Patrice Gueniffey: Napoleon, de Gaulle, and the “Great Man” question (October 2020)

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In February 2017, Patrice Gueniffey published Napoléon et de Gaulle, deux héros français. On the occasion of the English translation Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History (2020), we have translated the interview he gave us back in February 2017 about his book and his approach to history.

Interview with Marie de Bruchard.

Patrice Gueniffey: Napoleon, de Gaulle, and the “Great Man” question (October 2020)

Marie de Bruchard: Your work sets two figures separated by a hundred years face-to-face: Napoleon, whom you you’ve studied in detail, and de Gaulle, France’s ‘great man’ of the 20th century. Where did the idea for this book come from, and why choose these two “French heroes”?

Patrice Gueniffey: This book is really a continuation of my book Bonaparte, even though not explicitly so. It returns, in a different form, to the question that I believe was central to the first volume of the biography I published: the question of the great man, the hero, the question of glory and the conception of history to which it bears witness. And whilst I have chosen to deal with these questions in the form of a parallel, that was not so as to become a successor to Plutarch, but rather because one of my great models remains Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991), which I consider a masterpiece.

From then on, the choice of characters was obvious. Unlike Hitler and Stalin, Napoleon and de Gaulle were not contemporaries, but they belong to the same history, that of post-Revolutionary France and, more more importantly, they reign unchallenged in the ranking of historical figures preferred by the French. Of course, this preference alone would not be enough to justify the parallel. But regardless of how different they may be and how different the times they lived in were, there is no lack of common points, a fact that also explains the favour they enjoy. Both have acquired the status of “saviour”, the first for having ended the Revolution and restored civil peace, the second for having twice restored the republic and, there too, put an end to or prevented a civil war. Furthermore, thanks to them, France onece again found its ‘lustre’ internationally, regained its reputation, and rediscovered its vocation of universality. To put it briefly, as a result of a power that combined authority, efficiency and a will to reform, they provided the answer to the very old French aspiration for a government that would transcend Franco-French divisions, that would get above and beyond political calculations, and that would apply itself to pursuing pragmatic and rational policies. Basically, they both, one after the other, and they alone, reincarnated a conception of power that had blossomed under the reign of Louis XIV, since he too, before the dark years of the end of the reign, had pacified the kingdom, ensured the international influence of France, politically and culturally, and embodied the ideal, so powerful afterwards, particularly in the Age of Enlightenment, of rational government, what was then called “enlightened despotism”. To varying degrees, Napoleon and de Gaulle were, after Louis XIV, the other two enlightened despots of our history, with the disadvantage of not having made their successors’ task any easier. Just as the glory of the Sun King threw shade over the reign of both Louis XV and Louis XVI, all the governments of the 19th century suffered from the remembrance of the Napoleonic epic which, regardless of the merits of those governements, made them seem smaller. And it is clear that, with the exception of François Mitterrand – at least superficially – none of the presidents of the Fifth Republic have succeeded in properly wearing the suit cut by de Gaulle for de Gaulle.

Marie de Bruchard: You consider their careers at specific points: their return to politics, their visions of history, their image of France, their relationship to writing, etc. This approach moves your book away from the classic chronological comparative biography. What were the advantages of this approach?

Patrice Gueniffey: Comparative biography lends itself better to contemporaneity than to chronological distance, especially when the latter involves radically different contexts. When I say that Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle both belong to the post-revolutionary history of France, it is true, and it is for this reason that the convergences I have just mentioned are possible. That being said, there is also value in emphasising everything that separates the early 1800s from the middle of the 20th century. France is not the same. I emphasise this in the book: France of the 1800s “carries” Napoleon, it pushes him, which gives him he energy and aggressiveness to burn, and from this point of view, Napoleon is representative of his time, and he is THE representative of his time even though he is the most unlikely of candidates for that job, because he feels no attachment to France or any debt to it. De Gaulle is the opposite: he is the very personification of French history and traditional French values, but the echo of that history and those values is nowhere to be heard. Far from being “carried” by France, he “carries” France, he strives to restore her to the “rank” below which, according to him, she is no longer France. A classic, comparative biography would therefore make little sense. It would be like two parallel lines that would cross only once, at the time of 18 Brumaire (November 1799) and 13 May 1958. This is the only time when the two stories fit into very comparable sequences. I therefore preferred to take the side paths that you have just mentioned, but which make it possible to deal, in depth I hope, with the points of a possible comparison, and to deduce from them what these two so different characters, and their two so different stories, say about France and its history. For their very singularity – their strangeness – is a mirror in which the singularity of France, that of “the incomparable nation”, as Mauriac used to say.

