The Heroic in France

Scarcely a day goes by without some historical figure once viewed as”great” being toppled from their own base. Nobody, it seems, is immune from being cut down to size. Those most celebrated because of his or her deeds are judged instead by their words, even words unknown for their contemporaries–and judged, furthermore, by the moral sensibilities of the present rather than the past. The higher they’d once been held in our forebears’ esteem, the further they have to now collapse. Hamlet’s wise admonition–“Use every man after his desert, and who is cape whipping?” –has been consigned to oblivion.
Yet many of us who live at a post-heroic age are homesick for a more innocent time when heroes have been called such and given their due. Now, to mention Carlyle except for an illustration of racism or proto-fascism would be 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. Nevertheless Carlyle had something significant to say about the epic and its antithesis, which he called”valetism”–a homage to Hegel, from whose validity of History he’d heard concerning”world-historical individuals.” There, Hegel cited his particular Phenomenology of Spirit–“no person is a hero to his salvation, not because he is not a hero, but as the valet is still a valet”–including proudly that this aphorism had been nominated by Goethe. Why were Hegel and Carlyle alive today, they may wonder whether our culture had been usurped by valetists: those who judge genius and its defects from the servile standpoint of their Kammerdiener.
Patrice Gueniffey certainly does not subscribe to historical iconoclasm, which hasn’t yet prevailed in his native France as completely as in the English-speaking world. One might deduce as much from his massive biography of Napoleon, the next volume of that is eagerly awaited by admirers of their Emperor in this, his bicentenary yearold. Nevertheless his considerably shorter recent study, Napoleon and de Gaulle, is much more explicitly intended as a vindication of the effects of the person in history. In its original language, the subtitle has been Deux héros français.
With this superbly written and translated essay in comparative portraiture, the writer has thrown down the gauntlet into the prominent schools of contemporary historiography, all which highlight impersonal elements, whether economic or social, geographical or climatological. Gueneffrey unabashedly believes in the ability of uncommon people –“personalities”–to change the course of events. Indeed, he barely dissents from Carlyle’s opinion that great men and women are the sole cause of human advancement.
On Heroes
Tout le monde appreciated the General’s requiem at Notre Dame, that cannot have failed to amazement an impressionable adolescent. What Napoleon was to Carlyle, de Gaulle would be to Gueneffrey. Yet as Carlyle wrote a enormous life of Frederick the Great but never among his close contemporary Napoleon, therefore Gueneffrey has devoted his life to Napoleon but never, until today, composed roughly de Gaulle.
But recent decades have witnessed outstanding biographies of both Napoleon and de Gaulle by the British historians Andrew Roberts and Julian Jackson respectively. Though neither writes in Carlyle’s epic mode, the two are fascinated with the cults that surround these fantastic men–as, clearly, is Gueneffrey. Roberts even entitled the British edition of his book Napoleon the Great, although this was changed for the American Pie into the blander Napoleon: A Life. Gueneffrey’s analysis of the two heroes came in 2017, therefore he was not able to due to Jackson’s job, which also needed a revealing name: A Certain Idea of France–Gaulle’s self-description of his distinctive sort of patriotism. The amazement in which these two figures are still held–distinctively among French leaders, so since Gueneffrey informs us on the basis of opinion polls–even extends much beyond their own patrie. Both were seen at the time as saviours in adversity and unifiers in division. Now they each stand out because of their”grandeur”–a characteristic that Gueneffrey finds shown up to their own lives because of their achievements, in words not as much deeds.
“If Napoleon was the least French Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the contrary, the most French of Frenchmen.”
Patrice GueniffeyIn both instances, there’s a moment when their epic qualities and status among their compatriots suddenly emerges. For Napoleon, it comes through the siege of Toulon in 1796, when the youthful commander first shows that instinctive strategic grasp and strategic coup d’oeil that, in a few decades, would propel him into heights of military glory not seen since Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. When the British naval squadron has been pushed off with his artillery, the royalist stronghold drops right into his hands like a ripe fruit. Seemingly effortless in their own ability to inspire devotion, the young Bonaparte’s allure carries his armies across Europe and beyond. His own heroism makes personalities of his troops, but a number of them he sacrifices for an empire that exists solely as a platform for its own creator. In a meteoric career that lasted barely 20 decades, Napoleon makes himself lawgiver, liberator, and legend. There’s been nothing like it since.
For de Gaulle, this epic moment comes much later in life, at an age when Bonaparte was dead. A relatively junior general, his sole probability of activity against the German invaders is barely more than a footnote at the fall of France in May 1940. Only as soon as the panzer branches have broken does de Gaulle, controlling an armoured counter-attack, reveal what he is made from. It is too little and too late. From the memoirs of his competitor, Guderian, the German writes:”The threat from this [abandoned ] flank was minor…During the upcoming few times de Gaulle stayed with us on the 19th [of May] a few of his tanks succeeded in penetrating to over a mile of my innovative headquarters…I handed a few uncomfortable hours before the threatening people moved off in a different direction.” This was all that de Gaulle would dobut it was enough.
