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Memory Wars and the Messiness of History: An Interview with Jim House on the Commemoration of 17 October 1961

[Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, left, greets French Interior Minister Manuel Valls before a meeting in Algiers, Sunday, 14 October 2012. Photo by Sidali Djarboub via AP.] [Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, left, greets French Interior Minister Manuel Valls before a meeting in Algiers, Sunday, 14 October 2012. Photo by Sidali Djarboub via AP.]

[Dr. James (Jim) House is a Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Leeds. His research interests have focused on the history and memory of the Algerian War of Independence along with antiracism in France. His monograph, "Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory," which he co-authored with Neil MacMaster, looks at the events the 17 October Massacre in the context of colonial violence and social memory. Dr. House's current research focuses on shanty-downs (bidonvilles) in Algeria and Morocco.]  

Muriam Haleh Davis (MHD): Were you surprised by French President François Hollande’s decision to officially recognize the massacre of 17 October 1961?

Jim House (JH): I was not really surprised since last year Hollande participated in the highly visible commemorations of the 50th anniversary of this repression. Also, it is important to keep in mind that there was a period of ten years of the Right being exclusively in power (2002-2012), during which it was clearly impossible to do anything regarding state recognition of this violence: the Right had wanted to mark a transition after a relatively progressive period under Jospin’s government (1997-2002). It was also a quite clever political move given Hollande’s visit to Algiers in December.  And if one thinks back to 2001 and the debates in the Paris City Council Chambers about the commemorative plaque [for the massacre], there was basically the same grammar of support as well as the same expressions of opposition then as we are seeing now.

MHD: You mention Hollande’s upcoming visit to Algiers. How do you see the Algerian-French relationship playing out in the near future given that three French ministers have visited Algeria in the past four months? Do these political ties have an impact on the memory of the colonial past?  

JH: It is clear that the French government has prepared the ground very carefully for the French Presidential visit.  In part they are trying to get a sense - through measures such as Hollande’s declaration - of how far the Algerians expect the French state to go and what would be a precondition for closer economic ties, for example. And of course the Algerian side knows very well that in the post-Sarkzoy era there is a window of opportunity that may not still exist in eighteen months’ time, given that Hollande is already meeting problems in his presidency that may limit how much he can do in relation to the socialists let alone in relation to the rest of the political class.  Whether that leads to a wider symbolic revisiting of the colonial relationship I am not sure. I am also not sure that the Algerian government has much interest in changing their position on the massacre because it is very convenient for them to use this example of colonial violence and maintain the figures of the colonial oppressor and the oppressed - even if at the same time it is making diplomatic moves towards the French state.

MHD: In the book you discuss how the FLN (Front de libération nationale) has benefited from the 17 October massacre by helping to keep alive the memory of the colonial oppressor in order to bolster its own legitimacy. Given the widespread disillusion with the FLN in Algeria, how does this current political configuration impact the memory of this event? Is there a risk that the massacre might be strategically forgotten among certain individuals as a way of undercutting the FLN?

JH: There is a risk.  That systemic writing out, the deliberate refusal not to engage with what we know was a very hard won independence, is a real danger when we consider younger generations’ attitudes to the war of independence more generally. I suppose that it is a danger for the older generations as well.  I think there is certain ambivalence among many of the wartime generation who obviously realize that this legacy has been instrumentalized, but who at the same time, and quite understandably, want to commemorate that struggle.  The particular political spaces and mechanisms that the Algerian state has established in order to commemorate the war are also spaces that can be used politically as a sort of “watered down” opposition from within. In other words, there are people within certain veterans’ associations whose political credentials as mujahidin (fighters during the war) cannot be questioned.  As a result, they can say a few things that are critical and can thereby distance themselves from the Algerian state due to their status.  But it would be a real pity if the younger generation did not take seriously the examples of political agency, political organization and solidarity that could be drawn from the wartime period.

