General de Gaulle’s anger in Toulouse against Colonel Starr had really been an explosion of resentment against the Allied leadership. His obstinacy and readiness to take offence had not been eased with the triumph of the Liberation. The French en masse had acclaimed him as their leader, yet the Allies continued to delay formal recognition of the provisional government. At Roosevelt’s insistence (and almost certainly on the advice of Admiral Leahy, his former ambassador to Vichy), this delay extended for nearly two months after the Liberation of Paris. The fact that the ambassadors of the ‘Big Three’ were already in place only irritated de Gaulle more.
The British ambassador, Duff Cooper, whomde Gaulle already knew from Algiers, landed at Le Bourget airport in a Dakota on 13 September, having been escorted across the Channel by no fewer than forty-eight Spitfires. A police motorcycle escort swept his motorcade to the Arc de Triomphe, where he laid a wreath on the grave of the unknown soldier. He then joined the advance party of his staff in the Berkeley Hotel. The British Embassy, Pauline Borghese’s palace in honey-coloured stone on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, was undamaged; but there was no water or electricity, and its reception rooms were still piled with the furniture of families who had fled Paris in June 1940.
Next morning, Duff Cooper went to see Bidault at the Quai d’Orsay, and recorded their meeting in his diary: ‘He seemed curiously young and somewhat overcome by his responsibilities, admitting himself that he knew nothing, and had had no experience. On the whole I liked him, but whether he will prove a big enough man for the job I am inclined to doubt.’
It was not long before Duff Cooper found himself in a position he knew well from Algiers: being ground between the millstones of Churchill and de Gaulle. One of the first messages from the Foreign Office warned that Churchill wanted to pay a visit in about three weeks. Back went the reply that the Prime Minister must not think of coming until he had recognized de Gaulle’s government and received a proper invitation from the General himself. Churchill still saw France as part of the Allied war zone and not as a sovereign country.
The United States government was equally tactless. Duff Cooper was told privately by the Quai d’Orsay that the Americans had nominated an ambassador to France without even asking for the provisional government’s agreement and that Bidault was deeply offended.
Until Roosevelt was prepared to recognize his government officially, de Gaulle would not see either the American ambassador, Jefferson Caffery, or Duff Cooper, even though his own ambassador in London, René Massigli, had been received by the King and had been to stay in the country with Churchill. De Gaulle was holding up the process of recognition by refusing to agree to a temporary division of France between a war zone, which came under the authority of SHAEF, and a zone of the interior.
Eventually, after a last-minute flurry of confusion, the final barriers were removed and at five o’clock in the afternoon of Monday, 23 October, the United States, Great Britain, Russia and Canada simultaneously recognized the provisional government. ‘At last!’ noted the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, exasperated that Admiral Leahy, the elderly bachelor ambassador to Vichy who had so influenced Roosevelt against de Gaulle, had managed to hold things up for so long. ‘What a fuss about nothing! Due to that spiteful old great-aunt Leahy. Hope he’s feeling pretty sick!’
That evening, Duff and Lady Diana Cooper were invited to dine with the General. The Coopers took Beatrice Eden, the wife of the Foreign Secretary, with them. Other guests at the General’s residence in the Bois de Boulogne included Bidault, General Juin, François Mauriac and Gaston Palewski. The atmosphere remained resolutely gloomy, with very little conversation. De Gaulle refused to reply when Duff Cooper mentioned the recognition of the provisional government; and when the ambassador persisted, saying that he hoped the General was glad the whole process was over, de Gaulle shrugged and said that it would never be over. Duff Cooper sat next to Madame de Gaulle, who never took her eyes off her husband and said nothing the whole evening.
This ‘extremely frigid and dreary party, worse even than his entertainments usually are… should have been a gala evening,’ wrote Duff Cooper in his diary, ‘but gala is not a word included in the vocabulary of General de Gaulle’. On their way home in the car afterwards, Beatrice Eden observed that usually the things that one dreaded were not as bad as one expected, but this had proved far worse. When Duff saw Massigli in London a few days later and described the evening, his counterpart roared with laughter. As they both knew well from experience, de Gaulle was at his most churlish when nursing his wounded pride. It also did not help that he clearly believed small talk to be a vice. Perhaps the key to this, as a senior member of the Quai d’Orsay pointed out to Duff, was his excessive shyness.
