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Charles De Gaulle, Traitor?


I’m in the midst of Julian Jackson’s epic biography of Charles De Gaulle, which means that I have a great many more thoughts about Charles De Gaulle than I am accustomed to having on a given day. As it happens, reading about Charles De Gaulle has proven remarkably illuminating in these difficult days of the Franco-American friendship, something I certainly did not expect when I picked the book up.

Along these lines, I noticed some pushback in the comments regarding my claim that De Gaulle is one of the historical traitors whose treason we tend to forgive because a) he won and b) we regard his treason as justified. The pushback was odd to me because De Gaulle is not a difficult or marginal case where treason is concerned. The argument against De Gaulle as traitor has to rest on one of three propositions; the government which conducted the armistice was illegitimate, the armistice was illegal, or it is appropriate for military officers to continue hostilities after an armistice is concluded.

None of these are plausible:

  1. The Petain government of June 16, 1940 was the final government of the Third Republic, was indisputably legal, was capable of conducting foreign relations, and capable of commanding those of its armed forces which remained in good order.
  2. The armistice with Germany was an entirely legal and legitimate example of the kinds of agreements that warring nations regularly negotiate in order to end conflicts. The French government could have continued to conduct hostilities against the Axis from North Africa, but the decision to make an armistice was a policy choice, not treason.
  3. Military officers are not allowed to continue hostilities according to their own judgment of the political and military situation after their government has concluded an armistice

I’m not sure where any of these break down. Number three seems utterly and painfully obvious to me, the nature of the Nazi and Vichy regimes notwithstanding. We can argue about whether Vichy constituted a legal regime after June 1940, but up until the armistice it was the Third Republic, which did not formally end until July 10, 1940, three weeks after De Gaulle fled to London. The armistice was unpleasant business, but coming to an arrangement in a situation of radical military vulnerability is something that countries do.

De Gaulle fled France without being ordered to do so, and did so in a manner that suggested he feared arrest. The government of France began treating him as a criminal defector before the Third Republic ended. Moreover, the French Army (much of which remained in good order after the armistice) regarded De Gaulle as a traitor and treated him legally as such. Indeed, the Army was more hesitant to accept De Gaulle than almost any other part of the Vichy state; he remained poisonous to regular French Army forces for most of the rest of the war, a treatment which colored relations with the Army for the rest of his career.

Tell me I’m wrong, people. Tell me I’m wrong.

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