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Between the World and Algeria: International Histories of the Algerian War of Independence

Darcie Fontaine, Decolonizing Christianity: Religion and the End of Empire in France and Algeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Jennifer Johnson, The Battle of Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Jeffrey James Byrne, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[This review essay was first published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Arab Studies Journal. For more information or to subscribe, click here.] 

The history of Algeria is undergoing a boom, especially the history of what remains by far the most studied period, the War of Independence (1954–62). A raft of new research has come out in English in the past few years, and the publication of three books exploring international aspects of the war in the same year is proof of the field’s expansion. While previously the historiography was notoriously isolated from Algeria’s regional and international context, much of this new research is concerned with connecting Algeria to the wider world. The three books reviewed here explore different international aspects of the decolonization conflict. They all contribute to countering the colonial doctrine that conflict in Algeria was purely domestic to France, and they all do so on the basis of research conducted in Algeria. This expansion also means that it is time for the field to mature, and these new perspectives on the Algerian War of Independence suggest many ways forward for future research.

Grounding the history of Algeria in research conducted locally is a surprisingly novel development. One of the ironies of the historiography on the Algerian War of Independence is that it started expanding in the 1990s, precisely when it became nearly impossible to do research in Algeria itself. In France during that time, a series of public controversies on the French army’s use of torture reactivated longstanding internal debates about the war. Moreover, the eruption of an extremely violent conflict between the army and Islamists in Algeria following the abortive 1991 elections seemed to call for renewed study of the nation’s foundational liberation struggle. Meanwhile, research in Algeria came to a virtual standstill for most of the “black decade” from 1992 to 2002, as foreigners fled the country and Algerian intellectuals were the victims of systematic targeted assassinations. Yet it is paradoxically in this period that many scholars began writing new histories of the 1954–62 conflict, even while they were unable to go to Algeria themselves. In France, the likes of Sylvie Thénault and Raphaëlle Branche led a new generation of research on the war. Crucially, the first major international history of the war, Matthew Connelly’s A Diplomatic Revolution (Oxford University Press), which functions as a starting point for the books in this review, was published in 2002, relying on extensive research in the United States, France, and Tunisia but not Algeria itself.

The situation changed surprisingly rapidly in the next decade. In France, increasingly fractious political debates around immigration, multiculturalism, and social problems in the banlieues led to a re-imagination of the Algerian war as the alleged root cause of these problems. French scholars were increasingly joined by Americans. US interest in the Algerian conflict increased dramatically after 2001 as a simplified narrative of radicalized Arabs planting bombs against the West proved too tempting not to be instrumentalized by various political interests. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, standard narratives of the Algerian War, from Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace (Macmillan, 1977) to Pontecorvo’s classic film Battle of Algiers (1966), suddenly became the usable past to understand current developments.

Around this juncture, it once more became possible to do research in Algeria, albeit research of a particular kind, and foreign researchers began to wade into the Algerian National Archives, where depending on their topic, they gained more or less access. After 2011 in particular, Algeria became a relatively stable and easy place to do research in comparison to places like Syria or Egypt, which had previously attracted droves of researchers interested in the Arab world. Nevertheless, research there still remains highly constrained by bureaucratic restrictions, particularly with regard to anything dealing with history after independence in 1962.

All three of the works discussed here come out of that moment of first findings in Algerian archives after a long interruption. They use state archives primarily, and to some extent those of other institutions and individuals, as well as interviews conducted in Algeria. Their introductions are all manifestos for research in Algeria, taking a stand against an earlier generation of work reliant on French or sometimes American archives.

Fontaine’s Decolonizing Christianity is the one that makes the most use of private archives, charting the transformations of Christians through the independence struggle and in a newly independent Algeria. She follows a cluster of individuals and organizations, both Catholic and Protestant, that sought to redefine Christianity to separate it from the colonial system.

