The Concord and Conflict of Churchill and de Gaulle

Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first. —Charles de Gaulle[1]

You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.                                            Winston Churchill

On June 18, 1942, the second anniversary of his great Appel to the French nation of 1940, General de Gaulle addressed the Free French assembled in London’s Albert Hall. He began with a quotation from the great eighteenth-century writer Nicolas Chamfort: “The reasonable have survived. The passionate have lived.” Despite the betrayal of the Vichy regime, he lauded the undimmed fighting spirit of those Frenchmen who had rallied to him, adding: “we have lived a lot [during the previous two years] because we are passionate. But we have survived as well. Ah yes, how reasonable we are!”

These words could be a description by de Gaulle of himself, complete with the final faintly sarcastic flourish to which his British hosts were all too well accustomed. Arguably de Gaulle, from early on in his career, thrived on being about the most unreasonable man on the planet. The weaker his diplomatic or political position seemed to be, the more intractable he tended to become. He was cold to the point of apparent hostility with long-suffering subordinates. He made enormous scenes in which his Anglophobia (some of it performatory, some genuine) was given full vent; on one occasion he got so furious in discussion with Churchill that he broke one of the valuable Downing Street chairs. He was a master of the strategic sulk, both during the war and during or between his terms as President of France. His rages terrified allies and opponents alike, even though such rages might, like an extremely scary thunderstorm, be succeeded after twenty-four hours of brooding with a disarming charm offensive.

This essay appears in April’s Quadrant.
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“I have many crosses to bear,” Churchill is supposed to have said, “but the heaviest of all is the Cross of Lorraine.”[2] “When I am right,” complained de Gaulle, “I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. We are angry at each other much of the time.”

And yet, and yet … Anyone reading Julian Jackson’s quietly brilliant biography[3] of de Gaulle will be reminded that he was one of the most brilliant statesmen of the modern age, bestriding a decade of post-war French politics like a Colossus as formidable for his enemies as he was exasperating to his allies. Like Churchill, he was totally without physical (or any other kind of) fear, extremely well read (two to three books a week while President), also a gifted writer[4] and even better rhetorician; in short, his achievements are enough to give chauvinism a good name.

We are fortunate that contemporaneously we have been given another masterpiece of political biography in Andrew Roberts’s massively researched and vividly written account of Winston Churchill.[5] Neither of these authors could be accused of hagiography: to the contrary, they deal candidly with their protagonists’ errors, miscalculations, even follies. They are assiduous in featuring the many charges that writers from academe, many of them extremely hostile to the two statesmen’s respective national and imperial visions, have carefully assembled over the years.

For the most persistent and disingenuous of their detractors both men had responses that now seem prescient: de Gaulle once said crushingly, “Always go for the highest position; it is generally the least crowded.” Churchill, with his mischievous capacity for wit, said something more sophisticated: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”


A partnership of chalk and cheese

It would be difficult to imagine a more potentially dysfunctional partnership in politics or any other sphere than that between Churchill and de Gaulle. Churchill was an aristocrat, de Gaulle from the higher gentry, but with a decidedly bourgeois lifestyle. Both believed that there had always been men of destiny, themselves being cases in point. Ironically however, it was Churchill who contemplated a biography of Napoleon, wrote a screenplay about him and kept a bust of Napoleon on his desk; whereas de Gaulle, while accepting the great man’s military prowess, entered the important caveat that he left France “smaller” than he found it. He would also have been aware that the Corsican had considered offering his services to the Sultan when his career had temporarily stalled in France, something which would not have sat well with de Gaulle’s fierce patriotism. Nevertheless he saw in Napoleon a reconciliation of military dictatorship and civil governance if and when the latter had broken down. His own return to power in 1958 had, for some, more than a whiff of Napoleonism about it.[6] If he had lived long enough, de Gaulle had planned to end his memoirs with an imagined dialogue between himself and Napoleon. When Churchill adroitly rejoined the Conservatives in 1924, one observer described how he “walked through the lobbies of the House of Commons with an air appropriate to Napoleon Bonaparte on the morning of the crisis of the 18th Brumaire”.[7]

