No sooner had General de Gaulle resigned, after his defeat at the referendum of April 27, 1969, than he started writing a new memoir. Even before his defeat, which he seems to have anticipated, he had begun to prepare the documents he would need in his country house at Colombey. For the next year and a half, aides brought him the papers he requested. He worked almost uninterruptedly on his manuscript, even during his holidays in Ireland and in Spain, while his daughter typed his drafts in Colombey.

He had planned to write three volumes, of course—not only had there been three volumes of War Memoirs, written during his “years in the desert” and published between 1954 and 1959, but de Gaulle, like all Gauls, according to that other great soldier-statesman-memorialist, Caesar, was an addict of the threefold division. Only the first volume of these Memoirs of Hope, Renewal, was finished and published by the time of his death on November 9, 1970. Its appearance just a month before the General’s fatal heart attack was a huge public (if not critical) success. He had written two chapters of the next volume, Endeavor, when he died. His family decided to publish them—a decision that was sharply but wrongly criticized by some reviewers, who pointed out that de Gaulle might have made further changes had he lived.

However interesting the nine completed chapters of Memoirs of Hope may be, they are but a fragment of the larger work de Gaulle had planned. Although many of his reflections on the decisions and events of the years 1958-1963 (roughly the period covered in these chapters) anticipate the dramatic crisis of May, 1968, and suggest how de Gaulle might have explained it in a third volume, these reflections are only tantalizing. Moreover, he had wanted the seventh and last chapter of Endeavor to be the keystone of the whole construction. First, he thought of writing “a chapter of a ‘philosophical’ nature, in which I shall give my personal view on the situation of France, Europe, and the world.” Later, he decided he would invent a dialogue between himself and the other great figures of French history—including Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Clemenceau—comparing his own situation with theirs.

The only indication we have of what this might have sounded like is in André Malraux’s book, Les Chênes qu’on abat…, an account of his last meeting with de Gaulle, on a snowy day in December, 1969, which includes a conversation about Napoleon during lunch. Les Chênes was as well received by the French public as Renewal (and much better received by the critics). It was published in France last spring shortly before the unfinished Endeavor, but has not yet appeared in English.

The truncated Memoirs of Hope has now been published in a single-volume English version. Terence Kilmartin’s translation is superior to Richard Howard’s translation of volumes two and three of War Memoirs, which contained several inaccuracies. But de Gaulle’s Latin style, with its complex sentences and symmetrical constructions, sounds as clumsy in any translation as Churchill sounds pompous in French. The General’s passion for the mot juste—especially in his portraits of individuals—must be a translator’s nightmare, since more often than not there are no exact equivalents in English: either because shades of meaning get lost (Kennedy “encore quelque peu tâtonnant et foisonnant” is not quite the same as “still somewhat fumbling and overeager”) or because alliterations are dropped (an allusion to May, 1968: “l’alliance des chimères, des chantages et des lâchetés,” becomes “a coalition of illusion, blackmail, and cowardice”).

Memoirs of statesmen always raise two questions. Why should we read them? Why do they write them? Sometimes we read them in order to get an insider’s view of history, to find out how things looked at the center of decision. Sometimes we read them in order to get a glimpse of the writer’s intimate personality—to discover who was the man within the statesman. Memoirs that provide neither are usually dreadful bores, like most of Lyndon Johnson’s recent book. De Gaulle’s memoirs—these or the previous ones—provide neither. Yet they are fascinating, because the General’s approach to his task is so different from that of most other memoirists. To be sure, his book is an attempt at vindication. There are no admissions of failure or error (by contrast with his conversation with Malraux): when things go wrong, he usually pins the blame on others; when they work out well he carefully lists the praise he has received from others.

But whereas the writing of memoirs is usually a substitute for action, for de Gaulle it was a form of action. Being in power had, needless to say, its attractions for him; but he did not live for those. His political career began in 1940 when he was almost fifty. He stayed out of power for twelve and a half years—largely because he refused to make the compromises that might have brought him back sooner. His two regimes ended, in effect, with his voluntary resignation: the first time, in 1946, because he wanted to avoid the erosion of his capital in a war of attrition with France’s parties; the second time, in 1969, because he decided to play Russian roulette with his authority in a risky referendum for reform (“the men of History are necessarily gamblers,” he told Malraux), instead of remaining in power as a manager of immobility.