De Gaulle was forced to take some part in social life, but it was alien to his nature. Diana Cooper had already found in Algiers that dinner conversation with the General ‘flowed like glue’. She and Duff Cooper called him Charlie Wormwood – as in wormwood and gall. De Gaulle’s household was famously austere, and embassy wives dreaded the experience of having tea with Yvonne de Gaulle, who had even less small talk than her husband. ‘Tante Yvonne’ was notoriously strict. Just the thought of meeting a divorced woman was said to give her a migraine.
The American ambassador, Jefferson Caffery, who arrived on 12 October, was not helped by the ‘discouraging’ accounts circulated by other Americans about him. Caffery was not a born diplomat and often looked ill at ease. He was always extremely well dressed, though he walked stiffly, with the aid of a cane. At times he was almost inarticulate due to a speech impediment, at others forthright and brusque, yet when relaxed he could be excellent company. Courageous and generous, he was a discreet homosexual; although his lover, one of his own staff in the embassy, was slightly less careful to preserve the secrecy of their relationship. His wife, Gertrude, was older than her husband and could be very protocolaire, but at heart she was kind. She clearly did not enjoy entertaining any more than her husband, but made a determined effort. Their absence at diplomatic receptions was frequently noticed.
Although Caffery had little experience of France, several members of his staff made up for this deficiency. His political counsellor, Douglas MacArthur II (nephew of the general and son-in-law of a former vice-president), had been in the Paris embassy before the war and then on Admiral Leahy’s staff at Vichy. Ridgway Knight, who had been one of Robert Murphy’s vice-consuls in North Africa, proved one of the best-informed members of the embassy, thanks to his contacts; he had been brought up in France and was completely bilingual. On the intelligence side, there was Charles Gray, a rich polo-player and man-about-town who had lived in Paris before the war, and Captain David Rockefeller, who held the official position of assistant military attaché, that internationally recognized fig leaf for intelligence work.
The relaxed and charming Gray, who was a member of both the Travellers’ and the Jockey Club, had little in common with his ambassador. One day in the Travellers’ after lunch, Gray looked up from the backgammon board to find two members of the Jockey Club in white gloves, standing to attention. They had come to deliver a challenge to a duel on behalf of a friend who felt that Gray had insulted him. Monsieur Gray had the choice of weapons. Would he please communicate his answer later?
News of the challenge spread so rapidly that Charlie Gray found, on his return to the embassy, a message summoning him to the ambassador’s office. Caffery told him in the severest terms that any member of his staff involved in a duel would have to resign on the spot. Gray was despondent. He loved his job, but if he declined to fight he would never again be able to hold up his head in Parisian society. The solution came to him just in time. He wrote a note accepting the challenge and informed the seconds that his choice of weapon was tanks – at any range they cared to select.
The diplomatic corps reassembling in Paris, perhaps inevitably for such a place and such a time, seemed to divide automatically between hedonists and puritans. The Canadian ambassador, General Georges Vanier, was an incorruptible Catholic. He at first stayed in the Ritz while the embassy was made ready, but, according to his military attaché, he ‘left in disgust, as it appeared to be full of war profiteers drinking champagne by the bucket’. Vanier also refused to have his office heated, as the French had no fuel for their homes, so he sat at his desk in his army greatcoat.
The Papal Nuncio, Mgr Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was not a soldier-monk like Vanier. The food and wine at his little lunch parties were always good, but these gatherings were very discreet. He explained to Jacques Dumaine, the chef de protocole at the Quai d’Orsay, that he thought it wise to keep a low profile, though Georges Bidault and other Catholic ministers made de Gaulle’s government much less hostile to the Church than many in the past.
The Swiss ambassador, Carl Burckhardt, had been League of Nations commissioner in Danzig, then president of the International Red Cross during the war. His legation was the Hôtel de l’Abbé de Pompadour, at 142 rue de Grenelle. It had come into Swiss hands in the late eighteenth century, having belonged to Besenval, the captain of Louis XVI’s Swiss Guard and an entertaining diarist of court life.
Burckhardt, the humanist historian, was a worthy, albeit more serious, successor to Besenval. Tall and good-looking, his conversation could be highly intellectual – ‘I’m always in an agony of not understanding,’ wrote Diana Cooper, with whomhe had had an affair in the late 1930s. The Coopers and the Burckhardts remained firm friends; and he regaled her with all the wild stories which circulated about her and the British Embassy.
