Charles de Gaulle

Background

As Germany rises from the deprivations of the First World War and the Great Depression, the rest of the world tries to ignore the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. But when Hitler launches his invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 the world finally realises that the Germans will not be appeased. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany.

Mini biography

Born 22 November 1890 in Lille in the north of France, near the border with Belgium. He is the second son and the third of five children of a well-to-do but conservative family with roots in the minor nobility. His father is a headmaster at a Jesuit School in Paris and teaches philosophy and literature.

The young De Gaulle decides on a military career. He is accepted into the Ecole Militaire (Military Academy) of St Cyr in 1908 and graduates in 1912.

1913 - He is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 33rd Régiment d'Arras infantry regiment commanded by Colonel Henri Philippe Pétain, the future leader of the Vichy Government.

1914 - The countdown to the First World War begins on 28 June 1914 with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In its ensuing dispute with Serbia, Austria-Hungary refuses to be placated. Germany sides with Austria-Hungary when the situation deteriorates.

On 3 August Germany declares war on France. Britain in turn declares war on Germany on 14 August. The First World War has begun.

The war will see the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) pitted against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia).

German troops cross into France on 24 August. They come within 50 km of Paris but are stopped at the start of September by a French and British counteroffensive. The war then bogs down as both sides literally dig in, constructing a band of opposing trenches along the front line.

De Gaulle is wounded less than two weeks after the war begins and again in March 1915. He is wounded a third time on 2 March 1916 and captured by the Germans. He spends the rest of the war as a prisoner. During this time he writes his first book, 'La Discorde chez l'Ennemi' (Discord Among the Enemy), an analysis of German's civil and military systems. The book is published in 1924.

1918 - After four years of exhausting and bloody conflict the war ends on 11 November with the signing of a general armistice.

The Central Powers have accepted a humiliating defeat. Germany suffers further humiliation under the Treaty of Versailles signed in June 1919. Germany is ordered to pay large war reparations, the size of the German army is limited, and Germany and Austria-Hungary are blamed for starting the conflict. France is given sovereignty over Alsace-Lorraine on its eastern border and is allowed to occupy the Rhineland until 1935.

About 8.5 million soldiers have been killed during the war. France alone has lost about 1.4 million men. Much of the country's infrastructure has also been ruined.

1919 - De Gaulle volunteers for a military mission to assist the Polish Army fight the Russian Bolsheviks. He will receive the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari, for his service.

1921 - On his return to France, de Gaulle marries Yvonne Vendroux. The couple will have a son, Philippe, and two daughters, Elisabeth and Anne.

De Gaulle teaches military history for a year at St Cyr before taking a two-year course of special training in strategy and tactics at the École Supérieure de Guerre (Staff College).

1925 - He is promoted to the Staff of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre (Supreme War Council).

1927 - He serves as a major in the army occupying the Rhineland.

1929 - He is posted to the French mandated territories in the Middle East (Lebanon and Syria) for two years.

1931 - He is promoted to lieutenant-colonel and assigned to the secretariat of the Conseil Supérieur de la Défense Nationale (National Defence Council) for four years.

1933 - The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power in Germany on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor.

Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote Hitler persuades the Reichstag (parliament) to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years. The Nazis now take full control of the state apparatus.

1934 - De Gaulle publishes his book 'Vers l'armée de métier' (The Army of the Future), in which he sets out his ideas for a new military strategy based on small, mobile, professional units to replace the static, trench-based tactics of the First World War.

He opposes the construction of the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications along France's eastern border, arguing the money would be better spent on troops and armaments.

1936 - In March, Germany remilitarises the Rhineland, in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles. France protests the move but takes no further action. In 1938 France will also accede to Germany's annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia.

1937 - De Gaulle is promoted to colonel and given command of the 507th Tank Regiment.

1939 - German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Poland is overrun within a month, with Germany taking the west of the country and the Soviet Union occupying the east.

1940 - Denmark and Norway fall in April. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month.

On 11 May, De Gaulle is put in charge of the 4th Armoured Division. He is the only French commanding officer to successfully counterattack the advancing Germans.

At the start of June, de Gaulle is promoted to brigadier general (the rank he will retain for the rest of his life) and appointed as undersecretary of state for defence and war in the French Government.

Tasked with coordinating the war effort with the British, he travels to England to seek support from Winston Churchill but on 16 June a new government headed by Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain takes power in France. Pétain, de Gaulle's one-time friend and mentor, is intent on negotiating a truce with the Germans.

