The British Empire Library

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

by Alistair Horne

It may seem strange to have a book dedicated to the French colony of Algeria on a site dedicated to the history of the British Empire. And yet, I felt that the French experience of decolonisation was very instructive to events in Britain over this same period from 1954 to 1962. In many ways the two empires tried a variety of means of holding on to their colonies in this period and with varying but mostly limited means of success. Both of them came to the same conclusion of detachment by 1962 but the journey to reach this conclusion was very different. However, those differences are highly instructive and worth examining in detail.

If we take the year 1954 as the starting point, Britain was dealing with the rising power of Nasser in Egypt and would soon abandon Sudan and vacate the Suez Canal Zone in a vain attempt to placate his nationalist soundings in the region. The Mau Mau rising was taking place in Kenya and the Emergency in Malaya was still in full swing. These both significant challenges but were in the process of being contained through military action and civil reforms. Otherwise, Churchill was still in power and was continuing to dream of a second Elizabethan Age for the Empire as it transitioned to the Commonwealth. There were new Federations of colonies being formed from smaller economic units to try and build up stronger political-economic units that might be self-sufficient and regionally more influential. There was still political consensus between the two major parties to support development of the poorer colonies who were thought to be en route to self-government all-be-it at an undefined speed. The French in 1954 meanwhile were caught in a merciless conflict that confused new Cold War realities with increased nationalist aspirations in Indo-China. Indeed, in 1954 they were about to suffer a cataclysmic and humiliating military defeat in Dien Bien Phu. It did not help that despite the similarities between the two European powers, there was deep suspicion between the two over colonial policy. This was partly as a result of Britain's perceived role in stripping France of her Middle Eastern colonies in Syria and Lebanon and especially by her abandoning her own Mandate in Palestine which the French believed only encouraged nationalist aspirations throughout the region. There was a brief period of cooperation over Suez in 1956 but Britain's failure to follow through fully with this operation only created yet more distrust for the French who felt abandoned.

Algeria itself was something of a hybrid between a dependent colony and a settler society although they actually regarded themselves as fundamentally French in its fullest cultural and political sense. In British terms, it was something of a mix between Kenya, Rhodesia and Northern Ireland in that it had a large local population with a significant settler population but regarded itself as part of the central polity of the mother country. Algeria did indeed have a powerful European minority, referred to as the Pieds-Noirs. These were actually drawn from a far wider European pool than just from France as Italians, Spanish, East Europeans and Maltese had all been drawn to the promising North African lands since 1830. They formed a distinctive, if privileged, culture and although their numbers approached about a million in total they never represented more than 10% of the total population of Algeria. Most of the Pieds-Noirs were Catholics but there was also a significant Jewish population in Algeria who fell between the two stools of the Christians on one side and the overwhelmingly Muslim population on the other side. Indeed as the author of this book makes it clear, they really took on something of the role of the Indian population in East Africa for the British in that they could have been a bridge between the two groups but were more often than not distrusted by both sides. Consequently, they would be the biggest loser of all the communities by the end of the conflict.

Many of the Pieds-Noirs felt hyper-French - as those who live away from the home country can sometimes feel. They believed that the fact that so many had volunteered to fight for the French in both the First and Second World Wars only confirmed their loyalty and attachment to the mother country. Again, there are strong parallels with the white settler population of Rhodesia or the Ulstermen of Northern Ireland who also felt hyper-British and made similar sacrifices for the benefit of Britain and her Empire. This over-confidence would prove fatal over time but in the immediate post-war period the Pieds-Noirs felt confident that they held the reins of political and economic power as was revealed by events in 1945 at Setif and in its aftermath. Ironically enough these started on VE Day itself as a demonstration by Muslims hoping for an end to colonial rule in the wake of the Second World War clashed with European settlers. For a while events escalated and over a 100 Pieds-Noirs were killed in their isolated farms and communities. However, the overwhelming response by the Algerian authorities with help from the French military and the Pieds-Noirs themselves saw a disproportionate use of force and the widespread killing and suffering of thousands of Muslims. The message was supposed to be clear that the colonial forces would do whatever it took to maintain law and order and it certainly convinced the Europeans that they had succeeded in putting down a potential rebellion. In reality though, they had merely sown the seeds of division and despair even if this was hidden from plain sight for the next decade.