Until the outbreak of the Algerian revolution, Christianity and especially the Catholic Church were inseparable from the colonial system. Unlike in other regions of the Arab world like Egypt or the Levant, there were no indigenous Christian minorities in Algeria when the French arrived in 1830. Christianity was thus nearly exclusively a settler phenomenon, especially since the church’s missionary efforts toward Muslims were met with near total failure. The church was intimately connected to the French colonial program of reviving a Latin North Africa, harking back to the Roman Empire and the Christianity of Augustine and conveniently cutting Algeria off from the rest of the Muslim world. For all the debates that raged about the separation of church and state elsewhere in the French Republic, in Algeria the church retained close connections with colonial authorities. Most of the church, and most of its followers, remained attached to the colonial order until its very end.

Fontaine, however, tells the story of a small but influential group of people who bucked this trend, taking the side of Algerian independence. Putting together evidence from a range of private archives and interviews, Fontaine situates these actors within the context of transformations in both French and global Christianity, providing what she calls a “social history of theology” (11). She shows how women and men inspired by movements of social Christianity oriented toward the working class in Europe became increasingly involved in social work serving the Muslim-majority population in Algeria. This work created new spaces for interaction and new political commitments to a more just society that would benefit all and not just the settler minority. Most famously, the man at the very top of the Catholic hierarchy in Algeria, the archbishop of Algiers, Monseigneur Duval, advocated for the self-determination of the Algerian population and against the French army’s use of torture, maintaining a firm stance against the use of violence by combatants on both sides of the conflict. This stance made him extremely unpopular among the wider European population, which accused him of sympathizing with the FLN. Like Archbishop Duval, some of Fontaine’s actors are relatively well known in French-language scholarship but receive here a comprehensive treatment in English. For instance, the Protestant relief organization Cimade, which intervened in detention camps for the Algerian population, played a crucial role.

Decolonizing Christianity offers the groundwork for a new history of the European minority both before and after independence. Indeed, Fontaine’s work hovers around yet never quite pins down one of the central paradoxes of colonial Algerian society: that its settlers were always implicitly Christian yet never named as such. Colonial census categories divided Algerians into “Muslims,” “Jews,” and “Europeans.” This scheme meant that while the indigenous population of Algeria (Muslims and Jews) were identified by racial-religious categories, “Europeans” were never explicitly labeled as Christians, even though they all were, at least nominally. What Fontaine charts is thus the transformation from Christianity as an implicit racial marker of settler privilege to a particular individual commitment to faith and values that could be worthwhile in an independent Algeria. The word “Christian” transformed to designate a very small subset of the European population—those that defied the system in the name of their faith and refused to be associated with the unequal colonial order.

The most innovative part of the book is in the final chapter, when Fontaine locates the place of these progressive Christian actors in the newly independent Algerian state. Given the mass departure of the pied-noir population in the summer of 1962, what were the Christians committed to staying and building an egalitarian and revolutionary Algeria meant to do? Here, Fontaine opens up a particularly fascinating window upon the construction of the current Algerian state from the perspective of its dwindling but influential European minority. What emerges here is that much of the shape of the future Algerian state was still up for grabs in the first years after independence. Many public proclamations by the FLN in 1962, for instance, were highly supportive of the presence of a progressive Christian and European minority, and the first Assemblée Nationale Constituante had 16 out of 196 seats reserved for Europeans, or roughly eight percent of the total. By 1964, however, there was only one European MP, after the highly restrictive Algerian nationality code made it increasingly difficult for Europeans to acquire Algerian citizenship, even for those who had demonstrated political loyalty to independent Algeria. It was in the first years after independence, and especially after Boumédiène’s coup in 1965, that certain possibilities gradually closed up. Although the Christian population was small, Fontaine correctly points out that it has been of vital importance to the cultural and educational life of post-independence Algeria, including to this day, in spite of violent attacks it faced during the 1990s.

Fontaine’s account deftly contextualizes developments in Algeria within broader transformations in world Christianity in the lead-up to the Vatican II council. The church in Algeria, which had been present primarily to serve a settler population, had to reinvent itself when it was no longer attached to the service of European imperial power. Fontaine thus argues that Algeria, as an iconic case of decolonization, provided an important test for rethinking the global role of Christianity.

