What did you do in Algeria, Daddy? is the title of a new book by historian Raphaëlle Branche, and the essence of the question runs throughout the text. She is a specialist in colonial violence, and interviewed French conscripts and their relatives in order to retrace, from a personal angle, the tragedy of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). There were 1.5 million of them, young conscripts who left to fight in a country and a war about which they knew very little. During the so-called “Algerian events” and even afterwards, silence was their reality.
The research for her book saw Branche working on diaries, letters, notebooks and testimonies to present the loss of innocence that this war was for many conscripts. The silence of the war was the official account; France still finds all aspects of this colonial war very difficult to face.
Why did she opt to approach the war from the point of view of conscripts and their relatives? “The family seemed to me to be a way in to this question of the silence of the veterans and why they did not wish to speak about it,” she told me. “It seemed to me that the real problem was who they could talk to. Clearly, the first people they spoke to were their relatives. I wanted to go back to those first stories. Families are objects of history, and they make history too.”
Branche met and interviewed conscripts at length and tried to understand “how people who had been brainwashed by values such as patriotism, nationalism and virility” found all of this contradicted on the battlefields of Algeria.
These conscripts not only discovered war in Algeria, but also a people, and faced the reality of colonialism. “We must not forget the importance of French ignorance about the situation in Algeria. In fact, it is much more a question of ignorance than of denial.”
Officially, France said that the operations in its North African colony were simply a matter of “maintaining order and peace”. The young people sent to Algeria for their compulsory 18-month military service were not going to war.
Nevertheless, according to official figures, 23,196 French soldiers were killed and 60,188 were wounded in this war that wasn’t a war. More than 11,000 of those killed were professional soldiers and the rest were conscripts. Among those dead French soldiers were approximately 5,000 Muslims, two-thirds of whom were also conscripts. On the Algerian side, although official statistics from Algiers suggest that the war resulted in 1.5 million deaths, historians have difficulty in putting forward a precise figure. Most estimate that there were between 300,000 and 400,000 Algerians killed, the majority of whom were civilians.
Raphaëlle Branche describes the “structures of silence” that have survived the Algerian war, from the silence of conscripts to the silence of French society as a whole. “Those who left for Algeria between 1957 and 1959 thought that they were going to defend French Algeria and maintain the Empire. From the end of 1959, it was no longer possible to believe this because it was no longer the official discourse. The link between what was felt on the ground and what was said in society was no longer the same as it was for those two years.
The conscripts had been told that they were there to defend French civilisation, but came across people who were fighting for their independence with an articulate discourse; the Algerians were not simply savages greedy for blood. The discrepancies couldn’t be more violent; by the end of the war, for example, some French soldiers were targeted by the right-wing, anti-independence Secret Army Organisation (OAS). It is in these discrepancies between collective beliefs and individual experiences that silence is partly nested.
With such “events” in Algeria rather than “war”, Branche points out that the French conscripts could not be part of a glorious genealogy encompassing the First and Second World Wars. “The official discourse, which recognised neither the enemy nor the legitimacy of the Algerian national struggle, insisted on the role of the army in building French Algeria with soldiers not only having to fight but also build roads, watch over markets and streets, go to school and accompany vaccination campaigns.” Such operations did not look like war operations, and were not, therefore, military service per se. “These conscripts found it difficult to think of themselves as combatants. Later on, they would have difficulty being recognised as war veterans, because to be a veteran is to have participated in a war and to have been in a position to be killed. However, even if some did not handle weapons, they were still exposed to danger and death. When they returned, they came back from a war and not just from military service; official denial made their experience of the violence difficult to talk about and hear.”
Did these conscripts grasp what the Algerian reality was, or were they unable to do so? Even if it was not officially “a war”, the soldiers were subject to stricter regulations than they would have been if their military service had been in peacetime. Moreover, newspaper correspondents had no access except alongside the troops. The official version of events dominated. “They weren’t allowed to talk about what they saw. They couldn’t even tell their relatives where they were stationed. They had to give a coded address. As for bearing witness, some wanted to do so, by writing to the press or copying documents to pass them on. They were just a few men out of more than one and a half million conscripts. However, many did so, especially after their return. They became informers, or as we would now say, whistle blowers.”
When they came back, the conscripts were met with indifference and a refusal to hear about their traumatic experiences. Then the amnesty law was passed to prevent any legal action against those who committed crimes in Algeria, which basically lumped all conscripts and professional soldiers together. The testimonies collected by Branche confirm the shame felt by the conscripts.
She quotes the notebooks of a communist activist who explains how he struggled to convince his comrades to respect the humanity of Algerian prisoners. “He suffered terribly as a militant but also as a humanist. Nevertheless, he managed to overcome the shame by making his diary public. This sense of shame has been identified as important by psychiatrists who have treated some conscripts. This shame persists decades later.”
Reading Branche’s book, one might think that the sense of abandonment felt by these conscripts when they went home must have been the result of the narcissistic wound that the loss of Algeria meant to France. They are, like the French colonists in Algeria and the Algerian auxiliaries in the French Army, embarrassing witnesses of colonisation and this brutal war.
“The conscripts are in a way the witnesses of what France really was, rather than what it claimed to be, of what it failed to do. It failed to develop Algeria and to develop ties of equality and respect between the two peoples. They are witnesses to this failure. This is not pleasant for any nation, even if the official discourse will value the ability to bounce back after failure. This is what General de Gaulle went on to do with a voluntarist speech that came down to describing Algeria and the Empire as hindrances.”
One of the most innovative aspects of What did you do in Algeria, Daddy? is to show the unconscious effects of this war on the descendants of the conscripts, whose legacies are not always explicit. This transgenerational legacy was passed on, but not explicitly so. “Through some of the cases studied, I show that people are as if inhabited by a memory that comes from the past and the Algerian experience of their fathers. These descendants may have received an unconscious inheritance, which can be translated into their lives by certain behaviour and choices they made without really knowing why… But I also show how some have seized their fathers’ history by putting it in its right place in their own history, in acts of creation for example. It’s not just a legacy they have to endure, but it can be a legacy that can be seized and transformed.”
France is now ready to face this memory of the Algerian war. Could Emmanuel Macron, by generational effect since he was born in 1977, be to the Algerian War what Jacques Chirac was to the recognition of France’s responsibility for the deportation of French Jews during the Second World War? According to Raphaëlle Branche, President Macron has given “several proofs of his commitment” to the questions of the war of Algeria and “the responsibility of the French state.” But she notes that his statements lack any reference to colonialism.
However, there is still the difficulty, denounced by many historians, of accessing certain colonial archives which are still considered to be secret. “How the French president is dealing with this matter is not enough, and the fact that archives are still classified as ‘confidential’ proves that there is still more to do for the importance of remembrance. This is not Macron’s fault, it’s the administration’s, which has a way of functioning that contradicts the presidential word. This not only concerns Algeria, but also a broader part of France’s recent history, and writing about it is compromised whenever free access to archives is blocked. There remains therefore a tension at the very heart of the state which concerns, more broadly, the right for citizens to access the archives of this recent period and particularly those of the Algerian war.”