The way we were: European statesmen

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
April 23, 2014

Charles de Gaulle, left, and Winston Churchill in 1944.

© Getty Images

In 1878, Benjamin Disraeli and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck met at the Congress of Berlin. They formed a warm regard for each other. When asked where the centre of gravity lay at the conference, Bismarck replied:

“Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann” [“The old Jew, he is the man.”]

Later, Disraeli, raised to the peerage as Lord Beaconsfield, writes to Queen Victoria: “Lord B. waited on the Chancellor. They had not met for 16 years but that space of time did not seem adequate to produce the startling change which Lord B. observed in the Chancellor’s appearance. A tall pallid man with a wasp-like waist was now represented by an extremely stout person with a ruddy countenance on which was now growing a silvery beard.”

He writes again: “Dined with Bismarck alone, and then we talked and smoked. If you do not smoke under such circumstances, you look like a spy, taking down his conversation in your mind. Smoking in common puts him at ease... His views on all subjects are original, but there is no strain, no effort at paradox. He talks as Montaigne writes. When he heard about Cyprus [Disraeli had struck a deal with the Ottoman Empire allowing Britain to occupy Cyprus], he said ‘you have done a wise thing. This is progress. It will be popular; a nation likes progress.’ His idea of progress was evidently seizing something.”

The wartime relations between Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were often on the point of breaking down, not least on account of the necessarily dependent position of de Gaulle in London, as leader of the Free French forces. In 1940 Churchill observed to his doctor, Charles Wilson:

“His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee and if we turn him down he’s finished. Well just look at him! Look at him! He might be Stalin with 200 divisions behind his words... England’s grievous offence in de Gaulle’s eyes is that she has helped France. He cannot bear to think that she needed help. He will not relax his vigilance in guarding her honour for a single instant.”

De Gaulle observed of their relationship:

“When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. We are angry at each other much of the time.”

On the evening before D-Day they had a huge row which concluded with de Gaulle saying to Churchill: “You have been unjust; you have said untrue and violent things that you will regret. What I wish to say to you on this historic night is that in spite of everything, France thanks you.”

Nicholas Henderson, British Ambassador to Bonn, describes Helmut Schmidt, German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982:

“Helmut Schmidt in personality was the exact opposite to his predecessor as Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Whereas Brandt retained a bear-like hold on the affections of the mass of German people, Schmidt had won nationwide respect for his intellectual ability, courage and capacity for decision. He was also noted for his supreme self-confidence. This was felt acutely in Bonn where to the question ‘What is the difference between God and Schmidt?’ the answer was, ‘God knows everything, but Schmidt knows it better.’”

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President of France, observed by Nicholas Henderson, then Ambassador in Paris, in October 1978:

“I happened to see Giscard today at the Grand Palais for an opening of an exhibition of paintings by the Le Nain brothers...

“I was intrigued by the way at one moment Giscard beckoned to his guide to say that he would like a reproduction of one of the pictures. It struck me as monarchical until, upon reflection, I realised that Louis XIV would have insisted on taking possession of the picture itself, not of a mere reproduction. The paraphernalia and guards of honour for Giscard’s arrival were certainly regal. The gallery was closed until he had completed his viewing, even though many people... had to queue up outside. Louis XIV could not have done better than that. Everyone stood in awe and in full respect for la fonction du Président. I am continually astonished by the deference shown to him, totally unlike the attitude, possessive but fraternal, of the Americans towards their President. Giscard sets himself on a pedestal distant from the people who are encouraged to see in him the embodiment of everything that is grand and traditional in France.”

In 1992, Patrick Marnham, the Independent’s Paris correspondent, writes about President François Mitterrand:

“The most certain thing about François Mitterrand is that there are no certainties; he remains an enigma. In character he is deeply ambiguous, in expression he is frequently elliptical... For most of his political career any suggestion that he would be elected President of the Republic would have caused widespread mirth. His major achievement in life is to have become the first socialist President of the Fifth Republic. And yet he has never been a socialist. The former Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, who was a socialist, once said, ‘Mitterrand is not actually a socialist. He has just learnt how to sound like one.’”