Algeria’s Wounds

Algeria’s Wounds

Most people caught up in the Algerian War left no accounts of it at all.


“The FLN wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain…. Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” These words are spoken by Mathieu, the parachute colonel in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers (1966). They sum up a certain attitude toward the war that France fought from 1954 to 1962 to keep Algeria French. According to this interpretation, the war was about the simple fact of colonialism. The “consequences” to which Mathieu refers is the torture that the French army, more or less openly, used against Algerians. Pontecorvo portrays this torture graphically, but he does not really condemn it. Equally, the Algerian fighters of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) are portrayed as people who have no choice but to adopt ruthless tactics—the bombing of civilians and the murder of their own “antisocial” compatriots—in order to win Algeria’s independence from France.

If the war was indeed simple, then it could be said to have a clear ending in July 1962, when Algeria gained independence; under these circumstances it is not surprising that the French spoke little about the conflict in the ten or twenty years that followed. An amnesty law in France covered crimes committed during the war, and what public discussion there was of the war often took place outside France. Pontecorvo’s film was an Italian/Algerian production. Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s landmark book Torture: Cancer of Democracy was inspired by his experiences as a campaigner against French atrocities during the Algerian War but was published in London by Penguin in 1963 and not translated into French until 1972. In France, allusions to Algeria—of the kind found in, say, the 1982 gangster film La Balance—were usually brief and oblique.

In the past fifteen years, all this has changed. The trial of Maurice Papon, in 1997 and 1998, was ostensibly about his role as a Vichy official in the deportation of Jews during World War II, but it provided witnesses with a chance to evoke his role in the killing of Algerian demonstrators during the so-called Battle of Paris in 1961, when Papon was prefect of the Paris police. In 2000 Louisette Ighilahriz, a former FLN activist, described the torture she had endured at the hands of French paratroopers—though when she spoke publicly about the episode she was not seeking to expose her torturers but rather to find the French military doctor who had saved her life. Around the same time two former generals—Jacques Massu and Paul Aussaresses—discussed torture by the French army in Algeria. Aussaresses recalled his role with defiant pride, but Massu (one of the models for Pontecorvo’s Mathieu) no longer believed that the end justified the means and expressed regret for what he had done.

More important, perhaps, than all this discussion, is that historians conducting interviews have discovered the extent to which Algeria haunted the lives of people even when it was not publicly evoked. Millions of French people had been in Algeria, either because they were European settlers—pieds noirs—who “returned” to France (a country many of them had never seen) in 1962 or because they were soldiers (mostly conscripts) who had served there, or because they were Algerian Muslims who came to France after 1962. Even people who had never set foot in Algeria knew something about the brutality of the war. The girlfriends and wives of soldiers were not, at the time, perceived as taking an interest in the war: one thinks of Catherine Deneuve’s character in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). However, such women often did learn what their lovers had done, and in recent years, the wives and daughters of veterans have often been involved in discussions of the horrors that their menfolk endured, or inflicted. It is significant, incidentally, that in France many of the most distinguished young historians of the Algerian War are women.

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Vincent Crapanzano’s The Harkis: The Wound That Never Heals reflects the revival of interest in Algeria. Crapanzano, an anthropologist, is interested in one particular group of participants—Harkis, or Algerian Muslims who fought with the French Army. This is an uncomfortable subject. The Harkis were often victims of appalling violence from their compatriots as Algeria became independent. They were also badly treated by the French government. Charles de Gaulle sought to prevent them from getting to France. Many of them did escape from Algeria, sometimes with the complicity of the French Army, but they then spent years in squalid refugee camps, often ones that had been used for Spanish Republicans or Jews during World War II. Like most North African immigrants to France, they suffered racism from the French, but they also faced the hostility of other Algerians. The children of Harkis, who grew up in a world that gave little credit to anyone who had fought for French Algeria, sometimes came to despise their fathers.

