Appeal of 18 June | Study Guide

Charles de Gaulle

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Appeal of 18 June | Summary & Analysis

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Summary

De Gaulle's Life before World War II

Born into an upper-class French Catholic family, Charles de Gaulle became interested in a military career at an early age. He attended the French military academy at Saint-Cyr and graduated in 1913 with a commission as an army lieutenant. De Gaulle fought bravely in World War I (1914–18). He was wounded three times and spent more than two years as a prisoner of war.

After being released at the end of the war, de Gaulle rose in the ranks of the French army. He became an advocate for a new military strategy in regard to Germany during the interwar years. He thought France should abandon its reliance on the Maginot Line—a long line of fortifications near the border with Germany. In its place, he urged France to adopt a more mobile, highly trained army that relied on tanks and air power. French military leaders disapproved of his ideas—and the fact that he openly published them.

The Fall of France

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. This marked the beginning of World War II. France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3 and began mobilizing to defend France. The Germans quickly overran Poland but did not attack westward for months. Finally, on May 10, German forces invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The Netherlands and Belgium fell within about two weeks of Germany's attack.

The Germans surprised the French by attacking through the Ardennes Forest, a hilly, densely wooded area that the French thought impassable. By doing so, the Germans attacked north of the Maginot Line and were able to enter France quickly. German tank divisions and air support overwhelmed the French forces.

On June 14, German forces entered Paris. French government officials resigned and a World War I hero, Marshall Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), formed a new government. Pétain surrendered on June 22 and agreed to German occupation of most of France. Pétain's puppet government, which actively collaborated with the Nazis, retained control of only about two-fifths of French soil. The armed forces were mostly disbanded.

During the fighting, de Gaulle had contacts with British army officials. When Pétain took control of the government, de Gaulle left for London. Refusing to accept the French defeat, he worked to rally the French people. With the support of the British prime minister, Winston Churchill (1874–1965), de Gaulle was given airtime on the BBC radio network. On June 18—or 18 June, as dates are written in Europe—he gave a speech that marked the beginning of what was called "Free France."

De Gaulle's Speech

De Gaulle's speech is brief. It has two primary aims. The first is to instill hope. The second is to urge the French to join him in continuing to fight.

De Gaulle begins his first paragraph by expressing contempt for the Pétain government, which had surrendered. He then offers his explanation for why the Germans won so easily. It was not "their numbers," but their "tanks, airplanes, and tactics." This explanation reflects de Gaulle's prewar contention that France should prepare for mobile, mechanized warfare—recommendations that were rejected. This rationale also removes any culpability for the defeat from the French soldiers. They were not lacking in bravery or fighting spirit but were overwhelmed. Also, he says, the Germans "surprised our leaders." Again, he pins the blame on the leadership of the French army—the leaders who had blocked implementation of his ideas before the war.

In the brief second paragraph, de Gaulle asks three rhetorical questions about whether the war has been lost. He answers them with a resounding "No!"

In the third paragraph, de Gaulle aims to inspire hope. France "is not alone," he says. He emphasizes the point by stating it three times. He gives three arguments to support his claim. First, France has an empire it can call upon. At the time, France had colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia. Second, the French can count on the support of Britain, its navy, and its empire. Third, the French—like the British—can look to the industrial might of the United States to provide the armaments needed to combat Germany's war machinery. This echoes his earlier point that the mechanized military power Germany used to defeat France can also be used to defeat Germany.

In the fourth paragraph, De Gaulle frames the French defeat in a broader context. He calls the fighting in France "the battle of France," suggesting that it is but one episode in the larger conflict. He argues that the war is "a world-wide war," and raises a note of hope by offering the prospect of "one day crush[ing] our enemies."

In the next-to-last paragraph, de Gaulle calls on the French to join him in the fight. He first asks French soldiers to join him in Britain. He then invites French engineers and workers skilled in armament industries to contact him.

In his brief final paragraph, de Gaulle uses his most eloquent language to stir the spirits of the French. "The flame of French resistance must not be extinguished," he says. He also promises to address the French people again. He gave a similar speech the next day and another a few days later. During the war, he addressed the French through the BBC nearly 70 times.

Impact of De Gaulle's Speech

De Gaulle became the leader of what came to be called Free France. He was aided in that position by the fact that Churchill recognized him as the leader of the Free French government on June 28. Churchill was more welcoming to him than Pétain's government in France. The French military court-martialed de Gaulle in absentia in August 1940 and sentenced him to death.

He spent most of the next three years in London, where he tried to assemble French forces. His relations with the British, and later the Americans, were not always smooth, but de Gaulle persevered. In 1943 he moved his operation to Algiers before returning to Paris the following September. Meanwhile, French Resistance fighters carried out covert operations against the German occupying army and sent intelligence to the Allies. In 1944 de Gaulle convinced General Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), supreme commander of the western Allied forces, to send troops to liberate Paris. The Germans surrendered on August 25, and the following day de Gaulle led a triumphant parade through the city. He led two provisional governments from late 1944 to 1946 and was a celebrated figure in France.

After abruptly resigning from the second government, De Gaulle remained involved in French politics through the early 1950s but withdrew entirely in 1955. He returned to public life a few years later and was elected president of France in 1958. De Gaulle was a strong-willed leader who maneuvered to exercise strong presidential power and curb the role of the French parliament. He remained in office until 1969 and died the following year.

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