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The General's Niece: The Little-Known de Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France

The General's Niece: The Little-Known de Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France

by Paige Bowers
The General's Niece: The Little-Known de Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France

The General's Niece: The Little-Known de Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France

by Paige Bowers


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“My dear Uncle Charles,” twenty-two-year-old Genevieve de Gaulle wrote on May 6, 1943. “Maybe you have already heard about the different events affecting the family.” The general’s brother Pierre had been taken by the Gestapo; his brother Xavier, Genevieve’s father, had escaped to Switzerland. Genevieve asked her uncle where she could be most useful—France? England? A French territory? When no response came immediately, she decided to stay in France to help carry out his call to resist the Nazis.

Based on interviews with family members, former associates, prominent historians, and never-before-seen papers written by Genevieve de Gaulle, The General’s Niece is the first English-language biography of Charles de Gaulle’s niece, confidante, and daughter figure, Genevieve, to whom the legendary French general and president dedicated his war memoirs.

Journalist Paige Bowers leads readers through the remarkable life of this young woman who risked death to become one of the most devoted foot soldiers of the French resistance. Beginning with small acts of defiance such as tearing down swastikas and pro-Vichy posters, she eventually ferried arms and false letters of transit to fellow resistants and edited and distributed the nation’s largest underground newspaper, until she was arrested and sent to the infamous Ravensbuck concentration camp. The General’s Niece reveals the horrors the young de Gaulle witnessed and endured there that could have broken her spirit but instead inspired her many remaining years of activism on behalf of former prisoners and of France’s neediest citizens.

Finally emerging from the shadow of her famous uncle, the life of this little-known de Gaulle adds a fascinating layer to the history of the second world war, including the French resistance, the horrors of and unshakeable bonds formed at Ravensbruck, and the issues facing postwar France and its leaders.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613736098
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/01/2017
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Paige Bowers is a news and features writer whose work has appeared in TIME, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, People, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine, and others. A lifelong Francophile, she earned a master’s degree in modern European history in 2012 and teaches continuing education classes at Louisiana State University about French history and culture. She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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The General's Niece

The Little-Known de Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France

By Paige Bowers

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2017 Paige Bowers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-612-8


The Road to Resistance

The minute-and-a-half-long radio address that altered the course of Geneviève de Gaulle's life crackled across the airwaves and into her heart on Monday, June 17, 1940. Seated by the wireless in her family's crowded rental house in northwestern France, the nineteen-year-old history student listened intently as Marshal Philippe Pétain addressed a frightened nation.

"Frenchmen," the eighty-four-year-old war hero began. "Having been called upon by the President of the Republic, I today assume the leadership of the government of France. Certain that our admirable army has fought with a heroism worthy of its long military traditions against an enemy that is superior in number and in weapons, certain that by its magnificent resistance it fulfilled its duties to its allies, certain of the support of veterans that I am proud to have commanded, I give to France the gift of my person in order to alleviate her suffering."

As Pétain spoke, Geneviève understood that the country was indeed in distress. Although France had declared war on Nazi Germany the previous September, things had been relatively quiet on the western front until May 10, 1940, when German forces stormed into the country, surrounding one contingent of Allied troops that had attempted to ward off their attack before forcing other divisions to evacuate by sea and slicing the rest into four tired and tangled ribbons. Stunned by the ruthlessness of the Nazi onslaught, the nation took flight. The government fled Paris for Bordeaux in advance of the Nazi siege of the capital. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned rather than give in to political pressure to capitulate to the enemy. Pétain replaced him. Millions of men, women, and children crowded the roads to escape Adolf Hitler's incoming men. Those who chose to remain in Paris sobbed as they watched the Nazis glide in on their tanks.

Away from the capital, civilians clogged the thoroughfares with their cars crammed with suitcases and whatever valuables they could manage. Children cried in the tumult. Eventually, vehicles ran out of gas and were abandoned in place, forcing people to run from the unknown on foot as their food supplies dwindled to nothing. The roads became impassable and German planes swooped in to fire on columns of weary soldiers who shuffled back from the front, their heads down, their rifles tossed in the bushes. In his broadcast Pétain told these refugees he was thinking of them, and he assured them of his compassion and care.

