A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

by Alistair Horne


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The Algerian War lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, returned de Gaulle to power, and came close to provoking a civil war on French soil. More than a million Muslim Algerians died in the conflict and as many European settlers were driven into exile. Above all, the war was marked by an unholy marriage of revolutionary terror and repressive torture.

Nearly a half century has passed since this savagely fought war ended in Algeria’s independence, and yet—as Alistair Horne argues in his new preface to his now-classic work of history—its repercussions continue to be felt not only in Algeria and France, but throughout the world. Indeed from today’s vantage point the Algerian War looks like a full-dress rehearsal for the sort of amorphous struggle that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s and that now ravages the Middle East, from Beirut to Baghdad—struggles in which questions of religion, nationalism, imperialism, and terrorism take on a new and increasingly lethal intensity.

A Savage War of Peace is the definitive history of the Algerian War, a book that brings that terrible and complicated struggle to life with intelligence, assurance, and unflagging momentum. It is essential reading for our own violent times as well as a lasting monument to the historian’s art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590172186
Publisher: New York Review Books
Publication date: 10/10/2006
Series: NYRB Classics Series
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 176,277
Product dimensions: 5.33(w) x 8.06(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

ALISTAIR HORNE is the author of eighteen previous books, including A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954—1962, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, How Far from Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805—1815 and the official biography of British prime minister Harold Macmillan. He is a fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and lives in Oxfordshire. He was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur in 1993 and received a knighthood in 2003 for his work on French history.  

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Algeria 1954-1962


Copyright © 2006 Alistair Horne
All right reserved.

Chapter One

"A Town of no Great Interest"

As long as you keep Algiers, you will be constantly at war with Africa; sometimes this war will seem to end; but these people will not hate you any the less; it will be a half-extinguished fire that will smoulder under the ash and which, at the first opportunity, will burst into a vast conflagration. Baron Lacuée, 1831

Sétif, 1945

The market town of Sétif sits haphazardly on a high and treeless plain some eighty miles west of Constantine. Even in early summer a thin, mean wind whirls up the dust along its rectilinear streets of typical French colonial design. Passing rapidly through it in March 1943, Churchill's Minister Resident in North Africa, Harold Macmillan, noted with the eye of a classical scholar that, in comparison with the nearby ruins of Trajan's Djemila, Sétif was "a town of no great interest".

On the morning of 8 May 1945, the inhabitants of this largely Muslim town were preparing for a mass march. It was V.E. Day; for Europe, the first day of peace following the Nazi capitulation the previous night.

All across the mother country, metropolitan France, there would be fervent celebrations to mark the end of the nightmare five years of defeat, occupation and the destructive course of liberation by herown allies. But compared with the frenzied joy of Armistice Day 1918, France's jubilation was somewhat muted by the sober backdrop. The scattering of antique cars that crepitated along the grands boulevards of Paris, propelled by cylinders of floppy bags of coal gas, perched on the roof like great duvets, symbolised the state of France herself. Plundered by the occupiers, bombed by the liberators, deprived of fuel and every raw material and fed by a crippled railway system, industry faced a grim struggle for rehabilitation. The épiceries were empty - and already there were grave menaces of industrial unrest. French society was riven; the hunting down of those who had collaborated (or were said to have collaborated) went on apace; politicians were already rending one another, as in the bad old days of the Third Republic, while an aggressive Stalinist Communist Party seemed poised for takeover. Such was the scene that confronted a generation of prematurely fatigued Frenchmen: those who had fought all the way from Lake Chad with Leclerc, or had more recently come limping home from deportation and the prisoner-of-war camps of Hitler's Reich. The prevailing note was perhaps struck by one returning veteran when he remarked to an American journalist: "That great world insomnia which is war has come to an end, once again." Like a weary insomniac, France too greeted the relieving dawn chiefly longing for one thing only - repose.

If it was liberation that a haggard France was feting that May day, that too was the magic word mobilising the Muslim community of Sétif. The difference was that the one was celebrating its return; the other, marching in quest of something it considered to be still denied it. Over the past weeks, hints of what might be to come had percolated through Algeria. There had been a mounting series of minor incidents against colons, as the European settlers were called; cars, and even children leaving school, had been stoned; fatmas, or domestic servants, told their employers that they had been warned no longer to work for them. On walls graffiti appeared overnight exhorting: "Muslims awaken!" "It's the Muslim flag that will float over North Africa!" Or, with more direct menace: "Français, you will be massacred by the Muslims!"

The hot-blooded colons riposted with aggressive scorn, laced with such epithets as sale race, which tripped all too readily off the tongue. Passions between the two communities had risen. Then, in mid-April, information had been received by the French authorities that a general insurrection was brewing, to be accompanied by widespread sabotage. The conspirators appeared to be a nationalist movement called the Patti du Peuple Algérien, or P.P.A., so as a precautionary measure its leader, Messali Hadj, was packed off into exile to the desert, thence to Brazzaville.