Marie de Bruchard: You intersperse your thoughts on the two men with personal anecdotes – such as a passage about Mr Lévy, your teacher – and with numerous book analyses. What was your thinking in this regard?

Patrice Gueniffey: I am not sure I can answer this question. I think that I thought of this book as an essay, and as a somewhat personal essay on my idea of history, on the changes that have taken place over the last few decades, and especially over the last few years. The fact of being outside the chronological framework has given me more freedom, and therefore the possibility to wander around a bit, even though history nevertheless remains the main subject of the book. I am convinced that the type of character embodied by Napoleon and de Gaulle is closely linked to French history, to the place that politics has in it, to the role that personal will plays in it, to the idea of progress, an idea that has been the guiding thread of our history since the time of the absolute monarchy. I have the feeling that I grew up in a world that was still the same, where the republic had succeeded the monarchy but had in a way continued it. It would be hard to say when all that changed. Some will blame it on May ’68, others will blame it on the 1973 oil crisis and its aftermath, others still prefer to insist on the consequences of the end of the Cold War, or even to date this real Copernican revolution that we are living through with economic globalisation or 11 September 2001. The fact remains that, at some point, we put to one side this representation of history (a philosophy of progress) and of the relationship between society and the state which had emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and which then spread, more or less, to the whole world, in very different forms, since you could say that Marxism and liberalism were its rival offspring. In this worldview, history occupied a central place, both as the cement holding the nation together and as the enabler of the possibility of deliberate and effective action on things. History has since been replaced by politics, which has led to the undivided reign of the economy. Historians cannot but be sensitive to this phenomenon. This book is an expression of this, albeit dealing with a particular aspect of the issue: the great man as a metaphor for political voluntarism. So I thought I could mix in some personal memories, particularly with regard to the very traditional teaching of history that I received from this school teacher that I never forgot. He is, moreover, the only one of them that has remained in my memory.

Marie de Bruchard: In your book, you keep going back to the profession of the historian and of the biographer and to the teaching of History. In your opinion, do people talk enough about these subjects and the issues at stake?

Patrice Gueniffey: Your question is linked to the previous one. Our era is desperately trying to escape history. When I say ‘our age’, I am being unfair. France should be blamed instead, because in no other country, even those with the most tragic history, is so much time spent denying the past and putting it on trial as in France. On this point, I am a disciple of Barrès: the history of each nation is a block, you just have to take it on board, you cannot arrange it out or draw up an inventory. History is tragic, always tragic. When you put history on trial you are basically showing the will no longer to be a nation, because a nation without history is an impossibility. As is a nation whose history would be entirely detestable and hated. Not to give history, our history, its rightful place, or to purify it, or to rewrite it in black and white, is to hate oneself. If there is a crisis in history today, it is the symptom, the expression, of a much deeper crisis, that of a society which, uncertain of its future, believes that by forgetting or repudiating its past it will give itself the possibility of starting an entirely new and entirely different history. The revolutionaries of 1789 believed in this possibility. They failed. No matter what one does, one does not uproot the past any more than one can erase where one comes from. It was, moreover, by rediscovering, through war, France’s long past, under Napoleon, that the Revolution managed to survive its political failure and dig such a deep furrow.

For more on the English version of this book

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