The Algerians themselves have been curiously absent from many studies of the Algerian War. Yves Courrière and Alistair Horne produced striking general histories of the war but their contacts were better in France than Algeria, and Horne even suggested that the “essential fatalism” of Islam made the Algerians uninterested in their own history. More prosaically, there were many practical obstacles to historical research in independent Algeria and the power of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in the new state did not make it easy to investigate the sometimes violent divisions in the nationalist movement. However, in recent years historians, including those based in Algeria who are too young to have personal memories of the war, have put the experience of the colonized rather than that of the colonizers at the center of their interpretation.
Malika Rahal, director of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris, applies this approach to 1962. This was the last year of French rule and thus marked the end of a colonial occupation that had begun in 1830 and of a war of independence that started in 1954. There were some very visible changes. In Alger, the Place Maréchal Lyautey, named after a French soldier, became the Place Maurice Audin, named after someone who had been murdered by French soldiers. More subtle was the change of Avenue 8 novembre, named after the day in 1942 when British and American soldiers had arrived, to Avenue 1 novembre, after the day in 1954 when the nationalist uprising began.
There was, however, no instant switch from one regime to another. Keen to avoid rewarding those who had joined the struggle at the last moment, the Algerian government eventually defined wars as those who had served veteran in the period up until January 2, 1962. But a ceasefire was not announced until March 19. Algerian independence was not proclaimed until after a referendum in early July, and the new republic was inaugurated at the first meeting of the National Assembly in September. Even after this, French forces stayed in Algeria and tried to arrest deserters from the French army there as late as 1963. All this meant that there was a period of uneasy cohabitation as nationalist fighters emerged from hiding or captivity, at a time when large numbers of those against whom they had fought were still present and powerful in Algeria. The Organization de l’Armée Secrete or OAS (made up of settlers and former soldiers) sought to save French Algeria with a savage burst of violence in the few months after the ceasefire. OAS violence was indiscriminate – it was directed against pretty much all Algerians and all agents of the French state – and deliberately theatrical, in that it was designed to cause terror. The violence of the FLN – in particular, against the harkis who had fought with the French – was, by this time, more discreet. The curious in-between condition of Algeria in 1962 means that there is often a gap in the archives as the French left the scene before the Algerian state was fully established. In any case, Rahal’s main interest is with the experience of ordinary people rather than that of political leaders or officials. She uses a disparate range of sources: interviews, the records of international agencies (such as the Red Cross or the American Consulate) and even videos found on YouTube. One suspects that her ingenuity in finding such sources was sharpened by the fact that she researched much of this book during Covid lockdown.
Algerians sometimes recall their country’s first moments of independence with a certain melancholy. The FLN was riven with divisions that pitted the provisional government in Tunis against the National Liberation Army or the leaders who had been in prison in France. Some see the numerous problems of contemporary Algeria as rooted in the outcome of these struggles. Rahal, however, also evokes the sense of hope and “effervescence” that marked experiences of 1962. The mood was seen at street parties and in the large number of weddings that took place that year. There was a political effervescence too as, for a time, a new kind of society seemed possible. This February atmosphere was often marked by uncertainty. No one was sure who would, and would not, belong in the new state – there was no formal definition of Algerian citizenship until 1963. The historian Benjamin Stora believed that until June 1962 his parents probably intended to stay in Jewish Constantine. In that month, nationalist militants came to see his father. They told him that he would be welcome in independent Algeria and embraced him, but something about their manner did not reassure. When they left, Benjamin’s father said “Now we will go”.
Above all, the striking feature of Algeria in 1962 was movement. Towns, where most Europeans lived, had always been segregated but the effect of OAS violence was to increase that segregation – the indigenous population often spent the last months of French rule confined to their own crowded neighborhoods. Then, when the great majority of Europeans left, their departures set off a chain reaction among Algerians as some moved into grand villas in European quarters that were now eerily empty. More than 100,000 political prisoners in Algeria and the mainland were released, but the circumstances were so chaotic that, in one instance, the French authorities could not locate a member of the FLN who had been nominated to the provisional executive. In any case, prisons began to fill up again. The French imprisoned suspected members of the OAS – including, as it turned out, an FLN militant who had been living with false French identity papers. The FLN also soon began to imprison its enemies; These included those who had worked with the French but also members of rival nationalist groups. When the Red Cross inspected Algerian prisons, they could not always tell whether members of Messali Hadj’s Mouvement National Algérien (a nationalist movement that was displaced by the FLN) had been imprisoned by the French authorities before July 1962 or later by the Algerians. Thousands of people came back to Algeria from Morocco or Tunisia – sometimes having to cross the minefields that the French had laid by the frontiers (the last mines were not defused until 2017). More than 2 million people, about a quarter of the entire population, had been moved to special camps by the French. Most of them left in 1962, though some found that their former homes were no longer habitable.
Rahal shows how violence crept into the lives of even those who did not encounter it directly. Lurid rumours circulated. It was widely believed that the FLN had kidnapped Europeans to drain their blood and provide transfusions for their own wounded. An Algerian woman apparently claimed that she had seen one of her compatriots drink a bowl of French blood. Most of all, people encountered violence retrospectively as they sought to learn the fate of their relatives. The FLN kept few formal records and some of its fighters had joined under false names. The French army had often concealed the real fate of those who disappeared after a period in its custody. Under these circumstances, people depended on word of mouth. The confusion of 1962 could create unrealistic fears – about 200 Europeans who were reported missing turned up in France. It could also create unrealistic hopes. Hosni Kittouni knew that his father had been killed in October 1957 but the “tsunami of miraculous returns” that seemed to mark the end of the war generated “mad” expectations. One of his sisters became convinced that a man she had glimpsed on the street was their father.
The moment of victory for Algerian nationalists could also be a moment of piercing grief. Combatants, who had lived with the prospect of violent death for so long, suddenly felt the separation between the living and the dead. The new state made much of its martyrs. By 1963 it was officially claimed that one and a half million people had died in the war of independence – the real figure was probably closer to a third of that, but this was still a huge number in a population of a little more than 10 million. Not all the suffering of the war, however, fitted with triumphant nationalism. Rape, in particular, remained a matter of shame for many Algerians – just as it remains the crime that even the most unrepentantly brutal French soldiers still deny. In recent years, a historian coaxed testimony out of a mother and her six daughters who had all been raped by French soldiers during the Battle of Algiers in 1956-7; they had concealed their experience from each other. Rahal’s sharp eye for personal testimony captures the ways in which even the suffering that nationalists highlighted in public could have devastating effects in private. Fatma Bedj received a group of former comrades of her daughters. She served them lunch and, not wanting to spoil their appetite, refrained from asking questions. Eventually, she summoned up the courage to ask about her daughter Mériem. “She died a martyr”, her guests replied. A little later she asked after Alia. Again, one of her guests said, in a choking voice, “She died a martyr”. Finally Fatma was told that he adopted son Youcef was also dead. She retreated to the kitchen to cry alone.
Richard Vinen teaches history at King’s College London
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