Power was just a means. The goal was making one’s mark—he had said so as a young officer in his thirties, in that extraordinary anticipatory self-description, The Edge of the Sword. He used, throughout his life, two ways of leaving a scar on history, to use Malraux’s old phrase. One was political action, in power or in the opposition; the other was literary action. One was setting a course; the other was setting an example. One lifted to the plane of statecraft what had been Charles de Gaulle’s vocation since early childhood—serving France as a soldier. The other turned into literature what had been de Gaulle’s father’s vocation—teaching France’s history.

As a result, whereas most writers of memoirs tell us, usually in good faith, what they have convinced themselves they did, and address themselves largely to their contemporaries, de Gaulle tells us what he wants us to think he did, and writes for posterity. He was in a hurry to assemble the record of what he had intended: first, five big volumes of speeches, published in the spring, summer, and fall of 1970, then Memoirs of Hope, so that future readers would find in it an inspiration and a goad. He told Malraux that whatever would be tried again some day for France’s grandeur would be the direct continuation of what he had done—not of what his successors were now doing.

It is fitting that a career ruled by will should end with a record of will rather than of facts: “I want there to be a testimony: ‘this is what I had wanted, this, and nothing else,’ ” he told Malraux, who comments that de Gaulle’s memoirs are “a Roman simplification of events” which ignore one crucial reality: de Gaulle the tactician usually had had “several irons in the fire,” out of which he would take, at the right moment, “the only efficient weapon.” When de Gaulle writes his memoirs, he leaves out, as much as possible, the unused irons and discarded tactics: they were the domain of the temporal leader, whereas the memoir’s purpose is to shape the figure of the historical personage, to state his strategy, to eliminate whatever is not, as Malraux puts it, “a tragedy with two characters: the French and himself,” and with France as their stake.

This means, of course, that for us, his contemporaries—who also read his last memoirs, although they were not written for us—there is no point at all in either looking for details, revelations, and confidences, for there are none, or pointing out major inaccuracies (usually in the form of omissions). The War Memoirs, whatever their distortions, had far greater informative value, since the French, on the whole, had not known what had gone on between de Gaulle and the Allies in London and Algiers. But the events of 1958-63 were, of course, well-known, and had been publicly discussed by de Gaulle during his far from silent presidency. (“What else have I myself ever been but someone endeavoring to teach?” he asked near the end of Memoirs of Hope). Indeed, he quotes liberally from his speeches of the period.

The two remarkable chapters on the Algerian War in no way bring back to life the uncertainties, the detours, the smells of blood, and the anguish of the tragic years 1958-62. They are an impeccable account of clear goals, means deliberately chosen in order to reach these goals, and calculated maneuvers. Indeed, de Gaulle acknowledges having had no pre-established plan—but this is no surprise, since he spent his life distinguishing between fixed plans (like that of the Maginot Line), which he condemned, and objectives to be reached through mobility and the creative exploitation of circumstances. He also recognizes that he had to “proceed cautiously from one stage to the next,” but he is careful to erase the vacillations and reversals that marked his achievement of a negotiated settlement.

What he wanted to record is mastery: how the French, led by de Gaulle, overcame a major crisis for the greatest benefit of France. It would not have served his purpose either to reveal his own disappointments, miscalculations, and retreats, or to stress that at several points only his strength of character kept the French from the abyss of civil war. To list the former would have tarnished the image of the leader he wanted to leave behind, to show the latter would have sullied the portrait of the French in which he wanted them to recognize themselves. It is as if the only thing that mattered for the record was the fact that decolonization was accomplished in a way that left France stronger. That he never was in any way the dupe of his own “simplifications,” his conversations with Malraux or with his aide Claude Mauriac1 amply demonstrate.