Crapanzano also discusses his own discomfort. He repeats horrifying stories—about how dead babies were buried inside a camp during the first terrible winter of 1962 and about how a teacher tied a Harki schoolboy to a chair with barbed wire and left him overnight. However, Crapanzano does not necessarily believe everything he is told or expect his readers to do so. He draws attention to the contradictions in the Harkis’ accounts of their experiences. He is worried that his Harki interlocutors will expect him to act as a spokesman, and he makes much of the repetitive, almost ritualized quality of Harki complaints, which he frequently describes with the word “litany.”

I must confess that Crapanzano’s book made me feel uncomfortable for reasons that the author may not have intended. Perhaps I am just missing the point, and because Crapanzano is keen to ensure that writers put their subjectivity at the center of their work, I should say that my attempts to follow his argument may have been hindered by the fact that I threw the book down in exasperation on several occasions. Crapanzano advertises his own skepticism and reproaches other scholars for having accepted accounts at face value, but he occasionally plucks “facts” from existing secondary literature as a child might pluck cherries from a cake. We are, for example, told that “two hundred…protestors were killed and dumped in the Seine” after the demonstrations of October 17, 1961. Yet scholars, most of whom Crapanzano does not cite, are divided about how many people died in the Paris Massacre. It is possible that 200 people were killed—though any skeptical person must surely ask whether the authorities could have got away with throwing 200 bodies into a river that runs through a city full of journalists and foreign tourists.

I suspect that Crapanzano’s work has as much to do with conflicts in the American anthropological profession as it does with conflict in France or Algeria. He seems to regard a concern for the nuts and bolts of empirical research as being rather vieille école. We get glimpses of how he might have carried out his research: I gather that he worked mainly among Harkis in certain areas of southern France and that he proceeded by “conversation” rather than formal interviews. However, the laying out of research methodology that might normally be associated with an academic book is conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps Crapanzano would regard me as laughably naïve for asking to know more about how many interviews he conducted, or how he chose his subjects, or why he considers them to be representative.

Potential sources are weighed up in a judgmental and arbitrary way. We are told about Crapanzano’s “conversations with the more sensitive Harki children” or that “Azzedine…was psychologically more sensitive than Belkacem.” Sweeping conclusions are sometimes drawn from what seems quite limited evidence. For example, Crapanzano advances a comparison of Muslim and European attitudes to history and fate that seems to be based, in part, on his having talked to a few apparently drunk Harkis hanging around the edge of a cité. There is a heavy use of literary sources, with Crapanzano acting as both literary critic (judging artistic value) and historian (judging the extent to which works reflect reality). He tells us, for example, that a novel “however sentimental, is a fairly accurate extrapolation of camp life.” Crapanzano is keen on literary references of all kinds: one paragraph begins with him rereading Dante and finishes with his speculating about what Sartre might have said about something. He is also fond of citing theorists (Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler) in passages that read remarkably like “litanies.”

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Martin Evans’s Algeria: France’s Undeclared War is a more conventional book—though not, I think, any less worthy for it. Above all, this is a book that stresses the complexities of the Algerian War. There was never a united movement in favor of Algerian independence. Some Algerians were willing, for a wide variety of reasons, to fight for the French or, at least, to support the French presence. Nationalist leaders imposed themselves on the Algerian population partly by violence, and there were moments when they feared that the French would command more support than themselves.

Nationalists were divided. The FLN suppressed the rival Mouvement National Algérien. The FLN leadership was also divided. Divisions were particularly sharp between those leaders who lived in exile and those who fought inside Algeria. Disagreement could have dramatic consequences. In 1958 the FLN announced the death in action of Abbane Ramdane: “We weep for a brother in arms whose memory will guide us.” Abbane had, in fact, been strangled by a rival FLN leader. In 1960 a division in the FLN produced one of the most extraordinary episodes of the war. Si Salah, an FLN commander who was worried about the casualties that the French were inflicting on his men and about the apparent indifference of the FLN leadership outside Algeria, made contact with the French authorities and discussed the possibility of a deal. In June he was spirited into Paris and taken, in the dead of night, to the Élysée Palace, where he met de Gaulle, who, with a characteristic instinct for the right gesture, announced, “We are fighting each other, so I will not shake your hand, but I will salute you.” Negotiations came to nothing, perhaps because de Gaulle had, by then, lost interest in any deal that might keep Algeria French. Si Salah was killed a year later.

