Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History; By Patrice Gueniffey; Belknap Press; 416 pp., $35.00


Both Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle rose in a time of turmoil and war to restore order. Napoleon’s service to France lay in ending revolutionary violence, while de Gaulle led free France in the struggle to overcome Nazi dominated Europe. The demerits on their balance sheets matter little, as under the direction of these men France became greater.

Quintessentially French, de Gaulle was born in Lille, France in 1890. During World War II, he became the embodiment of the French nation, which his very name now evokes.

Conversely, the man born Napoleone di Buonaparte was not a native Frenchman. Born in Corsica in 1769, he spoke French with an Italian accent, and changed his name to sound more French. Summarizing his background to a journalist, Bonaparte proclaimed himself to be “Corsican by birth, French by adoption, and emperor by achievement.”

Both men found themselves surrounded by chaos, and both “represented a solution, a way out, at a time when no one could still imagine one.” Author Patrice Gueniffey argues that both men forced otherwise irreconcilable parties to coexist, building lasting achievements atop a series of political failures. In so doing their successors inherited from Napoleon an administration and a body of civil law; and from de Gaulle, a set of political institutions. Both men conceived of France as a nation of grandeur and believed that its people needed a unifying vision.

Gueniffey is one of France’s leading historians of the French Revolution and Napoleon. His new book is not a strict comparison of de Gaulle and Napoleon, nor is it a dual biography. Instead it is a wide-ranging historical essay on history, heroes, and how they shaped the events of their times.

In our age of democratic dullness, Gueniffey argues modern historical scholarship often overlooks the element of heroic influence on history. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that when democracy replaced aristocracy the nature of historical scholarship changed. In a democratic society, historical change is attributed to general causes and social forces. But in an aristocratic society it is attributed to the “will and temperament of certain men.”

The author deplores reductionist developments of the 19th century as responsible for levelling disciplines like history, placing them on the same level as social sciences like psychology or physical sciences like geology. He bemoans modern European society as having no sense of the future or the past, but only what he calls the “perpetual present,” where egalitarianism reduces the stature of great men. Meanwhile, the most mediocre are raised to the false greatness of celebrity and “celebrity is placed on the same footing as glory.”

The 20th century marked a further devolution from the 19th in what Eric Voegelin called “ideological deformations of reality.” Gueniffey writes: 

From the most radical right to the revolutionary left, Action française to communism, the same religion was practiced, that of the direction of history and of inevitability. It has been a hard time for great men.


A further reduction of history without heroes has been imposed by the European Union’s standardized teaching of history. In the early 2000s, extra-European civilizations entered European school programs en masse for the first time. To make room for this new coursework, much of Europe’s own history had to be truncated or removed from classrooms. The author believes the goal of this change was “to reduce all grandeur, all heroism to common proportions.”

Gueniffey pulls no punches in his perceptive and wide-ranging book. For example, he notes that on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz, the otherwise ostentatious duo of then-President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, abstained from celebrating France’s brilliant victory. Instead, France joined Great Britain for the bicentenary of France’s defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar.

This book is not an ode to despair. It is rather an appreciation of the imaginative aspect of history to move men and women to acts of greatness. As Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his 1880 novel, Coningsby, “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.”

The details of Napoleon’s life are perhaps better known than those of de Gaulle. Bonaparte rose on the upheaval of the French Revolution. Former United States President John Adams, reflecting on Napoleon’s rise and demise, wrote: “a whirlwind raised him and the whirlwind blowed him away to St. Helena.” 

De Gaulle rose almost at the last minute in May 1940, when he was quickly promoted to brigadier general and named Undersecretary for War under Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. Previously a figure of obscurity, wounded at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, and captured by the Germans, de Gaulle spent almost three years as a war prisoner during which time he made five attempts at escape.

Promoted to captain, his ability and writing talents were recognized by Marshal Pétain, the “Hero of Verdun,” who considered de Gaulle the most intelligent officer in the French army. De Gaulle joined Pétain’s staff as a ghostwriter, but the two men later fell out in 1934 over the publication of de Gaulle’s critique of the French military, Vers l’Armée de Métier (“Towards a Professional Army”). De Gaulle argued for the modernization of the French military and new tactics for the use of tanks.

In January 1940, during the so-called “phony war” before the German invasion in June, de Gaulle penned a prophetic memorandum to French military leaders, warning them that the supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line would not hold.

In his memo, de Gaulle warned that the development of tanks had changed the fundamentals of modern warfare. French High Command was relying on the Maginot Line to protect France, while de Gaulle argued that “the Maginot Line, no matter what reinforcement it has received or might receive, no matter what quantities of infantry and artillery occupy it or rely on it, could be breached.” The remedy he prescribed was for France to create large tank units backed up by artillery, supported by infantry, and used in conjunction with air power.

France fell in June 1940, but de Gaulle refused to accept defeat. With just the clothes on his back, he left his family and flew to England. Through a series of radio broadcasts on the BBC, de Gaulle became the embodiment and voice of free France.

De Gaulle was always conscious of history. His father taught history, his grandfather was an antiquarian scholar and author, and his grandmother edited a Catholic newspaper and wrote 80 books during the course of her life. De Gaulle rallied the French people under the symbol of Joan of Arc’s Cross of Lorraine declaring, “I have picked up again the pieces of the sword.” De Gaulle was inspired by the lines from “La Ta-pisserie de Sainte Geneviève” by one of his favorite writers, Charles Péguy:

The weapons of Jesus are the Cross of Lorraine,


And the blood in the artery and the blood in the vein,

And the source of grace and the clear fountain.

During World War II, De Gaulle faced “the unremitting hostility of Roosevelt, who with the terrible flippancy of an abysmally shallow mind, used him as a tease in his relations with Churchill,” British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote. Julian Jackson, in his 2018 biography De Gaulle, refers to Roosevelt’s behavior as “pragmatic cynicism.” What a tragedy for the future of Europe that Roosevelt in his eagerness for the Soviet Union to join the United Nations shunned de Gaulle, whom he thought a “snob,” cultivating a friendship with Joseph Stalin instead!

“You are very much for the United Nations because you still control it,” President Richard Nixon in his book Leaders recorded de Gaulle telling Eisenhower. “You will have made such a golden calf out of the U.N. that, when the day comes that they order you to do something that is contrary to common sense and the interest of the United States, you will have no choice but to obey.”

Despite Roosevelt’s snub, every attempt to exclude de Gaulle or restrict his authority during the war failed. Upon the liberation of France on June 6, 1944, de Gaulle became head of the provisional government. Two years later he abruptly resigned when the Fourth Republic sought a referendum to create what de Gaulle regarded as a weak constitution without executive power. It was sometimes necessary for a leader to “withdraw from events before they withdraw from you,” he said.

De Gaulle was right about the Fourth Republic, which chewed up 21 prime ministers from 1946 to 1958. But his principled resignation left him in the political wilderness for 12 years, until the Algerian crisis restored him to power. He established a strong Fifth Republic government headed by a powerful president, a structure that continues to this day. The Fifth Republic’s strong executive branch handled foreign and defense policies while appointing prime ministers to care for the everyday operations of the government. 

In Gueniffey’s view, the aim of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic was to teach France self-reliance, and to chart an independent middle way between capitalism and communism, for the greater glory of France.

As a faithful Roman Catholic, de Gaulle was disturbed by the materialism of post-war Europe, Gueniffey writes, and opined that leadership should not be judged solely by economic success. A mere “standard of living should not be a national ambition,” de Gaulle believed. Man had a higher destiny that lay in the exercise of his free will and which was not determined by global events.