On April 26, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced the creation of a memorial for the soldiers who died during France’s bloody war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which ended in humiliating defeat and the loss of the empire’s most prized possession. It was among the most savage of colonial wars: Of the 1.7 million French soldiers who served in Algeria from 1954 to 1962, 30,000 never returned; between 300,000 and a million Algerians were killed, and hundreds of thousands were placed in concentration camps, where torture was routine. Until two years ago, when it finally acknowledged having fought a war in Algeria, the French government referred to the conflict as les événements—the events.
In case there were any doubts as to what these young men died defending, there was Paul Aussaresses, an 83-year-old general wearing an eye patch and the cross of the Legion of Honor. In an interview with Le Monde last November, Aussaresses confessed, without a note of remorse, to torturing and executing Algerian militants. Even so, no one, certainly not Jospin, was prepared for the incendiary memoir that Aussaresses was to publish ten days later.
The book, Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, has riveted the French, stirring long-suppressed memories of the “war without a name” and generating calls for an official declaration of repentance and judicial action against its author. It is a remarkable document, both for what it reveals of France’s crimes in Algeria and for what it reveals of the miscarriage of justice that took place after the war.
When Aussaresses arrived in Algeria in 1955, he was a hero, having carried out a series of daring intelligence missions across enemy lines for de Gaulle’s Free French forces. In Algeria, he quickly acquired a mastery of the very tactics that he had feared would be applied to him had he been caught by the Gestapo. Electrodes to the eyes and testicles, half-drownings, beatings—he stopped at nothing in his efforts to get his suspects to crack. After torturing and killing his first Arab, he writes with a disturbing detachment that calls to mind Camus’s Mersault: “I thought of nothing. I had no regrets over his death—if I had any regrets, it was because he did not talk.”
Aussaresses’s book sheds light on some of the most important unresolved mysteries of the war, notably the deaths of Larbi Ben M’Hidi, an FLN leader, and of Ali Boumendjel, a prominent Algerian attorney. The French have always maintained that both men committed suicide. In fact, Aussaresses meticulously arranged their deaths—and, one suspects, many others—to look as if they were suicides. Boumendjel, he reports, was thrown from a rooftop after having been tortured for forty-three days. Aussaresses drove Ben M’Hidi to a farm outside Algiers, where the prisoner was strangled to death.
The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an early opponent of the war, told Le Monde, “One must take this book for what it is, the memoirs of an assassin.” True enough. But Aussaresses was not alone. He was no more a rogue agent than the Vichy collaborators Maurice Papon and René Bousquet were—or than Bob Kerrey and his men were in the jungle of Vietnam. Aussaresses is well aware of this fact. In torturing and executing suspects, he says he was simply employing the “special powers” that he had been granted in 1956 by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet, with the support of the Communist Party. According to Aussaresses, François Mitterrand, Mollet’s justice minister, had “an emissary…in the person of the judge Jean Berard, who covered for us…. I had the best possible relationship with him and I never hid anything from him.”
Aussaresses’s book has inspired widespread revulsion; 56 percent of the French have expressed support for an official apology and legal action against officers who ordered torture. Prime Minister Jospin, who insists that torture was “an aberration,” has firmly rejected the idea of a parliamentary inquiry, proposing further “scientific research” by historians. President Jacques Chirac, who served in Algeria and says he is “horrified” by the book, has initiated proceedings to strip the general of his uniform.
Unfortunately, nothing more is likely to come of the indignation roused by Aussaresses’s book. There is a ten-year statute of limitations on war crimes in France, and the broader definition of “crimes against humanity” applies only to abuses committed since 1994. The generals of Algeria also enjoy the protection of amnesties granted in 1962 and 1968. In mid-May, a French court threw out a suit against Aussaresses for “crimes against humanity” by the International Federation for Human Rights. The general’s actions, the court opined, are “in all likelihood covered by the amnesty of July 31, 1968.” It will require extraordinary audacity for any French politician to challenge these legal obstacles. Meanwhile, Paul Aussaresses can talk about his crimes, which are also France’s crimes, without fear of punishment. His freedom is a grim reminder that when nations fail to settle their accounts with torture, it is torturers who have the last laugh.