MHD: The term “colonial violence” has become increasingly controversial of late.  Some people have denied that one can use it to criticize the French Republic or metropolitan institutions.  What are your thoughts on the term itself and how it applies – or does not – to the massacre of 17 October 1961?

JH: I think that the historian has to understand the context in which violence takes place. What are the conditions of possibility for mass violence and what are the power relations in place that enable  those conditions? What is the repertoire of violence that can be used and how do the targets of violence experience the consequences? Any form of violence has to be situated within such considerations. In the Algerian case, we are dealing with a colonial war of liberation, so in that sense the “colonial violence” label seems to be appropriate - although it shocks people because we are talking about metropolitan France.  But if we are dealing with a series of power relations that revolve around a dominant imperial state  - or people challenging that domination from the position of a racialized dominated group - then it seems entirely appropriate to talk in terms colonial violence. Those power relations relating to colonial domination need to be articulated with other power relations, naturally. In Paris 1961 we looked not only at the conjuncture but also the moyenne and longue durée of the violence of that colonial relationship: we argued that the violence cannot be understood by looking only at period since 1945, or since the start of the war (1954) or since the arrival of Papon as Chief of Police in Paris (March 1958), but must be viewed as part of a much longer process.

MHD: In terms of a longue durée approach, how do think that the war of Independence influenced the codes of violence that came later? The civil war is often glossed over as trauma or a civil war but historians seem to lack any real conceptual apparatus to deal with this event.

JM: It would be difficult for me to give any kind of detailed analysis for the 1990s. One of the reactions of the October 1988 protests and their repression was to say, “here we are not dealing with a colonial state oppressing its people but an independent state.” But undoubtedly there is a relationship between the Algerian state and the citizens that is extremely problematic. Primarily because where that state feels threatened it reacts in a strong way and may use violence that is designed to discourage people from trying to mobilize further. And so I suppose you could take the analysis forward in terms of the history of state violence from that of FLN during the war of independence into the post-independence period. Of course on the ground these power relationships – and others - are very complex: there may well be inherited micro-level power relations from the war – questions of who did what individually, on the family level, or the local level, that also feed into political considerations. I am not fully qualified to speak about this, but it would be very surprising if [these factors] did not partially inform the new dynamics that emerged in the 1990s, forming a complex whole about which much more academic work is needed. What must be avoided is any essentialisation of such violence: instead we need to understand the shifting political conditions that render such violence possible.      

MHD: In your other work you have commented on the commemoration of the Fiftieth anniversary of independence. Were there disjunctures in how this event was remembered in Algeria versus in France? People have often talked about France and Algeria as a single transnational space, but how do we reconcile that with these very different commemorative practices?

JH: We can not collapse these two politically distinct spaces: the question is how we think about this transnational space heuristically – what sort of terms we use to describe the ways in which these spaces interrelate but are not identical. There are two levels on which one could respond to your question: there is the (bi-)national level, and then there are particular groups within France and Algeria. Of course these two are linked but on a national level these commemorations do political work in Algeria by emphasizing the celebration of a purportedly cohesive society rising up as one against a colonial oppressor, and by reminding the population who that oppressor was. And on the French side we know that states do not typically commemorate defeat – or they only do so when they have no other choice, and when there is sufficient pressure from groups from within civil society to undertake that commemoration at an official level, as we have seen with the case of 17 October 1961 Likewise, when the French state commemorated the contribution of its military to the conflict, that was entirely understandable and readable as the result of successful political lobbying by veterans. In addition, under the pressure of certain civil society groups [the French state has] promoted the contribution of the pied-noir (Europeans born in Algeria) to the wider colonial history, thereby marking official recognition of the loss experienced by settler colonialism at independence.