This argument about the centrality of the Algerian independence struggle for wider changes across the world is also at the heart of Jennifer Johnson’s Battle for Algeria. Johnson shows how both the French government and the FLN used the provision of healthcare to make claims to sovereignty in Algeria during the independence war. Her emphasis on both sides of the conflict demonstrates that medicine was not simply a tool of imperial domination by the French, as previous research on the colonial period has sometimes suggested.

Throughout the colonial period, healthcare provision in the Algerian countryside was extremely patchy; it was during the war and because of the war that the French government massively expanded its healthcare, welfare, and social services provision to the rural Algerian population. To counter the growing influence of the FLN, the Sections Administratives Spécialisées (SAS), created by Jacques Soustelle in 1955, brought the French army into much closer contact with rural Algerian populations. Under military supervision, the SAS engaged in a variety of activities in order to control and appease Algerians, building houses within camps for displaced populations, repairing roads, running schools, and providing healthcare in mobile teams that crisscrossed the Algerian countryside. Drawing from the archives of the Provisional Algerian Government (GPRA), Johnson shows how the FLN then retaliated by positioning their own doctors in the field and providing healthcare services to promote their cause to the Algerian population. The provision of healthcare, Johnson thus shows, offers a window onto how the FLN saw itself as creating a new state on the ground by providing essential services before it had formal sovereignty or even military control over most of Algeria.

Much of Battle for Algeria, however, details not the local conflict to secure the loyalty of the Algerian population but the wider one to gain recognition on the international stage. Piecing together GPRA archives as well as international archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UN, Johnson shows how Algerian activists used new international norms of humanitarianism emerging after World World II, and especially the newly created Algerian Red Crescent, to oppose the French government’s treatment of Algerian populations and make claims to sovereignty. Locating her scholarship in the burgeoning field of the history of human rights and humanitarianism, Johnson argues that the Algerian case was a significant step in the global transformation of humanitarianism, in which those marginalized by the international system managed to make institutions in Geneva and New York hear their claims. The ICRC, for instance, took the unprecedented step of monitoring French detention camps even though these facilities were officially a domestic matter over which the ICRC had no jurisdiction.

The centrality of the Algerian revolution in transforming worldwide geopolitics is demonstrated much more fully in Jeffrey Byrne’s Mecca of Revolution. This ambitious and dense work offers a comprehensive account of Algerian attempts to build the Third World as a new force in international relations, first as a revolutionary movement and then as a newly independent state. Before it even had a state to call its own, the FLN was busy training other guerrilla movements across the African continent. Soon after, the new Algerian state portrayed itself as at the vanguard of worldwide revolution, with its capital host to subversive movements the world over. Chapter after chapter, Byrne shows not only how revolutionary connections across the Third World were absolutely essential to political legitimacy within the Algerian national movement, but also how the FLN was influential in shaping the Third World movement as Algiers became the “Mecca of Revolution” of the book’s title.

Through the Algerian case, Byrne is able to give a historically nuanced account of the Third World movement. He takes the participants of this global movement seriously as geopolitical actors who transformed the world system by bypassing the great powers rather than reducing the movement to a series of empty speeches. He also refuses to romanticize this heady period and shows the many limitations of the movement’s activities as well as its considerable divisions and rivalries. For instance, Byrne shows how the strength of Algerian-Cuban relations in this period rested partly on the two countries’ geographic distance. Algeria could thus treat Cuba as a model and partner in a way that was less divisive and complex than closer, especially Arab, neighbors.

Spanning a decade of revolutionary possibilities from Bandung in 1955 to Boumédiène’s coup against Ben Bella in 1965, Mecca of Revolution goes further than Fontaine’s and Johnson’s works in disrupting the traditional chronologies of the war. Independence here occurs almost in the middle of the narrative, and it is by no means the determining historical shift. Like Fontaine, Byrne emphasises the importance of radical shifts after independence, especially in March 1963, in shaping the independent Algerian state.