For his contemporaries, the appeal of these memoirs is therefore of a peculiar kind: they should be read not for what they reveal about the subject matter but for what they reveal about the author. True, de Gaulle never reveals his private self, and often speaks of himself in the third person, as if he were describing another man. But the fascination of de Gaulle’s character lay only partly in the deliberate penumbra around “Charles.” Most of it emanated from the public person, “General de Gaulle,” that “legendary character” whose “impact resulted not from his accomplishments but from the dreams he embodied and which existed before him,” as Malraux puts it. The strength, skill, consistency, and originality of the public person, the way in which he touched upon, alternately or simultaneously, France’s traditions, intellect, and culture were precisely what distinguished him from other great political figures.

It is that character’s statue which de Gaulle created in his memoirs: the personality that they reveal is a public personality—a record of aspirations, acts, and judgments about France. In his Anti-Memoirs as well as in Les Chênes, Malraux compares de Gaulle’s obsession with France with the faith of the founders of religious orders. De Gaulle himself informed Malraux that the only sculpture that moved him was medieval sculpture: “I was interested,” he told Malraux, “when you wrote that the era of the Crusades produced sculptures of military saints, never of knights.”

When de Gaulle, in his memoirs, appears to describe the events he shaped or took part in, he talks about—and intends to talk about—himself: what he wanted and struggled for. (The same is true of most of his portraits of others: the qualities he praises in his ministers, or in Nehru, or even in the Queen of England, are his own.) When he talks about himself, he describes a passionate, mystical, and almost tyrannical affair (on both sides) between himself and France. That is why the “private” de Gaulle—the de Gaulle who lived in his family, outside that liaison—is missing. To quote Malraux again, “There is no Charles in the Memoirs, but there isn’t in a dialogue with him either…. Intimacy with him consists of talking not about him—a taboo subject—but about France.” De Gaulle mentions his family only in connection with its own service to France.

Many of the things Memoirs of Hope tells us about the liaison with France are familiar. De Gaulle restates his conviction that he incarnates French legitimacy, which “derives from [Power’s] conviction, and the conviction it inspires, that it embodies national unity and continuity when the country is in danger.” He repeats his belief that France’s national interest coincides with that of mankind, since “from time immemorial it had been in her nature to accomplish ‘God’s work,’ to disseminate freedom of thought, to be a champion of humanity.” A most important aspect of de Gaulle, it sometimes led him, as such idealism commonly does, to determine arrogantly the true interests of others for them, but more importantly it allowed him both to pursue and to justify decolonization, to champion the nations of the Third World and the superpowers’ restless satellites. It also separated him from many other practitioners of Realpolitik and especially from the French reactionary, Maurras, with whom he had far fewer affinities than most commentators think.

There was, he believed, a contract between himself and the French, without whose support he always felt he could not stay in office, both because a dictatorship would have meant the rape of France and because he believed that no reform could be carried out without the consent of its subjects. He was aware of the weaknesses of French society—its political divisiveness, its distrust of authority along with a preference for leaving decisions to others, its profound conservatism along with the recurrent demand for constant motion. He was determined to provide this society with a strong executive capable of governing all parties and interests, but he was also convinced that other domestic reforms could be executed only when the right moment had come and could be seized by the state (a form of prudence far less characteristic of his behavior in world affairs, which contributed to the explosion of 1968, just as, in 1945, it had contributed to financial laxity and inflation despite Mendès-France’s advice). Independence was his passion. He was opposed to the “two hegemonies” of the superpowers, hostile to a “supra-national” Europe so divided that it would have been exposed to manipulation from the outside.

The memoirs also show some less familiar sides of de Gaulle. Never before has he so openly displayed his “Moses complex.” The theme throughout is of de Gaulle trying to convince the French to climb the heights with him, to meet him on the plane of his own communion with France, “while all the voices below continued to call her down.” His hyperbolic account of his triumphal tours of the provinces celebrates the moments when everyone seemed to worship France together. His bitterness against the opposition parties, the politicians, the pressure groups, and the newspapers who constantly fought him pervades the book, and in his conversation with Malraux he extends his sarcasm and recriminations to most contemporary French intellectuals, whom he accuses of not understanding that freedom of thought, which he valued as highly as they, is rooted in that “national reality” to which they were, he thought, indifferent or hostile.