The author makes a very useful point when he illustrates that the Administration of Algeria was very different from the way Britain administered her own African colonies. Algeria's administrators were drawn almost entirely from within the European population of Algeria itself. This meant that over time its administrators became increasingly insular as they implemented policies that benefitted their own community and often at the expense of the larger local population. In contrast, Britain's Colonial Service was detached from the local population and experts were encouraged to cycle through a variety of colonies and personnel were refreshed regularly from Britain or from other colonies. Consequently, they were often more concerned with helping the genuinely most needy and not just supporting the local European settlers at any price. This detachment would prove an invaluable tool for the British and would prove a fatal flaw for the French as Muslim Algerians increasingly identified the authorities as being part of the problem and almost never part of the solution to their day to day concerns and economic aspirations.

Alistair Horne also makes it clear that the descent into conflict was due to wider forces at work elsewhere in the region, back in France, in other French colonies and even in other European empires. The Cold War and rising nationalist aspirations unleashed new tensions and opportunities which Algerian freedom fighters would only be too keen to draw inspiration from or receive tangible help from. For instance many Algerians took heart, much to the disgust of the Pieds-Noirs, of Nasser's rise in Egypt and his repeated challenge to British hegemony in that part of the World. Funnily enough, Nasser would promise much to the Algerians in public but delivered oh so little in physical terms in reality. However it was the collapse of French rule in Indo-China which truly inspired Algerian Nationalists. This defeat of the French military gave hope that they might be able to achieve something similar. The fact that the defeat unleashed another wave of weak governments in France added to the sense of opportunity. In particular, the new Radical-Socialist government with Communist support in France under Pierre Mendes gave these Algerian Nationalists hope that they might soon win some important concessions themselves. However, the political power of the Pieds-Noir back in France combined with the endemic weakness of the institutions of the Fourth Republic to frustrate any such hopes. The creation of the FLN in 1954, using tactics emulated from the French Resistance of all people during the Second World War, saw these nationalist aspirations escalate into open guerilla warfare as Algeria descended into a cycle of violence that lasted for a long, hard 8 years in total.

The author explains why the usual governmental responses to terrorist outrages are doomed to failure. First of all, the authorities might round up the usual suspects who they believed may have committed the crimes. More often than not, they will gather innocents along with the guilty who are then easily recruited to the cause due to their wrongful imprisonment and presence in the universities of terrorism: prisons and jails. Secondly, the authorities resist any liberal reforms in the face of terrorism. They cannot be seen to give in to terrorism and so dig in their heels and refuse even reasonable political or economic demands. Finally, they invariably do make concessions later, but by then they are too little too late and besides the terrorists feel emboldened and that success is within their grasp. It was not merely the French who fell into this trap, the Portuguese and Dutch also made similar mistakes as did the British in isolated examples, notably India and Palestine for instance. The problem for the French in Algeria was exacerbated by the frustration of the French military which felt politically undermined and undervalued from its own sacrifices and contribution to maintaining law and order in such difficult circumstances. Morale was in a downward spiral as they felt sold out over Indo-China, over Suez and in not being able to follow up the Algerian terrorists into neighbouring strongholds like in Tunisia (although they did not always follow orders on this). The military became so disillusioned with the political leadership and instability from France that they took matters into their own hand and effectively caused the collapse of the Fourth Republic with a coup d'etat and seizure of control. Their aim was to return France to firm leadership which might then allow them to fight the war in Algeria on their own terms. It was hoped that the return of the Second World War French hero Charles de Gaulle would provide the necessary firmness and confidence. The General certainly appeared to tick the right boxes for the European community in Algeria and the military who felt that they had found their political saviour.

