1: On June 14th, Hitler’s Nazi troops marched into Paris. As France fell to Germany, “it was overrun not just by tanks but by the fear of its own leaders who quietly and quickly negotiated a surrender with the worst aggressor in modern history,” writes Ryan Holiday in Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave.
While France was surrendering, French General Charles De Gaulle boarded a small plane to England. He “was not France’s elected leader. He had no royal blood. He was not even its highest-ranking general,” Ryan notes. “Recently promoted to brigadier general and undersecretary of defense, he had been the only one urging the prime minister that France must fight its way back from the abyss.
“He commanded no armies, possessed almost no money, had no plan, had no authority to create one.”
Upon his arrival in London, Charles spoke over the radio to his countrymen in German-occupied France: “I tell you nothing is lost for France. . . The same means that conquered us can one day bring us victory. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone!”
Since we now know that Charles and the French resistance would ultimately prevail, we might assume France was united in its opposition to the Nazis.
Not so. “People were afraid,” writes Ryan. “They made excuses. They looked at the odds and told themselves it was hopeless. They were willing—shockingly so, in fact—to accept Hitler’s bridle and yoke themselves to the Nazi cause if it meant that normal life could quickly resume. French labor was used to power the German war machine. Countless French Jews were sent off to die.”
One of the primary audiences for Charles’ speech was the thousands of French soldiers who had been evacuated by the British. “He was calling them to fight with him, to fight for their country,” Ryan notes. “Instead, the vast majority of them asked to be repatriated home, to the Vichy Republic established by the Nazis.”
The situation was grim. Even General Philippe Pétain—France’s great hero in World War I—actively collaborated with the Germans and used his reputation to legitimize the Nazi cause.
“What was the point of fighting on? Who could stop Hitler’s inexorable march?” Ryan asks.
2: Yet, the cowardice of others creates opportunities for the hero. “Some people run away. Some people stand up. It’s that simple,” writes Ryan.
Charles himself wrote before World War II: “When events become grave, and peril pressing, a sort of tidal wave pushes men of character into the front rank.”
“Now the events for him were grave and pressing,” writes Ryan. “He was ready to answer the call. More, he was putting out the call to anyone and everyone who was willing to join him.”
This is what courage looks like. It has been said that “one man with courage makes a majority,” writes Ryan. “And so it went with de Gaulle.”
Later in life, Charles was asked: “In every fundamental thing you have done, weren’t you always a minority?”
“I was in a minority, I agree,” de Gaulle replied. But: “I knew that, sooner or later, I should cease to be so.”
Charles believed in France. He believed France could be saved.
“Napoleon, perhaps the only other French hero whose accomplishments don’t pale in comparison to de Gaulle’s, famously said that ‘nothing is lost while courage remains,'” Ryan writes. “De Gaulle had the courage to call for the ball—to accept the burden of leadership on his shoulders, to resist the pull of hopelessness and choose instead, with animal-like ferocity, the path of a fighter, of someone who would not be broken.”
3: The powerful thing about courage? “Just like fear, it is contagious,” Ryan writes. “It was de Gaulle’s commitment, his undauntedness, that rallied not just France but the whole world behind him. As René Pleven, one of the first French politicians to join de Gaulle’s cause, wrote to his own wife, ‘I assure you that when one sees all those who have run away one feels proud facing the danger.’ A British report explained, ‘General de Gaulle symbolizes that France did not despair, which did not give in. He acted alone.'”
Actually, when we act with courage, we are never alone.
“Churchill called de Gaulle l’homme du destin—the man of destiny. When we follow our destiny, when we seize what is meant to be ours, we are never alone. We are walking alongside Hercules. We are following in the footsteps of the greats. We are guided by God, by the gods, by a guiding spirit, the same one that guided de Gaulle and Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Charlemagne, and every other great man and woman of history,” Ryan writes.
“And we must know that if we fight hard and long enough, we will find everyone is with us.”
In the early 1940s, just as now, belief in the great person in history theory was low. “Could one person really change the world? Can we really make a difference?” Ryan asks.
Charles de Gaulle tells us the answer is yes.
Reflection: What do I find most inspiring about Charles de Gaulle’s courage? Think back on a time in my life when I demonstrated real courage. How did it feel?
Action: Share this story with my spouse or a friend or colleague.