Charles de Gaulle Memorial Museum

I recently went on a press trip to the Champagne-Ardennes region of France, a combination of champagne and cemeteries which was better than it sounds. The champagne was excellent, a welcome respite after the various war sites we visited, from both First and Second World Wars. The entire region has been a battlefront for centuries and the scars are deep. We saw an entire German military camp in the process of being reconstructed,and several deeping moving memorials.

Most fascinating was the new Charles de Gaulle Memorial Museum in Colombey-les-deux Eglises, due to be opened October 10th. From the June 18th call to Resistance in 1940 to the final caricatures grafitti-ed on the streets of Paris in 1968, de Gaulle is undoubtedly the most famous Frenchman of the 20th century. Every town in France has its avenue Charles de Gaulle and now he has his own museum, a rare phenomenon for any famous individual other than artists. The Mémorial is in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, a small village in Haute Marne, one of the smallest departments of France. Here in Eastern France is where de Gaulle lived for much of his life. He didn’t come from there, he came from Lille further north; he chose Colombey. An army man, married with four children, including a youngest daughter with Down’s syndrome, he sought a modest retreat from the world. The house he bought in 1934, La Boisserie, still belongs to the family. You can visit though, stroll through the gardens, and see the splendid library and bureau de Gaulle designed for himself with three windows and a view stretching 62 kilometres distant.

The new museum nestles into the hillside opposite the village and Le Boisserie. The hill is already dominated by a vast marble cross of Lorraine- which de Gaulle himself predicted would be built there after his death. The cross, with its distinctive double arms, was originally brought back from the Crusades, and was chosen by the Free French in London as the symbol of Resistance. Like the CND symbol, its graphic simplicity ensured its recognition and survival.

The museum, funded by the Fondation Charles de Gaulle and the Conseil General of Haute Marne with additional finance from national and European sources, has cost 20m euros. It was designed by architects Jacques Millet and Jean-Côme Chilou, also responsible for the Memorial Museum of Caen, and obeys modern architectural trends; almost a third is tucked into the mountain side, part of it with an eco-conscious grass roof. Thus the place retains its character and is not eclipsed by the building. A grand staircase leads up to the cross and a broad terrace offers an almost 180 degree view of the countryside. This is de Gaulle’s France, an unchanging landscape of gentle valleys and forests, a green and beautiful country worth fighting for. “He mirrored the landscape and the landscape mirrored him.,” says one of the homilies write large on vast glass panels as you enter.

The museum design itself is state of the art with lots of fancy lighting, music, photographs, films and recordings to listen to, a reconstructed First World War trench, even a cobblestone floor for the 1968 Evénements finale, after which de Gaulle bowed out. It is not all about de Gaulle, it is the world through de Gaulle and I found it a fascinating journey through the 20th century. And it does work. The First World War, de Gaulle’s writing subsequently about army strategy and his prescient analysis that tanks were needed and not the Maginot Line, to the Fall of France which resulted, the Occupation and the Resistance are all movingly evoked. The historical perspective is up to date treating honestly with delicate subjects like the French treatment of the Jews. The relevant text describes the progress of Petain’s Vichy government from “dishonest compromise, equivocation and dishonourable actions, leading to alignment with Nazi wishes.”

De Gaulle’s role is honoured of course, his arrogance and prickly relationships with other leaders left largely unexplored, but happily the ensemble falls short of hagiography. His triumphal return to Paris in 1944 is celebrated, though the text concedes that after that, as de Gaulle would have calculated, the allies could no longer dispute his legitimacy.

Most of all the Museum celebrates the achievement of Europe, the first stages of reconciliation between France and Germany. All the texts are in German, French and English. And though it is a unstinting tribute to one patriotic Frenchman what endured for me was a moving sense of the deep necessity for European unity, The museumm will be officially inaugurated by President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 50 years after the first meeting between de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer on the steps of Le Boisserie. Highly recommended!

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