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From the NS archive: De Gaulle becomes awkward

1 December 1951: How Charles de Gaulle read the mood of France and dug in his heels.

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The stability of postwar Europe is usually depicted as resulting from solid Franco-German collaboration but, during the Cold War, there were significant stresses on the relationship. Europe was the buffer zone between the US and Russia, and the Americans wanted the continent to have a European Army, or at least strong national militaries, to counter the Soviet threat. France, however, was distracted by war in Indo-China, wary of a rearmed Germany and insulted by American pressure. In 1951 Alexander Werth laid out these problems in the magazine and showed how Charles de Gaulle had again read the mood of France and decided to dig in his heels.

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While the UN is stewing in its own juice in the Palais de Chaillot, even bigger things have been happening elsewhere. A serious crisis is threatening the whole fabric of the Atlantic Pact, at least as far as France is concerned. General de Gaulle has started a revolt against the French becoming “America’s subjects”.

The prelude was the visit of Dr Adenauer to Paris last week. At the press conference he gave he talked a lot about “integration”, about Germany’s role in the “defence of the Free World” and, above all, he pointed with great satisfaction to the reference in the Four-Power communique to Germany’s borders, which would have to be settled by “peaceful means”. The Germans clearly read into this an implied promise by the Western powers – or, at any rate, by the US – to bring pressure to bear on Russia and Poland to have the Oder-Neisse frontier “peacefully” revised. Interviewed by Newsweek a few days before, he suggested not only a revision of the Polish border, but also the establishment of a new regime in Poland – “an agreement”, he said, “with a free democratic Poland will have to be sought”. A “free democratic Poland” sounds good; but Adenauer obviously did not mean by that the Poland of today. And by what “peaceful” means is the change of regime in Poland to be effected?

In France, all this talk has made a deplorable impression. For one thing, it is felt, the effect must be to consolidate the Eastern Bloc beyond Moscow’s brightest hopes. France, which knew a “mild” but still sufficiently murderous German occupation, realises how much worse the German occupation was in Poland; and the idea of Adenauer now posing as a sort of “liberator” of Poland is, to say the least, distasteful. It is significant that the most widely read paper in France, France Soir, should have gone out of its way to remind the French public of the “other” Germany by publishing, in a long serial, a horrible account of the extermination of the village of Oradour by the SS. Also, more and more accounts are appearing in the French press of the rapid revival in Germany of a Nazi and militarist spirit.

The French revolt against the revival of a militarist Germany goes, in fact, all the way from the Communists to the Gaullists. Speaking before the Senate, shortly before leaving for the Rome meeting of the Atlantic Council, M Schuman had to agree not to make any far-reaching commitments in Rome concerning the rearmament of Germany. “Germany’s contribution to European defence,” he said, “must be the object of a preliminary study in Rome. But there can be no question of Germany taking part in the defence of the West in the form of a German national army, complete with a German GHQ.” He also assured the Senate that France would sign no protocol or treaty concerning the European Army without the approval of parliament, and would not even enter into any “moral commitments”.

But there are a few points to consider. The American press has been full of stories of the inadequacy of the French rearmament effort. It is quite true that, starting almost from scratch in 1945, France has failed to build up a coherent or large or well-equipped army. There are said to be, in Europe, five fully equipped front-line French divisions, and two or three others, only partly equipped. All kinds of explanations have been produced on the French side for the delay in producing the “ten fully equipped divisions by the end of 1951”. One is that, with American financial aid coming in fits and starts, long-term planning is singularly difficult. Secondly, the whole organisation of a French army in Europe is seriously handicapped by the war in Indo-China. Something like £2,200 million has been spent on the French armed forces since 1947, not counting US deliveries in kind; but the war in Indo-China has cost France more than all the American help – not merely in terms of money but, above all, in terms of French military efficiency in Europe. A large part of the French army in Europe is both under staffed and under-equipped.

The question has, of course, arisen whether France should have converted her peace industries – notably her automobile industry – more rapidly to war production than she has done; all kinds of wild accusations have been made against France on this score, without due regard for the argument that there can be serious objections to “freezing” industries that hold an important place in France’s export trade. Moreover, American deliveries have been very irregular; the Korean War has delayed the delivery of aircraft; and some of the other equipment sent is obsolete. Apart from her five crack divisions, France’s army in Europe today does not cut a good figure, and her officers are so badly underpaid that the lustre of a military career is far from bright. In case of war, she could mobilise about a million men – but only a small proportion would constitute a truly modern army. As long as the war in Indo-China lasts, even massive American shipments will not create a French army overnight. And, in France itself, there is much obvious resistance to increasing military expenditure still further.

The United States, as is apparent from Rome messages today, is extremely dissatisfied with the state of the French army, and is in a desperate hurry to have a big army set up in Europe. And who but the Germans, with their innumerable ex-officers and technicians, can provide it? The Monde correspondent in Rome sends the somewhat sinister report that if the “European Powers can’t agree among themselves” about the European army (meaning that if France is not willing to agree to large-scale German rearmament under the “European Army” label), the United States may more or less abandon Europe altogether, and concentrate on “peripheral defence” from air bases in Britain, North Africa, Turkey and, perhaps, Spain.

De Gaulle has been quick to size up French public sentiment about the whole matter, and is clearly going to make great political capital out of it. At the Nancy Congress of the RPF, he completely rejected the conception of the European Army, which he described as a hybrid monstrosity, incompatible with the French national character and not constituting any guarantee whatsoever against the revival of the Wehrmacht. He insisted on France having a national army, he protested against American bases being established in the present manner both in France and North Africa, and against the French army being put under the command of American generals. France was not going to be kicked around like a satellite. In North Africa the Americans were behaving as though the place belonged to them. He was not against German rearmament, but wanted Paris and Bonn to negotiate directly, the two armies – the German one being strictly limited – complementing each other, but not being merged into one.

“The fact that the Americans give us arms is no reason why we should become their subjects. Instead of gradually slipping into their pockets, let us, as a sovereign nation, put the Atlantic Pact on a proper contractual basis, on which everybody’s duties will be clearly defined. France’s chief strategic responsibility in this common defence will be for Continental Europe and the Western Mediterranean.”

Prominent Gaullists with whom I have spoken express real anxiety over the “crusading” spirit now developing in the US. Perhaps the “anti-Americanism” of de Gaulle should not be taken too literally; but his latest pronouncements, without actually offering much of a solution to the technical problem of creating a large French army, are a reflection of the almost universal French horror of a “crusade”, and of “free” or American-managed German rearmament, and an echo of the extreme scepticism about the virtues of the “European Army” which, it is felt, would sooner or later be dominated by the Germans.

On the parliamentary plane, de Gaulle’s speech has already had some very serious repercussions, and has brought the prospect of a coalition headed by de Gaulle much nearer. Whether many of the things he said – notably about American bases – are pure demagogy or not, they have met with a favourable response even from the most unexpected quarters.  

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)