A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962
At midday on March 19, 1962, the cease-fire came into effect and finished the seven-year war between the French and the Algerians. I was sitting at a table in a tiny Moslem café on the edge of the Algiers Casbah. There were two other men at the table, both responsables of the FLN. The glasses of mint tea cooled in front of us and we watched the clock.
Outside, the Moslem crowd flowed back and forth along the narrow Rue Randon, and a few boys, balancing against the stream like trout, watched me with black eyes. I looked at them, and again at the clock, and then at the hands of the men with me. There were two things about those hands. First, they were fibrillating with a fine, ceaseless tremor. Secondly, the fingers ended in a flatness where the nails had been torn out.
We looked at the clock once more, and it was twelve. Nothing seemed to happen, and then, within ten seconds, we were aware that the stream past the door had changed its flow somehow, as if rocks were obstructing it. I went to the door and saw that men in civilian clothes with green-and-white armbands had appeared in the street and were policing the crowd. The ALN, the Army of National Liberation, had come out into the open and begun to rule their country.
It wasn’t the end of the killing, which had cost perhaps half a million lives and was still to cost many more. The huge structure of French Algeria, which had been founded in 1830 and which had brought a European population of a million and more to the country, was in its terrible and prolonged death-agony. Most of the pieds noirs (white settlers) had already left their farms and little shops upcountry and had fallen back on the cities of Algiers and Oran. The OAS, a last-ditch resistance movement of pieds noirs, mutinous soldiers, and professional neo-fascists, was fighting in the cities to stop the world turning, to rescue Algérie française even after the clock had come to twelve.
This Algeria went mad as it died. There were the two European girls, stepping casually over the dead man on the pavement and across the torrent of blood which sprang out of his skull and hurried down the gutter, carrying dust and flower petals. There was the tree in the Place du Gouvernement with human flesh on its branches: the OAS had mortared a bus crowd, but across the square the pieds noirs sat undisturbed in the café and finished their Ricard. The scream of widows diving down after the coffin, the smell of hot steel on the armored cars which guarded Frenchmen from Frenchmen, the night curtains suddenly sweeping to the ceiling as the bombs began their ponderous march across the Casbah.
The coming of Moslem Algeria seemed like the prospect of a cool, green tide, washing away the whole insanity and bringing the city at last to silence. And, in a way, it was like that. Although the Evian agreements guaranteed them temporary security, the whole pied noir population broke in the end and fled to France, to Corsica, to Spain. The Algerians settled their own accounts with Moslems who had served the French, but settled them in their own private manner. We know now that many thousands were slaughtered after the independence of Algeria, but few outsiders knew at the time—and most would not have cared.
It was five years before I came back. Algiers had become a quiet place, even shabby. There were new street names. There were few cafés or restaurants. All the demonic intensity of the pied noir population, the most Mediterranean of all peoples, drawn as they were from France, Spain, Italy, Corsica, had evaporated with them. The pavements were rather empty, cracked in places. Algerian friends did not reminisce about the war, and seemed indeed to have half forgotten it. Ministers spoke with passion about the Palestine question. The one French-language paper observed the party line and had few pages. Far back upcountry, it appeared, enormous projects were beginning to grow, and the landless workers were ploughing up the vineyards for wheat.
In Algiers, I met again one of the men from the café off the Rue Randon. There was a hot silence at midday, and in the Bassin de l’Agha a Soviet freighter was releasing an endlessly tall white cypress of steam. I asked him how things were. He said: “Morose, ma foi, morose….”
It is very strange, as well as laudable, that Alistair Horne’s is the first comprehensive history of the Algerian war to appear in English. The French themselves have not done much better, but then they were defeated. Edward Behr wrote his excellent The Algerian Problem in 1961, before the war had finished, and since then the war has been effectively forgotten. And it is even more interesting that Algerians speak so little about it in private with a stranger. I was reminded of that disconcerting oblivion—or reluctance to remember—which I found in Algeria by the reports of foreign correspondents visiting Hanoi and “Ho Chi Minh City” in recent months. They too discovered that they had to squeeze their hosts to extract a wartime reminiscence.
This is puzzling to a European or an American. Our own victorious campaigns are the subject of written memoirs, films, saloon anecdotes, and nostalgia for at least all the decades left to those who survived them. I suspect that there is a distinction of nationalisms here. War is at the root of the European nation-state, which was in many cases created to wage it more effectively. Nations in the third world which have emerged through anti-imperialist struggle do not always make this identification. Krim and Boumedienne in Algeria formed great armies in order to establish their nation-state; they did not set up a modern centralized state apparatus in order to support a standing army. Revolutionary war must be fought in order to establish a revolutionary state, as the Algerians are fond of arguing to their brother-Arabs, but this does not mean that a patriot is a man who constantly dwells on his heroic years of combat. War is misery; misery—as poor peoples understand very well—is degrading. It is better to put it aside when it is over and find sounder matter for national pride in positive things—land reform, industrialization, a rising standard of living.