Geneviève was concerned. Pétain's voice was tired and unsteady, weighed down with a truth he had yet to utter. He did not sound like the same Philippe Pétain who had implored French troops to remain courageous against the Germans at Verdun in World War I. France was outgunned and outmaneuvered then too, and yet it fought back savagely at his urging. Something was different now.

"It is with a broken heart that I tell you that we must stop fighting," Pétain continued. "I have spoken with our opponent and asked him if he is willing to seek with us a means to end the hostilities."

There it was. Geneviève looked around the room at her family and shook her head in disbelief.

"This is not Pétain," she exclaimed as she pointed at the radio, barely able to contain the dismay that was growing in her delicate five-foot-two-inch frame.

Her father, Xavier, sighed.

"Alas, my dear, but I'm afraid it is," he said.

"This is some fifth column type, some traitor who wants to fool us into surrender," she shot back, as Pétain asked the country for support and faith. "I won't accept this!"

When faced with loss or hardship, Geneviève looked for ways to make things better. It was, perhaps, her nature as the oldest of three children. A reflective and reserved young woman, she was a diligent student, a doting big sister, a dutiful daughter who knew the right thing to say or do in a given moment. But she was also a de Gaulle, which meant that she had been raised to embrace a certain set of ideas about faith, family, courage, and country. Her France was a grand France, a country that fought and was worth defending in times of trouble. As Geneviève tried to reconcile what Pétain had just said with what she believed, she knew she had to do something. The question was what, how, and when. Her father and sixteen-year-old brother, Roger, looked across the room and could tell from the way her soulful brown eyes flickered that she was ruminating about what her next steps might be.

Two hours later, the German advance forced civilians in the surrounding area to flee westward for their safety. A small configuration of rival planes bombed the railway station in nearby Rennes shortly before 10:00 PM. One of the bombs hit a munitions train that carried a deadly combination of high explosives, artillery shells, and cartridges. When it detonated, the town shook. Debris fell from the sky. Windows shattered, raining shards of glass onto the ground. Tiles flew from the rooftops. A 262-foot-long crater hollowed out the ground where the munitions train once stood. Startled residents awoke to a city shrouded in thick black smoke and took to the roads to escape.

* * *

Geneviève de Gaulle was born into a world that hoped it would never see another great and destructive war. The last conflict had begun in 1914, spanned four years, claimed the lives of nearly 1.4 million Frenchmen, and wounded some 4 million more. Geneviève's father, Xavier, and his three younger brothers were soldiers in that contest, and it was no small miracle that the four of them survived. Their devoutly Catholic mother, Jeanne, maintained that her boys were spared because of the Sacred Heart medals she had given them before they went off to the front. They did not all return unscathed, however. Xavier, who had put his career as a civil engineer on hold to the join the fight, returned from combat with what would become a lifelong reminder of the field of battle: a limp he sustained after his horse was hit by an enemy shell round and toppled onto his leg.

Most of the de Gaulle brothers returned to a normal, civilian existence. But the middle son, Charles, who was a captain and protégé of Philippe Pétain, remained with the army. He was concerned that peace with Germany would not last. Brooding, he wrote a friend: "Many years after this war, men should be afraid and ashamed of themselves. But their souls will not have changed. They will forget this horror. ... And one more time, they will throw themselves at each other, swearing before God and mankind that they are innocent of spilled blood."

His brother Xavier had a more immediate concern: starting a family. He wanted a spouse who shared his values so that his future offspring could have the kind of childhood he had. His father, Henri, had been a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, then worked in the Interior Ministry before beginning a second career as a well-regarded teacher at a Jesuit high school in Paris. By all accounts Henri treated his five children — Xavier, Marie-Agnès, Charles, Jacques, and Pierre — as if they were his students too, encouraging them to recite Homer at the dinner table, engage in historical and philosophical debates, and listen to tales of France's magnificent past. He was "witty, charming, wonderful," and never to be disobeyed, whereas their mother Jeanne was sweet, decent, and deeply pious. By the time the de Gaulle children were teenagers, they were firm believers in hard work, duty to family and country, and strong Catholic faith.

