Review by: Martin Koenigsberg
In this short biography of De Gaulle for the Ballantines History series, Phillipe Masson, a French historian of some note, tries to give the reader insight into the complexity of this story. The simple narrative is that De Gaulle was the Allies’ Frenchman- the leader of the Free French who stood up a government in London and continued to fight the Germans after the Fall of France. Marshall Petain, the leader of the puppet continental Vichy regime was a collaborator and Fascist, and the Free French kept the fight up until De Gaulle returned to Paris with the Allies and became the leader of France, Masson show us the reality was MUCH more complex and full of anomalies. De Gaulle had not been a household name in France before the war, although well known in Military Circles for his prewar book on Mechanised Warfare- touting Armoured Divisions on the German/Russian models- so the Free French start was rocky at best. Masson shows that the Vichy Regime and the French Imperial possessions that stayed with it were roiling political scenes themselves, with many collaborators- but also many other stripes of resistance or complex partial cooperation with the Fascists. De Gaulle had a tortuous path to the leadership of post-war France- having to present a side to the Allies that was cooperative and worthy of a place in the Alliance- whilst “herding cats’ politically – trying to hold his Free French together- at the same time trying to get Individual French people to buy in- and sometimes whole Colonies at a time. Frankly, the whole subject is probably too deep for the 160-page format strewn liberally with B/W photos- but Masson does the best he can with the material, giving the reader an introduction to a topic many will want to explore further with deeper tomes.
Anyone who saw the “Yellow Vest” movement of 2018-2019 develop in France, understands that French Politics can be both complex and messy, perhaps to levels beyond many other countries, but perhaps not. Masson shows how De Gaulle sometimes chose to use political machinations to get his way- but often found it a Gordian Knot he wanted to cut like an Alexander. in 1940 he started- by offering a “non-Political” style of anti-Nazi Leadership- but by 1943, when Allied conquest of French North Africa had begun to give “Free France” some real military and population heft- he is quite accomplished as he pushes the former Vichy General Giraud, onto the sidelines, keeping all the Free French power for himself. Then in the Liberation of France itself in 1944, he was skillful at taking in the Communist Resistance Groups, the most aggressive and active of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), gaining their firepower, without actually giving them power on his governing council. The simple General who began the war with a visceral rejection of Nazi hegemony over France had become a wily political operative destined for the Presidency of France- twice. His constant battles with both Roosevelt and Churchill as he fought for French interests are also chronicled well. I found the book very compelling- but I know I need to read more on this topic to understand it better.
The book is filled with adult themes, mostly political, and has no graphic passages, but is very politically dense, so this book is best read by a Junior reader at about 12/13- just so they can follow the political machinations. For the Gamer/Modeler/Military Enthusiast it is a very mixed bag. for the Gamer- not much of a resource-although for understanding your Free French forces- their motivation and genesis- it could be an enlightening read. The Modeler does get a lot of good Diorama ideas- both from the b/w photos and the narrative, but for figures, not many vehicle builds- he was not prone to jumping on the back of trucks/jeeps like an Ike or Monty to give a speech. It is the Military Enthusiast who benefits the most, although some may not appreciate a topic that gets more nuanced and complex the more you read about it. This book told me in a good way- that I need to read more on this topic. Every few pages there was a reference to a whole other possible study concept. I will call this book an amuse-bouche for French Politics, but a good resource for French Military History as those who are intrigued will want to know more- but those who like a short answer will be able to learn enough to bolster their WWII knowledge.