Charles de Gaulle: patriot, liberator, would-be absolutist

MENSCHEN De Gaulle (1890-1970) was the soul of resistance to the Third Reich, but also of Franco-German reconciliation. This year, there are three reasons to talk about him: the birthday of the legendary patriot and first post-war president of the Grande Nation marks the 130th anniversary of his life and the 50th anniversary of his death. Charles de Gaulle is also remembered in many places in the south of France.

From 1940 to 1945, the part of France, which was initially unoccupied by the German Wehrmacht, was ruled from the south of France. The cabinet under Paul Reynaud, who came from Barcelonnette in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d‘Azur, fled to Bordeaux when he took Paris. There, Reynaud continues his clear confrontation course against National Socialist Germany, thus rejecting the British appeasement policy to date in bulk and considering the chances of success of an Allied counteroffensive.

1940: De Gaulle goes into exile in London

When he does not find a political majority for his strategy and has to take his hat, Marshal Philippe Pétain’s hour beats. The iconic hero of Verdun, which has proposed an armistice and thus prevailed with Hitler, is thus the last prime minister of the 3rd Republic to take over power in the truncated state in Vichy in the south of France. This prompts the until then completely unknown General des Gaulle, whom Reynaud had previously appointed as Secretary of State and coordinator of Franco-British cooperation, to go into exile in London. There he contacted Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, after some hesitation, allowed him to continue fighting on the BBC channel on the late evening of 18 June 1940, in the spirit of Reynaud, who was disembarked two days earlier, for which Pétain sentenced him to death.

In black and white, the dissident general‘s legendary radio appeal can only be found in the Midi newspapers, where Pétain installs a leader’s dictatorship. Just four days after de Gaulle‘s speech, the ceasefire agreement, which is equivalent to a surrender, is being sealed in the forest of Compiègne. The very self-confident teacher son from Lille, who already believed in his historic mission back then, will not be confused by this. He wants to continue to bring the aggressors to their knees militarily. With Chamberlain successor Churchill, he discusses the strategic possibilities of a concentrated attack on all branches of arms. The British, however, is calling for the French fleet anchored in Toulon to support his forces. The Vichy regime of the zone libre, of course, rejects this. And Pétain commands to sink the ships so that they cannot fall into the hands of either the Allies or the Germans.

De Gaulle returned to Paris in 1944 as a liberator

The true France finally succeeded de Gaulle, the founder of the Free France movement, who moved into Paris as the liberator of his homeland after the successful Allied landing in Normandy and Provence in August 1944., although he himself did not take part in any of the bloody hostilities.

Now Philippe Pétain, who had his back on the Führer in the French budget and fled to exile in Sigmarings, is sentenced to death at home for treason. The general, however, finally pardoned him to life imprisonment, as the marshal had been his mentor and friend until the political disintegration. In addition, De Gaulle had always credited to the honour of Pétain’s godfather of his son Philippe.

Devastating revenge plans: De Gaulle wants to eradicate Germany

After his appointment as prime minister, De Gaulle initially has devastating plans for revenge. He wants to eradicate Germany, but at least tear it to pieces, in other words: splitting into small meaningless states. Only much later does the cunning tactician realize that it would be politically smarter to position Western Europe as the third force between the Soviet and American power bloc. But he also needs Germany.

As early as the beginning of 1946, the would-be absolutist, in a dispute with the parties over his intended erosion of the constitutional organs, fought and withdrew into the pout. It was not until 1958 that he returned to the top of the government. Only to him do the voters trust to solve problems such as the Algerian crisis.

1962 Charm offensive in Germany, followed in 1963 by the Franco-German friendship treaty.

In the same year, a relationship based on mutual trust betweenhim and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The hostile or depressive post-war mood suddenly brightens up. In 1962, during a six-day state visit, de Gaulle surprised the Bonn Republic with a veritable charm offensive. Unfortunately, his Ludwig speech is largely forgotten today, in which he congratulates thousands of young listeners — including Horst Köhler and Erwin Teufel — in an almost fatherly way for being part of a great people. Hardly any German dared to say something like this again about his country. The youth of the 1960s, who are ashamed of their country‘s recent past, thus gives an identifying boost. After that, everything goes very quickly: the Franco-German Treaty of Friendship was signed in Paris at the beginning of 1963.

South of France commemorates the liberator

In honour of the former integration figure of the Resistance, many exhibitions and commemorations were held along the Côte d’Azur in 2020. Saint-Tropez, for example, where the Allied forces arriving from Corsica landed in 1944, unveiled a large bronze plaque on Place des Lices to the hero who negotiated on an equal foothest with the Roosevelts, Churchills and Stalins during the last war.

At the Résidence de Cap Brun in Toulon, on the occasion of the double anniversary, the non-party self-made hero had laid down some of his memoirs here, in the seclusion of the luxury hotel on the coast of Mourillon. Reading the three-volume work, we learn that the young captain at Verdun, where he was the only commanding French officer to force the Germans to retreat, was severely wounded and was taken prisoner by Germany. Five times he had tried to escape from the Ingolstadt camp in vain, but was not released until after the end of the war in 1918. He had already learned German during his training at the Saint-Cyr elite School. Meanwhile, he spoke the language fluently.

