Carrying the Torch

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Headshot of Abbas. His twenty year arc in many ways came to mirror his country’s. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

As Algerian resistance to the imposed status quo grew in the post war years, two major figures emerged to offer their own distinct visions of a more equitable Algeria, Ferhat Abbas and Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj. Tragically, both men would live long enough to see their hopes for Algeria dashed.

In his double breasted suits, Ferhat Abbas was the kind of man any colonial regime should have leapt at the chance to do business with. Educated at the University of Algiers, Abbas was a pharmacist by training, and had gotten his political start in his home city of Constantine. He was well spoken in French, and had even served in the army for two years. Taken together Abbas was practically the posterchild for the patriotic French Algerian. In the interwar decades he wrote multiple treatises calling for assimilation of “the native element” of Algeria, hoping that all Muslim Algerians could become voting citizens in France.[1] To keep his arguments relatable to a detached French metropole, he peppered his works with references to French political staples like the Revolution of 1789. Yet while his perspective won him some friends among the French socialist community, the government turned a deaf ear. When he visited Paris in the 1930’s to make his case, the Ministry of the Interior not only declined to meet with him, they subsequently passed a law that made any criticism of French Algeria a punishable offense.

In contrast to Abbas’ unrequited love for the French state, Messali Hadj stood out as the early voice for Algerian independence. Part of the same global network of revolutionaries, communists, and anti-imperialists as Ho Chi Minh, Hadj and his political party the North African Star began to call for a revolution at the ballot box in the 1920’s. Like the rest of his ilk though, Hadj soon found that postwar Europe’s victors took a dim view of the concept of self-determination for their colonies. Needless to say, it didn’t take long before the North African Star was outlawed in 1929. Undeterred, Hadj founded the People’s Party of Algeria and continued his call.

Messali Hadj
Messali Hadj in his later years. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Given both men’s political connections, they were initially heartened in 1936 when the leftist Popular Front was placed into power in France. Sadly rather than serving as a step forward it was a seminal lesson in disappointment for the Algerians, as the settler backed conservative bloc spent the next two years murdering any attempt at Algerian reform in committee. It was also something of a personal blow to Hadj, as he was arrested for sedition in 1937. As the years wore on, both men’s faith began to erode in the political process. During World War II, it would fade entirely.

As with everywhere else, World War II would leave its mark on Algeria. After a tense, eight month standoff along the western front, German forces executed Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) on May 9th, 1940. In a little over a month armored units backed by overwhelming air superiority smashed through the Netherlands, Belgium, and into France, bypassing the vaunted Maginot Line along the Franco-German border. French and British forces reeled, fell back, reformed, then fell back again. By the end of June 1940, the French government surrendered, reforming into the rump state known as Vichy France.[2] The newly gelded Vichy France included Algeria, and actually found some of its most earnest supporters among the pieds-noirs. German sock puppet or no, the Vichy regime took a hard line against the Arab and Berber population, and as a group that had never been keen on Jews either, many settlers found plenty to like in the new fascist state. On the other end of the spectrum from the pieds-noirs was one of the most dramatic figures in French history.

Towering over French history metaphorically, and over his contemporaries quite literally at 6 ft 5″, Charles de Gaulle was a complicated man. The son of a history professor, de Gaulle’s family came from a long line of proud traditionalists who were still somewhat sore about the loss of their property during the French Revolution. He was brilliant, a voracious reader, and surprisingly shy in person. At a young age de Gaulle leapt into the military and fought with distinction in World War I. During the battle of Verdun de Gaulle was stabbed in the thigh by a German bayonet, presumably wielded by a much shorter man who couldn’t reach de Gaulle’s vital areas. He then spent the rest of the war seething in a German prison camp, though he attempted to escape on five different occasions. After the war he remained in the military, with a prominent role as a historical and political author on the side. In the runup to the next conflict de Gaulle ran afoul of his mentor Marshall Petain and the General Staff when he opposed the reliance on the Maginot Line and pushed for a more flexible armored military- the exact kind of force he would watch steamroll the French army just a few years later. Defiant to the last, de Gaulle fled to London and continued to broadcast a call to arms on the BBC.

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Charles de Gaulle in his preferred wartime uniform. Photo Credit: Office of War Information

For all his brilliance and foresight, de Gaulle mostly kept his own councils and set a course of his choosing regardless of what anyone else might think. While he could be pragmatic in his solutions, he was also deeply proud, vain, and about the Frenchiest Frenchmen to ever parler français. In his own possibly apocryphal words, “I am France”. The territory came with at least a mild disdain for what he often regarded as English meddling, but also a genuine personal goal of ensuring that France itself thrived.

Both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill could barely stand de Gaulle, and they were hardly subtle about it. For years they more or less openly supported alternate, less abrasive leaders of the Free French,[3] which led to some of the best and most caustic insults of the century.[4][5] When it was clear that de Gaulle did have the complete support of the Free French, they did their best to ignore him when it was practical. Which was more or less why de Gaulle was left out in the cold as Algerian France was liberated by non Frenchmen.

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Typical “Resistance” to the allied landfall near the Algerian city of Arzeu. Photo Credit: The Royal Navy

As part of a planned invasion of Southern Europe British and American forces began to sweep through Morocco and Algeria in the 1942 campaign known as Operation Torch. Putting up a token resistance at best, and already hamstrung by Franco-Jewish resistance fighters in the region, Vichy General Juin and Admiral Jean Francois Darlan quickly surrendered to the Allies; and even helped coordinate the transition of their troops from Vichy to Free French command. Algeria returned to French hands after just a few years, but the war had effectively shattered the image of France’s military to the locals. Another casualty of the war had been Ferhat Abbas’ dwindling enthusiasm for a Franco-Algeria. Volunteering for the medical corps, he quickly found that even the “Free French” forces he was a part of had little interest or appreciation for Algerian independence. In 1943, he would join with Messali Hadj and publish “The Manifesto of the Algerian People” calling for Algeria’s independence. Independence was certainly on the mind of many Algerians, and it didn’t take long for this attitude to run headlong into the French, with horrific consequences for everyone.

[1] Even some of the titles feel like love letters to a distant parent. For example: “I Am France”, published in 1936.

[2] Named for the town of Vichy. Marshall Petain, also one of the brains behind the Maginot Line, also found himself leading the remains of his country. It was a role that unsurprisingly earned him a seat at a war crimes trial and a life sentence after World War II ended.

[3] “Possibly you could make [de Gaulle] governor of Madagascar”. Winston Churchill. Hoge, W. 2000. Churchill and Roosevelt wanted de Gaulle out, Britain discloses. The New York Times.

[4] “He thinks he’s Joan of Arc, but I can’t get my bishops to burn him”. Churchill (again), of de Gaulle. From Fitzpatrick, A. (2015). Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle’s relationship documented at Paris exhibition. The Telegraph.

[5] “When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. We are angry at each other much of the time”. Charles de Gaulle. Ibid.

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