The British Embassy was decidedly unaustere, not so much with luxury, although the food and drink were always good, but in a refusal to take petty moral stands. As far as Duff Cooper was concerned, what was past was past. He would not invite any notorious collaborators – guest lists were privately checked with Gaston Palewski – but he had no time for poisonous and often ill-informed whispering campaigns. Writers of the Resistance such as Vercors, author of Le Silence de la mer, and the Communist Paul Éluard did not object to lunching with Cocteau and Louise de Vilmorin, who were much criticized after the Liberation. Even bitter political enemies accepted the advantage of meeting on neutral ground. The Communist poet Louis Aragon did not walk out on finding an increasingly right-wing André Malraux present.
Diana Cooper had a way of mixing guests recklessly and getting away with it. On one occasion she threw Daisy Fellowes and the Marchioness of Bath, two of the most mondaine women imaginable, into a lunch party for Tito’s ambassador and Marcel Cachin, the doyen of the French Communist Party. The fact that Daisy Fellowes, who had long been regarded as the most beautifully dressed woman in the world, sat opposite Madame Cachin, who was ‘looking like an old concierge’, caused no unease on either side. Madame Cachin, who ‘proved to be highly cultured with a great knowledge of art’, was a pronounced success.
The Russian Embassy in the rue de Grenelle had been a beautiful building until iron doors with peepholes and every other security device imaginable had been bolted on to it. Receptions took place in gilded rooms ablaze with powerful electric light and, in the place of a string orchestra, a wireless blared from the sideboard. It was a suitable setting for Stalin’s representative, Sergei Bogomolov, the most hedonistic ambassador of all – if measured by alcohol consumption.
One evening, after the ambassadors of the Big Three had presented joint notes at the Quai d’Orsay, Bogomolov asked Caffery and Duff Cooper back to the Russian Embassy. ‘There were two tables,’ Duff Cooper recorded in his diary, ‘one for the three Ambassadors, and another for the three secretaries, Eric [Duncannon, later Earl of Bessborough], MacArthur and Ratiani.’ Dishes with slices of sturgeon, pots of caviare, eggs and sardines were placed in the middle of the table, to help the drinking. Bogomolov began by proposing some fifteen toasts, all being drunk in vodka. The other two ambassadors were expected to follow suit.
The first to succumb was Bogomolov’s own secretary, Ratiani, who was sick on the floor. It was not long before the other diplomats present had to be helped to their cars. Neither Caffery nor even Bogomolov himself was seen until the late afternoon of the following day. Both Duff Cooper and MacArthur were really ill and had to stay in bed for several days.
On another occasion, a dîner à quatre, Madame Bogomolov fortunately put a stop to ‘the vodka struggle’ when her husband began to propose more and more ‘ingenious toasts so that one seemed ungallant or unpatriotic and ungrateful or churlish to refuse’. She even reproved him for interrupting their guests, but that did little good. While Stalin’s representative ‘issued a monologue of statistics – how many women had matriculated in each Soviet republic – and boasted of Soviet scientists and astronomers’, Madame Bogomolov confided to Lady Diana Cooper that she had not seen a bar of soap for weeks. The Soviet soap crisis was rectified by messenger the next day with several tablets as a thank-you present.
The 7 November celebration of the Russian Revolution proved neither very proletarian nor egalitarian. ‘The traffic in the rue de Grenelle was completely out of control,’ Duff Cooper observed. ‘It took about half an hour to approach the house. All the members of the Embassy were in their smart uniforms, and Madame Bogomolov was in full evening dress. There were lights everywhere and cinema operators. Everybody was photographed as they went in and again upstairs while shaking hands with the Ambassador and the Ambassadress. I was conducted by a junior member of the staff to a special room set apart for the more privileged guests, where there was any amount of vodka and caviare, the others being allowed only inferior sandwiches and hardly any drink.’ For Duff Cooper, however, the evening, when he did manage to fight his way out through the crush in the outer room, proved to be memorable in other ways: it was the night he fell in love with the writer Louise de Vilmorin.
While Duff Cooper had diversions whenever de Gaulle proved particularly intractable or rude, Georges Bidault bore the brunt of his unpredictable head of government. De Gaulle, who seldom consulted his Foreign Minister or even kept him informed of his privatedémarches, made policy ‘uneasy to conduct or even formulate’.
Over the next fifteen months, Bidault was constantly apologizing in private to the British and American ambassadors for de Gaulle’s provocations. They had much sympathy for his difficult position. Caffery reported a series of Bidault’s complaints against de Gaulle, and remarked that the Foreign Minister had added ‘that there is absolutely no one else in sight and that it must be admitted that de Gaulle loves France, even if he doesn’t like Frenchmen’.
