Williams, Charles 1933–

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Williams, Charles 1933–

PERSONAL: Born September 2, 1933, in Oxford, England; son of N.P. (a professor of divinity) and Muriel Williams; married Jane Portal, January 1, 1975; children: Stephen. Education: Christ Church, Oxford, B.Sc., M.A. Politics: Labor.

ADDRESSES: OfficeHouse of Lords, London SW1A 0PW, England.

CAREER: Writer, biographer, and politician. House of Lords, London, England, front bench spokesman, 1985–; former deputy leader of the opposition.


The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General de Gaulle, Wiley (New York, NY), 1995.

Bradman, an Australian Hero, Little, Brown (London, England), 1996.

Adenauer: The Father of the New Germany, Wiley (New York, NY), 2000.

Petain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History, Palgrave Macmillan (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: Charles Williams, Lord Williams of Elvel, is a senior member of the Labor Party in the British House of Lords. He has also written several biographies of prominent political figures, including The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General de Gaulle. This volume charts the course of former French leader Charles de Gaulle's life, with particular emphasis on de Gaulle's pivotal role as commander of "Free France" in exile during World War II. The Last Great Frenchman also provides insights into de Gaulle's life following the general's withdrawal from the political forum after World War II, and the book further relates some of de Gaulle's key political maneuvers after he returned to French leadership in the late 1950s.

The Last Great Frenchman was well received upon publication in 1995. Eugen Weber, writing in the New York Times Book Review, affirmed that Williams "has etched a pregnant portrait of the affectionate, emotional, private de Gaulle, as well as of the cold, ruthless proud public persona." Weber noted that The Last Great Frenchman "unravels the adversarial diplomacy that amused de Gaulle while it irritated others," and he hailed Williams's book as "the best English biography of de Gaulle I have come across." Another reviewer, James F. McMillan, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Williams's "superior style makes [The Last Great Frenchman] exceptionally good reading." He added that the book is "valuable also for the space it devotes to the private man as opposed to the mythic hero and world statesman."

Adenauer: The Father of the New Germany is Williams's biography of Konrad Adenauer, the determined survivor who became the first chancellor of West Germany. Adenauer struggled through difficult times in Germany, successfully managing to make it through the Kaiser's reign, Weimar Germany, the Third Reich, and post-war Allied occupation. As the leader of Germany, Adenauer managed to forge an alliance with France that helped the two countries become the dominant powers in a united Europe. Williams explores Adenauer's background, the importance of his religious beliefs and Catholic upbringing, his dislike of Britain, and other factors that helped make him a pivotal figure in the twentieth-century history of Germany and Europe. Williams has "done an immense amount of work" in his pursuit of new and relevant information on Adenauer and his background, and in doing so has produced an "authoritative biography," commented a contributor to Contemporary Review.

In Petain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History, Williams delves in depth into the background of Henri-Philippe Petain, a Marshal of France. Petain was once held in France's highest esteem as a savior during World War I, but who in later life became known as a traitor for collaborating with the Nazis and has been widely reviled in both contemporary and historical accounts. "The rise and fall of Marshal Petain is a story of extraordinary drama and much pathos," observed Philip Ziegler in Spectator. Rising from origins in a well-to-do peasant family, Petain embarked on an unremarkable military career that seemed as though it would end with his retirement as a colonel. However, the onset of World War I provided an unforeseen opportunity for Petain to rise rapidly through the ranks. A major architect of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, Petain was considered a hero for what he accomplished there. Further, in 1917, he quelled a mutiny that would have seriously damaged the French army and possibly led to a collapse of Allied powers, noted Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., in the Weekly Standard. Thus, when the vicissitudes of World War II befell France, Petain was already considered a hero twice over. When Hitler rose to power, it was Petain who was chosen to deal with the Fuhrer. Petain, however, preferred a course of appeasement and cooperation to conflict with Germany, and he became known as a collaborator with the Nazis. He was known to have sent French Jews to concentration camps. In short, he surrendered France to the Germans, and "his performance during the years of occupation … was abjectly ignoble," stated Ziegler. In the years following the war, Petain was tried for and convicted of treason. Already an old man, he spent the last few years of his life in prison before dying at age ninety-five. Despite his conviction, Petain asserted to the last that his actions were intended to help, and that he had in all respects acted only to serve France. "Charles Williams convinces one that, however blemished Petain's record, in this at least his hero/villain told the unvarnished truth." observed Ziegler.

In telling Petain's story, Williams "has a seasoned grasp of political subtleties, and has made himself master of this tangled tale, in a book that is explanatory without being either accusatory or exculpatory," commented Yoder. Williams's "painstakingly researched, carefully written book" offers a careful argument for readers who are urged to "reassess Petain's conviction for treason in 1945 in light of his entire background and career," noted Marie Marmo Mullaney in the Library Journal. Williams's "lucid, dispassionate examination" of Petain gives a clear "picture of the political conditions that created him," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. In his exhaustive biography, Williams "writes about the flesh and blood Petain—and he writes very well," noted a reviewer in the Economist. "The pacing of the narrative and the observations of place, time and character are managed with admirable skill; peasant society, the army, the atmosphere at Vichy, the trial and the final years of imprisonment are vividly rendered," the Economist reviewer continued, concluding: "Mr Williams makes Petain interesting—no simple task." In the end, Yoder concluded, Williams's account demonstrates "how a patriot, twice his nation's savior, could stumble by generous but mistaken judgments into bad company and thence into the outer darkness."

Williams told CA: "Any figure who has influenced the course of history interests me, not least because my wife was Winston Churchill's secretary in the early 1950s. Besides, I myself am much involved in the British (and European) political process."



Booklist, October 1, 2005, George Cohen, review of Petain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History, p. 21.

Contemporary Review, February, 2001, review of Adenauer: The Father of the New German, p. 124.

Economist, May 21, 2005, "Monstrous or Maligned; France and the Second World War," review of Petain, p. 84.

History Today, October, 1993, review of The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General DeGaulle, p. 56.

Library Journal, October 1, 2005, Marie Marmo Mullaney, review of Petain, p. 90.

New Statesman, May 23, 2005, Richard Gott, "A Poor Defence," review of Petain, p. 49.

New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1995, Eugen Weber, review of The Last Great Frenchman, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly, February 6, 1995, review of The Last Great Frenchman, p. 68; June 20, 2005, review of Petain, p. 65.

Spectator, May 14, 2005, Philip Ziegler, "The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel," p. 58.

Times Literary Supplement, January 28, 1994, James F. McMillan, review of The Last Great Frenchman, p. 12.

Weekly Standard, April 17, 2006, Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., "His Vichy Gamble: The Decline and Fall of a Marshal of France," review of Petain.


Palgrave-USA Web site, http://www.palgrave-usa.com/ (October 15, 2006), biography of Charles Williams.

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