A Savage War of Peace

A Savage War of Peace - Alistair HorneI knew almost nothing of the war of liberation in Algeria, and Horne’s A Savage War of Peace was an enormous introduction (624 pages worth), bringing immense satisfaction at finishing it. It is brilliantly crafted history, slow going but fairly enthralling none the less, and a wonderful management of detail. It is as balanced and critical as the author can make it I think, exploring the critical events and the political machinations of the war on both sides. For an aerial view of everything that happened, explored with all the benefits of both hindsight as well as the immediacy of interviews with almost all of the key figures surviving on both sides, this is a good place to start in understanding the conflict. And it is full of sidelights of the humorous and pulpy details of plots and spies and bungling that I confess with a sense of almost shame, I enjoyed immensely.

For all that it is written by a European (of neither France nor Algeria), and despite his best efforts and his deep critique of France’s role, it is still the French and the pied noir that A Savage War of Peace understands best, while Algerians themselves remain for the most part inscrutable and ‘other’. I am reading now the journal of the author Mouloud Feraoun, which has broken my heart in two and left me far more critical of Horne’s account because it exemplifies what is missing — the understanding of a colonised people finally standing up, along with the day to day fear, violence, death, descriptions of torture, hunger, loss, conflicted feelings about the FLN even while fully supporting their struggle.

Three things primarily struck me in reflecting back on it. First, how little I know of French history and how hugely important Algeria was in its history, as Horne summarises:

The war in Algeria — lasted almost eight years, toppled six French Prime Ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.

The second is how closely it parallels the settling of the United States, and how much the white mobs in defense of their land and their privilege reminded me of the white mobs I have studied in the US…defending their land and their privilege. On the French policy of ‘pacification’:

Said Bugeaud in a renowned statement before the National Assembly in 1840: “Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colons, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong. (30)

That is the foundation of it all, conquest and a refusal to give up its fruits. Part of that was the destruction of anything Algerian that could offer up resistance, primarily the policy of breaking up great traditional families

because we found them to be forces of resistance. We did not realise that in suppressing the forces of resistance in this fashion we were also suppressing our means of action. The result is that we are today confronted by a sort of human dust on which we have no influence and in which movements take place which are to us unknown.
— Jules Cambon, governor-general 1894 (p37)

This quote struck me, both in its poetic racism and in the sad reality of colonialism that seeks to destroy any sense of strength and sociality with such a tremendous human cost. Dust in the eyes of the oppressor, a terrifying analogy, for who cares what you do with dust? Lives shorn of culture and mutual support and richness in the experience of the oppressed, though of course they strive to conserve, protect, rebuild what they can.

The third is how this conflict, and that in Indochina, flowed naturally from World War II and calls into question much of what I thought I knew. It reverse polarities, putting people who might have been my heroes for their role in the resistance, for their sufferings in the concentration camps, in an alliance with fascists. I cannot fundamentally understand it, just as I cannot understand the oppression of the Palestinians by Israelis.

The list of generals — paras from both Indochina and Algeria — all heroes of WWII, leaders of resistance, many in concentration camps:

Ducournau, Trinquier, Bigeard, Brothier, Meyer, Jeanpierre, Fossey-François, Château-Jobert, Romain-Defossés, Coulet.

This is a long list. They took what they had learned in fighting fascism in Europe and applied it to the oppression of both the Vietnamese and the Algerians fighting a war of liberation, and they were both efficient and murderous.

One of the key figures of the revolt and attempted coup against de Gaulle was:

The slender St Cyrien, Jean Gardes…The only son of a Parisian heroine of the Reisistance, who had run a cell through her well-known Restaurant des Ministères on the Rue Ministères on the Rue du Bac, Gardes himself had won no less than twenty-four citations for bravery and been severely wounded with the Tiralleurs Marocains in Italy. (354)

He worked in Indo-China and Algeria, and was put in charge of the Cinquième Bureau, with its ‘potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare’…

It is not just that they were heroes of the resistance, these men appropriated symbols of uprising from their history, drawing parallels from the French Revolition and the Paris Commune. In describing the brains behind the fascist OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète), Pierre Serjent writes of him: ‘rigid comportment and incisive speech, Jean Jacques Susini evoked in me … the image of St Just.’ (482)

Of the uprising led by the FNF (Front National Français — it would later fold into the OAS), Horne writes (and is he prompted in this by interviews with the men or simply on his own? It hurts me to think of the Commune in this fashion):

At Ortiz’s “command post” there was chaos reminiscent of the headier days of the Paris Commune; everybody talked, gave orders and made speeches in an atmosphere dense with Bastos cigarette-smoke, the smell of sweat and beer. In the street below some young members of the FNF began spontaneously to prise up paving-stones and create a barricade… (361)

With the same results:

With remarkable speed, army pioneers got to work, bulldozing the barricades, replacing the pavé and covering it with a thick, prophylactic layer of bitumen — as Paris had done after her “troubles” in the nineteenth century (373)

It was not just the French who were decorated war heroes in this conflict. In thinking about the turn to armed uprising as opposed to non-violence (which I think we tend to support more now on this end of history, both for philosophical and well as very practical reasons as the terrain of war has shifted), for those emerging from the celebrated armed struggle against German fascism, what could be more obvious or natural? How could they just return to be oppressed by the same people they had fought alongside of in a war for freedom and justice? This is again another parallel with returning soldiers of colour to the US no longer content to put up with second-class citizenship.