De Gaulle strongly opposes the move. He believes the government should hold out against the Germans and move to Breton or North Africa if necessary. On 17 he leaves France and returns to England, from where he will be free to challenge Pétain's government.

"I was starting from scratch," de Gaulle later explains. "In France, no following and no reputation. Abroad, neither credit nor standing. But this very destitution showed me my line of conduct. It was by adopting without compromise the cause of the national recovery that I could acquire authority. At this moment, the worst in her history, it was for me to assume the burden of France."

De Gaulle sets up a London-based government-in-exile and, as the unofficial leader of the 'Free French', begins to organise resistance to the Pétain administration and the German occupation.

"Honour, common sense and the interest of the nation command all free French men and women to continue the combat, wherever they may be and however they are able," de Gaulle tells his countrymen in a radio broadcast from London.

However, de Gaulle initially has little status among his French compatriots and foreign allies, who often view him as being imperious and stubborn.

"I resented his arrogant demeanour," Churchill writes. "Here he was, a refugee, an exile from his own country under sentence of death, in a position entirely dependent on the goodwill of the British government, and also now of the United States. The Germans had conquered his country. He had no real foothold anywhere. Never mind; he defied all."

The Free French movement will establish close ties with the Resistance within France, win the allegiance of French colonies in West Africa, and help to liberate the French mandates in Lebanon and Syria.

Meanwhile, the Pétain Government signs an armistice with the Germans on 22 June. The Third French Republic has come to an end. The French armed forces are demobilised and the government dissolved. Administration of the country is split, with the Germans taking control of the northern two-thirds and a new French Government being given the remaining third in the south.

Based at Vichy in the Auvergne region of central France, the French administration comes to be known as the 'Vichy Government'.

During the occupation, France will be forced to supply Germany with hundreds of thousands of labourers and more material aid than any other German satellite. The Vichy Government will also be ruthless in its treatment of opponents and Jews, with about 75,000 mostly foreign-born Jews being arrested and sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

On 4 July de Gaulle becomes the subject of Vichy retribution when he is court-martialled in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison. On 2 August a second court-martial finds him guilty of treason and condemns him to death.

1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. The Germans advance swiftly but are halted on 6 December by a Russian counterattack just short of Moscow.

After the Japanese attack the United States Navy at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December the US enters the war.

1942 - In November the Germans occupy the southern third of France administered by the Vichy Government.

1943 - The military turning point of the war in Europe comes when the German Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the winter of 1942-43. By the end of 1943 the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The German offensive in North Africa is stopped at the beginning of November 1942, leaving the Allies free to land in Sicily and Italy.

To the west, the US and British navies gain control of the Atlantic shipping lanes, clearing the way for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

The Nazis call for "total war" against the Allies.

De Gaulle moves his headquarters to Algeria on 30 May 1943. The Comité Français de la Libération Nationale (French Committee of National Liberation - FCNL) is established with de Gaulle and Henri Giraud as co-presidents. By July de Gaulle has edged out Giraud and effectively taken sole-control of the FCNL.

The Free French troops, now numbering more than 100,000, take part in Anglo-American campaign in Italy in 1943 and the 'D-Day' offensive in 1944. However, de Gaulle is denied any meaningful command role.

1944 - On 26 May, de Gaulle announces that the FCNL will now be known as the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Français (Provisional Government of the French Republic).

The Provisional Government immediately sets about introducing reforms, such as extending the vote to women and establishing a social welfare system.

Britain and the US initially refuse to recognise the Provisional Government; however it is recognised by Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia and Norway.

De Gaulle becomes president of the Provisional Government on 3 June.

The Allied forces liberate Paris on 25 August. Soon after the Germans are driven from France.

De Gaulle and the Provisional Government return to France on 14 June and enter Paris the day it is liberated.

De Gaulle quickly takes charge of the political situation in liberated France. On 23 October the USA, the Soviet Union and Britain finally recognise the Provisional Government.

A new National Assembly (parliament) is elected on 21 October 1945. The following month de Gaulle is elected as the Assembly's president. As leader of the government, he initiates measures to secure France's former colonies, including French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).

Meanwhile, French collaborators are called to account, with about 10,000 being executed and 40,000 sent to prison. Vichy Government leader Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain is tried and condemned to death (the sentence is later commuted to life imprisonment). His deputy, Pierre Laval, is executed.

1945 - By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin. The Soviets march under the slogan, "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind."

By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Berlin falls to the Soviet forces on 2 May. Germany surrenders unconditionally on 7 May.

The Second World War officially ends on 2 September when Japan formally signs documents of unconditional surrender.

Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war. Worldwide, over 60 million have died.