In contrast to the heavily colon-dominated enclaves round Oran and Algiers, Sétif was predominantly Muslim and had a long history of radical nationalism. But apart from this ground-swell of political discontent, there were more immediate economic motives for trouble. Algeria had suffered harshly from two years of crop failures, on top of severe hardships imposed by wartime shortages. Emergency rations normally stocked against the eventuality of famine had been depleted by the Vichy French for the benefit of Festung Europa; the black market had thrived, but was beyond the means of most Algerian peasants. Revisiting his native land that year, Albert Camus was horrified to find Kabyle children fighting with dogs for the contents of a rubbish bin. Although relatively rich compared with Kabylia, the countryside round Sétif had received no rain since January - and resentments had been fanned by the prosperous harvest reaped by the foreign-owned Compagnie Genevoise, which held nearly 15,000 hectares of the best farmlands.

If there was indeed to have been a concerted demonstration in favour of Algerian independence (although the evidence for this remains still inconclusive), there could hardly have been chosen a better day than V.E. Day; nor a better place in which to ignite the spark than Sétif. All Europe - and especially France - was rejoicing at deliverance from an occupying power; the United Nations Charter was about to be signed at San Francisco amid pious declarations of self-determination for subject peoples; while in Cairo birth had been given to the Arab League, a day of importance in the cause of Muslim independence everywhere. The French army was still largely preoccupied in Europe, and in Sétif itself there were no more than twenty gendarmes to maintain order.

There could be no question of M. Butterlin, the sub-prefect of Sétif, halting the 8 May parades. After all, were they not nominally celebrating the triumph of the mother country and her allies, and specifically processing to lay a wreath on the monument aux mort, in memory of the Algerian troops fallen in the recent conflict? And, in any case, how could his twenty gendarmes physically contain 8,000 Muslims pouring in from the outskirts of Sétif? At least, he decided, he would impose a strict ban against the march assuming any political character; above all, no seditious banners. But as soon as the procession had formed up outside the mosque, Butterlin received a telephone call from his chief of police, Commissaire Valère, that the demonstrators had, nevertheless, deployed banners bearing such provocative slogans as: "Vive Messali!" "Free Messali!" "For the Liberation of the People, Long Live Free and Independent Algeria!" They were also flourishing, for the first time, the green-and-white flag that had once been the standard of that legendary hero of resistance against the French, Abd-el-Kader, and was later to become that of the F.L.N. liberation movement. He at once ordered Valère to intervene and seize the banners. Valère warned that that might mean a fight (une bagarre). "All right," replied Butterlin, "then there'll be a fight."

At this point, as so often happens with such incidents, the record is obscure as to who actually fired the first shot. According to the investigating Tubert Commission, based on French police reports, Commissaire Valère was knocked down by a stone while trying to seize one of the offending banners, and had to defend himself with his walking-stick. Some of the demonstrators then opened fire with concealed weapons. Another account has it that a police inspector in plain clothes came out of a café, was surrounded by shouting demonstrators, lost his nerve and shot in the stomach a young Muslim bearing a relatively unexceptionable banner, mortally wounding him. Whatever the truth, it seems fairly clear that there were armed men, bent on trouble, among the Muslim marchers, and these - egged on by the blood-curdling you-you ululations of their women - now began an indiscriminate massacre of any Europeans caught out in the streets. Valère's gendarmes returned the fire, but were soon overwhelmed. Small groups of killers, the scent of blood in their nostrils, now fanned out by taxi, bicycle or even on horseback into the surrounding countryside, spreading the word that a general jihad, or "holy war", had broken out. At Chevreul European small farmers found themselves - like the Kenyan settlers under Mau-Mau - attacked by faithful servants whom they had employed for thirty years, and survivors huddled for protection in the local gendarmerie. At Périgotville Muslims seized an arms magazine, slaughtered a dozen Europeans, including the administrator and his assistant, then pillaged and burned the town. At the charming small seaport of Djidjelli four forest guards were among the murdered; at Kerrata a justice of the peace and his wife. In many cases it was the petits fonctionnaires, symbols of the présence française, that the assassins seemed particularly bent on hunting down. Meanwhile, at Guelma, the other focus of revolt two hundred kilometres away to the east of Constantine, there were similar scenes of demonstrators run amok, killings, rape and pillage.

For five dreadful days the madness continued, until troops hastily rushed up by the army managed to restore order. The accumulated casualty reports made grisly reading: 103 Europeans murdered, plus another hundred wounded; a number of women brutally raped, including one aged eighty-four. Many of the corpses were appallingly mutilated: women with their breasts slashed off, men with their severed sexual organs stuffed into their mouths.