Briefly co-opted in the Cabinet with his friend Paul Reynaud, he is ousted by the new plan of Marshal Pétain, who adores peace.
Amid chaos and humiliation, the French discovered a voice of hope, telling them that their obligation was to join him la France Libre, the Free French, at London if possible, to withstand at home if not. The battle of France was over, but the war was not:”This is a world war.” This international conflict proved to be a God-sent opportunity. The world would empower the liberation and he would lead crystal soldiers to Paris. De Gaulle’s form of heroism has been thenceforth consistently about France.
Since Gueniffey puts it:”In sum, though Napoleon was the least French Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the contrary, the French of Frenchmen.” The Revolution was all about humankind as a whole and the armies who fought under Bonaparte’s banner were as heterogeneous as the Empire he made. There was nothing Christian about Napoleon–each of his symbolism wasn’t classical. Like the Romans, his legions brought glory and civilisation, but at the time of a bayonet. His cavalry decreased Cologne Cathedral into a steady.
A devout Catholic, he contested the alliance of their clergy under Vichy France. Since the Sign of the Free French, de Gaulle adopted the Cross of Lorraine, the shaky province wrested back from the Germans later 1918 but restored into the Reich by Hitler. When the General prophesied victory, he was considered. In 1934, he’d warned Pétain and other army grandees of this threat from a new type of mechanised war. The prophecy had come to pass, the Vikings had been vindicated and the French followed him.
But for so long as it satisfied them. While the war lasted, the prophet-general had no dependence on policies since he embodied them. On the best day of his entire life, the liberation of Paris on 25 August, 1944, he strode alone along the Champs Élysée beyond the rapturous multitudes. At l’Hotel de Ville, he gave his manifesto in three words:”La guerre, l’unité et la grandeur, voilà notre programme.” However only a year following the German surrender, de Gaulle had resigned. Without war, it seemed, there was no unity without a grandeur either. He tried to start a new motion. As it didn’t sweep him back to power, he retreated into his residence at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in northeastern France. Only a decade after did he return to rescue France again, this time by the threat of a military coup mounted by the army in Algeria. Only the war hero can save the nation from civil warfare. The price of his comeback proved to be a new Republic, the fifth since 1789, created from the image of the General himself.
Might itn’t been for its shock and disillusionment of 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 mark on France, but his legacy has been a mixed blessing. Just 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 combination of an optional presidency and a parliamentary system, with just a feeble separation of powers, has shone an unforgiving light on the lower men who have succeeded him. Napoleon was, Gueniffey reminds me , at first in contrast to Washington because the victor of a radical warfare; although the American denied the crown, the Frenchman seized itand, even after his abdication, returned from exile to regain it.
The same, both Napoleon and de Gaulle are infrequent in having even attempted comebacks. If the Hundred Days was always prone to end in defeat, it was at least the most spectacular person ever –indeed, we say of leaders that they have”met their Waterloo.” As for de Gaulle, following his equally dramatic resurrection from the dead in 1958, he had a decade of nearly untrammelled authority to form his country. Raymond Aron, great liberal-conservative intellectual of this afternoon, had warned of their General’s dictatorial tendencies, both during the war and on the eve of his return from 1958. But Aron later confessed that he had been wrong to fear”the shadow of the Bonapartes”: de Gaulle was”a charismatic leader par excellence” but he resembled Washington over Napoleon. Aron was perhaps too generous to this General. Might itn’t been for its shock and disillusionment of les évenements at May 1968, would the founding father of the Fifth Republic ever have relinquished power voluntarily?
From what could have been mere jeu d’esprit, Gueniffey has conjured a beautiful and profound reflection on the significance of heroism. He shows just how his compatriots transformed Bonaparte to a mythical conqueror of Roman nobility, while de Gaulle has been transfigured to a chivalric legend by the Chanson de Roland. Unfortunately, in recent decades since it appearedthat the eclipse of these values has come to be almost total. Napoleon’s bicentenary is being overshadowed by the counter culture, which concentrates on his endeavor to reintroduce slavery from the French colonies, to the exclusion of anything.
The mantle of De Gaulle has been donned by Emmanuel Macron, who nevertheless disdains almost everything that created the General specific, except his aversion to”les Anglo-Saxons.” Nevertheless it was Churchill, that quintessential Anglo-Saxon statesman, who showed a true instinct for its epic theme in history. It was he who extended each assistance to de Gaulle in Deadly, despite the latter’s intransigence that provoked his infamous remark that”the toughest cross I must endure would be that the Cross of Lorraine.” When de Gaulle showed him the grave of Napoleon at Les Invalides shortly after the liberation of Paris, Churchill bowed his mind and announced:”In the entire world there’s nothing grander.” As a result of Gueniffey, we too have been reminded that, for most of the defects of those personalities, humanity would be the poorer without the illustration of their grandeur.