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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Colonial Warfare pt. 28 B: Thelegacy of torture

Come out so we can kill you

The hidden history of the Algerian war

It has taken almost 40 years for France to face the issue of torture during the war in Algeria (1954-62) and listen to its victims: the authorities were reluctant to stir up memories of a conflict buried deep in the past. There is just as little inclination to throw light on France’s broader colonial history and its many crimes. School textbooks still call it a ’fine intellectual adventure’ with a ’broadly positive outcome’.

By Maurice T Maschino

In September 1957 the Commission for the Protection of Individual Rights and Liberties - set up by the French government under pressure from the leftwing opposition and consisting of various personalities - reported that torture was common practice in Algeria.

Last December, following the publication by Le Monde of several eyewitness accounts of torture during the war in Algeria, the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, misleadingly classified these acts as "deviations involving a minority". Adding insult to injury, he said that he was not, however, against historians investigating these "deviations". But contrary to his undertaking on 27 July 1997, it is still not possible to consult the most sensitive archives unless you are fortunate enough to obtain a special permit.

Little has changed since 1957. The French state lives by a lie. It pretends to want to find out the truth but prevents free access to information. It sometimes almost admits this failing. "France finds it difficult to take a dispassionate look at its own history," Jospin once said, before changing his mind. In fact, it wants to know as little as possible. When a former general said one evening on the television news that he had personally executed 24 Algerian prisoners in cold blood and with complete disregard for the rules of war, there was no official reaction.

Nor for that matter has anyone expressed the slightest remorse. On the contrary, most French people, including historians and teachers, are convinced that despite some inevitable and "unfortunate" mistakes, France contributed a great deal - roads, hospitals, schools and so on - to the peoples it subjected.

"There were positive sides to colonialism," maintains BD, a teacher in a top Paris lycée responsible for educating tomorrow’s elite. "We left Algeria with modern infrastructures, an education system, libraries, social centres and so on … Only 10% of students were of Algerian parentage in 1962? (1). It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing."

Refusing to face facts

History teaching in French schools is shot through with self-satisfaction and a persistent refusal to face facts. Governments, left and right, want ordinary people to remain ignorant but give the impression of keeping them informed. As a result, the education system is incapable of teaching young people how the colonial system really worked - with its negation of human dignity and republican values. It is equally unable to explain a series of events that, until 10 August 1999, was not officially recognised as a war.

Ministry of education instructions, curricula, timetables and textbooks all conspire to ensure that pupils in primary and secondary schools learn as little as possible about the war in Algeria.

It all starts at primary school (2). In just five years teachers have to cover 2,000 years of history. "Colonialism? Yes, I mention it very briefly," says one of them. "But the photographs in the textbook all complement teaching." Or do they contradict it? For almost all the pictures show the positive side of French occupation. Pictures of Algeria in 1860 show good little natives soaking up the words of their teacher, while the French colons put the land to good use (Hachette textbook) (3).

Teachers may of course adopt a critical stance, but in general they are reluctant to "shock young minds". The primary teacher admits that "we don’t spend much time on the negative side of colonisation". No doubt disturbing details, such as General Bugeaud’s violent conquest of the country, children dressed in rags or living in hovels, are soon forgotten -particularly as none of the photographs even show them.

Thirteen year-old pupils studying the division of world power learn nothing of the pillage and atrocities to which this division gave rise. On the contrary, teaching encourages them to admire the fine "intellectual adventure" undertaken by 19th century Europeans as they explored the world. The 1995 edition of the official instructions for teachers requires them to "pay attention to the cultural side of the phenomenon, the development of geographical societies, the growth of ethnology" (4).

Keeping the curriculum short and sweet

The time children spend at primary school and collège does little to develop their critical faculties, so when they reach lycée they happily accept a truncated, expurgated account of the war in Algeria. Their teachers may not even select it as a subject. The war in Algeria does not figure as such in the curriculum for the last year at collège, or even in the brief part of the curriculum that deals with the period from the cold war to the present (East-West relations, decolonisation and the break-up of the communist world).

"The existing curriculum is much shorter and more simplistic than before," says OD, a lycée teacher. "Far from being the subject of a separate chapter, decolonisation only qualifies for one paragraph in a review of international relations from 1945 to the present day. In other words, next to nothing. And how much time can we spend on the war in Algeria when we have to explain the Bandung conference and the decolonisation of India, Indonesia and Indochina? An hour’s about as much as we get and the textbooks are pretty brief. In keeping with the 1989 curriculum, they now devote less space to decolonisation and concentrate instead on colonisation and the second world war," he adds.

Several textbooks are laid out on the table in the teachers’ common room. "In Algeria, repression and war (1954-1962) were a response to the guerrilla action of the FLN" (5) (Bréal textbook for the troisième). But there is no explanation of why the guerrilla war originally started. The list of events in chronological order and extracts from a speech by Bigeard (6) are equally unhelpful. Another textbook, published by Magnard, goes one step further. In the teaching section it dismisses the war in five lines, publishing four particularly uninformative photographs in its background section (one, for instance, shows an Algiers polling station in 1962).

The oldest pupils, in the terminale class, are no better off. After the brainwashing they have had in previous years, not many of them could take in the information that an enlightened teacher might offer. "Only pupils whose families were involved ask questions," says GR, a teacher in a provincial lycée. "The others just take notes, much as I did during lessons on the 1914-18 war."

Pupils do not understand why the Muslim population revolted: the only available explanation is its "fanaticism" and "ingratitude". Nor is it clear why France was so violently opposed to their "emancipation", as the textbooks put it. Schoolchildren are inundated with pictures celebrating France’s "civilising mission", whereas almost no mention is made of the material and symbolic benefits that the population of mainland France and the colons derived from exploiting the Algerian people. Nor are pupils given any opportunity to analyse the practical effects of colonialism, such as racism (mentioned by only one textbook), various forms of injustice, or economic, social, political and cultural inequality.