This shift in chronology is a welcome development for the historiography of Algeria. As Malika Rahal has noted, history in Algeria seems to stop after 1962, and the rest is left to political scientists or other specialists of the contemporary. Byrne’s account of Cold War dynamics, especially his account of an intra-Maghrebi conflict between a revolutionary Algeria and the pro-Western Moroccan monarchy, lays the ground for the history of such crucial developments as the 1963 insurrection of the Front des Forces Socialistes in Kabylia, the Sand War that erupted with Morocco the same year, and finally Boumédiène’s coup against Ben Bella in 1965. Indeed, Byrne argues that the timing of Boumédiène’s coup in 1965 is best explained by the importance of Third Worldist politics to political legitimacy within Algeria. Boumédiène seized power as delegates were pouring into Algiers from the world over to participate in the much-anticipated follow-up to the Bandung Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955, likely fearing that once the conference was over, Ben Bella’s international legitimacy would make him impossible to overthrow.

Beyond the considerable detail that the book provides, Mecca of Revolution makes a compelling argument about the ossification of the Third World movement. It tells the story of how a revolutionary movement committed to creating a freer world gradually turned into a cult of the state. As a young Abdelaziz Bouteflika, then foreign minister, told Algeria’s diplomatic personnel in 1964, “Yesterday the revolution and its authority guided us, today the principles of a State must enlighten us and guide us in our task” (290). This statement is telling both in terms of Algeria’s contemporary politics, and in terms of many other cases beyond the Algerian revolution.

Taken together, these three closely linked books stage a welcome intervention, opening up a history of Algeria’s struggle for independence on its own terms. First, they rescue the Algerian War of Independence from being simply a problem of French political history, locating Algerian actors at the center of their narratives with their own concerns beyond the boundaries of the French Republic. Thankfully, all three eschew the traditional narrative of the war, with its dramatic succession of coups, massacres, and betrayals, that too often descends into a kind of morality play with De Gaulle as the main character. All offer new, unexpected chronologies stretching beyond the boundaries of the FLN’s insurrection between 1954 and 1962.

Second, by providing subtle histories of the revolution’s aftermaths stretching beyond 1962, these works also rescue Algeria from being flattened into a poster child for successful decolonization. Too often, especially for those working on other regions of the Arab world, Algeria is merely there to be used as model for other struggles, most often the Palestinian one. Looking at the Algerian case from the inside out restores the full complexities and ambiguities of Algeria’s arrival on the international stage. It historicizes the analogies that have been made between decolonization in Algeria and in other places as products of a specific form of international politics that reached its peak at this time.

Yet what might be most interesting and least obvious about these three books is what they do not agree on. All three tell a narrative that connect events in Algeria to the wider world, making it their mantra to internationalize Algerian history, and, more ambitiously, to “Algerianize” international history. While they each offer insights into different fields (religion, healthcare, and Cold War geopolitics), all three share a common argumentation. They posit that we learn something new by re-examining the macro shifts in the post–World War II order through the Algerian case. The problem is that it is often unclear what exactly these new findings are. Instead, the reader is led to believe that simply because the research took place in Algeria the argument is intrinsically novel and groundbreaking. For this reason, all three works to some extent fetishize the Algerian archives. The authors mention these archives repeatedly in their introductions and conclusions to buttress the novelty of their arguments, suggesting that these new documents must contain an entirely new perspective. Yet this perspective does not necessarily come out in the subsequent chapters, in which their approaches to primary material are rarely mentioned if at all.

This fetishization is most evident in Johnson’s Battle for Algeria. In the opening, she explains she wants to “analyz[e] the war through the eyes of the Algerian participants and privileg[e] their voice and agency” (3). While this aim is laudable, it is not clear to what conclusions this new perspective leads her. Johnson is, for instance, keen to point out that Matthew Connelly’s A Diplomatic Revolution did not pay attention to Algerian sources. This point is well taken, and one might imagine that an account of the same years seen through the GPRA archive could look very different. Having mined the GPRA archive, however, Johnson then makes the argument that Algerians managed to transform notions of sovereignty despite controlling no territory in Algeria by successfully using international norms and organizations, which is effectively the narrative of A Diplomatic Revolution.

