Any book whose cover proclaims that it is “on the reading list” of George W. Bush is irresistible – although this vague formulation doesn’t make it clear if Bush has actually read this, or indeed any other, book. Despite the dubious presidential seal of approval, Horne’s account of the French-Algerian war is very good. He crams the years 1954-62 into 600 pages of journalistic prose. The result is pacy, detailed and – considering the acronym-heavy nature of Algerian politics – relatively clear. It’s not conceptually brilliant, but as a narrative of a fascinating, complex and important conflict, it works very well – exactly the kind of book a President might want to read after tiring of My Pet Goat.
The Algerian War of Independence
A horribly simplified narrative of the war might run like this:
Algerian nationalists experienced decades of disappointment as political reforms were blocked or watered down by the settler lobby. The Front de Libération Nationale was founded in 1954 as a military alternative to the failed reform movements. This small vanguard party launched attacks on French targets on 1st November, and the war began. Throughout the conflict, French reprisals for (often brutal) attacks by the FLN were violent, sustained and – most importantly – indiscriminate. French violence towards moderates and civilians created a steady flow of resentment and a critical mass of support for the FLN. This support was never universal, and certainly not natural, as simplified narratives of nationalism suggest. Instead, support for the FLN emerged from the dynamics of the war, and ultimately made the conflict unwinnable for the French. Algeria gained independence in July, 1962 – but not before the conflict destroyed the Fourth Republic, and took France to the brink of civil war.
Horne does a good job of detailing the many complexities of the war, both in Algeria and France, that this summary misses out. It is well worth a read. But I just wanted to pick up a couple of interesting points on the importance of childhood in creating nationalists and rebels – something I’ve previously discussed for white settlers.
Horne offers potted biographies of many of the war’s protagonists, and it is striking how often a childhood experience emerges as both revelation and motivation for future FLN members. The injustices of colonial rule could emerge in dramatic or subtle ways. Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first President, moved from his village to attend school, and was shocked to find that the football teams at Tlemcen were segregated. Krim Belkacem noticed that Europeans were recorded on the school register in blue, and Muslims in red. Mohamedi Said saw his grandparents slapped by a French officer. And Hassiba Ben Bouali became aware of the 1945 massacres by French forces while still at school. Such injustices explained older French misfortunes. Ben Bouali’s parents told her that Hitler’s invasion was a divine reprisal for the mistreatment of Muslims. And they would justify, too, the violence of the FLN: the war of Algerian independence was a final, homegrown punishment for the cruelty and indifference of French empire.
But if the colonial experience marked childhood so dramatically, it did not create universal political awareness: explanation and interpretation as adults was sometimes necessary for the creation of revolutionary nationalists. Ali la Pointe, the FLN leader portrayed in The Battle of Algiers, had a childhood marred by poverty, pederasts and petty crime – but it was not until he was imprisoned for resisting arrest that jailed FLN activists linked his experiences to the structures of colonialism. For others, childhood created nationalist feeling but they became revolutionary only as adults, motivated by pre-war political inertia or the undiscerning French repressions during the conflict itself. [61, 77, 131, 185, 187]
Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace:
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