Just one example: The FLN’s external campaign to influence the United Nations was led by M’hamed Yazid and Abdelkader Chanderli —  Chanderli had fought in the French campaign of 1940, escaped to Britain to join de Gaulle, in 1948 a reporter on Palestine, and in 1954 he was working for UNESCO.

This same war created a wave of displaced Nazis seeking to occupy themselves, some of them, for money I am sure, ended up on the side of colonised peoples as arms-dealers:

On the ground floor were a group of ex-Nazis who had found refuge in Cairo and had made themselves useful to Nasser; among them a former S.S. man called Ernst-Wilhelm Springer, who had helped form the pro-German Muslim Legion in the Second World War… (262)

Racism and colonial struggle have clearly wrecked havoc on the ideology, on the sense of what is just and an instinctive knowledge of which side is the right one that is usually portrayed as being so clear in WWII. Obviously, it was not.

Horne also quotes Marighela, Brazilian revolutionary, and his ideas of destroying the ‘soft centre’ thus forcing the authorities to negotiate with the revolutionaries — a tactic used both by the FLN (learning from the use of Bao Dai to undercit Ho Chi Minh in negotiations in Vietnam) and the FNF in their khaki shirts.

Heading one of the chapters is this interesting quote:

No, all Algeria is not fascist, all the French are not “ultras”, all the army doesn’t torture. But Fascism, the “ultras”, and torture, they are France in Algeria (Pierre Nora, 1961)

Krim Belkacem, negotiating for the FLN in Switzerland, helps understand why.

A European population has been created, heterogenous in its origins, but soldered together by its integration within French nationality… It has benefited from exorbitant privileges … Independence is going to pose the problem of these Europeans. (471)

It is not until reading Feraoun that I have gotten the full sense of these privileges, you cannot from Horne.

Nor is he able to explain why the same men who had fought the fascism of Germany could fight on the side of fascism in Algeria, but there is one fascinating quote from him:

To begin at the beginning, in November 1954 France was caught at a major disadvantage because, in contrast to Britain over India, no French politician, not even Mendes-France or Mitterand, let alone the Communists, could contemplate any kind of French withdrawal from Algeria. Mollet the Socialist echoed Mendes-France the Radical: “France without Algeria would be no longer France.” (545)

It is a repetition of France and Haiti which I find so immensely chilling. How, you wonder, can entire peoples replay over and over again the same inabilities? To turn to Trouillot’s discussion of why France of the period of Enlightenment and the revolution would oppose to its last breath the revolution of Haiti and its struggle for freedom:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

There is no such historical distance for France of 1956-1962. How was Algerian freedom after WWII still unthinkable?

Horne keeps returning to this phrase — Algérie montait à la tête
(Algeria goes to the head, Louis Joxe). Perhaps there is something to this, given how hard men fought to keep it when they had no prior roots or connection there. But I think most of the answer lies in the pattern of settlement — dense and deep-rooted as it was in the U.S., South Africa, Australia… I imagine what US history would have been if the genocide of Native Americans had not been quite so effective, if enough had survived this horror to outnumber white settlers and they had been able to carry out a struggle for liberation with such armed effectiveness. The reaction might have been even more violent than that of the French. The ongoing abolition-civil rights-black lives matter movements have been enough to inspire lynchings, riots and massive destruction.

The countries that the right — composed as it was by heroes of the resistance — considered sympathetic? Portugal, Spain, Israel, and South Africa.

Nor were the French restrained in their violence or determination. This included a policy of massive resettlement beginning in 1957:

This was regroupement, or resettlement, which — to rephrase the oft-quoted axiom — aimed at emptying the water away from the fish by isolating communities from the FLN and thus denying it refuge and supplies. It involved the resettlement of over a million peasants from ‘exposed’ communities to barbed-wire encampments, which often looked horribly like concentration camps (220)

When de Gaulle finally decided he would allow Algeria independence it was only a signal to increase terror. This declaration of the OAS shows that some of the settlers were willing to destroy everything to stop the peace process moving forward. Their goals as they articulated them were:

to paralyse the powers that be and make it impossible for them to exercise authority. Brutal actions will be generalised over the whole territory. They will aim at influential personalities of the Communist Party, at works of art and all that represents the exercise of authority, in a manner to lead towards the maximum of general insecurity and the total paralysis of the country. (516)

When peace talks began in Evian, the OAS assassinated the mayor and declared it an act of ‘national sulubrity’ (467).

