The Algerian Civil War, 1954-1962: Why Such a Bitter Conflict?

At noon on March 19, 1962, the cease-fire, which had been agreed upon the previous day at the signing of the Evian accords, went into effect. It put an end "to the military operations and armed struggle throughout Algerian territory." So ended a ninety-two month war which had taken a very heavy toll on both sides.

In Algeria the conflict resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead, the displacement of millions of peasants, and the dismantling of the economy. In addition, it brought the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) to power, a group that presented itself as the sole heir to Algerian nationalism. Benefiting from extraordinary popularity among the Algerian masses in 1962, it subsequently took root as the only party and, for nearly thirty years, negated any political or cultural pluralism.

In France, although there were far fewer casualties, the trauma was no less intense. Do we need to recall that nearly 2 million French soldiers crossed the Mediterranean between 1955 and 1962, that is, most young people born between 1932 and 1943 who were eligible to be called up? An entire generation thus found itself embarked upon a war whose stakes it did not understand. Politically, the conflict led to the fall of six prime ministers and the collapse of one Republic.

The war of Algerian independence, then, was one of the two cruelest wars of French decolonization in this century; the other was the war in Indochina (1946-1954). How are 'we to understand the bitterness of the Algerian conflict?

When the insurrection of November 1, 1954, erupted, the motto of Francois Mitterrand, then minister of the interior in the cabinet of Pierre Mendes France, was: "Algeria is France." Algeria constituted three French departments. Thus it was much more than a distant colony like Senegal or a mere protectorate like Tunisia.

After the very deadly conquest begun in 1830, which translated into a dispossession of the Muslim Algerians' land, a large settlement colony took root (Stora 1991a). By 1954, nearly 1 million Europeans, who would later be called pieds noirs, had worked and lived there for generations. Not all of them were "big colons" overseeing their land holdings. Most had a lower standard of living than residents of the metropolis. That colony of proletarianized settlements was represented by the traditional major parties of the French Hexagon (on the left and the right), whose operations and conceptions were based on the model of Jacobin centralization.

In the late nineteenth century, Algeria was not administrated by the Ministry of Colonies, but rather belonged to the Ministry of the Interior. Therefore, it seemed out of the question to abandon a territory attached to France for the past one hundred and thirty years, even longer than Savoy (1860). In the course of the war itself, the discovery of oil and the decision to use the vast Sahara for the first nuclear or space experiments came to be added to these rationales.

France thus sent its soldiers to fight in a "southern" French territory that was demanding its right to secede. Nine million Muslim Algerians were sham citizens of a Republic that saw itself as assimilationist: since 1947, they had voted in a college separate from that of Europeans. The principle of equality, "one man, one vote," was not respected. The idea of independence, shared by a growing proportion of Algerians, seemed to be the only way to undo that contradiction.

When the war ended, people on either side of the Mediterranean labored to efface its real and bloody traces. In France, there was no commemoration to perpetuate the memory of the soldiers on all sides, and the succession of amnesties led people to forget a shameful conflict. In Algeria, a commemorative frenzy founded the legitimacy of the military state, dissimulating the pluralism and clashes that had existed between the pro-independence movements and within the FLN itself.

For a long time, however, the memories of seven years of war resisted effacement. The pain and rage of the drama's protagonists permeated the field of writing about that history. Nearly forty years later the war in Algeria has begun to be an object of historical study. New paths of reflection and knowledge are opening up regarding the war mentality, the deadly propaganda, the social practices, the confusion of civilians, the attitudes held in the regions of France and Algeria, and the shaky involvements and retreats of individuals and groups.