Under the strain, Bidault began drinking too much – in diplomatic circles, he soon acquired the nickname of ‘In Bido Veritas’ – and in November, de Gaulle nearly refused to take him on an important mission abroad.
Bidault’s life was not made easier by the distinctive and unusually slow character of the French diplomatic service. The Quai d’Orsay had still not caught up with the change in the balance of world power. While three diplomatic bags a week went to London, only three a month went to Washington. French diplomats were also noticeably out of touch with what was going on in their own country. But nobody could dispute their erudition. It was a service in which the elegant composition of a report seemed to be of far more concern than its contents.
François Mauriac feared later that the literary constellation of ‘Claudel, Alexis Léger, Giraudoux and Morand has created a kind of cerebral cramp, with the result that after them the diplomatic machine has suffered from intellectual anaemia, to be cured only by blood transfusions from the École Normale Supérieure’.
After the Liberation, key administrative posts were given to the handful of career diplomats of outstanding talent who had not served Pétain, such as Hervé Alphand. The junior ranks were purged and repopulated with those who had a good war record, like the novelist Romain Gary, who had been a Free French aviator.
Foreign ambassadors were much encumbered by the social round. Official and semi-official lunches took up most of the middle of the day, since they could run to seven or eight courses, even at a time of desperate shortage. At one interminable meal Duff Cooper agreed with his neighbour, Jean Monnet, who ‘was most indignant about the length of the menu, and said that it was feasts like this that gave people passing through Paris such an entirely false idea of the true position’.
In the autumn of 1944, the visitor who preoccupied Duff Cooper most was Winston Churchill. Once again, he was horrified to hear that the Prime Minister proposed to arrive in Paris without a word to de Gaulle beforehand. He even had to beg Churchill not to visit General Eisenhower at SHAEF, because without an invitation from the provisional government his arrival on French soil would be taken as yet another insult. Finally, with the help of Massigli and Bidault, de Gaulle was persuaded to accept a visit from the British Prime Minister on 10 November, so that Churchill would be in Paris for the First World War commemoration of 11 November.
Churchill arrived in fine form at Le Bourget, where he was met by the Communist Minister for Air, Charles Tillon, and then taken to the apartments reserved for state guests at the Quai d’Orsay. The British Prime Minister was thrilled to find that he had a gold bath, while Anthony Eden’s was only silver.
Churchill’s presence in Paris had been kept secret, but news spread with astonishing rapidity on the morning of Armistice Day as he drove in an open car from the Quai d’Orsay to meet de Gaulle. Churchill was well buttoned up against the cold in RAF greatcoat, and beaming from under the uniform cap. After the two leaders left the rue Saint-Dominique for the Arc de Triomphe, ‘the reception had to be seen to be believed’, Duff Cooper wrote in his diary. ‘It was greater than anything I had ever known. There were crowds in every window, even in the top floors of the highest houses and on the roofs, and the cheering was the loudest, the most spontaneous and the most genuine.’
As Churchill and de Gaulle laid wreaths on the grave of the unknown soldier, members of their entourage glanced up at the umbrella of Spitfires circling over Paris to guard against any marauding German fighters. The crowds were more than ten deep when the two men began their walk down the Champs-Élysées to the dais from where they would take the salute. They all chanted: ‘Vive Churchill! Vive de Gaulle!’ De Gaulle raised both arms, Churchill made the V-sign, unleashing further roars of approval. They presented ‘a curious pair,’ observed Malcolm Muggeridge, ‘the one so rotund and merry, the other so tall and grave; like Mr Pickwick and Don Quixote’.
The march-past was led by General Koenig, with a band from the Brigade of Guards playing ‘The British Grenadiers’. There were also kilted Canadian pipers, goums from the Atlas mountains, a detachment from the Royal Navy and the Garde Républicaine in their cuirassier uniforms on black chargers.