1946 - Frustrated by political wrangling over a new constitution and the parliament's reluctance to accept his proposal for a presidential system, de Gaulle resigns from government on 20 January.

The Fourth French Republic is formed in November. Its constitution establishes two houses of parliament, the Assembly and the Senate.

De Gaulle is critical of the new republic and its constitution and on 14 April 1947 launches the Rally of the French People (Rassemblement du Peuple Français - RPF) as a mechanism for protest. The RPF quickly evolves into a political party and wins 120 parliamentary seats at elections held during 1947.

The RPF crystallises the principles that come to be known as "Gaullism" - the commitment to a strong executive branch of government, the separation of powers, staunch independence in foreign affairs, and French nationalism. However, its success will not last.

Meanwhile, the First Indochina War begins in Vietnam at the end of the year. The war will drag on until 1954, when the French agree to quit the country.

1953 - De Gaulle resigns from the RPF and politics in May. In his retirement he writes the three volumes of his 'War Memoirs' - 'L'appel' (The Call to Honour - published 1954), 'L'unite' (Unity - published 1956) and 'Le salut' (Salvation - published 1959).

1954 - As the First Indochina War ends in Vietnam, a war for independence begins in French Algeria, with the French Army pitted against the Algerian Front de Libération National (FLN).

1955 - The RPF is disbanded.

1956 - France grants independence to former colonies Morocco and Tunisia.

1958 - On 13 May disaffected French soldiers and settlers in Algeria stage a coup. The insurrection threatens to spill over into mainland France as the rebels demonstrate against any attempt by the government to accommodate the Algerian nationalists. The leader of the rebels demands that de Gaulle be returned to power in order to prevent a French pull out.

De Gaulle lets it be known that he is prepared to return to politics to resolve the crisis. He is appointed as prime minister on 1 June and granted wide-ranging emergency powers. He is also given the right to draft a new constitution.

De Gaulle's constitution is overwhelmingly accepted by the electorate on 28 September. It gives the president a leading role in most aspects of politics and the power to rule by decree, dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections. The presidential term is seven years and incumbents are able to stand for reelection.

The Gaullist party (Union for the New Republic) wins a majority at elections held in November.

De Gaulle is elected as president of the Fifth French Republic on 21 December and inaugurated on 8 January 1959.

In foreign relations, de Gaulle adopts an independent stance. He refuses to side with the US and pursues a policy of "détente and cooperation" with the Soviet Union, China and their satellites. In January 1964 he officially recognises the People's Republic of China.

To deflate the Algerian crisis he at first promises economic and social reforms and then offers the country independence. Referenda held in 1961 and 1962 seal the move. Algeria is becomes independent in July 1962. Almost immediately close to one million French settlers abandon the country.

France's 12 other African colonies are also granted independence during the 1960s.

He calls on all nations to adopt a policy of neutrality towards Vietnam and advocates a negotiated peace, predicated on the withdrawal of all US troops.

"Now, this implies returning to what was agreed upon ten years ago and, this time, complying with it, in other words, this implies that in North and South Vietnam, in Cambodia and in Laos, no foreign power any longer intervene in any way in the affairs of these unfortunate countries," he says on 23 July 1964, referring to the agreement reached at the Geneva peace conference that ended the First Indochina War. ...

"No other road can be visualised which can lead to peace in Southeast Asia, provided that once the theoretical agreement is concluded, if it is to be, two practical conditions be realised. The first is that the powers, which directly or indirectly bear a responsibility in what was or is the fate of Indochina and which are France, China, the Soviet Union and America, be effectively resolved to be involved there no longer. The second is that massive economic and technical aid be furnished to all of Indochina by the States which have the means for it, in order that development replace cruel division. France, for her part, is ready to observe these two conditions."

De Gaulle supports the separatist movement in French-speaking Canada and condemns Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory following the 'Six-Day War' in June 1967.

He removes France from the integrated military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in February 1966 and forces NATO troops from French territory. He establishes close ties with West Germany and blocks Britain's attempts to join the European Economic Community (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), arguing that to allow Britain entry would undermine the EEC's integrity and open the door to the US.

De Gaulle starts France's nuclear arms program. The country conducts its first test of an atomic bomb on 13 February 1960, exploding the device at Reggane in Algeria. France will successfully detonate a hydrogen bomb on 24 August 1968.

At home, the French economy initially prospers though towards the end of the 1960s a slowdown will help to fan massive social protest.

De Gaulle is named as 'Time' magazine's person of the year for 1958.

"Charles de Gaulle, with the spontaneous support of his countrymen, has restored the supremacy of internal law and given France a new constitution that for the first time in 88 years endows the executive branch with enough authority to pursue coherent policies," the magazine writes.

