The Heroic in France

Scarcely a day goes by with no historic figure formerly seen as”great” being toppled from their pedestal. Those most renowned because of their deeds have been judged rather by their words, even words unfamiliar to their contemporaries–and judged, moreover, from the moral sensibilities of the gift rather than the past. The higher they had formerly been held in our forebears’ esteem, the further they have to now fall. Hamlet’s wise admonition–“Use every man after his desert, and who is cape whipping?” –has been consigned to oblivion.
Yet many people who live at a post-heroic era are homesick for a more innocent time when heroes have been recognised as such and given their due. The classic text is Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841). Today, to mention Carlyle except for an instance of racism or even proto-fascism is to court opprobrium; even his Chelsea house that has been preserved as a museum to the historian and his literary spouse Jane–a unique Victorian time capsule–is closed indefinitely. Nevertheless Carlyle had something important to say regarding the heroic and its antithesis, which he called”valetism”–a homage to Hegel, from my validity of History he’d learned about”world-historical individuals.” There, Hegel cited his own Phenomenology of Spirit–“no man is a hero to his salvation, not because he is not a hero, but as the valet is still a valet”–including that this aphorism was quoted by Goethe. Were Hegel and Carlyle alive now, they might wonder if our culture was usurped by valetists: those who judge genius and notably its flaws from the servile perspective of the Kammerdiener.
Patrice Gueniffey certainly does not subscribe to historic iconoclasm, which has not yet prevailed in his native France as fully as in the English-speaking world. An individual might deduce as much from his monumental biography of Napoleon, the next volume of that is eagerly awaited by admirers of the Emperor in thisparticular, his bicentenary yearold. Nevertheless his considerably shorter recent research, Napoleon and de Gaulle, is much more explicitly intended as a vindication of the effect of the person on history. In its original language, the subtitle has been Deux héros français.
With this superbly written and translated essay in comparative portraiture, the author has thrown down the gauntlet to the dominant schools of modern historiography, all which emphasize unbiased facets, whether social or economic, geographic or climatological. Gueneffrey unabashedly believes in the ability of uncommon people –“personalities”–to alter the course of events. Indeed, he barely dissents from Carlyle’s opinion that great women and men are the sole cause of human progress.
On Heroes
In 65, Gueneffrey is old enough to have lived through de Gaulle’s comeback, his first invention of the Fifth Republic, his fall, and his passing. Tout le monde attended the General’s requiem at Notre Dame, that could never have failed to awe an impressionable teenager. What Napoleon was to Carlyle, de Gaulle is to Gueneffrey. Yet just as Carlyle composed a massive lifetime of Frederick the Great but never one of his close modern Napoleon, so Gueneffrey has devoted his lifetime to Napoleon but never, until now, written regarding de Gaulle.
However, recent years have witnessed outstanding biographies of Napoleon and de Gaulle from the British historians Andrew Roberts and Julian Jackson respectively. Although writes in Carlyle’s heroic manner, both are fascinated by the cults that surround these terrific guys –also, of course, is Gueneffrey. Roberts even adapting the British edition of his novel Napoleon the Great, though this was changed to the American Pie into the blander Napoleon: A Life. Gueneffrey’s study of the 2 heroes came out in 2017, so he was unable to take account of Jackson’s work, which also needed a showing title: A Certain Idea of France–Gaulle’s self-description of his own distinctive sort of patriotism. The awe in these two characters continue to be held–uniquely among French leaders, as Gueneffrey informs us about the basis of opinion polls–actually extends way beyond their particular patrie. Both were observed at the time as saviours in bitterness and unifiers at division. They each stand out because of their”grandeur”–a quality that Gueneffrey finds manifested up to their own lives as in their achievements, in words not as deeds.
“If Napoleon was French Frenchmen, de Gaulle was, on the contrary, the most French of Frenchmen.”
Patrice GueniffeyIn both instances, there is a moment when their heroic qualities and status among their compatriots suddenly emerges. For Napoleon, it comes through the siege of Toulon in 1796, when the young commander first displays that instinctive strategic grasp and strategic coup d’oeil that, in a couple of years, could propel him to heights of military glory never seen as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Once the British naval squadron has been driven off by his own artillery, the royalist stronghold falls right into his hands as a ripe fruit. Seemingly effortless in their own ability to inspire loyalty, the young Bonaparte’s allure carries his armies across Europe and outside. His own heroism makes personalities of his own troops, but a number of them he supposes to an empire that exists only as a platform for its creator. In a meteoric career that lasted barely 20 years, Napoleon makes himself lawgiver, liberator, and legend. There’s been nothing like it before or since.
For de Gaulle, this heroic moment comes much later in life, at an era when Bonaparte was dead. A relatively self-evident, his sole likelihood of action against the German invaders is more than a footnote at the collapse of France in May 1940. Only when the panzer branches have broken does de Gaulle, commanding an armoured counter-attack, reveal what he is made from. It’s too little and too late. At the memoirs of the opponent, Guderian, the German writes:”The threat from this [abandoned ] flank was minor…Throughout the next few times de Gaulle remained with us and on the 19th [of May] a few of the tanks succeeded in penetrating to over a part of my innovative headquarters…I handed several uncomfortable hours until the threatening visitors moved off in a different direction.” That was all that de Gaulle could dobut it was sufficient. Despite superiority in numbers and equipment, no additional French commander achieved even so much, in what the historian Marc Bloch called”the odd defeat”.
