of France–de Gaulle’s self-description of his own distinctive kind of patriotism. The awe in which these two characters continue to be held–distinctively among French leaders, so as Gueniffey advises us about the basis of opinion polls–actually extends far beyond their own patrie. Both were seen in the time as saviours in adversity and unifiers in branch. They each stand out due to their”grandeur”–a characteristic that Gueniffey finds shown up to their lives as in their accomplishments, in words not as actions.
“If Napoleon was French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the opposite, the very French of Frenchmen.”
Patrice GueniffeyIn both instances, there is a moment when their epic qualities and status among their compatriots unexpectedly emerges. For Napoleon, it occurs during the siege of Toulon in 1796, once the young commander first displays that instinctive tactical grasp and tactical coup d’oeil which, within a few years, would propel him to heights of military glory not seen as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. When the British naval squadron has been driven off by his own artillery, the royalist stronghold drops right into his hands like a ripe fruit. Seemingly effortless in his ability to inspire devotion, the young Bonaparte’s allure carries his cousins across Europe and beyond. His very own heroism makes heroes of his own troops, but a lot of them he sacrifices for an empire which exists solely as a platform for its founder. There’s been nothing like it since.
For de Gaulle, that epic moment comes much later in life, in an age when Bonaparte was already dead. A relatively junior general, his sole chance of action against the German invaders is barely more than a footnote at the fall of France in May 1940. Only as soon as the panzer divisions have already broken does de Gaulle, commanding an armoured counter-attack, reveal what he’s made of. It’s too small and too late. From the memoirs of the competitor, Guderian, the German writes:”The threat from this [left] flank was little…During the upcoming few days de Gaulle remained with us on the 19th [of May] a few of the tanks succeeded in entering within a mile of my advanced headquarters…I passed several uncomfortable hours until the threatening visitors moved off in a different direction.” This was that de Gaulle can dobut it was sufficient.
Briefly co-opted into the Cabinet by his friend Paul Reynaud, he’s ousted from the new regime of Marshal Pétain, who sues for peace. Unbowed but still unknown, ” he yells the Channel and, with no power but his own sense of fate, problems his immortal Appeal of 18 June about the BBC:”Moi, Général de Gaulle, actuellement à Londres…”
Amid chaos and embarrassment, the French heard that the voice of hope, telling them their duty was to join him la France Libre, the Free French, at London if possible, to resist at home if not. The conflict of France was over, but the war was not:”This is a world war.” This worldwide conflict was a God-sent prospect. The world would enable the liberation and he’d lead French soldiers to Paris. De Gaulle’s form of heroism was thenceforth consistently about France.
As Gueniffey puts it”In sum, though Napoleon was French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the opposite, the French of Frenchmen.” The Revolution was about humankind as a whole and the armies who fought under Bonaparte’s banner were as heterogeneous as the Empire that he established. Although he adopted Charlemagne’s gesture using a coronation by the Pope at Rome, the parvenu Emperor placed the crown of his own head in Paris. There was not anything Christian about Napoleon–all of his symbolism was classical. Like the Romans, his legions brought glory and civilisation, but in the point of a bayonet. His cavalry reduced Cologne Cathedral to a stable.
Lacking military power, de Gaulle mobilised spiritual and ethical energies within his crusade against the godless Nazis. As the symbol of the Free French, de Gaulle adopted the Cross of Lorraine, the shaky province wrested back from the Germans following 1918 but restored to the Reich from Hitler. Whenever the General prophesied success, he was believed. Back in 1934, he had warned Pétain and other military grandees of the threat from a new sort of mechanised war. The prophecy had come to pass, the Maya was vindicated and the French accompanied .
But only for as long as it suited them. While the war continued, the prophet-general had no dependence on coverages since he embodied them. On the greatest day of his life, the liberation of Paris on 25 August, 1944, he strode alone across the Champs Élysée beyond the rapturous multitudes. At l’Hotel de Ville, he even offered them his manifesto in 3 words”La guerre, l’unité et la grandeur, voilà notre programme.” Yet only a year following the German surrender, de Gaulle had resigned. Without war, it seemed, there was no unity without a recourse either. He tried to begin a new motion. As it didn’t sweep him back to electricity, he retreated to his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in northeastern France. Only a decade after did he return to rescue France again, this time from the threat of a military coup mounted from the military in Algeria. Only the war hero could save the country from civil warfare. The price of the comeback was a new Republic, the fifth as 1789, created from the image of their General himself.
Had it not been for the shock and disillusionment of all les évenements at May 1968, would the founding father of the Fifth Republic ever have quieted power voluntarily?This last stage of de Gaulle’s career has left its own mark on France, but his legacy has been a mixed blessing. As Napoleon’s transformation of a radical republic into a royal monarchy turned France into a despotism and placed an intolerable burden on the Emperor, therefore de Gaulle’s mix of an optional presidency along with a parliamentary system, with only a feeble separation of powers, has escalated an unforgiving light on the lesser men who have succeeded him. Napoleon was, Gueniffey reminds us, at first in contrast to Washington as the victor of a radical warfare; although the American refused the crown, the Frenchman seized itandafter his abdication, returned from exile to regain it.
The same, both Napoleon and de Gaulle are infrequent in having even tried comebacks. If the Hundred Days was always going to end in defeat, then it was the most spectacular one in history–indeed, we still say of leaders they have”met their Waterloo.” As for de Gaulle, following his equally striking resurrection from the politically dead in 1958, he had a decade of almost untrammelled authority to shape his nation. Raymond Aron, great liberal-conservative intellectual of the day, had warned of this General’s dictatorial tendencies, both during the war and again on the eve of the return from 1958. However, Aron later confessed he was wrong to fear”the shadow of the Bonapartes”: p Gaulle had 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 the shock and disillusionment of all les évenements at May 1968, would the founding father of the Fifth Republic ever have relinquished power willingly?
From what could have been a mere jeu d’esprit, Gueniffey has a gorgeous and deep reflection on the significance of heroism. He reveals the way his compatriots transformed Bonaparte to a mythical conqueror of all Roman nobility, while de Gaulle has been transfigured to a chivalric legend by the Chanson de Roland. Regrettably, in the four years since it appeared, the eclipse of such values has become almost total. Napoleon’s bicentenary has been overshadowed by the cancel culture, which focuses on his endeavor to reintroduce slavery from the French colonies, to the exclusion of everything else.
The group of De Gaulle has been donned by Emmanuel Macron, who still disdains virtually everything which made the General unique, except his aversion to”les Anglo-Saxons.” Nevertheless it was Churchill, which quintessential Anglo-Saxon statesman, that revealed a real instinct for the epic motif in French history. It was he extended every help to de Gaulle in wartime, despite the latter’s intransigence that triggered his notorious remark that”the toughest cross I have to bear is that the Cross of Lorraine.” After de Gaulle showed him the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides soon after the liberation of Paris, Churchill bowed his mind and announced:”In the world there is nothing grander.” As a result of Gueniffey, we too have been reminded that, for all the defects of these heroes, humanity would be the poorer without the illustration of the grandeur.
Editor’s Note: This review has been updated to clarify the location of Napoleon’s coronation.