It is a sign of the times that the Great Man school of popular history is flourishing once more. The genre goes in and out of fashion according to the swing of the political pendulum. A swing to the Right, and we re-discover Great Men, the vital role of the gifted individual, the times fit for heroes. When the times are radical, the Great Men are swamped in the fashion for explaining everything in terms of vast and anonymous historical forces on whose tides the heroes are tossed like so many burnt corks.
But even in the headily radical days of the late 1960s, it would have taken all the sophistry and skill of a battalion of Marxist or leftist historians to have defined the great historical forces which Churchill and De Gaulle were supposed to represent. The fact that they were near contemporaries, and that they had so many experiences in common, would make the task no easier. Each had been a prisoner of war, Churchill of the Boers and De Gaulle of the Kaiser’s Germans. Each took care to write his own magisterial and mendaciously self-serving account of the history of his days. Each saw himself as the embodiment of the nation, as a man marked out by destiny from childhood. And each, of course, began life as an army officer, Churchill at Sandhurst and De Gaulle at St Cyr.
But there the comparison begins to break down. Churchill became a civilian and a dedicated politician before he was thirty, and yet saw the flowering of his career in war, and a relative failure in peacetime political life. De Gaulle remained a serving officer until he was almost sixty (but