The Heroic in France

Scarcely a day goes by with no historical figure formerly seen as”great” being toppled in their own base. No one, it seems, is immune from being cut down to size. Those most celebrated because of their deeds have been judged instead by their words, even words unknown to their contemporaries–and judged, furthermore, by the ethical sensibilities of the present instead of the past. The higher they’d formerly been held in our forebears’ respect, the further they must now collapse. Hamlet’s wise admonition–“Use every man after his desert, and who will be cape whipping?” –has been consigned to oblivion.
Yet many of us who reside at a post-heroic age are nostalgic for a more innocent time in which 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 cite Carlyle except for an example of racism or even proto-fascism would be to court opprobrium; even his Chelsea house that has been maintained as a museum to the historian and his literary wife Jane–a distinctive Victorian time capsule–is now closed indefinitely. Nevertheless Carlyle had something significant to say regarding the epic and its own antithesis, which he called”valetism”–a homage to Hegel, from my validity of History he’d heard about”world-historical individuals.” There, Hegel cited his own Phenomenology of Spirit–“no man is a hero to his salvation, not because he’s not a hero, but as the valet is still a valet”–including that this aphorism had been quoted by Goethe. Why were Hegel and Carlyle alive now, they might wonder whether our culture had been usurped by valetists: individuals who estimate genius and its flaws in the servile perspective of their Kammerdiener.
Patrice Gueniffey does not subscribe to historical iconoclasm, which has not yet prevailed in his native France as entirely as in the English-speaking world. One might deduce up to his monumental biography of Napoleon, the next volume of which is eagerly anticipated by admirers of their Emperor in thisparticular, his bicentenary yearold. Nevertheless his considerably shorter recent study, Napoleon and de Gaulle, is more specifically intended as a vindication of the effect of the individual in history. In its original language, the subtitle was Deux héros français.
With this beautifully written and translated essay in comparative portraiture, the author has thrown down the gauntlet to the prominent schools of contemporary historiography, all of which emphasize unbiased elements, whether social or economic, geographic or climatological. Gueniffey unabashedly believes in the ability of uncommon people –“heroes”–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
It’s no accident that Carlyle belonged to the generation that grew up in Napoleon’s shadow, so profoundly affected by German thinkers that, like Hegel,’d glimpsed”the world soul on horseback” or perhaps, like Goethe, conversed with him. Tout le monde appreciated the General’s requiem at Notre Dame, which cannever have failed to awe an impressionable adolescent. What Napoleon had been to Carlyle, de Gaulle would be to Gueniffey. Yet as Carlyle composed a huge life of Frederick the Great but not one of his near contemporary Napoleon, therefore Gueniffey has dedicated his life to Napoleon but not, until now, composed roughly de Gaulle.
But recent years have witnessed outstanding biographies of Napoleon and de Gaulle by the British historians Andrew Roberts and Julian Jackson respectively. Though neither writes in Carlyle’s epic manner, both are fascinated by the cults that surround these amazing men–as, clearly, is Gueniffey. Roberts even adapting the British version of his book Napoleon the Great, though this was changed for the American Dollars into the blander Napoleon: A Life. Gueniffey’s analysis of the 2 heroes came in 2017, therefore he was not able to due to Jackson’s work, which also needed a showing title: A Certain Idea of France–de Gaulle’s self-description of his own distinctive sort of patriotism. The awe in these two figures are still held–distinctively among French leaders, even as Gueniffey educates us about the basis of opinion polls–actually extends way beyond their particular patrie. Both were viewed in the time as saviours in hardship and unifiers in branch. They stand out because of their”grandeur”–a quality that Gueniffey finds manifested as much in their lives because of their accomplishments, in phrases no longer than actions.
“If Napoleon had been French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle wason the opposite, the most French of Frenchmen.”
Patrice GueniffeyIn both instances, there is a second when their epic qualities and status among their compatriots suddenly emerges. For Napoleon, it comes during the siege of Toulon in 1796, once the youthful commander first shows that instinctive strategic grasp and strategic coup d’oeil which, in a few years, would propel him to heights of military glory never seen since Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Once the British naval squadron was pushed off by his own artillery, the royalist stronghold falls into his hands like a ripe fruit. Seemingly effortless in his ability to inspire loyalty, the young Bonaparte’s charisma carries his armies across Europe and outside. His very own heroism makes heroes of his own troops, but many of them he sacrifices for an empire that exists only as a platform for its creator. There’s been nothing like it since.
For de Gaulle, this epic second comes later in life, in an age when Bonaparte was dead. A relatively self-evident, his only prospect of activity against the German invaders is more than a footnote at the autumn of France in May 1940. Only when the panzer divisions have already broken does de Gaulle, controlling an armoured counter-attack, show what he’s made from. It’s too small and too late. From the memoirs of his competitor, Guderianthe German writes:”The threat in this [abandoned ] flank was slight…Throughout the next few days de Gaulle stayed with us and on the 19th [of May] a few of his tanks succeeded in entering over a part of my advanced headquarters…I handed a few uncomfortable hours until the threatening people went off in another direction.” This was all that de Gaulle would do–but it had been sufficient.