Xavier was perhaps the most conscientious student and was believed by family and friends to be a brilliant young man with great promise. Sensitive and quiet, he loved classical music, adored painting and drawing, preferred adult company (he could learn more from them than from his peers), and minded his siblings with the ardor of a parent. He was accepted to the prestigious National School of Mines in Paris and earned a civil engineering degree from the school in 1909.

Where Xavier was dutiful, his younger brother Charles was inscrutable. He was the most difficult child of the five and spent his days breaking rules and imagining himself as the king of France. He terrorized his two younger brothers, threw tantrums when he didn't get his way, and took a slapdash approach to his studies until the age of fifteen. One teacher saw past his shortcomings and acknowledged that "if [Charles] wishes, he is capable of great success." His desire to attend the celebrated Saint-Cyr military academy focused his academic and interpersonal energies; he graduated from the school in 1912.

No matter their idiosyncrasies, the de Gaulle children knew they had their parents' unconditional love and support. Such was the family life Xavier envisioned for himself when friends introduced him to Germaine Gourdon over tea one afternoon in 1918. Eleven years his junior, Germaine came from a family of nobles whose descendants made a fortune in the textile industry. Her father, Pierre, was a prolific writer, and her mother, Geneviève, busied herself with their eight children. As they got to know each other, Germaine charmed Xavier with her alluring disposition and cultivated tastes. Soon the couple realized they had fallen deeply in love.

They married on September 30, 1919, and a grand banquet was held at the Gourdon family's sixty-room estate in the Maine-et-Loire. All the de Gaulle brothers cut dashing figures in their military uniforms that day. A photograph taken at the celebration showed Xavier glowing with newly wedded bliss; Charles, unsmiling and standing ramrod straight; Jacques to his left, not nearly as stern; and the youngest, Pierre, whose arms were gallantly folded across his chest. Germaine's outspoken eleven-year-old cousin, Madeleine Delepouve, was particularly smitten with Xavier's youngest sibling. The frail, blonde girl walked up to him and declared, "Well then, it seems that we should be married too!" Pierre, age twenty-two, was stunned — and slightly amused — by the child's forthrightness. When he realized Madeleine was not kidding, he decided to hold her at bay for as long as he could. She would come to her senses, he believed. But the youngster would show him over the next seven years that she was not to be deterred.

After the celebration Xavier and Germaine began their married life in the quiet medieval village of Saint-Jean-de-Valériscle, where Xavier had become engineer of the local coal mines. Tucked in a river valley in the Cévennes mountain range, the sun-kissed town was originally known for the sweet, pearly skinned onions it grew in hillside terraces built by Benedictine monks, who had learned that the region's weather could go from drought to deluge at a moment's notice. Building these structures on local slopes not only protected residents from sudden inundations but also captured much-needed water for the area's most famous agricultural product.

Although the town's coat of arms featured three onions on a green backdrop, it was coal mining that propelled Saint-Jean-de-Valériscle into prosperity after World War I. By the time Xavier and Germaine had moved there in 1919, steel mineshaft headframes dotted the landscape, and locomotives hauled coal out of the town to customers across France. Xavier was tasked with growing the industry, and he immediately went to work designing new mines and overseeing their construction.

At the end of each day, Xavier strolled down an alley of sycamore trees to the large stone house where he and Germaine resided. They spent evenings in their garden, admiring the surrounding countryside. "You have no idea how beautiful the view was," Xavier would say for years to come.

On October 25, 1920, the couple welcomed their first child, a little girl named Geneviève. Although not much is known about Geneviève's infancy, she was born to parents who were head over heels in love with each other and who likely showered her with a great deal of attention and affection. When Geneviève went back to visit her birthplace later in life, she was disappointed when nothing she saw lived up to her father's descriptions. "My parents were so in love that they transformed [the landscape]," she joked.

