Thursday, September 11, 2008

Anne de Gaulle

The lovely photograph above of Le Général and his youngest daughter comes from an article by Michael Gerson on America's "4-month-old civil rights leader" — Trig's Breakthrough. Mr. Gerson:
    The family struggles of political leaders can be morally instructive. Contrast the attitude of Joseph Kennedy with that of Charles de Gaulle, who treated his daughter Anne, born with Down syndrome in 1928, with great affection. The image of this arrogant officer rocking Anne in his arms at night speaks across the years. After her death and burial at age 20, de Gaulle turned to his wife and said, "Come. Now she is like the others."
"Maintenant, elle est comme les autres." From the Wikipedia entry on Anne de Gaulle, we learn that she "was never separated from her family" and "relatives all testified that the General, who was normally undemonstrative in his affections for his family, was more open and extroverted with Anne." We also learn that the daughter may have interceded for the father who loved her so:
    On 22 August 1962, Charles de Gaulle was the victim of an attempted assassination at Petit-Clamart. He later said that the potentially fatal bullet had been stopped by the frame of the photograph of Anne that he always carried with him, placed this particular day on the rear shelf of his car. When he died in 1970, he was buried in the cemetery of Colombey beside his beloved daughter.
Journalist Patricia E. Bauer, a mother of a Down's child, made a moving quest to learn "what lessons might her life hold for those of us who have followed in her family’s footsteps" — Public man, private father. Some excerpts:

    The general’s youngest child Anne arrived on New Year’s Day, 1928. Her face carried the characteristic signs of Down syndrome, a condition now known to be caused by an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. Adding to the family’s woes, Anne had also experienced birth injuries that left her with motor impairments. Despite the family’s best efforts at teaching her, she would never be able to walk alone.


    Photographs of the young Anne reveal a pretty child with an earnest gaze and a strong resemblance to her mother. The de Gaulles rejected public stereotypes and came to view Anne as a gift, their nephew says, an attitude that may have been rooted in large part in their deep Catholic faith. Though Anne’s speech did not progress beyond the realms of childhood, her unconditional love became the emotional center of the de Gaulle family. Her father described her as “my joy,” adding, “She helped me overcome the failures in all men, and to look beyond them.”

    Charles and Yvonne set about trying to create a life in which each of their three children felt accepted and cherished. They insisted that Anne travel with them everywhere – Germany, Lebanon, Algiers. The general sang songs for her and read her stories, displaying an affection and tenderness that he did not readily share with the other members of the household. The family had one rule above all: Anne was never to be made to feel different or less than anyone else.


    The family spent the war years with the general in the Hampstead section of London, where he came to know in more detail the full horrors of the Nazi activities. Looking back, I wonder: did he learn then of the Nazi Aktion T4, the eugenic program which systematically exterminated some 200,000 people with physical and intellectual disabilities between 1939 and 1941? Had he known about it earlier? And how, given his very personal commitment to his daughter, might that knowledge have informed and shaped the outrage with which he denied the legitimacy of Vichy?

    Although the archives don’t reveal whether the general knew the specifics of T4, there was no mistaking the eugenic winds that were blowing across Europe. In the years before the war, men who later assumed influence under Vichy had been publicly espousing forcible sterilization for “defectives,” a philosophy that fit neatly with Nazi desires for cleansing society of “racially unsound” elements. The implicit attack on Anne and on the de Gaulle family must have been all but unmistakable.

Jonathan Miller takes up where Mrs. Bauer leaves off — Charles de Gaulle’s way:
    If he knew, did his knowledge and outrage play any part in the almost singular ferocity with which he rejected the settlement of Vichy? The question is presented because Gaulle had a personal stake in this. His daughter Anne had been born profoundly affected with Down’s syndrome, or trisomy 21, as it is now more accurately described.

    Those who knew the general say that not only was he a man who stood tall and embodied the very essence of France (his amazing speech to France on June 18, 1940 can be read in English and French here) but he was also a saintly father, keeping her as close to him as he could, reading and singing to her when she was alive and holding her in his arms when she died. De Gaulle and his wife Yvonne were devoted Catholics and having lived in Germany understood only too clearly what the Nazis were about. so it may not have been necessary for the general to have known about Hitler’s specific atrocities, for him to have known his destiny.

    The resolution and fortitude with which the de Gaulle’s faced the responsibilities of their daughter and the resolution and fortitude with which he faced Hitler may have come from more generalised moral and ethical imperatives. One simply wonders whether Anne may have been an influence, and in her own way, to have helped change the face of history.

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Anonymous Tom Piatak said...

Thanks again for posting this. I recently had occasion to send this to a friend, in connection with a discussion on a related matter, and he was similarly moved. I had no trouble finding it, because it is one of the finest things I've ever read on the Internet.

5:30 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Thanks for the appreciation. It's one of my favorite all-time posts as well. Of course, I was just the complier, not the writer. The story never fails to move me.

9:27 AM  

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