“General De Gaulle: His Life and Work” – Nikolai Molchanov

“General de Gaulle: His Life and Work” by Nikolai Molchanov is one of the BEST biographies I have ever read. Molchanov, a Soviet scholar, offers a Marxist-Leninist analysis of one of France’s most important leaders, General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free France forces against Vichy France and Nazi Germany in WWII, Chairman of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, and President of France from 1959-1969.

This Soviet biography of a prominent Western statesmen is quite unlike that written about Churchill by V. G. Trukhanovsky (see review here). Both Molchanov and Trukhanovsky offer reasonably objective assessments of de Gaulle and Churchill respectively; however, one can’t help but notice that the biography of de Gaulle is far less vitriolic than the one about Churchill! Clearly de Gaulle was held in much higher esteem in the USSR than Churchill…LOL!

Molchanov’s splendidly written book — it reads like a thriller novel —is commendably balanced in its assessment of de Gaulle.

On the one hand, De Gaulle is praised in the book for his military foresight, historical knowledge, and resolute defense of France. In the chapter “Tanks,” for example, Molchanov examines de Gaulle’s pre-WWII military theories and conflicts with the French High Command. De Gaulle believed a war with Germany was imminent and that this war would be fought with highly mobile, mechanized armies, rendering the Maginot Line useless should the Germans attack France. Molchanov ironically describes how the French High Command rejected de Gaulle’s suggestions to reform the French armed forces but Germany’s Nazi leaders adopted them! In later chapters, Molchanov praises de Gaulle’s opposition to NATO, the Vietnam War, and Israeli expansionism, and support for closer Franco-Soviet relations and Algerian self-determination. Writing about de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw France from NATO, Molchanov writes how “It can be considered in the same light as de Gaulle’s struggle for building an armoured corps in the 1930s, even the feat of June 18, 1940, the struggle against the European Defence Community, or the cessation of the Algerian war, that is, those stages in the General’s biography at which he resolutely embodied the will of France and served her national interest. He again showed his exceptional qualities of a great political leader capable of pursuing a goal despite numerous obstacles, overcoming them with unusual patience and tenacity” (p. 364).

On the other hand, de Gaulle is described as a conservative military officer not without some similarities with Petain and other Vichy leaders, opposed to democracy and parliamentarianism, contemptuous of the French working-class, and with a penchant for monarchism. Although “General de Gaulle despised the base amoral motives of the bourgeoisie, the eternal profit chasing, primitive mercenary spirit, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” de Gaulle remained “a man of that class despite everything, though he served it by frequently acting against its desires and aspirations” (p. 339).

This review really doesn’t do this book justice — but I must start preparing for work tomorrow. I strongly advise anyone interested in WWII to read this book. I couldn’t put it down!

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