Briefly co-opted into the Cabinet by his friend Paul Reynaud, he is ousted from the new regime of Marshal Pétain, who adores peace.
Amid chaos and humiliation, the French heard a voice of hope, telling them that their duty was to join him and la France Libre, the Free French, at London when possible, to withstand at home if not. The battle of France was , but the war was not:”This is a world war.” This worldwide conflict proved to be a God-sent prospect. The planet could enable the liberation and he’d lead crystal soldiers to Paris. De Gaulle’s kind of heroism has been thenceforth constantly about France.
Napoleon, by contrast, watched France just as a springboard for global conquest. As Gueniffey puts it:”In sum, if Napoleon was 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 beneath Bonaparte’s banner were heterogeneous as the Empire he created. Though he adopted Charlemagne’s gesture of a coronation by the Pope at Rome, the parvenu Emperor put the crown of his own head in Paris. There was nothing Christian about Napoleon–each of his symbolism was classical. His cavalry reduced Cologne Cathedral to a stable.
A devout Catholic, he challenged the collaboration of the clergy under Vichy France. Whenever the General prophesied victory, he was believed. Back in 1934, he’d cautioned Pétain and other military grandees of the threat from a new type of mechanised war. The prophecy had come to pass, the Maya was vindicated and the French adopted .
But only for as long as it satisfied them. While the war lasted, the prophet-general had no need of policies because he embodied them. Yet only a year following the German surrender, de Gaulle had resigned. Without war, it seemed, there was no unity and no recourse either. He tried to begin a new movement. As it didn’t sweep him back to electricity, he retreated to his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in northeastern France. Only a decade later did he return to save France again, now in the threat of a military coup mounted from the military in Algeria. Only the war hero could save the nation from civil war. The purchase price of the comeback proved to be a new Republic, the fifth since 1789, made from the image of their General himself.
Could it not been for its shock and disillusionment of les évenements at May 1968, could the founding father of the Fifth Republic have relinquished power voluntarily?This last phase of de Gaulle’s career has left its mark on France, but his legacy has been a mixed blessing. As Napoleon’s transformation of a revolutionary republic into an imperial monarchy turned France into a despotism and put an intolerable burden on the Emperor, so de Gaulle’s combination of an optional presidency along with a parliamentary system, with just a weak separation of forces, has shone an unforgiving light on the lesser men who’ve succeeded him. Napoleon was, also Gueniffey reminds us, at first in comparison to Washington because the victor of a revolutionary war; although the American refused the summit, the Frenchman seized itand, even after his abdication, returned from exile to recover it.
In the event the Hundred Days was always prone to end in defeat, it was at least the most spectacular individual ever –really, we say of leaders that they have”met their Waterloo.” As for de Gaulle, following his equally striking resurrection from the politically dead in 1958, he enjoyed a decade of almost untrammelled authority in which to form his country. Raymond Aron, excellent liberal-conservative intellectual of the day, had warned of the General’s dictatorial tendencies, both during the war and on the eve of the return from 1958. However, Aron later admitted that he was wrong to dread”the shadow of the Bonapartes”: de Gaulle had been”a magnetic leader par excellence” but he resembled Washington more than Napoleon. Aron was possibly too generous to the General. Could it not been for its shock and disillusionment of les évenements at May 1968, would the founding father of the Fifth Republic have relinquished power voluntarily?
From what might happen to be a mere jeu d’esprit, Gueniffey has a lovely and profound reflection on the meanings of heroism. He reveals just how his compatriots transformed Bonaparte to a mythical conqueror of Roman nobility, while de Gaulle has been transfigured to a chivalric legend from the Chanson de Roland. Unfortunately, in the four years since it seemed that the eclipse of these values has become almost complete. Napoleon’s bicentenary has been overshadowed by the counter culture, which focuses on his endeavor to reintroduce slavery from the colonies, to the exclusion of anything.
The mantle of De Gaulle has been donned by Emmanuel Macron, who still disdains almost everything that created the General particular, except for his aversion to”les Anglo-Saxons.” Nevertheless it was Churchill, that quintessential Anglo-Saxon statesman, who showed a genuine instinct for its heroic theme in history. It was he who expanded each help to de Gaulle in wartime, despite the latter’s intransigence that sparked his notorious remark that”the hardest cross I must bear is the Cross of Lorraine.” When de Gaulle showed him the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides shortly after the liberation of Paris,” Churchill bowed his mind and declared:”In the world there is nothing grander.” Thanks to Gueniffey, we also have been educated, for most of the flaws of those personalities, humanity could be the poorer without any illustration of their grandeur.
Editor’s Note: The review has been updated to explain the location of Napoleon’s coronation.