When the New York Review of Books republished this in 2006, a lot was made of its relevance to modern US-led adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is kind of
true, but also a bit irritating (because a well-told history like this shouldn't require modern parallels to be worth reading), and for that matter also overstated – the differences were really more striking to me than the similarities. America was fighting in a foreign country. France was not, and that was really the whole point. I don't think I had appreciated before quite how French Algeria was considered to be. It wasn't like neighbouring Morocco or Tunisia. Those were French protectorates, administered by the foreign office; but Algeria came under the interior ministry, and on paper it was as French as Normandy or Provence. The French had been there since 1830, and generations of European families – the so-called pieds noirs
– had grown up there who had never set foot in mainland France. Here's the (left-wing) French PM in 1953:
Mesdames, Messieurs, several deputies have made comparisons between French policy in Algeria and Tunisia. I declare that no parallel is more erroneous, that no comparison is falser or more dangerous. Ici, c'est la France!
This is one reason why the Algerian War was characterised by such total intransigence on each side. In Paris it was politically unthinkable to imagine giving up an integral part of France itself; while the pieds noirs
themselves were fighting for the survival of their whole world. The French military were desperate not to lose again after humiliation in 1940 and later in Indochina. On the Muslim side, it was a simple matter of liberty and representation, which had been denied them to an extraordinary extent. Unlike, say, the British in India, who had trained a whole middle class of native administrators and civil servants that could gradually take over as the British pulled back, the French had allowed only the most token participation from Muslims in Algerian affairs.
One of the most depressing things about this story is how many good viable alternatives to war were clearly available in the 1950s. At first there was a huge middle ground of Europeans and Muslims who would have been very happy with interim solutions – a protectorate, for example, or quotas to ensure Muslim representation in state councils. Again and again such ideas were shot down by hawks in Paris and by the burgeoning independence movement in Algeria. And once they had finished shooting down ideas, they started shooting down people. Gradually – in a process that becomes a theme of this book – moderates were turned, one by one, into extremists.
It was a very violent conflict. The nationalist FLN was basically just a sprinkling of inexperienced politicians over a vast mass of angry guerrillas, whose two main targets were European civilians and moderate Muslims. Bombs in cafés, cinemas, dancehalls in the cities; in the countryside, throat-slitting, or the "Kabyle smile". Towards French soldiers, once these started to arrive in greater numbers, the guerrillas could be more cruelly creative, and the troops were always aware that they were risking not death, but something worse. Here's a French para describing how his colleague was caught in a firefight while the rest of them were pinned down by an FLN group.
My poor friend V. lay howling on his bed of stones till morning. He suffered unimaginably, both physically and mentally, a prey to mortal terror. He only really stopped at dawn, when we could perhaps have saved him. For several hours a rebel had been slithering towards him. He could have seen him all that while. There he was. The rebel touched his body. He took away his weapons. Then he gouged out his eyes. Then he slashed his Achilles' tendons, afraid, perhaps, that he might still come back and die with us. But he didn't finish him off, merely wanting him to have to lie still and suffer.
If that sounds bad, consider how sickening it is to have to say that the French were no better. In response to FLN outrages, gangs of soldiers and pieds noirs
would go on indiscriminate rampages through Muslim parts of Algiers, looting shops and killing any Muslims they could lay their hands on. Towards the end, when it was clear which way the wind was blowing, some of them came together to organise a counter-terrorist group called the OAS which carried out a revolting series of bomb attacks both in Algeria and in mainland France. The French army, meanwhile, often resorted to the worst of methods to try and extract information from their prisoners: Algeria was where the whole business of institutionalised military torture first came under the spotlight in a serious way.
At least one general freely admitted that torture was used, and seemed perfectly happy with it. The preferred method was the infamous gégène
– a field dynamo with electrodes attached to the victim's body, usually to the genitals. Occasionally things were even worse: girls deflowered with glass bottles, high pressure hoses inserted in the rectum, and so on.
Almost as painful as the torture inflicted on oneself was the awareness of the suffering of others nearby: "I don't believe that there was a single prisoner who did not, like myself, cry from hatred and humiliation on hearing the screams of the tortured for the first time," says Alleg, and he records the horror of the elderly Muslim hoping to appease his tormentors: "Between the terrible cries which the torture forced out of him, he said, exhausted: ‘Vive la France! Vive la France!’ "
I've lived with this book for a couple of weeks, and typing this passage out is making me lose my breath with distress all over again. There are a few heros: Paul Teitgen, head of the Algiers police, was faced with a real-life example of the famous "ticking bomb" scenario, when a terrorist was caught planting a device in a gasworks, but it was believed there was already a second bomb somewhere which had not yet gone off. Would Teitgen give permission to torture the suspect to find out where it was, potentially saving dozens of lives? Teitgen had himself been tortured by the Gestapo. He refused. "I trembled the whole afternoon. Finally the bomb did not go off. Thank God I was right. Because if you once get into the torture business, you're lost."
And the French were lost. French society was increasingly outraged by what it heard, and by the time the war ended – it went on longer than either of the world wars – it had directly brought down no fewer than six French governments.
Alistair Horne tells the story well, but thoroughly – this is a very dense book and I don't know that it could really be considered general interest. There are a few updates in it, but most of the writing is from 1977, and I'm curious to know what historical sources have become available since then, especially on the Algerian side. Historians have been nervous of touching the subject because A Savage War of Peace
is so widely considered, still, to be the definitive treatment. And it's easy to see why. Modern parallels or not, this is extremely enlightening.