Camus, Algeria, and “The Fall”

Albert Camus
Albert Camus; drawing by David Levine

Camus’s political writings on the Algerian war are collected in Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) which he published in 1958. It is a depressing volume. The manner, in the post-1945 essays, is not so much that of Camus as that of the moderate bourgeois French journalism of the period: categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.

The Arab personality will be recognized by the French personality but in order for that to happen, France must exist. “You must choose your side,” cry the haters. Oh I have chosen it! I have chosen my country. I have chosen the Algeria of justice in which French and Arabs will associate freely!

He had one concrete idea during this early part of the war—that of a “truce for civilians.” He went to Algeria in January 1956 and presented this idea at a public meeting. The proposal was badly received. Camus was attacked by the Europeans, largely ignored by the Moslems. An informant of Albert Memmi spoke of his disappointment at Camus’s “sweet sister” speech.

The dual crisis of the autumn of 1956—Suez and Hungary—brought a closer assimilation of Camus’s position to that of the French right-of-center. He supported the Hungarian rebels—as did Sartre—but, unlike Sartre, drew “European” lessons from their action: “in spite of the dramatic bankruptcy of the traditional movements and ideals of the left, the real Europe exists united in justice and in liberty, confronting all tyrannies.”1 In relation to Suez, the only violence which he condemned was that of the language of Marshal Bulganin.2 In a message to French students on Hungary he acclaimed “that violent and pure force which drives men and peoples to claim the honor of living upright.”3 At the same time, he believed that as a result of the lesson of Hungary, “We will be less tempted to overwhelm our own nation, and it alone, under the weight of its historic sins. We will be more careful—without ceasing to demand from her all the justice of which she is capable—about her survival and her liberty.”4

The France whose survival was in question was a France which included Algeria: thus the rightness of the Hungarian rebellion provided a reason for putting down the Algerian one. In respect of methods, his position remained humane: torture was “as contemptible in Algiers as in Budapest.”5 Hope nonetheless resided exclusively in the Western camp:

The defects of the West are numberless, its crimes and its faults real. But in the last analysis, let us not forget that we are the only people who hold that power of improvement and emancipation which resided in the genius of freedom (le libre génie).6

Despite his revulsion from the methods of the repression, his position was necessarily one of support for repression, since he consistently opposed negotiation with the actual leaders of the rebellion, the FLN.…

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