"He has all but destroyed the Communist Party as an active factor in French government, has laid the groundwork for a fruitful new relationship between France and her one-time African colonies, and has immensely strengthened France's moral and psychological position in revolt-torn Algeria. Above all, he has given Frenchmen back their pride, swept away the miasma of self-contempt that has hung over France since its ignominious capitulation to Hitler in 1940."

1961 - On 22 April the Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS - Secret Army Organisation), a renegade band of French settlers and soldiers opposed to the Algerian independence, seize control of Algiers and threaten to extend their action to mainland France.

De Gaulle invokes his emergency powers to put down the rebellion. He now prepares to end the issue once and for all. Talks with the FLN result in the 'Evian Accords' that set a definite timetable for Algerian independence. The accords are overwhelming approved in a referendum held in June 1962. Algeria proclaims its independence on 5 July 1962.

However, the OAS does not immediately abandon its resistance. On 22 August 1962, de Gaulle is targeted by the group in an unsuccessful assassination bid that is later dramatised in the 1973 film 'The Day of the Jackal'.

1962 - De Gaulle proposes an amendment to the constitution to allow the election of the president by a direct popular vote.

In September, when the National Assembly baulks at the move, de Gaulle dissolves the lower house and calls for a referendum on the proposed amendment. On 28 October the referendum is passed.

At subsequent general elections held in November, the Gaullist party wins an additional 64 seats and a majority in the National Assembly.

1965 - De Gaulle is reelected president for a second seven-year term on 21 December. However, his popularity is on the wane and a run-off is necessary when no candidate is able to achieve an absolute majority in the first round of voting. Nevertheless, he is the first French president to be elected by a direct popular vote in over 100 years.

1967 - The fall in de Gaulle's popularity is further reflected in parliamentary elections held in March when a Gaullist coalition wins only a narrow victory.

1968 - At the start of May, student demonstrations against the authoritarian nature of the Gaullist government break out in Paris. When, on 10 May, the police respond with excessive violence to an attempt by the students to occupy the Sorbonne university campus the labour movement backs the students and calls for a general strike.

Millions of workers down tools on 13 May. Up to one million gather at a demonstration in Paris. Though only supposed to last for 24 hours, the strike extends into the following days and weeks. About eight million workers, or around one-third of the labour force, participate. France is brought to its knees.

The students seek reform of the education system and syllabus and a voice in decision making at educational institutions. The workers want a more equitable slice of the economic pie and greater control over their working lives.

De Gaulle at first appears to prevaricate, making a scheduled visit to Romania as the crisis deepens, announcing a referendum, and leaving (some say fleeing) the country to consult with a French general stationed in West Germany.

On 30 May he dissolves the National Assembly and calls a general election for June. Hundreds of thousands of de Gaulle supporters crowd the centre of Paris to demonstrate their solidarity with the move.

The Gaullist party wins a landslide victory at the election, becoming the first party to ever hold an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

1969 - De Gaulle calls for a public vote on the reorganisation and reform of the Senate. At a referendum held on 27 April the electorate rejects the scheme. De Gaulle resigns as president the following day.

1970 - De Gaulle dies of an aneurysm on 9 November at his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. At his request, he is buried at his local cemetery after a small private funeral. A state ceremony is held simultaneously at Nôtre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Comment

A public life lived by a private man; de Gaulle is hard to translate for a non-French speaker. His legacy is clear, but the man himself remains undefined. There are the external facts, but there is little sense of the inner life. Others have better insight.

From a tribute by Jacques Chirac, President of France from 1995 to 2007, published in 'Time' Europe magazine's 60 Years of Heroes series:

"General de Gaulle famously evoked 'a certain idea of France' in his memoirs, but in fact he embodied it. He was the man who, from London, on June 18, 1940, called on the French to refuse the offer of a shameful armistice with Nazi Germany. He was the man who said no to collaboration. He was the man who saved France's honour ... Few men have represented the eternal values of France as well as he. That is why even today a large majority of French people still regard him as a symbol and an example. ...

"He communicated (France's) values, her unifying influence on five continents: ... the quest for global governance based on ethics and not merely economic interest; the importance of independent and sovereign peoples who must be respected; a refusal to use force unilaterally in a world where solidarity and the rule of law must prevail; diversity seen as a source of richness; rejection of the clash of civilisations and recognition of the need for dialogue between cultures.

"That is why, in the turmoil of today's world, General de Gaulle's vision, ambition and message continue, in my view, to be a source of pride for France and an irreplaceable inspiration."