One year after Geneviève's birth, the family bid farewell to the vistas that so captivated them in Southern France and moved to the Saarland, a tiny industrialized zone across the forested French border from Alsace-Lorraine. The coal-rich area was placed under League of Nations governance after World War I as part of the penalties levied against Germany. Aside from sparking the conflict, the Germans had flooded two prominent French mines. As restitution France was handed the Saarland's lucrative quarries, which had been neglected during the hostilities. Xavier was enlisted to get those collieries up and running and to search for new stores to excavate.

His job was complicated by an all-German staff. Although the two countries were technically at peace, Germans resented the French presence on their turf, and tensions worsened as postwar fines began taking their toll on the local populace. Unemployment was high. Provisions were not only scarce but also expensive. Suffering was great. Xavier carried a gun to work as a precaution. He had a young family to think about, after all. Germaine had given birth to another little girl, Jacqueline, in December 1921. Roger, their first son, joined the brood on February 10, 1923.

Due to the lingering tensions, French citizens living in the area were cautious when it came to interacting with Germans. This friction did not register with Geneviève, who as a toddler busied herself playing with her younger siblings in the large, lush garden that surrounded their home. Sarrois staff worked in her household and she was raised by her family to treat them affectionately and with respect. She spoke their language as soon as she was able, and in her innocence saw them as extended family.

By all accounts it was an idyllic life, despite the region's simmering hostility toward the French. But the family's good fortune would soon change. In 1925, when Geneviève was four and a half years old, her mother was pregnant with her fourth child. Within months, doctors determined that the baby had died in utero and that they had to operate in order to save Germaine's life. They delivered the stillborn girl, but Germaine suffered complications from the procedure. Xavier stood by, helpless, as he watched his twenty-seven-year-old wife die on the operating table. Overcome with grief, he took her in his arms and carried her home.

Geneviève was playing underneath a magnolia tree in the family's garden when a young au pair delivered the news. At the time she did not know what death was. She only knew that something tragic had happened to her mother. From that day on she would be unable to look at a magnolia without thinking of Germaine, who had smelled of the gently sweet Florentine iris sachets she used to freshen her laundry.

"Just like that, happiness ended with the death of Maman," Geneviève later recalled, adding that her mother's passing didn't affect her siblings in the same way it did her. Because Jacqueline and Roger were younger than she was, Geneviève believed they did not have as many memories of Germaine as she did.

"I had what they did not: my mother's tenderness for four and a half years," she said. "And I remember it well."

The family brought Geneviève to her mother's bedside and encouraged the young girl to kiss her good-bye. She remembered thinking there was nothing left to kiss; this was not her mother but a cadaver, and she would soon be buried far away in the Gourdon family's crypt in northwestern France. Xavier, Geneviève, Jacqueline, and Roger journeyed there by train in what felt like a never-ending trek. The car bearing Germaine's coffin was hooked to the back of the locomotive, and Xavier took Geneviève and her siblings back there to visit it during the voyage.

"That's where your mother is," he told them solemnly, as the train chugged westward. It was pitch black inside of the car, impossible to see. As Geneviève stood in the darkness, holding her father's hand, she didn't understand why he would continue to tell them that this was where their mother was, if she was, in fact, gone. Perhaps his seemingly constant reminders were more for himself than his offspring, a way of holding on to his beloved wife because he simply wasn't ready to let her go.


Excerpted from The General's Niece by Paige Bowers. Copyright © 2017 Paige Bowers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue vii

Part I Resistance

1 The Road to Resistance 3

2 The Gall 19

3 Kindling the Flame 33

4 Defense de la France 49

5 Voices and Faces 65

Part II Ravensbrück

6 The Project on the Other Side of the Lake 85

7 What Can Be Saved 103

8 Marking the Days 119

9 Release 131

10 Liberation 141

Part III Rebuilding

11 The Return 153

12 The Antidote 167

13 Noisy-le-Grand 183

14 A Voice for the Voiceless 199

Epilogue 213

Acknowledgments 217

Notes 221

Selected Bibliography 251

Index 253

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