The Last Emperors

By Vinen, Richard | The Nation, March 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Last Emperors


Vinen, Richard, The Nation


Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945.

By John Ramsden. Columbia. 652 pp. $37.50.

Charles de Gaulle. By Eric Roussel. Gallimard. 1,032 pp. 30 Euros.

Let's begin by throwing out all the facts, and insist on the truly serious things: the legends.--Regis Debray, A demain de Gaulle (1990)

If Winston Churchill is today the icon of an American right that denounced the "appeasement" of Iraq, Charles de Gaulle is the inspiration for some of those who continue to urge European governments to resist US imperialism. In this climate, biographies of each can be easily appropriated for political purposes. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani claimed that he began reading Roy Jenkins's biography of Churchill on the night of September 11, 2001, when he got back to his apartment. In a recent issue of the French journal Le Debat, de Gaulle biographer Jean Lacouture imagined a conversation between the Gaullist Jacques Chirac and the ghost of de Gaulle himself about the state of France, particularly its relations with America.

British writers on the left (Clive Ponting) and on the right (David Irving) have often attacked the Churchill myth, but rarely have they paused to say much about the man behind it. John Ramsden's Man of the Century, the first book to examine Churchill's post-1945 reputation, is a reversal in the trend. (Unfortunately, despite its broad scope, the book ignores Churchill's influence on the wider culture; Ramsden finds space to quote five separate reviews of Churchill's official biography but fails to mention Howard Brenton's Churchill Play). In contrast, Eric Roussel's Charles de Gaulle is, at first glance, a more conventional portrait. But like most French works on de Gaulle--and unlike most works on Churchill--it recognizes that there can be no clear-cut separation between the "reality" of de Gaulle's career and its mythic legacy.

De Gaulle and Churchill first met at a conference of British and French leaders in June 1940, and their reputations have been intertwined ever since. Churchill's sponsorship of de Gaulle allowed this relatively obscure officer to be in London when France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany and to establish himself as the leader of the "fighting French." June 18, 1940, the anniversary of Britain's defeat of the French at Waterloo in 1815, was the single most important day in the careers of both Churchill and de Gaulle--the day on which de Gaulle's "call to honor" and Churchill's "finest hour" speech were broadcast. As time went on, de Gaulle's rigid insistence on respect for French dignity annoyed Churchill--he remarked of de Gaulle that "he thinks he's Joan of Arc but I can't get my bloody bishops to burn him"--but the two men never broke with each other entirely, and they later marched in triumph together through liberated Paris.

The enduring relationship between Churchill and de Gaulle was based on a foundation of shared experiences and beliefs that stretched as far back as childhood. Born in the nineteenth century, both came of age in an era of sound money, European hegemony and cavalry charges. They began their respective careers as professional soldiers. Both established themselves as great orators and were thought, by some, to be great writers: Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature (an honor never accorded to George Orwell or Graham Greene); de Gaulle's memoirs have recently been published (alongside the works of Proust and Gide) in the French Pleiade series of literary classics.

For most of their lives, both leaders were emphatically right-wing. Each opposed the Bolshevik Revolution early on, yet later allied with the left against Nazism. In 1940 Churchill was cheered by the Labour benches of the House of Commons more enthusiastically than he was by his own side. It is hard to believe that de Gaulle, without the support of the French Communist Party and the Soviet government, which recognized his claims to lead France before either Britain or America did so, would have returned to France in triumph in 1944. …

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