Almost as important as the public enthusiasm was the relaxation of tensions between the two leaders. Both de Gaulle and Churchill were ‘in the happiest of humours’. After a lunch for sixty people at the rue Saint-Dominique, they went upstairs for discussions. De Gaulle, Palewski, Massigli, and Coulet and Chauvel from the Quai d’Orsay sat on one side of the table, facing Churchill, Eden, Duff Cooper and Alec Cadogan of the Foreign Office on the other. The conversation lasted ‘for about two hours – Winston talking most of the time in his uninhibited and fairly intelligible French. He speaks remarkably well, but understands very little. There was not an unpleasant word said, although nearly every subject, including Syria, was covered.’ Yet despite moments of real warmth – almost affection of the sort an estranged couple shows in the relief of making things up – de Gaulle was about to make advances in a different direction.
Three days before Churchill arrived in Paris, de Gaulle had told Bogomolov that he would like to visit the Soviet Union to discuss relations with Marshal Stalin. De Gaulle knew that the Americans and the British would soon be discussing a post-war settlement with the Russians and he did not want France to be left out.*
On 24 November 1944, the day after General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division entered Strasbourg amid scenes like those in Paris the previous August, Charles de Gaulle took off by plane for Moscow. His party included Gaston Palewski, Georges Bidault and General Juin, together with a number of senior officials from the Quai d’Orsay.
Their slow progress along North Africa and across the Middle East to Baku represented its own form of humiliation. The head of government’s obsolete two-engine aircraft broke down with embarrassing frequency. De Gaulle’s party left their aircraft in Baku, mainly because of the bad weather. Allotted the old-fashioned train of the tsarist commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, they then embarked on an even slower journey north across the steppes to Moscow. They were banqueted at every stop amid appalling misery and war damage. In the ruins of Stalingrad the Russians were still digging corpses out of the frozen ground two years after the battle. One day, in the compartment of the train, after glancing out at the endless winter landscape, de Gaulle observed drily that the journey was taking so long that he hoped there would not be a revolution in his absence.
Descriptions of Stalin at this time focus on his sloping rectangular forehead, his pale complexion and large, slanted, gleaming eyes. The way his skin was stretched tightly over his cheeks when he smiled increased the impression of a mask. De Gaulle summed him up memorably as a ‘Communist dressed up as a field marshal, a dictator ensconced in his scheming, a conqueror with an air of bonhomie’.
The main banquet in the Kremlin, with its conspicuous display of luxury, was not a cheerful occasion. There were some forty Russian officials, the French delegation, the British chargé d’affaires and Averell Harriman, the American ambassador. Stalin proposed endless toasts, first of all complimentary ones to his guests, followed by some thirty more to his Russian subordinates – Molotov, Beria, Bulganin, Voroshilov and on down the hierarchy.
Each time he raised his glass at the end of his little speech, he said, ‘Come!’, and the designated recipient of the honour had to hurry round the table to clink his glass with Stalin’s. The rest of the company sat in frozen silence. The Marshal’s voice was disconcertingly soft as he raised his glass to the chief of the Soviet air staff, then threatened him in a brutal display of hangman’s humour.
At one point that evening, Stalin turned to Gaston Palewski and said with a malicious smirk, no doubt because the French delegation had ducked the question of recognizing his puppet government for Poland: ‘One never ceases to be Polish, Monsieur Palewski.’
One of the main objectives of de Gaulle’s journey was to revive the traditional Franco-Russian alliance against Germany – his sense of history never let himforget that Russia had saved France in 1914 – but equally important, he wanted an alliance with Stalin as a counterbalance to Roosevelt and Churchill. He also needed to make sure that the French Communist Party behaved itself.
De Gaulle’s sense of injustice at the hands of Roosevelt and Churchill should not be underestimated. His outrage at the lack of consultation had been so intense in 1942 that he had even considered breaking off all relations with them. In London, he had requested the ubiquitous ambassador, Bogomolov, to discover the conditions that Stalin might impose in return for recognizing the Free French. In early 1943, a Free French fighter group went to Russia to fly in support of the Red Army, and distinguished itself as the ‘Normandie-Niemen’ regiment. A number of its aviators, although Gaullists rather than Communists, were made Heroes of the Soviet Union.
De Gaulle clearly had far fewer illusions about Stalin than did Churchill and Anthony Eden, who showed an astonishing readiness to believe in his good faith. Yet from the beginning, de Gaulle had shown a restraint towards the Soviet Union which he had seldom demonstrated towards his Anglo-Saxon allies. He had never openly criticized Stalin, the French Communists or even the Nazi–Soviet pact. De Gaulle had a good reason for keeping quiet on this last point.