Briefly co-opted into the Cabinet by his friend Paul Reynaud, he’s ousted by the new plan of Marshal Pétain, who adores peace.
Just as Churchill rallied the British about precisely exactly the same time and as Roosevelt would perform after Pearl Harbor, de Gaulle’s appeal made him the thought of France in her darkest hour. Amid chaos and embarrassment, the French heard a voice of hope, telling them that their duty was supposed to join him and la France Libre, the Free French, at London if possible, to resist if not. The conflict of France was over, but the war wasn’t:”This really is a war.” This international conflict was a God-sent opportunity. The entire world would empower the liberation and he’d lead French soldiers into Paris. De Gaulle’s kind of heroism was thenceforth consistently about France.
As Gueniffey puts it”In sum, though Napoleon had been French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle wason the opposite, the most French of Frenchmen.” The Revolution was all about humankind as a whole along with the armies who fought Bonaparte’s banner were as heterogeneous as the Empire he made. Although he embraced Charlemagne’s gesture using a coronation by the Pope at Rome, the parvenu Emperor placed the crown on his head in Paris. There was nothing Christian about Napoleon–all of his symbolism was classical. His cavalry decreased Cologne Cathedral to a stable.
Lacking military force, de Gaulle mobilised religious and ethical energies in his crusade against the godless Nazis. A devout Catholic, he contested the alliance of their clergy under Vichy France. As soon as the General prophesied victory, he had been believed. Back in 1934, he’d warned Pétain and other military grandees of the threat from a new type of mechanised war. The prophecy had come to pass, the prophet had been vindicated and the French followed .
But only for as long as it satisfied them. While the war lasted, the prophet-general had no need of coverages because he uttered them. On the greatest day of his entire life, the liberation of Paris on 25 August, 1944, he strode lonely along the Champs Élysée beyond the rapturous multitudes. In l’Hotel de Ville, he gave his manifesto in three words”La guerre, l’unité et la brilliance, voilà notre programme.” Yet only a year after the German soldier, de Gaulle had resigned. Without war, it appeared, there was no unity without a recourse either. He tried to begin a new movement. If it failed to sweep him back into power, he retreated to his house in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in northeastern France. Only a decade after did return to rescue France again, this time by the threat of a military coup mounted by the military in Algeria. Only the war hero can save the country from civil war. The cost of his comeback was a brand new Republic, the fifth as 1789, made in the image of their General himself.
Just as Napoleon’s transformation of a revolutionary republic into a royal monarchy turned France into a despotism and placed an intolerable burden on the Emperor, therefore de Gaulle’s combination of an optional presidency along with a parliamentary system, with only a feeble separation of forces, has shone an unforgiving light on the lesser men who’ve succeeded him. Napoleon was, also Gueniffey reminds me at first in comparison to Washington because the victor of a revolutionary war; although the American refused the crown, the Frenchman seized it–and, even after his abdication, returned from exile to reclaim it.
In the event the Hundred Days had been always likely to end in defeat, it had been the most spectacular one in history–really, we still say of leaders that they have”met their Waterloo.” As for de Gaulle, after his equally striking revival from the dead in 1958he enjoyed a decade of nearly untrammelled authority to shape his country. Raymond Aron, great liberal-conservative intellectual of the afternoon, had warned of the General’s dictatorial tendencies, both during the war and again on the eve of his return in 1958. But Aron later confessed that he had been wrong to dread”the shadow of the Bonapartes”: p Gaulle was”a magnetic leader par excellence” however he resembled Washington more than Napoleon. Aron was possibly too generous to the General. Had it not been for its shock and disillusionment of all les évenements at May 1968, are the founding father of the Fifth Republic have relinquished power willingly?
From what could happen to be mere jeu d’esprit, Gueniffey has a beautiful and profound reflection on the significance of heroism. He reveals just how his compatriots transformed Bonaparte into a mythical conqueror of all Roman nobility, while de Gaulle was transfigured into a chivalric legend in the Chanson de Roland. Unfortunately, in the four years since it appearedthat the eclipse of these values has become nearly total. Napoleon’s bicentenary has been overshadowed by the counter culture, which focuses on his endeavor to reintroduce slavery in the French colonies, to the exclusion of anything.
The group of De Gaulle was donned by Emmanuel Macron, who nevertheless disdains virtually everything that created the General unique, except for his own aversion to”les Anglo-Saxons.” Nevertheless it had been Churchill, that quintessential Anglo-Saxon statesman, that showed a true instinct for its epic motif in history. It had been he who extended every help to de Gaulle in wartime, regardless of the latter’s intransigence that triggered his notorious comment that”the toughest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.” After de Gaulle showed him the grave of Napoleon at Les Invalides shortly after the liberation of Paris, Churchill bowed his mind and declared:”In the entire world there is nothing grander.” Thanks to Gueniffey, we too have been reminded that, for all the flaws of these heroes, humanity would be the poorer without the example of the grandeur.
Editor’s Note: This review was updated to clarify the location of Napoleon’s coronation.