Monday, April 04, 2005


The revolt of Algeria in 1954, and the French attempt to repress it, are worth examining in some detail. For one, the revolt itself entwined the nightmares that evolved in the first half of the 20th century: in the fascist states, Lenin's Russia, and the Palestine wars. And when they merged they gave the world the modern terrorist movement in the form we are fighting it now, in al Qaida especially. Also, the French response offers some instructive counter-examples.

Algeria was a French colony, but it also was a settlement, a mass migration of northern Mediterranean peoples to the southern coast of the sea. The indigenous population of Algeria in 1830, when France acquired it, was 1.5 million Arabs, and the number was in decline. The pieds noirs who settled in Algeria from Europe included French, Corsicans, Spanish, and Italians. By 1954, they had expanded 2,000 cultivated square miles (in 1830) to 27,000.

But their arrival also had the unanticipated effect of reviving the native population, and sparking its growth. Not only did the prosperity draw in settlers from elsewhere in North Africa, French medical services slashed the malaria and typhus death rates so that by 1906 the Muslim population stood at 4.5 million, and by 1954 it numbered 9 million.

Yet if the two populations were not physically segregated, they lived unequal lives in many ways. In 1945, some 1,400 primary schools served 200,000 European children, while a mere 699 schools taught 1.25 million Muslim children. Like the common view of South African whites and U.S. confederates, the pieds noirs had a hardened image as racist exploiters that was out of step with the white homelands of these people. While Paris had traditionally been hospitable to blacks socially, the French colonial policies were so grim that Africans fled from French colonies into neighboring British ones.

But the greatest inequity was political. Algeria had separate electoral colleges for Arabs and French. The French settlers also sent deputies to the parliament in Paris, and there they were able to block bills to extend rights to Muslims, especially in 1936. Maurice Viollette, who had been governor-general of Algeria and who had been among the sponsors of the reform bills, warned the Chambre:

When the Muslims protest, you are indignant. When they approve, you are suspicious. When they keep quiet, you are fearful. Messeurs, these men have no political nation. They do not even demand their religious nation. All they ask is to be admitted into yours. If you refuse this, beware lest they do not soon create one for themselves.

A fraudulent electoral system (the elections of 1948 and 1951 were faked outright) alienated moderate, educated Muslims like Ahmed Boumendjel, who wrote, "The French Republic has cheated. She has made fools of us. Why should we feel ourselves bound by the principles of French moral values ... when France herself refuses to be subject to them?" With moderates marginalized, radicals moved into the vacuum.

The storm broke in 1945, when Arabs massacred 103 Europeans.

The French reprisals were on a savage scale. Dive-bombers blew forty villages to pieces; a cruiser bombarded others .... According to the French official report, 1,020 to 1,300 Arabs were killed. The Arabs claimed 45,000. Many demobilized Arab soldiers returned to find their families dead, their homes demolished. It was these former NCOs who formed the leadership of the future Front de Liberátion Nationale (FLN). As the most conspicuous of them, Ahmed Ben Bella, put it, "the horrors of the Constantine area in May 1945 persuaded me of the only path: Algeria for the Algerians." The French commander, General Duval, told the pieds noirs, "I have given you peace for ten years." [Johnson, "Modern Times"]

He was only off by a few months. The revolution broke out in earnest on Nov. 1, 1954. The goal of the insurgents never was to defeat the French army, which would have been impossible. Instead they sought to carve such a gulf of hatred between the Arabs and the Europeans that the concept of a multi-racial Algeria and coexistence was unthinkable. The first order of business was to eliminate the moderates on both sides.

The first Frenchman to be murdered was a liberal Arabophile schoolteacher, Guy Monnerot. The first Arab casualty was a pro-French local governor, Hadj Sakok. Most FLN operations were directed against the loyal Muslim element: employees of the state were murdered, their tongues cut off, their eyes gouged out, then a note, "FLN," pinned to the mutilated bodies.

This strategy had not developed in a vacuum. It had been pioneered in the 1920s in Palestine, by the genocidal Mufti of Jerusalem. But elements of the strategy also had come ultimately from the Jewish terrorist groups 20 years later that fought in their own way to create the state of Israel.

In 1921, the British had authorized a Supreme Muslim Council to direct religious affairs in Palestine, and at the head of it they appointed for life Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, who was both leader of the biggest landowning clan in Palestine and genocidal little Hitler "who devoted his entire adult life to race-murder." The Mufti of Jerusalem, as he was known in his new position, had posed for a portrait photo with Himmler in 1943 (the Nazi chief had signed it with a flattering inscription). He killed Jewish settlers when he could, but what made him a truly nefarious influence on the later 20th century was his success through the systematic destruction of the moderate elements in his own Arab population. His terrorist squads by 1939 had systematically wiped out leading Arab moderates and drove the rest into silence. Jewish immigration to Palestine had all but halted.

When it revived, with new urgency, after World War II, the flood of Jews to the Holy Land had a military component, part of it legitimate, part of it mere terrorist gangs. Among the latter, Irgun, especially as led by Menachim Begin, "was a fateful development, because for the first time modern propaganda was combined with Leninist cell-structure and advanced technology to advance political aims through murder. During the next forty years the example was to be followed all over the world: a cancer of modern times, eating at the heart of humanity."

It is important to note that while the Arab states lined up behind the Mufti's extremism, Chaim Weizmann and other founders of Israel fought against their own terrorists and vowed the Jewish people would "cut off this evil from its midst." That took time, however, especially during the flood tide of refugees. And meanwhile the prototype modern terrorist attack had been staged: The destruction by Irgun of the King David Hotel, home of several government offices, in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946. It killed 41 Arabs, 28 British, 17 Jews, and 5 "others." While many Israeli leaders lamented the attack, in part because it was counterproductive -- it turned the British government, people, and army against the Jews -- "The first to imitate the new technique were, naturally, the Arab terrorists ...."

Many of the Algerian rebel leaders had served under the Mufti, such as Mohamedi Said, who had joined the Mufti's "Muslin SS legion" and still wore an SS helmet from time to time.

His disciples included some of the worst killers of the twentieth century, such as Ait Hamouda, known as Amirouche, and Ramdane Abane, who had sliced off breasts and testicles in the 1945 massacres, read Marx and Mein Kampf in jail, and whose dictum was: "One corpse is a suit is always worth more than twenty in uniform." These men, who had absorbed everything most evil the twentieth century had to offer, imposed their will on the villages by sheer terror; they never used any other method. ... Ben Bella's written orders included: "Liquidate all personalities who want to play the role of interlocuteur valable." "Kill any person attempting to deflect the militants and inculcate in them a bourguibien spirit." Another: "Kill the caids .... Take their children and kill them. Kill all those who pay taxes and those who collect them. Burn the houses of Muslim NCOs away on active service."

[Next: France responds]