Stalin despised the French. The fall of France in 1940 had undermined the major purpose of his pact with Hitler. He had hoped for a prolonged war of attrition in the west between Nazi Germany and the capitalist democracies. But Marshal Pétain’s armistice had allowed Hitler to turn on the Soviet Union with undiminished strength and increased mobility, thanks to the mass of French army transport captured. One of the German army divisions which reached Stalingrad had started the invasion of the Soviet Union almost entirely equipped with French motor transport. At the Teheran conference in 1943 Stalin declared: ‘France must pay for her criminal collaboration with Germany.’
Stalin was much more suspicious of the Americans and the British. Eisenhower’s deal with Admiral Darlan in 1942 so convinced him that the British and the Americans would come to some sort of compromise with Germany that Roosevelt and Churchill were forced to reassure him with a declaration that they would accept only unconditional surrender. Stalin still did not believe them. De Gaulle’s view, on the other hand, that Germany should be split into tiny states and deprived of its industrial capacity, showed no sign of wavering. He thus offered the only thing of possible interest to Stalin: a wild card within the Western alliance.
Stalin eventually got round to the subject of Maurice Thorez, who had just returned to France. The Soviet dictator must have appreciated the subtlety of de Gaulle’s move to create an invisible link between Thorez’s return and the disbandment of the Patriotic Militias. But de Gaulle did not hide his irritation when Stalin tactlessly brought up the subject of Thorez directly. ‘Don’t take my indiscretion amiss,’ he told de Gaulle in a confidential tone. ‘I want only to say that I know Thorez and that, in my opinion, he’s a good Frenchman. If I were in your place, I wouldn’t put him in prison.’ Then Stalin’s eyes narrowed in one of his smiles. ‘At least not straight away!’
‘The French government,’ replied de Gaulle haughtily, ‘treats its citizens according to what it expects of them.’
Thirty-six hours before Thorez had left for Paris, Stalin had summoned him to the Kremlin for only the second audience granted to the leader of the French Communist Party in five years. His parting advice, after warning Thorez against de Gaulle’s reactionary and dictatorial nature, was to remind him that the overriding priority in France must be national unity to bring about the downfall of Hitler. The underlying message was clear. And Thorez, totally subservient, did not miss it.
Stalin was not simply afraid of the United States cutting off supplies to him if the French Communists caused trouble. A Communist revolution in their rear might also give the Americans an excuse for making a separate peace with the German general staff, or even – the worst nightmare of all – a military alliance against Soviet Russia. And as the conference at Yalta was to show less than eight weeks later, Stalin had started to equate France with Poland. He would insist on being given a clear hand in Soviet-occupied Poland, which was right behind the Red Army’s front line, and in exchange, he had demonstrated his willingness not to cause problems in France, which constituted the rear area of the Western Allies.
The Franco-Soviet agreement was finally signed at four in the morning after a compromise formula had been reached over Stalin’s puppet government for Poland. Bidault, having collapsed from alcohol at the banquet, was hastily revived. With Stalin and de Gaulle standing behind, the two Foreign Ministers signed. ‘Il faut fêter cela!’ Stalin insisted, and more food and vodka were brought in.
There had been several gaffes during the visit to Moscow, such as de Gaulle’s mention of Pierre Laval’s pact with Russia in 1935. There were also several taunts from the Russian side. Ilya Ehrenburg, almost certainly on Stalin’s instructions, presented de Gaulle with a copy of his novel about the collapse of 1940, La Chute de Paris. Yet on the delegation’s return to Paris a week before Christmas, everybody seemed to consider it a great success, even though, to the amusement of Hervé Alphand, accounts differed wildly.
De Gaulle was more sanguine. The agreement signed in Moscow might not have had a great effect on the international stage, and he had failed to achieve support for French claims to the west bank of the Rhine, but he could hardly have hoped for a better domestic insurance policy. Maurice Thorez, having reached France in his absence, had not called the French Communist Party to the barricades during his major speech on 30 November, but had demanded blood, sweat, increased productivity and national unity. The Communists of the Resistance could hardly believe their ears, but next day the party press confirmed his words. They quite clearly represented the Kremlin line.
The notion of revolution in France became even less likely over the next two weeks. On 17 December, the day de Gaulle returned from Moscow, news of Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s offensive in the Ardennes reached Paris.
Much of the panic came from stories of English-speaking German commandos causing chaos far behind the lines. Identity documents were not sufficient at checkpoints. Anyone in American uniform was asked about baseball, while those in British uniform were challenged with ‘How much is a pint?’ or ‘What does LBW stand for?’