Also on the other side of the border, in Trier, Germany, the old strategist was revived this year. At a ceremony in front of his former home Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 2, admirers bowed to the great inhabitant of our city. He had served as battalion commander of the French occupation forces for two years in the Rhineland Army and then until 1929. De Gaulle‘s daughter Anne was born in the Roman city.

Bormes-les-Mimosas, the Paris du Sud

In the south, the egocentric nationalist (France is where I am), who also liked to speak of himself in the third person, had already set a monument to himself in 1968 by making the centuries-old Fort de Brégançon in the small town of Bormes-les-Mimosa as the permanent summer residence of the French presidents. The idea came to him when he occasionally rested from the ceremonies of the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Provence in the former fortress. In doing so, he established a tradition that continues to this day and sometimes tempts the pretty village to inflate (jokingly) as Paris du Sud. It was only this summer that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel met at the Elysée d’Eté, who are currently embodying bilateral cooperation. Chancellor Helmut Kohl had already been a guest of François Mitterrand here in August 1985.

On a critical point of view, de Gaulle‘s political life was by no means an end-to-end success story. In fact, there had been deep mutual distrust between him and Winston Churchill already in the war. And Franklin Roosevelt, who also did not trust de Gaulle, remained closely associated with Pétain for a long time, even though he had surrounded himself with a lot of anti-Semites. The fact that it was not far off with the aforementioned eye level proved unpredictable in 1945 at the conference on the division of defeated Germany in Yalta, to which the Big Three (with Stalin) de Gaulle did not even invited, even though they recognized France as the victorious power and had awarded the country a seat on the World Security Council.

The Baroque statesman, of course, cannot abandon this disgrace in the long run. Twenty years later, he retired the Allies by setting up their own nuclear force, leaving NATO and no yes to England’s accession to the EEC. As early as 1947, he had initially torpedoed Germany‘s accession to NATO, the Schumann Plan and the establishment of the EEC, because he did not want to let Germany up again.

Appetite for Monaco

What wasn’t everyone like either: on 13 October 1962, seven years after the wedding of thePrince Rainier III, with Grace Kelly, imposed a blockade on Monaco. For years, his tax officers had covetously managed to cross the border of the tax haven. Now finally, the big neighbor wanted to swallow the small but super-rich roulette state to participate in its pledges.

The Algerian policy of French grandeur, which had become famous in some cases, met with massive resistance, especially from the Algerian French grandeur. In 1962/63 alone, angry extremists of the secret organization OAS carried out seven attacks on the general, one of them on Mont Faron in Toulon. Behind the attacks were the French settlers (pieds noirs), who did not want to reveal their latifundia in the Maghreb. After the liberation of Algeria from French domination, thousands of North Africans emigrated to the south of France. In 1965, de Gaulle reelected against the 49-year-old socialist François Mitterrand, against whom he had bad cards, especially in the south (except in Nice), only in the second round.

The student unrest of 1968 does not see the despot as an uproar of young people concerned about their future, but as an attack on the state — its state. After a number of disappointing speeches, he had to give strong feathers. Finally, in 1969, after the great strike wave, the ailing would-be autocrat finally failed because of the question of confidence by which he wanted to put the Senate down, with the noble aim of disposing of all the interforces that stood between him and the people.

Although nationalist through and through, de Gaulle was not in principle opposed to a united Europe. He envisued a Europe of the Fatherlands, to which the right-wing populists of the German AfD currently refer. What the AfD conceals, however, is that de Gaulle did indeed advocate a political union and a common defence policy.

Thinkers Macrons?

French connoisseur Johannes Willmes, who has just presented a de Gaulle biography, draws comparisons with Macron, who sees the future of Europe more in a collection movement with different but integrated approaches. In the 2019 Yellow-West protests, Willmes sees parallels to the Paris student revolt of 1968. As far as the common defence policy is concerned, de Gaulle wanted a quick-wishing European army, which he considered a precondition for NATO and not as a result (Willmes). In this respect, he can also be regarded as the pioneer of Macron, who had only recently described the current military alliance as brain-dead.

Today, according to surveys by 70 percent of the French, De Gaulle is considered the most important figure in the history of their country. Some historians consider him, after all, to be the most important statesman since Napoleon, and others, at least as the central political figure of the 20th century. The old Zeit boss, Theo Sommer, however, found that all in all the backward concrete head did not bring much lasting. What will be remembered far beyond the borders of France is his lamentation: How am I supposed to govern a country where there are more cheeses than days a year?

Anyway, De Gaulle was extremely popular with the cartoonists of the world, to whom he served as an unmistakable model for thousands of cartoons with his egghead, huge pediment, the unmistakable Képi (cap) and his enormous shape at 1.95 meters.

Even on his last trip to Germany in 1964, de Gaulle still proved bulky. On a voyage to the Moselle, the long Lulatsch took such a view from the skipper that the vehicle collided with such force against a Trier quay wall that the Frenchman, the Luxembourg Grand Duchess Charlotte and the German Federal President Heinrich Lübke had to support each other.

Rolf Liffers