The Algerian people were divided in ways that went beyond the explicit politics of the nationalist movements. Some of these divisions were racial. Algeria’s substantial Jewish population had enjoyed French citizenship since the 1870s, but most of its members had been in Algeria for hundreds of years before the French invasion and had often suffered from anti-Semitism at the hands of the French. One curious feature of the 1950s was that Jews in Algeria came increasingly to feel that their future lay with France, to which most of them migrated in 1962, while some Jews with origins in mainland France, notably the Communist Henri Alleg, threw in their lot with the FLN.

Evans is particularly good on the role of women in the Algerian War. The French made much of their own efforts in “emancipating” Algerian women—and in 1958 the French Army orchestrated a scene in which women removed their veils to symbolize their attachment to integration. There were women fighters with the FLN—the most notable of whom was probably Djamila Bouhired, who planted a bomb in an Algiers milk bar and was subsequently tortured by the French. She is portrayed in The Battle of Algiers, and in a particularly striking doubled-edged scene she is one of three women who dress in European clothes before launching an attack.

Often, Algerian women were victims of both sides. As she was taken prisoner, Bouhired was shot in the back by one of her comrades, who feared that she might give up information about him. Once in captivity, some women were raped. French officers, even those who admit to having tortured, are reluctant to discuss rape, and Algerian nationalists were equally reticent about the matter. The horrors of all this were revealed by the case of Mohamed Garne. His mother, 15 at the time, had been married to a man who supported the FLN. In 1959 she was captured and raped by French soldiers. Mohamed was born, despite crude attempts by the soldiers to make his mother abort, in April 1960. Brought up by foster parents, he eventually found his mother, apparently driven mad with grief, living in a cemetery. He extracted compensation from the French government in 2001 and published his story in a book with a title that would not fit neatly into either French or Algerian national myths: Français par le crime, j’accuse!

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The French were also divided. A relatively small proportion took a clear stand on one side or the other. Some supported the rebels. Another group—of settlers, army officers and a few politicians from the mainland—were willing to pay almost any price to avoid Algerian independence. This latter group supported the generals’ putsch of 1961, which had been designed to overthrow de Gaulle when it became clear that he was going to withdraw from Algeria. Such people also joined the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, which launched savage attacks on anyone, French or Algerian, who seemed to countenance independence. Most French people, however, did not belong to these extremes. Conscripts resented being sent to Algeria and sometimes sought to disrupt their departure, but they rarely deserted or took up arms for the FLN.

That ends and means did not align as clearly as Pontecorvo’s Mathieu suggested they should made matters more complicated still. There were French officers who wanted to defend French Algeria but believed that this should be done without torture. Jacques Pâris de la Bollardière was such a man, and he endured a period in military prison for protesting the methods his fellow officers were using. Equally, men who were ruthless about means were not necessarily committed to the end. Aussaresses was the most explicit apologist for torture by the French Army, but he was also a loyal Gaullist who, unlike some of his peers, did not join the rebellion against de Gaulle in 1961.

De Gaulle’s own views about Algeria were less clear-cut than he or his numerous enemies, who blamed him for a calculated betrayal, claimed. Unlike many French officers, he had never served in the Empire and he felt no particular emotional attachment to Algeria; indeed, his passionate attachment to France as an abstraction often left him detached from particular people or places. His supporters, however, certainly expected him to defend French Algeria in 1958, and he gave them no reason to suppose that this expectation would be confounded. He shouted, “Vive l’Algérie française!” in front of a crowd in Mostaganem in June of that year. As time went on, however, his statements became increasingly marked by his considerable capacity for studied ambiguity. He talked of offering the FLN a “peace of the brave” (October 1958), “auto-determination” (September 1959) and “Algérie Algérienne” (November 1960).