Over the years French policy had also included a wide use of torture. Again, it is only in Feraoun that you get a sense of what this actually meant, but an interesting aside is the sense that torture is something the police do, not the army. I feel there is something psychologically important here to understand about oppression, but I am not sure what it is:

Certainly the pernicious effect on the French army as a whole lasted many years after the war had ended, and many officers came to agree with General Bollardie in condemning Massu for ever having allowed the army to be brought into such a police action in the first place, thus inevitably exposing it to the practice of torture (206).

The most pernicious effects, in reality, were suffered by Algerians, throughout the war and long after the war was over. On the situation of Algerians in France:

by 1973 they were close on 800,000. For the most part these Algerians lived like third-class citizens, their plight concealed from the eyes of other Frenchmen. Existing in rat-infested bidonvilles, or six to a tenement room, without women and on the poor food that their rock-bottom wages would provide, over eighty percent of the Algerian workers performed the traveaux pénibles; generally the heavy, dangerous or distasteful labour eschewed by Frenchmen…

In the summer of 1973 a bus driver had throat slit by an Algerian and terror was renewed:

whites machine gunned Algerian cafes in the city and threw Molotov cocktails into their lodgings; a sixteen-year old boy was shot down by men in a moving car. In Toulouse fifty paras rampaged through the streets on a ratonnade, beating up any North African they encountered. (550)

Just a final note before getting to the spy-novel details in which fascists are humiliated (a nice way to end), I was saddened (though not surprised I suppose) at the role ethnologists played in this. Jacques Soustelle was first an ethnologist, and then governor-general. Originally of the left, he soon shifted. Ethonlogist Germaine Tillion was part of the resistance, tortured by the Gestapo. She took the part of Algerians but was still instrumental in forming the policies of government support that formed the carrot that Soustelle hoped would neutralise the uprising for freedom when carried out alongside armed repression and torture. Another ethnologist Jean Servier, in 1957 started developing the harki units — light companies of Alegrian muslims that exploited the divisions between tribes, between Kabyles and Arabs and tried to attract FLN defectors.

There is one bright spot of academic solidarity, however:

…on hearing of his death [Ali Boumendjel] his former mentor, René Capitant, Professor of Public Law at the University of Paris, informed the Minister of Education that he was suspending his courses.  (233)

So now, some of the dark humour to be found in this terrible place:

 Bigeard had that particularly French quality of allure essential to an outstanding commander. He seldom did anything without panache. Instead of arriving by staff car or even helicopter, his favourite manner of inspecting a unit was to drop by parachute, arm at the salute as he touched down

The footnote is even more ridiculous:

This nearly ended in disaster when Bigeard, by now nearing sixty and a senior genera;, was dropped into a shark-infested sea by mistake during a visit to troops in Madagascar. He broke an arm but was saved by his faithful staff who had parachuted into the sea with him. (168)

They should have left him to the sharks, the poetic justice in that is almost unbearable.

The Algerians ran guns using the Queen of Jordan’s private yacht.

On the French Foreign Legion (actually mostly German apparently):

As an elite body it still enjoyed the best food in the army and was accompanied wherever it went by its own mobile brothels — “le puff”. (169)

There was an attempt by the right to blow up Salan (a key figure in all this, who would move as far right as anyone) with a bazooka, the conspirators? ‘Dr Kovacs, the ex-Hungarian doctor and hypnotist…and George Wattin, alias “The Limp”‘ (182)

The bad-assness of Algerian freedom fighters:

Azedine had had his right forearm shattered by a 50 mm. calibre bullet. For two days he lay in a coma, apparently half-blinded with pain, buy had refused the ministrations of even the primitive A.L.N. field hospital, dressing and removing splinters of bone from the wound himself. (252)

On Pierre Lagaillarde, fascist student leader (and by god, the French students were all fascists in this tale):

the forebear with whom Lagaillarde liked most to identify himself was his great-grandfather, an obscure deputy and revolutionary called Baudin who had found immortality in the 1851 uprising against Louis-Napoleon. Leaping on top of a barricade and crying “I’ll show you how one dies for twenty-five sous a day,” he had been promptly shot. (278)

I don’t know why that made me laugh out loud. But it did. Another interesting note, as part of the mob action on 13 may 1958 that seized the government, and the Gouvernement-Général…the students led  by Lagaillarde hurled down the bust of Marianne in the foyer. I can barely handle the symbolism.

Horne uses the expression to ‘cock a snook’. I have no comments on that.

A dude calling himself ‘Le Monocle’ was put in charge of the OAS terror campaign in Paris.

During the attempt at a putsch on Thursday, 20 April 1961:

Godard, the master intelligence operator, in the excitement of arriving had mislaid in a public corridor his briefcase containing all details of the putsch (448).

And again

…some of the waiting putschists apparently unaware even of the codeword Arnat… Once they were rendered leaderless by Faure’s arrest, no orders came through until a detachment of gendarmes appeared in the forest and gave a brusque order to disperse with which the powerful body of paras sheepishly complied. (454)

There were a few bright spots in the struggle to make our world bearable.


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