Wartime letter trove sheds new light on de Gaulle
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Some 313 letters written by General Charles de Gaulle in the first years of the Second World War reveal an “embattled, lonely and often angry” man obsessed with restoring France’s glory his way.
A treasure trove of letters penned by French wartime leader and former President Charles de Gaulle has been released to the public after 70 years in the dark.
The 313 handwritten documents were found in a cupboard by typist Marie-Thérèse Desseignet in Algiers in 1944, after de Gaulle and his entourage had decamped to newly liberated France.
The letters cover exactly two years of the first half of the war, from December 11, 1940, to December 11, 1942.
‘Standing alone against the whole world’
Gerard Lheritier, owner of the private “Musee des Lettres et des Manuscrits” in Paris, which bought the documents, said that although the letters “would not rewrite the history of the Second World War”, the collection offered a unique look into the mind of an “embattled, lonely and often angry mind.”
He said, “What we do discover is a de Gaulle who is intensely curious, who is extremely thorough in giving orders, who is the embodiment of Free France. We see a man who believes he is standing alone against the whole world.”
It was a difficult time for France and her allies, with no decisive victories until the very end of the period covered by the letters (the Second Battle of Alamein in November 1942 marked the turning point for the war in Africa).
A year before, a new front was opened in the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into the conflict and with it a whole new set of problems for the French leader.
The Americans, and to a certain extent the British, had a tendency to see de Gaulle as a self-proclaimed leader, a maverick and a man not to be trusted.
“What you see in these documents is a man who is fighting against everyone,” said Lheritier. “He was fighting the Germans, the Vichy French, but also the Americans who took a long time to recognise de Gaulle’s Free French.
“There was a better relationship with Churchill, who recognised in de Gaulle a Frenchman of stature and intelligence, someone ready to fight.”
Closer to the Russians than the Americans
When the USA joined the war, de Gaulle wrote that Washington still considered the collaborationist Vichy Regime to be the legitimate ruler of France.
“The Anglo-Saxons, and especially the Americans, still think this is how they are going to win the war,” he wrote to his Defence Secretary René Cassin. “But still they don’t try to follow through on this strategy, to take the massive risks that this would entail.”
He continued: “The Russians, on the other hand, make war without restrictions, which is why we are closer to her than to any other country.”
De Gaulle, a conservative Catholic, was keen to be seen as a leading statesman by the Kremlin, perhaps foreseeing the compromises he would have to make later in the war with the communist-dominated French resistance.
Writing to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in November 1942 to congratulate him on the 25th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, he said: “France and the USSR will prevail in a friendship forged by a shared victory.”
The documents also reveal the extent to which de Gaulle travelled, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, where France had colonial possessions he was determined to safeguard.
Syria was recaptured from Vichy forces in 1942 – and it is interesting to note that de Gaulle was confident that all inhabitants of these two countries “want France to remain, and recognise that the Free French are the country’s true representatives.”
The same letter, addressed to René Cassin, revealing some of the tension with his allies, complains that the British were operating throughout Syria without deference to the Free French and should be reminded that they were in the country with their permission.
Two years later the balance of the war had shifted in the Allies’ favour, and Marie-Thérèse Desseignet, who was on de Gaulle’s staff, found the folder at the bottom of a cupboard in Algiers.
According to Lheritier, she wrote to her boss, who “told her to look after them.” In 1958 she wrote again to de Gaulle, then the newly elected French President, to remind him that she was still holding the letters, to which he replied: “Keep them.”
When Marie-Thérèse Desseignet died, her son approached Lheritier’s museum, which purchased the unique archive for an undisclosed price.
When France 24 asked him how much the collection was worth, he grinned and said: “This is not so much a collection as a historical archive. It’s a piece of French history. It is absolutely priceless.”
The exhibition at the Musee des Lettres et des Manuscrits opens on November 10, and will run through May 2012.