The Algerian war, all the same, was the most important of all the post-1945 anti-imperial wars—even more important than Vietnam. In spite of the presence of huge numbers of conscripted Moslems on the French side, it was a race war. The European settlement was over a century old and numbered something like 10 percent of the total population (in the city of Oran, the pieds noirs actually outnumbered the Moslems).
The settlers were not in the main rich, but were mostly small bourgeois, small farmers, artisans, often “poor whites” whose standard of living was not much higher than that of their Algerian neighbors. This differentiates the Algerian situation from that of Vietnam or Malaya, where on the whole very few whites stayed for a lifetime, and from that of Rhodesia where the white settlement is minute in numbers relative to the African population and where the difference in living standards is blatant and enormous. There is only one colonized country which bears comparison. It is the Republic of South Africa.
As Horne makes clear, all efforts—which were only fitful—to move Algeria in the direction of political equality were blocked by settler opposition, backed by their well-organized lobby in Paris. The Moslems had the benefit of a far more comprehensive educational system than a British colony ever offered its subjects, but at the same time Moslems were almost totally excluded from the administration. Algerians served in both world wars, not simply as cannon-fodder but often as officers, returning to a country where political rights were denied to them. The British device of “indirect rule” through existing native authorities was never tried, leading Jules Gambon, the governor general in the 1890s, to lament that there was no way to manipulate Moslem opinion: “we are confronted by a sort of human dust.”
In 1945, at Sétif, the victory parade turned into a Moslem political demonstration. Shots were fired at the crowd, which ran wild and massacred over a hundred Europeans. There followed one of the most terrible punitive onslaughts in colonial history. Bombers attacked villages, warships bombarded Moslem settlements; the Moslem death roll was anywhere between six and fifteen thousand. From then on, armed rebellion was inevitable. It was launched on All Saints Day, 1945, in the Aurès mountains. As Horne says, it was a token of the extremism that was to follow that among the first victims of the FLN were a pro-French Moslem leader and a liberal French schoolmaster.
The war which ensued had three aspects. There was the actual fighting, in the mountains and the cities, a war which the FLN (National Liberation Front) did not win in the military sense but which the French lost. Like the Americans in Vietnam, they lost the race to wipe the guerrillas out before their own political position in Algeria became untenable.
The French contained the first general onslaught. General Massu and his parachutists, aided by their staff of torturers, won the “battle of Algiers” in 1957 and broke the urban organization of the FLN. The electrified “Morice Line” was constructed to cut the guerrilla units off from their bases in Tunisia, and in 1959 General Challe went over to the offensive, pulverizing the rebel army’s forces in one mountain fastness after another. But it was too late. The huge French armies, led by the Indo-china veterans and inflated by hundreds of thousands of unwilling conscripts, were not able to exterminate their enemy before France’s will to resist Algerian independence collapsed under them.
The second aspect, and by far the best known, was the monstrous and interminable opera laid on by the Europeans. In 1958, the white mob, with the support of some military commanders, seized Algiers and threatened France, demanding a new regime that would guarantee the survival of a French Algeria. They brought down the Fourth Republic, but they got de Gaulle. From his first gnomic reassurances to the pieds noirs (“je vous ai compris“), de Gaulle moved in his own crabwise fashion toward the conviction that something—internal autonomy and political rights, and then, as the hopelessness of the struggle became clear to him, full independence—must be offered to the Algerians. As the settlers and generals realized that he meant to betray them, they turned to fresh insurrection in the name of “Algérie française.” But de Gaulle rode out three rebellions: the “Barricades” of 1960, the “Putsch” of the generals in 1961, and the last cornered-rat fury of the OAS in 1962.
That is a dry summary of events which scarred and twisted the consciousness of a French generation. Alistair Horne recounts them in their glaring color, with their raucous personalities. His book is a long and detailed work, vividly written and generous in its sympathies for men of honor—as some of the putschists were—trapped in impossible conflicts of conscience.
But it lacks deeper analysis. It is because we shall have to deal with South Africa next that we need to understand the political dynamics of the pieds noirs—and also because the question of northern Ireland continues to torment a corner of Europe. In retrospect it seems to me that the pieds noirs, like the Ulster Protestants, developed a form of insolubly distorted nationalism of their own. They formed a “nation,” a white Algeria, and yet the expression of their nationalism was the insistence that they were more French than the French. In fact, they were both in origin and customs un-French, closer to southern Spain or Sicily, just as Ulstermen are culturally more Irish than British. Delusion and political pathology begin when nationalism declares that it will resist its own nationhood. In northern Ireland, during the Ulster Workers’ Strike of 1974, there could be seen the typically nationalist phenomenon of “mediation”: the classic process by which an aggrieved middle-class group tries to persuade the masses that their grievances can also be solved by a change of flag. The Ulster Protestant version was to invent a quite fictitious category of “loyal Catholics” who were supposed to be forsaking the notion of a United Ireland and rallying to the Union Jack behind the strike’s leaders. They did not turn up.
