Thursday, June 18, 2020

This Day in WWII History (Churchill, de Gaulle Rally Demoralized Countrymen)

June 18, 1940—With France overrun and British forces only narrowly making it back across the English Channel, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle appealed to their beleaguered countrymen to continue the fight against their Nazi foes. 

Their inspirational speeches became an essential part of their legends. Churchill’s address to the House of Commons especially echoes to the present day with its ringing closing: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” De Gaulle’s “Appeal of June 18” is still taught to French schoolchildren as the birth of the Resistance movement.

The British Prime Minister had been a fixture in his nation’s politics for the prior four decades, so his speech in the House of Commons was heard and absorbed immediately by the electorate. But the French general at this point was still relatively little-known, so his words were not recognized as the official kick-off of the Resistance until well into the war.

In recent weeks, statues of Churchill and de Gaulle have been defaced by vandals who decried their racist attitudes. To be sure, both men were imperialists who did not regard colonials (often non-white) as equal to their rulers.

Speaking before the Peel Commission in March 1937, Churchill said: "I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people [Native Americans and blacks in Australia] by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put in that way, has come in and taken their place.” In 1959, while noting that the presence of Moslems testified to France’s tolerance, de Gaulle also warned against admitting them in mass numbers, scoffing: “Those who advocate integration have the brain of a hummingbird.”

But both acknowledged frankly that the survival of their countries depended on colonies that could help sustain the fight against the Nazis. Moreover, for all their paternalism towards subject peoples, their battle against Nazism was the most important victory over racism in the 20th century.

In addition to paternalism, Churchill and de Gaulle exhibited swollen egos. But for all their large and real faults, they are remembered rightly as heroes to their countrymen. The desperate situation they faced in June 1940 brought their leadership into sharp focus. It is worthwhile recalling the several ways in which this quality manifested itself:

*Patriotism. Advocacy of imperialism was the negative side of Churchill and de Gaulle’s abiding faith in Britain and France. The positive side was their belief in the best parts of their nation’s heritage. De Gaulle was careful to distinguish between patriotism and the nationalism that fueled the rise of Fascism: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

*Conservative, but not reactionary, politics. Churchill and de Gaulle were not only fierce anti-Communists but had little use for Socialism. But they refused to ally with the sizable far-right movements in their countries. Churchill spoke repeatedly throughout the 1930s against appeasement, which assured that he would remain without a leadership position among the Tories throughout the decade. A devout Roman Catholic, de Gaulle never became infected with the anti-Semitism displayed by so many French co-religionists in the wake of the Dreyfuss Affair of the 1890s. Unlike many in the French military, though de Gaulle scorned most politicians, he accepted the legitimacy of the French republic itself. As David Bell noted in a 2018 article in The Nation, he “never embraced the viciously intolerant reactionary nationalism so common among monarchists on the prewar French right.”

*Realism about their nations’ dire crises. Particularly in the case of Churchill, admirers have pointed to the hope the two leaders provided when little appeared on the horizon. But—unlike current leaders on both sides of the Atlantic—that did not mean that they sugarcoated, let alone denied, the catastrophic losses their nations’ armed forces had just sustained, nor what could happen if they lost. The very first line of Churchill’s address spoke of “the disastrous military events which have happened during the past fortnight.” He went on to spell it out: “Our Army and 120,000 French troops were indeed rescued by the British Navy from Dunkirk but only with the loss of their cannon, vehicles and modern equipment. This loss inevitably took some weeks to repair, and in the first two of those weeks the battle in France has been lost.” Similarly, de Gaulle acknowledged in his London radio address: “It is quite true that we were, and still are, overwhelmed by enemy mechanized forces, both on the ground and in the air.” Later, during his political career, he observed, "Politics is nothing else than the art of realities."

*Identification of their countries’ real sources of continuing strength. These frank admissions of losses bolstered the credibility of Churchill and de Gaulle when they explained how they thought Britain and France would defeat Adolf Hitler in the end. Churchill cited the many troops that had escaped the Nazis’ trap in France, the million and a quarter men currently under arms in Britain, the logistical difficulties that would face the Nazis during a cross-channel invasion, the powerful Royal Navy, and the cooperation of the British Empire’s self-governing dominions: Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. De Gaulle pointed to the assistance of Great Britain, the support of France’s colonies, and the industrial strength of the United States.

*Calls for collective action. With the crises facing their country so utterly grave, neither Churchill nor de Gaulle was foolhardy enough to say, as one Western leader proclaimed several years ago, “I alone can fix it.” Churchill consulted with his generals and the self-governing dominions, who agreed the fight could be continued. De Gaulle summoned “all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms,” as well as “all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future.”

*Refusal to compromise with evil. Influential voices in both Great Britain and France contemplated giving up the fight against the Nazis. In May 1940, two members of Churchill’s Cabinet, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax—who, before the outbreak of hostilities, had pursued appeasement of the Nazis—proposed negotiating peace with Hitler. Several weeks later, they had to be persuaded that De Gaulle, only recently promoted to Brigadier General, should be allowed to speak on the BBC for a Free France, rather than Marshal Henri Petain. (The latter would see the honor gained through his WWI service effaced by his leadership of the infamous Vichy collaborationist regime.)

*Refusal to break constitutional norms. Crises offer dictators the opportunity to seize total power. But unlike Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, who exploited unrest in their countries to seize total power (or by current European and American leaders who have tried to do likewise), Churchill and de Gaulle continued to work, as far as possible, within the constitutional systems of Britain and France.

*Heightened eloquence. Churchill’s powers of rhetoric were such that he won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. De Gaulle’s eloquence is less well-known to Anglophones, but his vision of his country called out the most unexpectedly romantic sentences from this hard-headed general and politician. His War Memoirs begins with this famous paragraph: "All my life I have had a certain idea of France. This is inspired by sentiment as much as by reason. The emotional side of me tends to imagine France, like the princess in the fairy stories or the Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny. Instinctively, I have the feeling that Providence has created her either for complete success or for exemplary misfortunes.” 

In calling fellow citizens to arms in their June 18 addresses, Churchill and de Gaulle marshalled the weapons immediately at hand to them: words that expressed truth--an appropriate response to a dictatorship that used propaganda to incite attacks on religious and racial minorities and to devastate an entire continent. 

De Gaulle invoked “the flame of the Resistance” against the enemy, while Churchill’s speech gave rise, in addition to “their finest hour,” this famous sentence that called for ending the hunt for scapegoats for Britain’s military calamity: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

De Gaulle’s arrogance and humorlessness alienated Franklin Roosevelt, and often he sorely tried the patience of Churchill. But in encountering de Gaulle for the first time in June 1940, the British leader was impressed by the lonely, courageous stance that this newly minted brigadier general and under secretary of state took as the only member of the French government willing to carry on the fight against Hitler from Great Britain. 

Churchill and de Gaulle may have been egocentric, stubborn and not always enlightened towards those who fell outside the whites they saw as integral to their countries' history and governance. But they also recognized in each other brilliance, fortitude and a sincere, steadfast devotion to their countries’ highest ideals—enough to sustain them through their subsequent stormy wartime partnership.

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