Churchill was convivial, probably agnostic, and liked a drink. De Gaulle was austere, solitary and pious (malicious opponents used to say: “De Gaulle resides at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises—and one of these is for God.”) Churchill had an irreverent wit; de Gaulle’s only semblance of humour was manifest in crushing sarcasm. Churchill was decidedly Francophile, de Gaulle was Anglophobe. Among Churchill’s cheerfully embraced vices were gambling and being almost permanently in debt, which he traded against an expected inheritance from the Marlborough estate, or otherwise persuaded his wealthy backers to bail him out from. He made sometimes eye-watering amounts from his best-selling books written with amazing fluency and speed, but spent the proceeds just as quickly. Even his cigar and wine suppliers in St James frequently complained of unpaid bills. Both he and his American wife Clementine tended to live extravagantly, as is entertainingly described in David Lough’s book No More Champagne.[8] He regarded the maintenance of his lifestyle in a manner reminiscent of Count Széchenyi, who was asked how he would be able to live after giving his annual income for the foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and replied, “My friends will support me.” De Gaulle seems to have been distressingly frugal—”unredeemed by a single vice”, to misquote Oscar Wilde.

Churchill had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances which cut across party lines. He founded the 100 Club to entertain them bibulously at the Savoy and he enjoyed the company of dodgy plutocrats. De Gaulle was contemptuous of human weakness (whereas Churchill could be indulgent) and preserved his privacy to an extent that bordered on sociopathy, although he loved the adoring reception given him by vast crowds. His biographer relates a hilarious incident in North Africa where de Gaulle went to the beach one day with Harold Macmillan, Churchill’s political representative. Macmillan stripped and dived into the sea naked; de Gaulle sat stiffly on a rock “draped in his uniform and his dignity”, as his biographer amusingly puts it. Certainly the vision of the massively tall general as a naked giant even taking a bath at home is quite alarming, whereas the rotund Churchill, we learn from Roberts, loved to wallow in a very hot tub as he slowly turned the hue of pink blancmange while sipping his dram.


Imperial perspectives

Yet, for all the stark differences of personality and character, de Gaulle and Churchill were like each other in many important respects. Both were statesmen whose political roots were in the nineteenth century; and both believed in their respective countries’ civilising mission as imperial and colonial powers. In defending this attitude verbally, Churchill could use the debating rapier, or perhaps one should say, could wield the ironic sword of self-righteousness. There was an amusing moment at a White House dinner when the proprietor of the New York Herald Tribune, a keen protagonist of Indian independence, indignantly asked him what he was going to do about those poor Indians:

Madam, to which Indians do you refer? Do you by any chance refer to the second greatest nation on earth which under benign and beneficent British rule has multiplied and prospered exceedingly, or do you mean the unfortunate Indians of the North American continent which under your administration are practically extinct?

He was perfectly prepared to make a defence of what, in his view, the British had contributed to the life of those “poor Indians”—road, rail and harbour infrastructure, medicine, the beginnings of mass education, the rule of law, the establishment of a lingua franca for commerce and politics, keeping the peace between Muslims and Hindus, the suppression of suttee and thuggee, and much more. In regard to the last two phenomena, the British were following a lead given by the Brahmin philosopher Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), whose statue stands prominently in front of Bristol Cathedral[9]—perhaps another indication that interaction between rulers and ruled in the empire was not as wholly and opportunistically negative as it is now obligatory to claim.