In Algeria the pieds noirs and many of the soldiers persuaded themselves that millions of Moslems were rallying to France after the 1958 crisis: “tous Français de Dunkerque à Tamanrasset.” Again, this was utter delusion. For years, people talked feverishly of a “Moslem third force,” anxious for integration; many brave and idealistic Frenchmen went to work for it in remote villages and were murdered for their pains. There was no “third force.” From as early as 1956 or 1957, foreign observers could see that the Moslem population supported the FLN in its overwhelming majority. And the FLN, from start to finish, stood not for multi-racialism but for an Algerian Algeria in which the pieds noirs would have no rights.
The story of the FLN is the remaining component of Alistair Horne’s book. As he admits, it is not complete. Records are sparse, and the Algerians are among the most reticent people on earth. This revolution, moreover, followed the custom of devouring its children. Of the “neuf historiques,” the nine men who guided the rebellion in the first years, only one holds a position of power in Boumedienne’s Algeria. The rest are disgraced, imprisoned, or dead—some killed by the French, others by their own comrades.
In detail, the political history of the FLN and its leadership is infinitely complex and obscure, a succession of intrigues and power struggles of which the French knew little at the time. But in outline, as Mr. Horne constantly and rightly points out, it is very simple.
In the summer of 1956, the military and political leaders gathered for a conference in the remote Soummam valley. The Soummam Conference laid out objectives: independence, the full authority of the FLN provisional government, no separation of the Sahara and its oil deposits from Algeria, no cease-fire before the recognition of independence, no citizenship for the white colonists. And, throughout the years of war, through the first indirect and then direct negotiations with France, the FLN stuck to Soummam without compromise. They conceded nothing, and in the end wore down even de Gaulle. Like the Vietnamese, they knew that they could outlast and out-suffer their opponent, and they got what they wanted.
It was the hardest way, but, as so often in struggles of this kind, the way of safety. (What are the survival odds against those black Rhodesians who have been tempted to make a deal with the resourceful Mr. Ian Smith?) This is illustrated by Mr. Horne’s superb account of the “Si Salah affair,” in its time the secret of all secrets.
In late 1958, de Gaulle proposed a “paix des braves.” There would be an armistice, and Algeria would enter a five-year plan of economic and political development. The FLN, true to form, rejected it. But in 1960 the hard-pressed FLN commanders of the military region behind Algiers, led by Si Salah, let the French know that they would accept the “paix des braves.” They were taken to Paris, and met de Gaulle in person. But nothing came of it. Si Salah and his companions went back to the maquis and met their deaths in circumstances which do not exclude a possible French tip-off to the FLN. Alistair Horne, summing up the motives of “this prince of ambiguity,” suspects that, in a broad sense at least, de Gaulle sold Si Salah and his commanders out. This meeting was potentially by far the biggest single break in the war for the French. But de Gaulle was already looking beyond a mere armistice, local or total, and offering the FLN provisional government genuine negotiations for a settlement. He seems to have made sure that the FLN knew about Si Salah, and to have used the threat of accepting his cease-fire terms to press the FLN into opening negotiations. When they agreed to do so, Si Salah became dispensable. So much for the “paix des braves.”
Of all colonized peoples, the Algerians seemed the best qualified to make a success of revolution and independence. It is true the new state began with economic problems on a vast scale: unemployment at 25 percent, financial dependence upon France, and one of the highest birthrates in the world (3.5 percent per annum). But against that, the rebellion possessed a quite exceptionally large number of highly educated and technically qualified men and women, who had made a sophisticated synthesis of French socialism and the third world’s “religion of development.” And there were the oil and gas of the Sahara, just coming on stream.
But Algeria went the Russian way. Not in the sense of becoming a Soviet satellite as the French had predicted—the Communist Party was banned in 1963—but because the desperate economic situation and the political vacuum created by seven years of war and the sudden French collapse produced a party autocracy. During the Civil War, the Bolsheviks “substituted” their party for the scattered working class and retained that monopoly of power even when times grew easier. In Algeria, the FLN government of Ben Bella soon suppressed opposition and discussion within the movement, and in 1965 Ben Bella was overthrown by the army under a silent, red-headed, pathologically shy colonel called Houari Boumedienne. The dreams of the European left for Algeria, then, have been disappointed. For them, and above all for many thousands of Algerians who fought and suffered in the war, the experience of “Arab socialism” is “morose, morose.”
Morally conservative, politically austere, Algeria is developing its economy at the almost vertical growth rate of 14.3 percent a year. Boumedienne’s Cromwellian honesty has made him the steadiest and perhaps the most influential of Arab leaders. Algiers itself, disinfected by the green tide, is now in Horne’s words “like wartime Toronto on a Sunday.”
The French used to speak of “aimée et souffrante Algérie.” This was the sort of possessive love the Algerians could not tolerate, and it seemed to them that their suffering was somehow the condition of French love. Alistair Horne’s book revives all the passion of that relationship. But it was a relationship which had to pass through separation, hatred, and oblivion to be renewed in the last few years as a mutual rediscovery between “friends.” The seven years of struggle, which took so long to cool, are now ready to be studied. And in them, much of the remaining history of this century may be prefigured.
Are Ulstermen English? June 15, 1978