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The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle Paperback – 1 May 1998
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A review of the war memoirs of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle
As the dust settled over a ruined world, two of the most central figures of World War II retreated to a quiet place to record their separate views about what had happened. Of the principle figures of the war – Adolph Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Chang Kai-Shek, and Hideki Tojo – only Churchill and de Gaulle have chosen to place their version of the war before history.
Hitler and Tojo died as a direct result of their participation in the war. Hitler committed suicide in April 1945 as the very last grains of his empire crumbled around him. Tojo was hanged by the Allied victors in December 1948. Neither recorded anything as a result of their participation in the war. Chang Kai-Shek retreated to the island fortress of Taiwan after losing mainland China to political rivals there, never to return but also never to cease fighting the battles started during the war for the rest of his life. Anything he wrote or said was created as an instrument of politics and war, not history. Roosevelt died unexpectedly just as victory was achieved near the end of the war. Like Chang Kai-Shek, he left no considered record at the end.
But Churchill and de Gaulle did leave their personal record of the war. And a monumental record it is.
These great memoirs deserve to be read together, even though working your way through just one volume is a job for a dedicated student. Churchill’s memoir, billed as a history by Churchill, was published in six volumes averaging about 800 pages each over five years between 1948 and 1952. The later volumes were published while Churchill served as Prime Minister for the second time, but were actually written after the British public thanked him for saving the nation by ejecting him from office. Churchill was never a wealthy man and his income while out of office was almost entirely made from writing. He was rewarded for his literary efforts when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
De Gaulle’s memoir, more honestly titled war memoirs and more modestly written at about 450 pages per volume, was published in three volumes between 1954 and 1959, after he had the opportunity to read Churchill's. Like Churchill, his books were published during a second call to serve his country.
Churchill's version of the war is an annotated compendium of his official correspondence with the other great war leaders (with the notable exception of de Gaulle, with whom he seems not to have written at all). Political and deferential to the last, Churchill seems not to have an unkind word for anybody except Hitler (with whom he also never communicated). His technique is more to damn with faint praise than condemn outright. As impartial history, his books fail miserably since they only cover those events that Churchill must have believed were a reflection on his role in it; and then only from his unique perspective. But as insight into the mind of a man who was the giant of that age, they are without parallel. Grinding through all six is like crossing the Sahara in bare feet, but worth it nonetheless.
De Gaulle's memoir is by far the most literary, which caused me to question why Churchill was also by far the more successful author. Even if you only find it on a library shelf to do this much, you should read the last two pages of de Gaulle's book. It's poetry as sublime as any in literature, even in translation.
In contrast to Churchill (where easily more than half of the actual text is simply quoted correspondence), none of de Gaulle's memoir contains official text. All of it is de Gaulle's imperial viewpoint of his role in the war. You learn from the mortal incarnation of France itself - de Gaulle, of course - how shortsighted, cowardly, unpatriotic, and simply wrong all of his enemies are. And then you learn that he immediately forgives them and how they actually had many great qualities. He even has kind words to say about the Vichy France Nazi collaborators, Joseph Darnand and Pierre Laval, on the occasion of their execution for treason after the war. By the time I had conquered this thousand page mountain of words, I finally understood something of the conflicted relationship that France, and the world in general, had with de Gaulle. A man with an ego as big as outer space, he is impossible to like. But as a man who emerged as the most successful war leader in the world, he is even more impossible to not to respect.
If you've got the time ... HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
What an amazing life and effort! France's "Don Quixote". Never gave up in his "quest" of liberating France and restoring her grandeur. Literary quality everyone compares to Winston Churchill's memoirs. Sure, a little egotistical, but what honesty and no resulting dictatorship.
It is a little confusing when he alternately refers to himself in the 1st person AND in the 3rd person throughout the book; I have never seen that style. Can anyone educate me?
I wished the book had more than 3 little maps (easier to locate oneself) and more photos than the cover page (maybe the individual 3 book version has). Also I did not see any sources or acknowledgements (but maybe THAT is de Gaulle!)
----- My Favorite Exchange -----
Churchill (to de Gaulle): "You claim to be France! You are not France! I do not recognize you as France!"
De Gaulle to Churchill: "If, in your eyes, I am not the representative of France, why and with what right are you dealing with me concerning her world-wide interests?" Mr. Churchill did not reply.
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