Overall, de Gaulle’s evolving position seems to have been governed by three things. The first of these was ruthlessness. He was rarely moved by the fate of individuals. Many hated the humiliation that the Algerian people had suffered for years or the atrocities that were inflicted on them during the war; others dreaded having to uproot European settlers from their homes or having to tell French soldiers that their comrades had died for nothing. De Gaulle, by contrast, focused on what he saw as the interests of France. When a Muslim Algerian member of the French Parliament, who had lost relatives to the FLN, told de Gaulle that Muslims loyal to France would suffer, de Gaulle said, “Eh bien. Vous souffrirez.” Second, de Gaulle was a racist. He did not believe that 10 million Muslims could be absorbed into France. This made him dubious about talk of “integration” in Algeria. Third, de Gaulle believed that, to quote one of his most famous phrases, “France must marry her century.” He came to sympathize with arguments, first advanced by Raymond Cartier, that empire retarded economic growth. France’s future lay in the glistening technologies of the 1960s, not in dusty nostalgia for “l’Algérie du Papa.”

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What does writing about the Algerian War tell us about the world now? The slightly trite talk of travail de mémoire can make us overstate the extent to which discussion of the war has changed France or Algeria. Whatever was said in public, people on both sides of the Mediterranean always knew that the war had been one of exceptional brutality—though Algerians may feel that it was overshadowed by the bloody conflict that their own government has fought more recently with Islamist militants.

Curiously, the country where memory of the Algerian War matters most is, in some ways, the United States. American forces first “liberated” Algeria, from the rule of Vichy France, in November 1942. They installed General Giraud (one of the first of those military rulers in whom postwar American diplomacy was to place such faith) and spent several months trying, and failing, to ensure that he, rather than de Gaulle, was recognized as leader of the anti-Vichy French. The United States also played an important part in pressing European countries to decolonize after 1945; Albert Camus, who had been born in Algeria, warned the colonized to think carefully about who might replace the Europeans.

There was a renewed burst of discussion about Algeria immediately before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and at the beginning of George Bush’s “war on terror.” Though this war has often been associated with a visceral hostility toward the French, it has also been accompanied by a fascination for the French war in Algeria. In 2007 Bush invited Alistair Horne, the author of an early history of the Algerian War, to the White House; he seems to have been concerned to know what lessons he might draw for American conduct in Iraq. As for American army officers, it is said that many of them—Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal in particular—are fascinated by the novels that Jean Lartéguy wrote about French soldiers in Indochina and Algeria.

There is, however, a danger in many firsthand accounts of the Algerian War. French Army officers have always been more articulate and literary than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, and they are probably even more prone to self-dramatization. Hélie de Saint Marc was a resistance fighter who was caught and sent to Buchenwald at the age of 21; on his return he joined the Foreign Legion and served in Indochina and Algeria before being imprisoned in France for having supported the 1961 putsch. His numerous autobiographical works read like novels. Indeed, novels and autobiographies about Algeria often blend into one another, and some fictional characters have obvious real-life models (Lartéguy had himself been a paratrooper). Accounts from the two sides of the political spectrum sometimes also blend into one another: for all his sympathy for the FLN, Pontecorvo’s depiction of the French paratroopers—brutal but honorable men who sometimes had more in common with their FLN opponents than with civilians—could have been derived from the novels of Lartéguy.

What can be easily forgotten is that most people caught up in the war left no accounts. Ali La Pointe is probably the FLN fighter best known to people outside Algeria: he is the central figure in The Battle of Algiers. But he was an illiterate laborer who died at 27. We have remarkably little idea of what he really thought or what he and his comrades said to one another as they huddled in their hiding place in the last moments before the French Army blew them up. As for ordinary Algerians, we see their experience only in heartbreaking glimpses. I leave you with this account by a left-wing French conscript:

We had taken some prisoners that day…. So there was the standard clamp-down on the village so that the Resistance—note that I use the word ‘Resistance’—would lose popular support. This old bloke came up to me and our lads started bawling abuse at him. I leapt to [his] defence out of simple respect for old folk…. [He] said to me: ‘Come on, see if you can see my son.’ I had a look and then said: ‘He’s not there.’ And we had killed him. There had been some executions and some attempts to escape. The old bloke said to me: ‘Here you are, I brought this for him.’ I felt sick…. The old bloke had given me two eggs and a little round loaf.

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