While pursuing a master’s degree in modern French history at LSU, Paige Bowers read “The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle.” Its biggest impact on her, however, was not the French general and statesman’s observations on his nation in two world wars.
Rather, it was the subject of the memoir’s dedication — his niece, whose efforts against Nazi occupiers and postwar humanitarian career were obscured by her uncle's overwhelming shadow.
Now, with her first book, the Baton Rouge author brings Geneviève de Gaulle into the spotlight.
“The General’s Niece: The Little-Known de Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France,” published by Chicago Review Press, recounts how Geneviève de Gaulle served the French Resistance, was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, then became a tireless postwar humanitarian.
Bowers, 44, was born in Baton Rouge and spent her early childhood here before her parents moved, then divorced. She graduated from LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication in 1995 and became a newspaper reporter and freelance writer in Washington, D.C., Florida and Georgia before marrying Jeff Diecks, another Manship graduate. She returned to LSU for graduate school, earning her master’s degree in 2012.
In 2014, Bowers read a news story about France deciding to honor Geneviève de Gaulle Anthonioz, who had died 12 years earlier, by having her interred in the Pantheon, reserved for the nation’s most distinguished citizens. Remembering the memoir dedication, Bowers decided Anthonioz would be a great biography subject.
Geneviève de Gaulle was 19 when France surrendered to Germany in World War II. She was one of several women in her family who actively resisted the occupying nation.
“I like that she looked at the world, her transformed world, in June 1940 and decided it was unacceptable,” Bowers said. “Despite her gender, her age, her size — she was very petite — she was smart enough and raised in such a way that she knew she could make a difference, and she should make a difference, and she jumped in to do just that and didn’t waver from that.
“I like her convictions. I’m kind of bookish myself, and I like that you can have a bookish heroine. She doesn’t necessarily have to be Wonder Woman. She didn’t have to carry a gun. She passed guns to warriors up in the mountains.”
After a collaborator sold her out to the Nazis in 1943, she ended up in Ravensbruck, the concentration camp for women, where she survived forced labor, disease and meager rations.
After the war, Anthonioz dedicated considerable efforts to helping women like those she knew in Ravensbruck rebuild their shattered lives. Many returned having lost their husbands, their homes, their families and their health, and she challenged the French bureaucracy to help them.
“I like after the war, even after what she’d been through, she didn’t decide, ‘Well, I’ve been through a lot. I want to go live a quiet, simple life. I’m done,’” Bowers said. “Her convictions that carried her through the war continued after the war and to the end of her life. I found that really compelling about her.”