De Gaulle presided over France’s industrialization, encouraging it because it is the prerequisite of modern power and influence. Yet he laments—in the only passages of subdued lyricism to be found in these memoirs—both the passing of the rural France of his youth and “the muted anguish of the uprooted,” condemned to “a mechanized mass existence.” His fuzzy notion of “participation,” of a “third way,” different from capitalism and communism, never resolved the inherent contradiction between de Gaulle’s fondness for a dirigiste state, a planned economy, and a dominant executive, and his grasp of the desire of the people to have a part in the decisions that affect them as students, workers, or citizens. But “participation” was more than a slogan: it was a lifelong concern that grew more pressing as France’s transformation proceeded. He saw in “participation” the condition for the new consensus which he was eager to promote. What defeated him at the end was that in the absence of such a consensus, as was glaringly revealed by the events of May, 1968, the notion of participation itself would be resisted by conservatives, revolutionaries, and the more drastic reformers alike.

During the period of de Gaulle’s second reign “the prevailing trends were those of laxness and mediocrity” at home and, abroad, “France had lost her special vocation of being constantly in danger.” It was not a heroic epoch. De Gaulle, composing his War Memoirs at a time of profound discouragement about France’s fate under the Fourth Republic, and increasingly doubtful about his own chances of ever returning to power, managed to write a work of art, whose best passages read like poetry. Fifteen years later, even though he chose to call his new work Memoirs of Hope and to celebrate in it a record of his achievement, the tone is rarely passionate: there is serenity, mixed with annoyance at his critics, but little exhilaration, and the prose, as monumental as ever, is—well—prosaic. No doubt this quality is partly due to his age. It may also be due to the haste with which the book was written. There are many traces of this: he outlines his grand designs, leaving to others not merely details but even the general description of the way they were carried out.2

But there is enough vigor in the Memoirs, passages, for example, in which he re-creates the picturesqueness of men and events (as in his accounts of summit meetings or his victory over the “parties of yesteryear” in the fall of 1962), to make one search for a deeper reason for his over-all lack of warmth and color. To him—as well as to the French themselves—his second reign lacked the simple and grandiose, almost mythical appeal of the war years. Then, too, it was a matter of resurrection. His task, after his return, was, at worst, a matter of saving the French from tawdry suicide, and at best a matter of good management. Reading these memoirs, remembering de Gaulle’s speeches, listening to recordings of his addresses to French and foreign audiences make it obvious that he committed himself as he always did totally to his task. But his mind and his heart knew that he was, this time, swimming against the tide.

Was his disappointment with a period in which “the immediate issue was not victory or annihilation but living standards,” where “most of the giants” had disappeared and been replaced with mere “political leaders,” “which on all sides was drawn towards mediocrity,” even deeper than he lets on? Malraux, in his so-called reportage, describes a gloomy hero, convinced that by repudiating him the French had “chosen cancer,” that he had only “amused them with flags,” that Europe was dead and France threatened with death as a result, that he had “tried to raise France against the death of a world”: Christian civilization, now replaced by a dubious “faithless civilization.” Those who worked closely with de Gaulle tend to think that Malraux, in attempting to turn de Gaulle into a legend, made him sound too much like King Lear—or like a character in a Malraux novel. While de Gaulle had his moments of doubt and his premonitions of doom, he also remained convinced that France would resume greatness sooner or later, and that “real democracy is in front of us, not behind us: it has to be invented.” Even Malraux does not leave out de Gaulle’s sense of hope.

However, he tends to exaggerate the pessimism on the desolate landscape of Colombey. He presents a General haunted by the thought of death, a man inconsistent with what we know of him. De Gaulle worried, of course, that death would interrupt his task, but he seems to have accepted it as natural. Metaphysical anguish was not his forte. Malraux, an agnostic, is bothered by de Gaulle’s Christian faith, but lucid and truthful enough to admit that this faith, like France, was “a given, not a question.” De Gaulle talked about France but never talked about his religion. (He once remarked to Malraux that nothing Caesar wrote tells us anything about his beliefs.) Malraux suggests that the General’s faith “was so deep as to ignore any realm that would challenge it.” But how de Gaulle reconciled it in his own mind with his statecraft we shall probably never know.