There now began the grim work of repression. The army, incorporating Senegalese units legendary for their ferocity, subjected suspect Muslim villages to systematic ratissage - literally a "raking-over", a time-honoured word for "pacifying" operations. This involved a number of summary executions. Of the less accessible mechtas, or Muslim villages, more than forty were bombed by Douglas dive-bombers; while the cruiser Duguay-Trouin lying off in the Gulf of Bougie bombarded the environs of Kerrata at extreme range (and, presumably, comparable inaccuracy). The casualties inflicted by the armed forces were set officially (by the Tubert Commission Report) at 500 to 600, but the numbers of Muslim villagers killed by the more indiscriminate naval and aerial bombardments may well have amounted to more. Nevertheless, the figure seems to have been but a small proportion of the dead accounted for by the vengeful backlash of an outraged and frightened European population. Spontaneously organised vigilantes seized prisoners out of country gaols and lynched them; Muslims found not wearing the white brassards as prescribed by the army were simply despatched on the spot. At one village alone, held under siege by the Muslims during the uprisings, 219 were reported to have been shot out of hand. At Guelma, where the European fury reputedly reached its highest point, the Algerian Communist Party was well to the fore in the work of reprisal - a factor of significance in the forthcoming revolution. Describing the uprising as "Hitlerian", the P.C.A. secretary-general, Amar Ouzegane, wrote in Liberté the party journal: "The organisers of these troubles must be swiftly and pitilessly punished, the instigators of the revolt put in front of the firing squad".

Estimates of the toll of Muslim dead exacted in the wake of Sétif fluctuate wildly, as is so often the case. The Tubert Report placed the figure at between 1,020 and 1,300; while Cairo radio immediately claimed that 45,000 had been killed - a total which was to become accepted more or less unquestioningly by the Algerian nationalists. Robert Aron advances a figure of 6,000 which (although the basis whereby it was derived is not entirely clear) now seems generally acceptable to moderate French historians. But even if one were to accept the very lowest figure proffered by the Tubert Report, it still represents a ten to one "over-kill" in relation to the numbers of Europeans massacred; especially when, as was later officially estimated, no more than five per cent of the population had been tainted anyway.

Details of the Sétif bloodbath were played down with remarkable success in metropolitan France. Simone de Beauvoir recalls: "We heard very little about what had happened at Sétif," and noted that the Communist L'Humanité acknowledged only a hundred or so casualties, while de Gaulle in his memoirs dismisses the bloody episode in one terse sentence: "a beginning of insurrection, occurring in the Constantinois and synchronised with the Syrian riots in the month of May, was snuffed out by Governor-General Chataigneau". Yet the army repression must have been carried out on orders from de Gaulle's coalition government, and it must equally have been fully aware of the extent of the ensuing bloodbath; on both scores it is to be noted that the Communist ministers shared responsibility without a murmur.

For all the general ignorance in metropolitan France of what happened at Sétif, the impact on Algerians was incalculable, and ineradicable. Kateb Yacine, the liberal poet, records that it was at Sétif

that my sense of humanity was affronted for the first time by the most atrocious sights. I was sixteen years old. The shock which I felt at the pitiless butchery that caused the deaths of thousands of Muslims, I have never forgotten. From that moment my nationalism took definite form.

Of more direct significance was the disembarkation, shortly after Sétif, of the 7th Regiment of Algerian Tirailleurs, a unit that had distinguished itself in battle in Europe. Many of its men came from the Constantine area and were utterly appalled by the stories they heard. A number of these returning soldiers were subsequently to become leaders of the F.L.N. Among them was a much-decorated sergeant, Ben Bella, who wrote: "The horrors of the Constantine area in May 1945 succeeded in persuading me of the only path; Algeria for the Algerians." The Algerian liberal leader, Ferhat Abbas, had condemned the wanton slaughter of Europeans by declaring, at the beginning of the uprising, "those who have urged you to rebellion betray you". But, on his way to congratulate the Governor-General on the Allied victory, he - like 4,500 of his followers who had had nothing whatever to do with the uprising - was arrested and, later, was forced to admit that Sétif "has taken us back to the days of the crusaders". It was indeed hardly an exaggeration to describe it, as did Edward Behr while the war was still in progress, as

an event which, in one form or another, has marked every Algerian Muslim alive at the time.... Every one of the "new wave" of Algerian nationalists prominent in the National Liberation Front today traces his revolutionary determination back to May 1945 ... each of them felt after May 1945 that some sort of armed uprising would sooner or later become necessary.

The reaction of the European colons, a mixture of shock and fear, was to demand further draconian measures and to suspend any suggestion of new reforms. "When the house is on fire," wrote the Écho d'Alger, "when the ship is about to sink, one calls for neither the insurance company nor the dancing-master. For the house, it's the hour of the fireman; for the ship, the hour of the lifeboat. For North Africa, c'est l'heure du gendarme." With remarkable prophetic accuracy the French divisional commander, General Duval, who had already been responsible for much of the "gendarme" action in the immediate aftermath of Sétif, reported to Paris: "I have given you peace for ten years. But don't deceive yourselves...." In fact, the precarious peace was to last nine and a half years; but, in effect, the shots fired at Sétif represented the first volley of the Algerian War.


Excerpted from A SAVAGE WAR OF PEACE by ALISTAIR HORNE Copyright © 2006 by Alistair Horne. Excerpted by permission.
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