Until the Algerian crisis from the mid-1950s, de Gaulle believed the French had to stay in North Africa, where indeed he had set up a Free French government in 1943 after a terrific tussle with both the British and the Americans, especially the latter. In that year, the formerly Pétainiste Admiral Darlan was assassinated in Algeria after changing sides when the Americans landed in North Africa. De Gaulle showed his unbreakable determination not to be sidelined when General Giraud (under whom he had served in the First World War) took charge with Roosevelt’s backing. This struggle was perhaps a significant source of his violent anti-Americanism later. Roosevelt loathed him and in a stormy meeting deployed the self-serving argument that he could not recognise de Gaulle because nobody had elected him (as if they had elected General Giraud!). De Gaulle replied that neither had Joan of Arc been elected but her legitimacy lay in the fact that she had taken up arms against an invader. The example was probably not chosen by accident—Churchill could not afford to upset Roosevelt and in his efforts to get de Gaulle to share power with the lacklustre Giraud came close to withdrawing British support altogether. But in the end he reluctantly admired the general’s obduracy, his unwavering vision of France as a great nation temporarily disabled. “His country has given up fighting,” said Churchill, “he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he is finished. Well, just look at him … He might be Stalin with 200 divisions behind him.”

Both Churchill and de Gaulle seemed to feel that their own interests as politicians were invariably aligned with those of the nation. (“When I want to know what France thinks,” said de Gaulle, “I ask myself.”) Both believed in the enlightening mission of their respective civilisations, though Churchill elided that of the United Kingdom with “the English-speaking nations” (by contrast de Gaulle once complained that “Belgium is a country invented by the British to annoy the French.”) The imperialism of both men was essentially paternalistic: British subjects of the empire were, at least theoretically, entitled to the rule of (British) law, something which Churchill considered to be one of the great achievements of imperialism, especially in India. De Gaulle long clung to his view that the link with Algeria was indissoluble. Events forced both men to change course when their views proved unsustainable. Churchill was obliged to watch independence bestowed on India; de Gaulle made the politically astute yet risky decision to withdraw from Algeria in the early 1960s. Many of the thirty alleged assassination plots against him were from the irredentist pieds noirs (French Algerians), and indeed some of these plots very nearly succeeded. Churchill’s political aims were usually couched in the rhetoric of friendship, mutual respect and shared vision, while de Gaulle’s were manifest in the rhetoric of Realpolitik—as he put it: “France has no friends, only interests.”



The process of decolonialisation and their leaders’ respective policies for it illustrate not only their countries’ differing geopolitical positions but also the contrasting characters of their leaders. Britain initially had the easier task since the basis of a common native tongue (as opposed to an imposed one) made the halfway house of “dominion status” an effective tool for devolving power in the “white” empire. By the 1930s Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa and even the Irish Free State had achieved dominion status. That only lasted until 1936 in the Irish case, when the post of Governor-General was abolished, together with all references to the King in the Constitution; in the South African case, as with the Irish and Canadians (Quebec), there were of course two languages involved, but English was predominant. Though completely autonomous, Australia has been a constitutional monarchy de jure since 1770 when Captain Cook annexed some Australian territories in the name of George III. It is also a prominent member of Britain’s post-imperial settlement known as the Commonwealth of Nations (founded 1931) to which almost all of its former colonies elsewhere belong. Churchill, while entirely happy with dominion status for the “white” parts of the empire, something which chimed with his vision for the English-speaking peoples, opposed it for India, “the jewel in the crown” of British imperial rule.

The Australians have persevered in their attachment to a symbolic monarchical link—remarkably, considering their heroic but arguably insufficiently appreciated support in two world wars. They suffered massive losses in campaigns such as the Gallipoli campaign, championed by Churchill, where they took the brunt of casualties together with New Zealanders and Indians. There was a repeat at Singapore in the Second World War, whereat Australia, then seriously threatened by Japan, demanded withdrawal of its troops from the Middle East to defend the homeland. One of the serious criticisms of Churchill has been that he failed to quell the impression that dominion and colonial troops were being used to spare British casualties, and also that he did not let Commonwealth leaders join sufficiently in war planning. Twenty-one of fifty-five army divisions planned by Churchill’s war cabinet were projected to be non-British.[10]

Half a million French colonial troops fought on the French side in the First World War, just as there was a substantial turn-out from both the white and non-white colonies to fight alongside Britain. To what extent these differing nations acted beyond their immediate national interest in fighting a European war is a matter for historical debate. The British with their imperial model sometimes debated whether it was even right that black or Asian troops should be deployed against a white enemy! The French with their assimilationist model were evidently not concerned about that; instead they divided their colonials into “warrior” and “non-warrior” ethnicities, applying them accordingly.