Sparing with the bad memories

So it is not surprising that teachers do not dwell on the subject. It is not just that they are short of time, but that the story is not that appealing. Many of them are reluctant to discuss the atrocities committed by the French army, the cowardice and duplicity of the government, and the extent to which political parties, right and left, were compromised. "The war in Algeria does not fit into a politically correct perspective based on the idea that after the holocaust we would never make the same mistakes again," Rioux admits.

"Why should we deliberately dwell on the war in Algeria?" he adds. "Why not concentrate on the war in Vietnam or Kosovo? There’s no end to it and it detracts from the more encouraging features of the 20th century. We don’t do enough to draw pupils’ attention to science, technology or the media. I’m not sure that we’re doing a very good job in preparing young people to understand contemporary revolutions such as the internet. What’s more, there are other topics of interest to our up-and-coming citizens, Europe for instance. That’s just as important as a long epilogue on the war in Algeria."

According to another school-inspector, Jean-Louis Nembrini, pupils must not be "hostages of our duty to remember". Teaching must not overload them with bad memories; so the easiest solution is to stick to the scanty information provided by the textbooks.

After some minor changes, the textbooks do now use the word "war"- but without daring to go into greater detail. Like what sort of war it was. Given the French perspective, they can’t call it a war of liberation; and it is obviously hard to admit that it was a war of colonial reconquest. The textbook published by Bréal is the only one not to dodge the issue, calling its chapter on the war in Algeria "The right of peoples to self-determination".

The same ambiguity affects the combatants. Not only are pupils not told what sort of war it was, but there is no indication of who was involved in the fighting. Terms that are quite natural in accounts of the second world war - the Germans, the SS, the occupation forces, the resistance - are unusable. "Occupation forces?" exclaims a teacher. "You must be mad! That evokes people like Klaus Barbie in Lyons." But what about General Massu in Algiers? (7). "Oh no," she retorts, almost choking on the words, "it’s not the same at all. Why try to liken colonisation to something quite different?"

Yet no-one seems particularly upset that the textbooks liken the war in Algeria to a crusade. "The most commonly used words -Europeans and Muslims -are not very accurate, but they’re the most convenient," the same teacher admits. They are certainly convenient for confusing the issue and demonising the enemy. Schoolchildren are not likely to identify with Muslims - no doubt fanatics - after learning at primary school to side with Charles Martel against the Moors.

No resistance fighters, no patriots

The vocabulary of the textbooks is inaccurate and misleading, constantly confusing political and psychological ideas. Hachette refers to a "painful separation" - but for whom? Magnard talks about "colonial heartbreak"; another about "wrested independence", in inverted commas; a fourth uses the same word, and daringly omits the inverted commas! Almost all of them fail to use clear words, easy to understand, to characterise the war, explain why it happened and spotlight the opposing forces. On one side there are Europeans, colons and paratroopers, on the other Muslims, fellaghas and terrorists - never maquis, resistance fighters or patriots.

The textbooks have just as much difficulty in dealing with historical facts. Most of them mention as few as possible. Very few refer to the Sétif massacre in 1945, let alone the bloodshed at Philippeville in August 1955 (8). The major events of the war itself, between November 1954 and the Evian agreement in March 1962, are presented in deliberately neutral terms - the Battle of Algiers, the fall of the Fourth Republic, De Gaulle’s seizure of power, the general’s putsch, the OAS, the return of the colons or pieds noirs.

Almost all the textbooks mention torture but play it down. "Some soldiers used torture" (Hatier). The massacres of European civilians resulted in very harsh repression "and even torture by the army" (Belin). This was regrettable, but the army was "forced" to act in this way (Hachette). As the aim was to "obtain information" (Istra, Nathan), "destroy the FLN networks" (Hatier), and prevent bomb attacks (almost always mentioned in the same sentence as torture), the end somehow justified the means.

This is not so much stated as suggested. Far from encouraging pupils to think about the government’s scandalous disregard for republican principles, the textbooks gloss over the issue of torture, excusing or even attempting to justify what they all regard as a necessary evil: for instance, "the paratroopers used torture to break down the FLN networks" (Magnard).


In the main, teachers are probably less dismissive, but they are not necessarily equipped to counter the official line. Like everybody else they have been to state school and often do not have what it takes to stray from the beaten path. Courses vary from one university to the next. It is quite possible to pass the training college entrance exam without ever studying the war in Algeria in any detail. It very rarely comes up at the orals and is even less frequent in the written exam. You can become a schoolteacher without ever learning what you may subsequently have to teach. "Two thirds of applicants to teacher-training college haven’t done any history since they left school" (12), explains Gilles Ragache, who teaches in one of these establishments. "History is only an optional subject in the entrance exam."

Worse still, there may be less time for history teaching in tomorrow’s schools. There are even fears that history, like art and music, may become optional. "With primary schools starting modern languages and technology, other subjects will need to be cut back," says the head of a teacher-training college. "History is in the line of fire."

French schools will soon have streamlined curricula, inadequately trained teachers and increasingly ignorant pupils. When they reach secondary school they will find it hard to assimilate the pre-digested, biased information on offer. As one teacher puts it, "Decolonisation and the war in Algeria is a bit like a star that gradually moves further away until it’s just a dot in the sky." Other things being equal, we may soon not see it at all.

The question is why does France refuse to face the legacy of the loss of Algeria and what they did to keep it.

As we will see, the war in Algeria would cost France more and more as the rebellion continued.

posted by Steve @ 3:01:00 PM

3:01:00 PM

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