What, indeed, do we know about de Gaulle—not the public person, but the man who invented and became him? “It was part of my nature and a precept of my office invariably to keep my distance” (“de ne me point livrer,” according to the French text). Therefore, it is not surprising if those close to him tended either to project their own personalities on to his, or to feel that they had never approached his deepest self.

Malraux, thirty years after the first appearance of this theme in The Edge of the Sword, comments that it is in vain that one tries to “describe de Gaulle through psychology.” And yet, whatever his digressions and distortions, it is Malraux who gives us some of the best clues to an understanding of Charles de Gaulle. To be sure, there is a classical or Roman side of de Gaulle that derives from his education, as well as from his experience of army discipline: the personal austerity as well as the practice of raison d’état, the profound awareness of people’s limits as well as the solemn, archetypically classic style, the total immersion in French history and the determination to play whatever card the French may have left somewhere in their past—even in Louisiana!

But it is another side that Malraux stresses, not only because of his own romanticism but because it was the most enticing—it was the side that attracted Malraux and kept him fascinated for over a quarter of a century. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to call it a will to—not just a yearning for—transcendence. If, as Malraux suggests, there is in de Gaulle a “secret domain” which is neither that of Cincinnatus nor that of Washington nor that of the great solitary religious figures, a domain whose supreme value is refusal, then, above all, what de Gaulle said no to all of his life—like Malraux’s own heroes, or like Nietzsche—is mediocrity, anonymity, and le quotidien.

Life, he tells Malraux, does not mean “carrying one’s suitcases” until death comes—it consists of freeing oneself from them. That horror of the transitory, of the banal, which seems to echo Rimbaud, is not merely Malraux’s invention. After all, it is de Gaulle who describes Malraux as “this inspired friend, this devotee of lofty destinies,” who, by being “at my side…gave me a sense of being insured against the commonplace.” De Gaulle’s ambition was to escape from the ordinary, from the bureaucratic and mechanical routines of modern life, to stay alive in the memory of men, to be “a ferment, a seed,” a carrier of hope (for “in the individual the end of hope is the beginning of death”). It is less a matter of defying death than of rising above it: by being an inspiration for action now and later, but also by being—like those writers whose books he kept in his library—the author of deeds (political as well as literary) that “prevail over death.”

He wanted to be a myth, because “nothing great is done without one,” but he wanted it to take roots, like the trees of Colombey. For himself and for France—but did he ever distinguish between the two?—the highest goal was: to last. To such a man, by contrast with Camus, transcendence meant the will to greatness, not the quest of “that relative degree of well-being and security which passes for happiness in that world of ours.” Happiness was an illusion—or else? it was another name for the common-place. This intuition was already expressed in ‘The Edge of the Sword, even before the birth of his third, defective child, on whom he lavished such deep, and fiercely guarded, affection.

De Gaulle’s cult of ambition and energy could have led him into personal adventurism, like that of Malraux’s early characters, Perken or Garine, or that of Napoleon, whose hunger for grandeur de Gaulle admired, but who, the General thought, had conceived his destiny as merely “that of an extraordinary individual”: what saved de Gaulle from this temptation was, obviously, his “vocation of France,” inculcated by his milieu and his training. Was this vocation itself, perhaps, a transposition, a way of both transcending and remaining loyal to his very close-knit family, where the individuality of each member was respected, but whose harmony and devotion to national and religious values shaped even its most ambitious and turbulent member’s drives, and thus prevented his “refusal” from becoming mere rebelliousness? It was not glory, it was a cause he sought.

Personal adventure would have been just an escape from mediocrity. De Gaulle’s ambition was higher: he had to move and mold others, on behalf of an ideal that transcended him, too. True grandeur was determined by “the level of confrontation”; real transcendence meant “historical action,” which entails “taking on, and sharing, the deepest passions or the distress of many men.” He craved, says Malraux with lapidary brilliance, “a solitude where he would not be alone”—a mixture of isolation, which he needed in order to think as well as to feel apart from “the commonplace,” and community, especially in sorrow and anguish.