De Gaulle was faced with an even more difficult and delicate task in respect of decolonialisation. Although French had of course become the lingua franca for administration in France’s North and West African colonies and in South-East Asia, only Quebec in Canada could boast a majority of native French speakers, and that had become part of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Separatist sentiment increased markedly in the 1960s and in 1967 de Gaulle (on an official visit to Canada) gave a notorious speech ending, “Vive le Quebec libre! Vive le Canada français! Vive la France!” Considering that Quebec had been almost entirely Pétainist during the Second World War, this exhortation displayed remarkable chutzpah, of which, of course, de Gaulle always had ample reserves.

As to decolonialisation of France’s African colonies, de Gaulle deployed his usual, if unflattering realism, predicting a “return to savagery” if independence was rushed, in remarks he made privately in 1962. Fifteen years of further French rule, he thought, would modernise agriculture and infrastructure, and he concluded with a typically prescient judgment:

The Americans and the Russians think they have a vocation to free the colonised populations and are outbidding each other to do so. That is the only thing they have in common. The two superpowers claim to be two anti-imperialists while in fact they are the last two imperialisms.[11]

Nevertheless French forces have subsequently made frequent military interventions in the former West African colonies, almost always on behalf of a ruler facing rebellion. This strictly practical or utilitarian approach is perhaps partly governed by the unavailability to a republic of the “mystique” of royalty to provide a symbolic constitutional anchor, but also of the relative decline of French as a world language compared to, say, Spanish or English. Since such effective and professional action can be sold as preventing even worse bloodshed in an unstable situation, French governments have generally escaped the odium the liberal press is anxious to heap upon any Western power carrying out a “neo-colonial” intervention. In this respect de Gaulle’s legacy of shrewd realism lives on.


 “Civilisation” and “Kultur”

The notion of “civilisation”, the benefits of which were to be dispensed to the as yet less “civilised” nations, is an especially interesting one in the French case, being traditionally contrasted with the somewhat mystical German idea of Kultur. The polarity of these two concepts, now perhaps considered old-fashioned as a historical topos, has occasioned much scholarly debate. Emily A. Vogt encapsulates a common view of the matter when she elaborates on the development of the word Kultur in contradistiction to the dominance of the French cultural influence of the Enlightenment (civilisation) among the German aristocratic elite of the eighteenth century. The impermeability of the German class system led to an incipient Bildungsbürgertum building up a notion of spiritual and cultural perfection, the real Deutschtum (“Germanness”), to which the educated German should aspire, and which lay beyond the political and commodifying limitations of French civilisation.[12] This attitude also surfaces in regard to other nations—for example the economist Werner Sombart (1863–1941) contrasted the German “hero” to the British “trader” ( the German version of what Napoleon referred to as “a nation of shopkeepers”)—but it was primarily aimed at France.

A German sense of superiority and uniqueness regularly surfaced in the notion of Kultur, which sometimes looks like a Teutonic inferiority complex played out against a French superiority complex. For example, the great novelist Thomas Mann in his conservative-patriotic phase described Deutschtum as follows: “culture, soul, freedom, art and not civilisation, society, voting rights and literature” (italics added). The qualities enumerated were primarily spiritual ones to which Germans, in his view, had a special claim.[13] No prizes for guessing at whom the word civilisation was aimed! Even after the Second World War, Martin Heidegger, the influential philosopher who collaborated with the Nazis, evidently considered Soviet communism and American capitalism to be two sides of the same coin. They shared “the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organisation of the average man”. Germany should nurture Kultur rather than be assimilated by Western civilisation.[14]

And de Gaulle? His biographer has used one of the general’s delphic observations for the title of his book: “I have always had a certain idea of France.” What did he mean by that? Ironically the UK’s recent tougher-line Brexit negotiator, David Frost, gave one interpretation in a Brussels lecture. It was clearly addressed to his equally stubborn opposite number, Michel Barnier, a former Gaullist member of the Assemblée Nationale and Cabinet Minister.

