Joachim Fritz-Vannahme
18. June 2020

Today is #le_18_juin. #De_Gaulle’s day!

In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, this bilingual headline will at best awaken historians and history lovers.

Today is the 80th anniversary of the BBC radio speech by Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle. For the French, l‘appel du 18 juin rings just about the same bells as Winston Churchill’s blood, toil, tears, and sweat speech of 13 May 1940.

 

Despite the BBC, De Gaulle’s radio speech was hardly listened to

 

A subtle difference: at least, Churchill had an audience in the British House of Commons and was on the front pages of the press the next day. De Gaulle’s radio speech, on the other hand, found hardly any listeners among the more than 100,000 French who fled to England and at best a place on the inside pages in both the London and the domestic press the next day.

The big difference: Churchill spoke as a newly appointed prime minister. De Gaulle was only a brigadier general and ex-undersecretary of state, a “king without a country”, as Johannes Willms recently called him in his readable biography of the general.

 

De Gaulle’s memoirs adorn the president’s photo of Macron

 

Charles de Gaulle’s war memoirs in the neat Pleïade edition have been on display in every French town hall for a good three years. For the open book – we would like to know the exact page! – adorns the official photo of President Emmanuel Macron, elected in March 2017. That’s how you make your mark, at least in France. By the way, there are two smartphones next to the memoirs. This Macron wants to be “résoluement moderne“, resolutely modern.

Macron wanted to be accompanied by the General’s long shadow throughout the year: the 80th anniversary of the Appel du 18 juin; the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which elevated the General and his country among the victorious powers, only four years after the greatest defeat and to the amazement of the world; then on 9 November, the 50th day of Charles le Grand’s death. But then came Corona…

 

A king without a country. But with a certain idea of France

 

In London, the brigadier general and former undersecretary of state could only survive with Churchill’s help. And thanks to his own pigheadedness, of course. Large in stature, he measured 1.96 meters, small in troops, without land, without weapons, without reputation. But with a certain idea of France, “une certaine idée de la France“. In his war memoirs, you can find the famous quote that the French must be led with dreams.

We are talking about France – and not about the Republic which was swept away in the German blitzkrieg and replaced by Marshal Pétain’s submissive Vichy regime. And yet de Gaulle’s provisional government founded a republic in 1944, and he then founded another one in 1958, the Fifth Republic.

 

The General dreamed of overcoming the revolution of 1789

 

In his words, this republic should give back to the country “the stability and continuity that has been denied to it for 169 years”. At that time, as the historian Michel Winock interpreted it last year, for de Gaulle, France had lost “control of its destiny” and not regained it since.

So de Gaulle dreamed of nothing less than overcoming the French Revolution. 1944, 1958 – his answers to 1789.

Did de Gaulle after 18.June really pursue “sovereignty swindle” (Willms)? His British biographer Julian Jackson seeks to explain this political phenomenon in a permanent tension – “between reserve and hubris, reason and sentiment, classicism and romanticism, calculation and provocation, cunning and showmanship, politics and mysticism.”

 

He is one of the greatest and yet remains a mystery

 

How did the General say on (almost) his last stand in a BBC studio on 18 June 1940? ” But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!”

This No was the beginning of a politician who is one of the greatest of the last century. And among the most mysterious.

 

 

Photo: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1755479

 

 

 

 

 

 

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