Because of the groups I have tended to work with, I have spoken with people within Algerian and French societies seeking visibility or in some cases to underline an existing visibility and recognition that were hard won, as in the case of the French FLN’s contribution to the war effort after decades of political marginalization. Many such former actors still feel this desire for recognition.  And while such recognition can come from the state, it can also stem from individual initiatives and the writing of memoires.  In some respects the memory wars that are being fought in Algeria have been fought within a  ‘nationalist field’ where there is the desire to situate oneself not only in relation to a political marginalization imposed from above - by the state - but also in relation to other former nationalist actors. But such memories are also being transformed by historiography: some of those memoires are implicitly informed by the history work that has been done over the course of the 1990s and since. There is a very interesting relationship between memory and history that is going on in many of these memoires of the former leaders of the French FLN Federation, for example. 

MHD: Is it possible to write a history that moves between the Algerian and French spaces without reducing the FLN’s victory for national independence?

JH: The problem is the process by which the FLN became dominant within the nationalist field - and ensured that it remained dominant until 1962 and well beyond. Rival groups did not disappear during the war: for example, the archives show that the MNA still existed in the latter years of the war, although it was severely depleted.  So it is a question of keeping in mind those plural strands of Algerian nationalism and understanding the process by which that pluralism was eroded but was never entirely destroyed. Historically it means asking some very difficult questions of the choices of levels and forms of violence used by the FLN. It means studying the processes by which the FLN decided to polarize particular communities and the spatial dynamics this took, with (for example) the punishment of one village in relation to another. But such studies can be undertaken within a historical examination of how violence occurs, just as the violence of the colonial state can be analyzed from similar perspectives.   

I think oral history has a role to play here as well because it shows us just how complex the picture is. These stories allow us to complicate many of the heavily ideologically-informed positions. In almost every oral history interview I have conducted, I have come across one if not many examples which would show just how complicated the war experience was when examined at the level of the everyday. Which means that the only history of the war that can be written – the only meaningful history – is a multi- dimensional history.  The historian of colonial Algeria needs to account for the messiness of this history, and in my sense the messiness of this specific history  - of an anti-struggle for liberation - cannot just be written from the official record whether that be Algerian or French. It has to be done using a very wide variety of sources.

This means that the historiography may be moving towards areas which are uncomfortable for the FLN.  For example, my current research on the nationalist demonstrations of December 1960 raises questions about the FLN’s ability at that specific point in the war to actively control the urban population: at the same time as there was a genuine desire for independence, in December 1960 the FLN probably had not regained a third of the strength it had enjoyed in Algiers prior to the “Battle of Algiers”. This encourages us to examine the relationship between a genuine desire for independence and the ability of what had been a mass organization to structure that struggle. 

MHD: Does this discomfort with the Algerian historiography (which is increasingly shared by both the FLN and France, as you mention) bring us back to what Balibar called the “frontière nonentière” between Algeria and France[1]? How do you situate his statement that Algeria and France add up to not one country, and not two, but something like one and a half?

JH: It is important to understand the specific context in which Balibar came out with those deliberately provocative essays.  He was posing a double critique of radical Islamism and its attempt to eradicate any French influence in Algeria, on the one hand, and a critique of the discourse of the National Front in France, on the other.  Interestingly, his notion of the “one and a half-ness” in the Franco-Algerian relationship also comes out most strongly in looking at life histories. For example, his intervention can be read most convincingly from the bottom up and by looking at the migrant experiences. When people read Abdelmalek Sayad they run into problems because Sayad constructed his approach based on the idea of the double absence of the migrant - presupposing the migrant’s geographical absence from their society of origin alongside an incomplete presence in the ‘host’ society - rather than a double presence, whereby the migrant was simultaneously part of both societies.[2] The truth is that we are still in the process of forging the heuristic tools to understand this situation and the forms of multi-identification that often characterize the migrant experience. 


[1] Balibar, Etienne. “Algérie, France: une ou deux nations?” Droit de Cité. Paris: Quadrige/PUF, 1998. 73-88.

[2] Abdelmalek Sayad La double absence: des illusions de l’émigré aux souffrances de l’immigré, Paris, Seuil, 1999.

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