I know that Michel is a great admirer of Charles de Gaulle. He probably doesn’t know that I am as well. De Gaulle was the man who believed in a Europe of nations [emphasis added]. He was the man who always behaved as if his country was a great country even when it seemed to have fallen very low, and thus made it become a great country yet again. That has been an inspiration to me, and those who think like me, in the low moments of the last three years.[15]

This was a none too subtle reminder that obduracy, what de Gaulle would no doubt have called “passion”, cuts both ways. A British government with a large majority in the House of Commons would not behave in the same way as its weak and muddled minority predecessor. Monsieur Barnier presumably admires de Gaulle’s statecraft rather than his attitude to European integration, given that he has embraced Europhilia. But there are traces of Gaullist Anglophobia in his gleeful determination to “make the UK regret it ever decided to leave the EU” and his frequent and somewhat de haut en bas “warnings” to the UK designed to correct the UK’s absurd and intolerable pretension that it should be treated like any other “third country”, that is, as a sovereign state negotiating as a partner not simply a supplicant. This was exactly the line taken by de Gaulle when the British, in his view, tried to make him a tool of their interests during his wartime exile in Britain.


Exceptionalism and Charges of Racism

Each nation-state with the will to survive develops its own version of exceptionalism. Some Americans, for example, nurtured the idea of “manifest destiny”, which used to appear in all the schoolbooks. The contemporary economic and military power of America has made it the modern protagonist of economic imperialism, an ideological successor to, and opponent of, the British claim of a civilising mission. At least in theory, the US’s power is not racially, but idealistically based, an undertaking to protect peoples from the scourge of communism and to encourage freedom, trade and the rule of law. By contrast, the British had rationalised and defended Britain’s imperial mission by citing “the white man’s burden”, which was the theme of a poem by Rudyard Kipling.[16] Both British and French colonialism were of course economically motivated, but their apologia was vested in the concept of superior civilisations “teaching” their benefits to less developed ones. Nowadays such an attitude is simply labelled “racism” by most academics concerned with empire, with the natural result that both Churchill and de Gaulle have also been dismissed as no more than racists.

While this may chime with the now fashionable use of that word, it is also a ploy designed to close down in advance any discussion of the possible beneficial effects of empire, and thereby hugely over-simplifies its history. The few dissident historians who venture down the road of imperial apologetics—such as Nigel Biggar, Deepak Lal and Jeremy Black[17]—can expect to be vilified as reactionaries, and the implication often seems to be that they are themselves racists. Churchill’s “racism” was that of a nineteenth-century liberal imperialist, rooted in the now equally unfashionable aristocratic notion of noblesse oblige; he does not fit the image of the tattooed white supremacist riding his motorbike to a black-baiting rally. There is no reason to doubt Churchill’s sincerity when he said, “Let us have only one measure for treating people subject to our rule, and that a measure of justice,” though obviously he is referring to the rule of law, not equal rights.  

De Gaulle certainly feared the dilution of the French nation by mass immigration and for that reason, if no other, was profoundly opposed to the notions of fusion and integration espoused by his one-time supporter, and later implacable foe, Jacques Soustelle. De Gaulle said:

If we carry out integration, if all the Berbers and Algerians were regarded as French, how would one stop them coming to settle on the mainland where the standard of living is so much higher? My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-deux-Eglises but Colombey- les-deux-Mosques.”[18]

Soustelle, who clung to the progressive republican tradition whereby the universal values of French republicanism created a community that superseded racial or ethnic identities, regarded this attitude as racist. De Gaulle’s remark may seem prophetic to a good many in France today in the shadow of Islamic extremism and the social calamity of the banlieus. However, the most unfortunate casualties of de Gaulle’s implacability were the Algerian Muslims who had served with the French army, known as Harkis, who faced reprisals or death if they remained in Algeria, but whose numbers allowed to come to France were severely limited.