De Gaulle's new Fifth Republic did try and smother the Algerian rebellion with a mixture of silk glove and iron fist. Massive investment was declared in the Algerian economy and a general amnesty for all those who had taken up arms against the authorities whilst new defensive borders using the latest technology and increased military investment were stepped up. As part of the creation of the Fifth Republic, he held a referendum of all French colonies to see if they wished to form a new relationship with France (only Guinea voted against). Under this new constitution, the French Union was replaced by the French Community and France was now considered to be a federation of states. The FLN refused to compromise on their own demands for independence though. They sought wider international support and continued their terrorist attacks worried that any stalling or temporary ceasefire might undermine their credibility and reduce their ability to restart any fight in the future. With such an implacable foe, de Gaulle responded by considering increased political rights for Muslims and even the option of self determination for the population as a whole. This in turn incensed the Pieds-Noirs who recognised the mathematical danger that lay before for them by such a turn of events. However, the Pieds-Noirs fatally over played their hand in 1960 with the Week of Barricades which only succeeded in showing that the authorities had the consent of virtually no-one to rule - European or Muslim! The formation of the OAS to conduct terrorism against the Arab population only heightened the tensions and hatred. A second French army officers' uprising seemed to show events spiralling out of control. And yet its ultimate failure and the seeming ungovernability of Algeria provided a tipping point in French resolve. The failure of the French Army Officers to spread the coup to the mainland allowed de Gaulle to rise in stature at home despite the challenge to his authority. It was clear that the French population were losing sympathy with the increasingly out of control Pieds-Noirs. They were simply fed up with the long years of war which the OAS were now spreading even to France itself with some particularly poor taste attacks on innocent French who had little or nothing to do with the conflict.

De Gaulle's solution was to call yet another referendum on Algerian self-determination but including the entire population of France as well as Algeria in the electoral equation. This revealed to the Pieds-Noirs how they had massively overplayed their hand and were haemorrhaging support back in France. Unfortunately, even this offer was too little too late for the FLN who realised that the political power was sliding inexorably in their direction. The final lesson for the empires was that terrorist groups could afford to out-wait democracies and sure enough de Gaulle finally capitulated and had to grant them full independence in 1962. The Pieds-Noirs, and the poor Jewish community, had to up-sticks in entirety and abandon their homes and farms en masse. They had played for high stakes and had risen those stakes to such a level that they eventually lost everything. They had lost political support in France through failing to make any concessions and turning to terrorism themselves and had even lost the support of de Gaulle who they had thought would be their champion back in 1958. The lesson for imperialists everywhere, and one learned very quickly by Harold Macmillan is that it might be better to leave colonies quickly and on good terms rather than dig your heels in, have years of bloodshed and then have to leave as enemies later on. In many ways, Britain learned more from French decolonisation process than the French did themselves!

What makes this book particularly relevant for us on this website is the fact that it was written by the British author Alistair Horne. He got to interview many of the protagonists involved and he has added and amended to the book over the years as new information became available. I think being British gives him an element of detachment which allows him to be even handed in his treatment of the various groups and individuals involved. The fact that he was also a biographer of Harold Macmillan underpins just how and why the decolonisation process was a common issue, even if tackled differently, to both Britain and France. It is often assumed that Britain and France and particularly Macmillan and de Gaulle were antagonistic to one another but in many ways this book paints a more sympathetic light and although the French were often exasperated with the British for undermining their own imperial ambitions, in reality de Gaulle finally realised that there was a point when colonialism should not be defended further and Macmillan backed him totally with this conclusion. Although the Algerian War went on for 8 long and bloody years, it could have gone on even longer if someone of de Gaulle's stature did not end when he did in 1962. The French experience in Algeria goes a long way to explaining why the British were more hands-off in Rhodesia when they declared their own UDI in 1965. The British had been made painfully aware of how meddling from the Metropole could actually make matters worse not better. The sanctions route was certainly not without pain, but at least Rhodesia was spared the worst excesses of the Algerian example. Sometimes it is worth stepping aside and seeing how other Empires dealt with the undoubted difficulties and challenges of decolonisation. Comparatively speaking and with a few exceptions (Aden for instance) the British extricated themselves from their colonial responsibilities with less blood spilled and rather more friends at the end of the process. That is no mean achievement as reading this book reveals what the alternatives could have looked like.

British Empire Book
Alistair Horne
NYRB Classics