Johnson thus runs close to rehashing Connelly’s argument except with Algerian box references in the footnotes; what prevents her from doing this is the novel focus on healthcare, which is full of empirical gems. The full potential of this new approach, however, is constrained in this book by a rather narrow institutional account of international history. In the opening pages, Johnson summarily dismisses the most famous doctor involved in the Algerian War of Independence, Frantz Fanon, as a theoretician of Manichaean colonial violence, rather than analyzing his writings as those of a practicing psychiatrist. She thus bypasses a more complex story about the contradictory meanings of “health” and “sovereignty” on an international stage at a time when colonialism was being diagnosed as a pathology, some people thought machine guns were more effective than pills, and the French army was trying to cure Algerian bodies of the ills of revolutionary fever.

To a lesser degree, Byrne encounters similar pitfalls. Byrne’s history, also using the GPRA’s archive, is primarily a history of the nascent Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose sources form the core of his narrative. This archival find is significant, and is especially remarkable for the 1962–65 period given that the Algerian National Archives usually reject any requests for access to post-independence documents. A state archive, however, is still just a state archive, even if it is an Algerian one, and is only one of many possible entry points into the study of a period. Like Johnson, when Byrne claims to privilege the Algerian viewpoint, what he really means is that he is highlighting the viewpoint of the nascent Algerian state. To what extent this might be the viewpoint of all Algerians is never discussed in either of these books. There is thus a danger here of conflating “Algeria” or “Algerians” here with the Algerian government, a conflation which the FLN to this day very much welcomes.

This is not to say that these works make Algerians look monolithic. Fontaine’s Decolonizing Christianity largely bypasses state archives to show how a small group of people negotiated relations with both the French and Algerian governments. Byrne is also careful to point out the wide political disagreements within the Algerian nationalist movement, showing that the FLN repeatedly put praxis before doctrine, on which there was often no consensus.

The problem is more fundamental. In casting the very writing of a book with Algeria at the center as the primary innovation of their research, the three works occult the other moves they are making. Indeed, while all three books suggest that the Algerian War of Independence changed the international world order, their implicit conclusions are at odds with each other. Johnson’s account, for instance, primarily places the FLN in the position of successfully translating and expanding existing liberal humanitarian ideals created in Geneva and New York. Here, actors in Algeria received this new international discourse and then projected it back to the global centers of power through innovative strategies. Byrne, by contrast, argues that the FLN attempted to build an entirely alternative world order rather than try to make a place for itself in the existing one. By supporting transnational revolutionary moments and providing meeting spaces for leaders across the colonized and recently independent world to organize without the influence of great powers, the FLN built a parallel world order only mildly concerned with developments in Geneva and New York, and far more interested in Addis Ababa and Havana. For Johnson, independence is the end point at which Algeria successfully fits into a world order of sovereign nation-states; for Byrne, it is the beginning of the unraveling of an alternative Third World order. With Fontaine, finally, we see actors in Europe, in this case Catholic and Protestant institutions, being forced to adapt to changes detonated in Algiers. The directionality of changes between Algeria and the world thus differs across accounts.

These books all linger on the cusp of making bigger claims that might generalize from the Algerian case upward to revise commonplace theories. It is almost as if historians writing about Algeria still do not quite believe that the country was part of the world around it—that it is still too different, too special, too isolated for them to really be read by anyone who is not looking for information specifically on Algeria. As such, these books are testimony to the fact that the booming new literature on Algerian history has yet to fully mature. In any decent-sized field of research, after all, there are internal disagreements, methodological disputes, and sometimes long-lasting controversies. This observation is not an incitement to conflict, but more a diagnosis that people working on recent Algerian history might need to articulate their differing approaches more explicitly in order for research to progress. In the long run, doing research in Algeria might matter less than what one ends up doing with that research.

This points forward to a whole new agenda of research that will lie on the shoulders of these pathbreaking works. For a while, perhaps, choosing Algeria as a research topic was novel enough to be noteworthy, but thanks to this new research the circumstances have changed. Once the novelty of any kind of history truly based in Algeria wears off, then these authors will have achieved what they all set out to do—make the history of Algeria speak to broader global movements.  

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