There is no doubt that Churchill believed the European and English-speaking races had reached a higher peak of civilisation and of course technological development than Africans, Arabs and Indians. On the other hand, like his father Lord Randolph Churchill, who was accused by the anti-Semites of his day of being “philosemitic” because of his wide circle of Jewish friends, he was not anti-Semitic. He automatically included the Jews in his category of the superior civilising peoples and one reason he admired Oliver Cromwell was because Cromwell readmitted the Jews to England. Likewise de Gaulle, who had anti-Semitic members of his staff, once reprimanded them: “I know only two types of Frenchmen: those who do their duty and those who do not.” Vichy propaganda posters in fact depicted de Gaulle in its posters as being the voice of sinister Jews lurking behind him as he broadcast. However, de Gaulle did cause an uproar at a press conference in 1967 when he referred to the Jews as an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering”, which rather overshadowed his critique of illegal Israeli occupations which echo uncannily what you might now read any day in the Guardian.

Churchill’s observations to his cabinet in 1954 seem to echo those of de Gaulle’s on North Africans—and like the general’s remarks, they home in on the likely pressures of future immigration:

Problems will arise if many coloured people settle here. Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the United Kingdom? They are attracted by the Welfare State. Public opinion in the United Kingdom won’t tolerate it once it gets beyond certain limits.

However, he thought Commonwealth immigrants should be allowed to continue to enter Britain, and no new curbs on immigration were imposed under his government.[19] There is a certain contemporary irony to the similar views expressed by the two statesmen—as I write, cutters of the French coastguard have been videoed shepherding boatloads of illegal migrants into English waters …

Where the attitudes of Churchill and de Gaulle towards overseas empire clashed, it was almost always because the imperial interests of the two countries collided or had collided within living memory. For example, one source of de Gaulle’s not very latent Anglophobia is his childhood memory of the notorious Fashoda incident in 1898, when British troops forced the French back in their attempt to take over the Sudan. “In the first pages of his War Memoirs,” writes Jackson, “de Gaulle remembers Fashoda as one of the moments of national humiliation that formed the backdrop to his childhood.”[20] Determination to restore France’s dignity as a great nation after too many humiliations—defeat by the Prussian Empire in 1870, pyrrhic victory in the First World War and now again occupation by the Germans, was a powerful driving force of de Gaulle’s psyche. His position of being effectively a semi-house-arrested and censored petitioner in London, and arguably one subject to manipulation in the service of British interests, was literally intolerable to him. It accounted for many of his tirades against Churchill and the British generally.


Saviours of Democracy

Despite their very different trajectories to power, it is not unreasonable to claim that both de Gaulle and Churchill were not only true democrats but even the saviours of democracy in their respective countries. They were both populists who appealed to the electorate over the heads of the party establishment. Both were at times viscerally hated by politicians of those parties all across the political spectrum due to their opportunism and alleged lack of scruple. “Populism” is in any case too often no more than the preferred term of abuse from politicians whose narrow obsessions and ideology have failed to ignite the enthusiasm of the public.

Churchill was accused of being a warmonger, wanting to stage a coup and other undemocratic tendencies, but he was a liberal in domestic policies and in wartime headed an effective coalition government. His able deputy was the Labour leader Clement Attlee, who had been the last officer to leave Gallipoli after the disastrous First World War campaign championed by Churchill; but he had always conspicuously avoided heaping all the blame on his new boss and colleague, as Churchill’s many enemies and indeed the public had done, not least because he had believed the idea of the Gallipoli campaign had been strategically correct. Churchill did make some silly remarks in the 1950 election, saying Labour would have to behave like the Gestapo to impose Socialism, but after all the Labour firebrand Aneurin Bevan had called the Tories “lower than vermin”. The most important point is that he left office in 1945 as a democrat must; being Churchill he could even joke about it when the King offered him the Order of the Garter. (“Why should I accept the Order of the Garter from His Majesty when the people have just given me the order of the boot?”) He may have been hurt that his achievement was rewarded with such ingratitude by the electorate, but he behaved with dignity, remarking of the public that “they have had to endure so much”.