Again, it is Malraux who stresses the tragic side of de Gaulle’s love for France. But is there any doubt that it was in moments of national disaster—the war years, May, 1958, even the end of May, 1968—that he achieved the communion he sought, and that those tragic colors should be worn by a man who had been brought up waiting for the Revanche, in a conflict-ridden nation, who had spent half of the First World War wasting in German prison camps, and who later witnessed his country sinking into decline and sterility?

In any case, de Gaulle’s obsession with France and with permanence served a double purpose. It legitimized his ambition, it gave his remarkable ego a kind of epic hunting license. But it also protected France from the worst possible excesses of his own dream: temptations of omnipotence or repression at home, of overcommitment abroad. By putting on the armor of a knight-errant for France, he dedicated himself not only to rescuing her from distress but also to dispelling those clouds and mists—ideologies and other “isms”—which, he thought, “destroyed her reality,” and above all to rallying the French. Therefore, he said, nothing was more alien to him than the concept of the class struggle.

There are those who argue that he would have served France and French unity better had he dismantled the central bureaucracy and pushed European integration. But one could not expect these drastic changes from him (although one should remember that—just before May, 1968—he launched a campaign for decentralization, now abandoned, and that his hostility to a supranational Europe was coupled with efforts to develop the Common Market).

The mission he had given himself was that of restoring and renewing French independence in a world of competing powers. That meant, inevitably, setting limits to decentralization at home and to integration in Europe—both of which could have impaired France’s capacity to act. While the time has surely come to go beyond the present situation in both respects, it is by no means certain even today that going too far too fast would either serve the interests of France or help to build a solid European entity; and—in this writer’s opinion—a prerequisite to moving ahead was the restoration of self-respect and the renewal of self-confidence which de Gaulle achieved.

In spite of all the blemishes on de Gaulle’s grandeur, especially in social policy and TV control, his restoration of strong political institutions and his diplomacy, which fought against entanglements, but for influence, everywhere, have provided his rather unimaginative heirs with a solid and popular endowment. They have neither his sense of drama nor his grasp of the need for motion at home and abroad. Their desire not to antagonize any important interests or foreign powers tends to replace his lofty idea of France. But the nostalgia which the French show for that idea keeps his successors on his road, however prudent or sullen their journey.

Maybe what attracted so many Frenchmen so often or so long to that strange impenetrable man, whose style of action and policies could not fail to divide those whom he passionately wanted to unite and whose private shyness was matched by his public showmanship, was something they vaguely sensed behind all these defenses and contradictions: a soul. According to Malraux, de Gaulle wondered whether St. Bernard—a neighbor across the ages, since Clairvaux is close to Colombey—had had a heart, and he told him that Napoleon “had not had the time” to have a soul. De Gaulle had had ample time, and a long record of encounters with private and public grief. They had taught him that “sin is not interesting. The only ethic is that which drives man toward what is greatest in him…. Man is not made to be guilty.” How far from Sartre’s universe!

There have undoubtedly been greater statesmen who have accomplished more, or whose visions and dreams far exceeded the confines of the nation. But has there ever been one who combined more richly some of the tensions or brought to a higher point some of the dominant features of his nation’s culture: a passionate affirmation of the nation, seen and loved as a person; an equally fervent rejection of humiliation, guilt, decline, drabness, indeed all forms of servitude; a constant craving for action and responsibility, but also the need for contemplation, isolation, and retreat; a robust optimism which made him look at French history at if it were a cumulative, well-integrated, harmonious bundle of experiences and lessons; the pessimism that made him put the following inscription on a French ambassador’s copy of volume three of War Memoirs, on June 18, 1969, in Ireland: “Nothing is worth anything, nothing happens, and yet everything comes, but it does not matter” (Nietzsche); and the Christian faith which made him add, under that quotation, another one—from St. Augustine: “You who shall have known me in this book, pray for me!”

This Issue

February 24, 1972