In the expectation of parachute attacks on Paris, troops arrived to defend public buildings and a curfew was imposed from eight in the evening until six in the morning. Wild rumours spread that Strasbourg had been retaken, even that the Germans were beyond Sedan, a name with terrible echoes of 1870. For the French, the fear of another German invasion was not so much for their own safety – although some refugees left Paris – but anger at the prospect of collaborators getting away with it. The rejoicing in Fresnes prison among the pro-German element who believed they would soon be liberated was very rash. There were many – not just former members of the FFI – who were determined that collaborators would not live to welcome the Germans to Paris again.
Christmas 1944 was not joyful: 3 million men and women were either dead, missing or still in German prison camps. ‘Paris is lugubrious, cold, as if empty and without a soul,’ wrote Hervé Alphand. ‘It reminds me a little of Vienna at the end of the last war, a magnificent setting without people or lights.’
De Gaulle, quite understandably, was horrified to hear that Eisenhower considered withdrawing from the recently liberated city of Strasbourg to straighten his line. Fortunately Churchill, who was in France, joined de Gaulle and Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters at Versailles on 3 January, and supported a compromise solution that two French divisions should be left to defend the capital of Alsace. De Gaulle was so relieved at the outcome of this conference that he wanted to issue a vainglorious communiqué. Palewski brought the draft round to the British Embassy first. Duff Cooper told him that it would not help matters at all. ‘It suggested that de Gaulle had summoned a military conference which the PM and Eisenhower had been allowed to attend.’
Even when the German offensive collapsed, with Strasbourg saved, de Gaulle had little to be optimistic about. France was virtually brought to a halt by freezing cold. It was so cold in that January, without fuel, that Pastor Boegner wrote in his diary: ‘I felt my brain slowing down. A strange sensation not to be able to choose one’s words with the usual speed.’ But for de Gaulle, the worst blow was that France was not invited to take part in the discussions at Yalta during the first half of February.
Roosevelt had not abandoned his old antipathy to de Gaulle. Nor had Stalin’s attitude been changed by the agreements in Moscow. The Kremlin view of France was that it was the Americans and British who had ‘chased out the Germans and liberated the country, not French armies’.
The performance of British leaders at this time was far from their finest hour. Eden especially seemed almost morbidly afraid of irritating Stalin in any way. Yet all the most infamous agreements, from Churchill’s ‘percentage agreement’ with Stalin in October 1944 to the betrayal of Poland, have often been taken out of context. And the idea that de Gaulle’s presence at Yalta might have saved central Europe from nearly fifty years of tyranny is hopelessly misguided. It ignores the fact that the Yalta agreement was in many ways the political seal placed on the military reality established as a result of the strategy decided at the Teheran conference. And no Western government, after all the praise for the sacrifice of the Red Army, could have asked soldiers eager for demobilization to prepare to take a stand against the Russian ally.
French resentment that Europe was being carved up without a single continental representative was understandable, although misdirected. Unfortunately, the situation was made far worse when President Roosevelt invited de Gaulle to Algiers on his way back from Yalta to tell him what had been agreed. De Gaulle was furious that Roosevelt could treat Algiers, which was French territory, as if it were his own property and promptly refused. Word then leaked out that Roosevelt had called him a ‘prima donna’ and this inflamed the situation further.
French emotions, however, underwent some change in the first two months of 1945, as the Red Army advanced at a breathtaking rate. ‘The French authorities are frankly frightened,’ Caffery reported to Washington. Bidault had exclaimed: ‘Who is going to stop Attila? He is covering more territory every day.’ Even de Gaulle acknowledged that France very much needed the friendship of the United States. Caffery could not let the opportunity pass. ‘I remarked,’ he wrote, ‘that some officials of the French government do not always act as if they shared that view. He retorted by listing grievances against us, and I retorted in kind. In the end, however, we both agreed that this is definitely no time for bickering.’
De Gaulle had a wonderful sense of history, but found it hard to stomach the vulgar fact that, without money, you could not be a major power. The greatness of France and the greatness of Britain were as doomed as their empires, which had carved up much of the world between them in the previous two centuries. Now two different superpowers were about to dominate the continent of Europe. The prospect was a bitter humiliation which he and the majority of his countrymen refused to accept. It had a disastrous effect, making them doubly determined not to give up colonial possessions. It also made them sensitive to what at times appeared like a new occupation of France, this time by the United States army.