De Gaulle, like Churchill, could boast of democratic commitment, despite accusations of aspiration to a military dictatorship when he returned to power in 1958. “Pourquoi voulez-vous qu’à 67 ans je commence une carrière de dictateur?” he mocked journalists at a press conference. His cult of personality was admittedly far stronger than Churchill’s in terms of actual governance, but the Fifth Republic he set up in 1958 is generally accepted as a great improvement on the chaotic parliamentary squabbling that had so weakened France in the past and again in the immediate post-war period. At any rate the Fifth Republic is still with us, a type of government that accords the President more powers than the British Prime Minister and far more than in any other EU member country. His interviews with deputations of nervous ministers were not exactly collegiate. On one occasion such a deputation, intending to offer de Gaulle its members’ views on current policies, was chiefly subjected to a monologue, though he did allow a few to voice their anxieties before dismissing them. “Well, General,” said his aide after they left, “that seemed to go well.” “Crumbs for the ducks,” said the President, “crumbs for the ducks.”

De Gaulle was an early believer in “third way” politics and fiercely opposed the class system which he felt disfigured France. Jackson quotes his remarks to his minister Alain Peyrefitte on this head:

The social consequences of capitalism are not acceptable. It crushes the weakest. It transforms men into wolves … Collectivism is no better: it removes from people any desire to fight. It turns them into sheep. We need a third way—between wolves and sheep.

One might compare this observation with Churchill’s take on the same conundrum: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” After the experiences in my lifetime of both communist and neo-liberal political experiments, this seems incredibly perspicacious for 1962, although “third wayism” has also been tried and is currently out of fashion with electorates that have moved to the right. His ideas evolved from the notion of “association” to the slogan of “participation”.[21] It is remarkable that many communists, of whose ideology de Gaulle was a sworn enemy, ended up being Gaullist supporters; it was only when the wily François Mitterrand cobbled together a united Left of Communists and Socialists that the progressive conservatism of Gaullism lost its political sway. Overall, de Gaulle’s autocratic methods produced a remarkable number of reforms—monetary, administrative and institutional—which has led to his record being compared by some to that of the Napoleonic Code. He detested the cynicism of Voltaire but once remarked in a rather Voltairean manner that in the performance of great Frenchmen, Napoleon always beats Parmentier (Napoleon ravaged whole countries, Parmentier taught the French to eat potatoes).[22]

On hearing of Churchill’s death in 1965, de Gaulle was heard to murmur: “Now Britain is no longer a Great Power.” In 1958 he had invested Churchill with the Croix de la Libération. For his part Churchill had made many speeches in which he honoured de Gaulle. Of course, he did also say, “He thinks he’s Joan of Arc, but I can’t get my bloody bishops to burn him.”

Nicholas T. Parsons is a freelance author, translator and editor based in Vienna


[1] This observation was recorded by Roman Gary in his autobiography (Life, 1969).

[2] The symbol of the Free French established by de Gaulle. It is now said that this remark originated with General Spears, Churchill’s military liaison office with de Gaulle. May be, but the cadence and phrasing are certainly very Churchillian and even more certainly the remark illustrates Churchill’s feelings on the matter.

[3] Julian Jackson: A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle (Allen Lane, 2018). Hereafter Jackson op cit.

[4] His works include three important volumes on military strategy and reform of France’s army, as well as three volumes of wartime memoirs. Churchill’s prodigious output is well-known and in 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

[5] Andrew Roberts: Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018). Hereafter Roberts op cit. (from the Penguin edition of 2019.)

