In June 1944, more than two million Allied troops landed in France. By August, Paris was liberated. “It had been four long years in the desert, a darkness endured into a bright dawn,” writes Ryan Holiday in Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave.
1: “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” proclaimed General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the French resistance. Yesterday, we looked at how France’s leaders had capitulated to Hitler in 1940 rather than fight. Yet, Charles stood firm. He escaped France and flew to London, where he got to work building the French resistance. Four years later, all of his efforts had paid off. Paris was once again free.
And yet, at this moment of triumph, the battle was far from over. “Firing started all over the place,” Robert Reid announced breathlessly for the BBC. “General de Gaulle was trying to control the crowds rushing into the cathedral. He walked straight ahead into what appeared to me to be a hail of fire. . . . But he went straight ahead without hesitation, his shoulders flung back, and walked right down the center aisle, even while the bullets were pouring about him.
“It was the most extraordinary example of courage I have ever seen. . . . There were bangs, flashes all about him, yet he seemed to have an absolutely charmed life,” Robert reported.
What did Charles do next? He “headed down the Champs-Élysées for a parade with more than a million of his French compatriots,” writes Ryan. “Gunshots cracked. Explosions sounded. But de Gaulle shrugged it all off.”
2: Ryan explains there were two elements to courage: physical and moral: “We cannot discount the physical element. De Gaulle was tried in absentia by the Vichy regime and sentenced to death. In the last war, he had been wounded multiple times (including by bayonet), he had been a prisoner of war, and he had attempted to escape, relentlessly, fearlessly, at grave risk,” Ryan writes.
“In the decades to come, de Gaulle and his wife were the victims of thirty serious assassination attempts,” Ryan notes. “After one, their car riddled with machine-gun fire, the windows shattered, all the tires blown out, Yvonne emerged, unscathed, and calmly inquired about the groceries she’d recently put in the trunk. De Gaulle mocked his assasins’ aim, saying, ‘These people shoot like pigs.’ This was a family that mastered fear, transcended even.”
Charles also demonstrated moral courage. “That’s what de Gaulle realized about Hitler,” Ryan writes. “That his force was entirely dependent on the ‘cowardice of others.’ No one was willing to call the bully a bully. No one in Germany was willing to see that the emperor had no clothes, and was in fact a raving, murderous lunatic. They definitely weren’t willing to say so. Because no one said anything, no one did anything except tell Hitler what he wanted to hear. And so they all became complicit.”
Moral courage has consequences. “It would hurt your job. People won’t like you. It wouldn’t make that much of a difference. It will set your work back. Nobody wants to hear it. You don’t want to get on their bad side,” writes Ryan.
“Okay, bootlicker. Look, it’s one thing to be intimidated. It’s another to debase yourself.”
Not Charles De Gaulle.
And, “it is essential that we understand that courage is more than just the stand,” Ryan observes. “It’s more than just the choice of Hercules, between the easy road and the hard one. One then has to walk that hard road.
“It was a long journey from those desperate days after the fall of France. There were radio broadcasts, a state built in exile. De Gaulle had to slowly, steadily regain control of the far-flung governments of France’s empire. He had to raise money, find generals, outmaneuver political enemies, wage a public relations battle. He had to consult with the Allies on their strategy, and when he was not consulted, he would bang his fists and shout and raise such a stink that they were forced to bring him back to the table. He had to stand down snipers even as he stood celebrating the liberation.”
Charles himself observed: “What everyone seems to ignore, is the incredible mixture of patience, of slow development, of obstinate creativity, of trick questions, the dizzying succession of calculation, negotiations, conflicts, trips that we had to carry out to accomplish our enterprise.”
These characteristics, each of which represents a different quality of courage, transformed France from Hitler’s punching bag back into a world power. “France still exists—that’s what de Gaulle insisted,” notes Ryan. “That’s what his bravery helped prove,” Ryan suggests. “He spoke so earnestly of France’s greatness that his words became true.”
3: Which is not to say Charles was without his faults.
“Was de Gaulle at times egotistical? Did he make mistakes? Did he make enemies? Was he divisive and polarizing? Absolutely,” writes Ryan. “He drove Churchill mad. He was regarded with suspicion by Roosevelt. Later, as president of the France he saved, he was maddening to all sorts of people and groups, from the United Nations, to both sides of the Algerian conflict, to all of Canada after his infamous “Vive le Québec libre!” speech, to U.S. president after U.S. president—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson.
“There’s no question that de Gaulle was difficult to work with, difficult to control, and impossible to intimidate. Why do you think so many people tried to kill him? But this independence, this fearlessness was the key to his greatness—as it is the key to most greatness.”
What makes us bad makes us good. And vice versa.
De Gaulle “made no promises—only demands. It was your duty to resist, he said. We are being called by a higher power, to a higher cause. We must free ourselves,” Ryan writes. “In the end, some four hundred thousand French men and women joined this resistance, blowing up bridges, gathering intelligence, sabotaging their occupiers, saving people from camps, picking off the enemy one by one, weakening them in advance of the Allied invasion.”
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.