[6]I want 18 Brumaire without the methods of Brumaire” de Gaulle allegedly said, 18 Brumaire being the date of Napoleon’s ascent to power (November 9th, 1799). Jackson op cit. P.472.

[7] Lord Birkenhead: Contemporary Personalities (1924), quoted in Roberts op cit. P.309.

[8] David Lough: No More Champagne: Churchill And His Money (Picador, 2015)

[9] In June 2020 the statue of Bristol’s greatest benefactor Edward Colston, whose money had been made from the slave trade, was pulled down by the mob while the police looked on and was thrown into the River Avon.

[10] Roberts op cit. P.681.

[11] Jackson op cit. P.615.

[12] Emily A. Vogt: Civilisation and Kultur: Keywords in the History of French and German Citizenship in Ecumene Vo.3. No.2 (April 1996), Pp.125-145. Sage Publications. Vogt gives a comprehensive account of the historical trajectory of these two words (originally more or less synonymous) and shows their significance for differing approaches to citizenship in France and Germany up to modern times.

[13] Thomas Mann: Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen. Vorrede P. XXIII, 1918. The book was largely a justification of Germany’s participation and methods in the First World War and caused a break with his democratic and pacifist brother, the writer Heinrich Mann. The latter’s books were burned by the Nazis as “contrary to the German spirit.”

[14] Ibrahim Kalin writing in The Daily Sabah, June 3rd 2014: “German Kultur versus Western Civilisation.” The newspaper is a government-friendly English language Turkish newspaper.

[15] Edited text of David Frost’s speech at ULB Brussels University on 17th February 2020 available online from The Spectator archive.

[16] It should be said that this poem was actually written to justify the American conquest of the Philippines, but it has generally been identified with the Victorian notion of an imperial civilizing mission.

[17] For example Nigel Biggar’s provocative article in The Times, December 2017, entitled ‘Don’t Feel Guilty About Our Colonial History,’ Deepak Lal’s two books In Defense of Empires (1918) and In Praise of Empires (2004) and Jeremy Black’s Imperial Legacies (2019).

[18] Jackson op cit. P.511.

[19] Roberts op cit. P.943.

[20] Jackson op cit. P.67.

[21] Jackson op cit, Pp. 698 ff.

[22] Julian Jackson reviewing Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History by Patrice Gueniffey in The Spectator, 23 May 2020.

2 thoughts on “The Concord and Conflict of Churchill and de Gaulle

  • Harry Lee says:

    The proposition that Australian contributions in the Big Wars were insufficiently appreciated by the Poms is based on a naively mistaken idea about who owed what to whom, and for what reasons.
    And ignorance of geopolitics generally.
    Australia could only feed itself and could only build its infrastructure by way of its exports to and imports from UK, European and other markets.
    That is, Australian well-being depended on the Royal Navy and later the USN to secure the sea lanes.
    That is, Australia’s engagement in the Big Wars was a necessary component of Australia’s place in the world and esp its dependence on Britain and later the USA.
    And the proposition that Australian and other Empire troops were given jobs that the Poms thought too dirty for themselves is absurdly anti-factual.
    But still, it’s all part of the BS by which ignorant Australians sustain themselves, and have done since the beginning.
    (I’m Australian and my forbears -volunteers in both AIFs- gave plenty in the Big Wars.)
    Now, it is actually time for a new cadre of Proper Australians to step up and deal with internal and external challenges -without the BS factor.
    Reality eh, and all it involves.
    Take lessons from Israel and Singapore.
    Sure those countries have challenges different from Australia’s -but take from them lessons in Reality.

  • nfw says:

    I read this essay in my hardcopy Quadrant a few weeks ago.

    It started well and I assumed it would be about Churchill’s and de Gaule’s realtionship, to be littered with their barbed comments about the War, post-war Germany and thereafter regarding Britain and Continental Europe. However after a few pages it degenerated into a lecture about colonialism. Yawn.

    The first few pages are good but the rest, ’til the end comments, is most disappointing.

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