Suitcase Carriers, Red Hand, Black Panthers
A Review of Algeria Fifty Years After Independence
Labourers, workers, merchants, sun. Many people. Germany has surrendered. Couples. Crowded cafés. Bells. Official celebration; war memorial. (…) Opposition rally of the people. Enough promised now. 1870. 1918. 1945. Today, the eighth of May, is this really victory now? (…) An official of the Sûreté, hidden in the shadow of an archway, shoots at the flag. Machine gun fire. (…) The bodies are displayed in the sun. Since 8th May fourteen people from my family have died, not counting those who were court-martialled and shot.
(Kateb Yacine, Nedjma, 1956)
May 8th 1945 is the central historical event at the heart of the novel Nedjma by the Algerian author Kateb Yacine. It is a different May 8th to the one we are used to celebrating in Germany. In the Algerian town of Sétif, following the German surrender, thousands of Algerians gathered spontaneously to demonstrate for their rights. Many of them had not only fought as soldiers on the French side against Nazi Germany, they had also fought for France in the First World War, and were now demanding libération for themselves as well. The demonstration in Sétif, in which Kateb Yacine also participated and was arrested, and which he describes in Nedjma, went down in history as the day of the massacre of tens of thousands of Algerians perpetrated by the French security forces. What anti-fascists and the international community celebrate as the ‘Day of Liberation’ does not represent liberation at all for Algerians, but rather the beginning of a long period of bloody repression and systematic torture. Many Algerians died in French internment camps. It was the start of a struggle for independence, of a brutal colonial war that lasted from 1954 to 1962. In the process France, the land of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, still living off the legend of the Résistance to Nazi Fascism and very far from addressing its past in the form of the Vichy regime, revealed itself as deeply racist with regard to the ‘natives’ of the country, who were regarded as inferior in terms of civilisation. For Kateb Yacine, the only appropriate way of talking about this period of physical and psychological violence, which he himself experienced, is not chronologically but cyclically structured narrative fragments. The novel is held together by the search the three main characters all share: for Nedjma, who is a woman, but also the future de-colonised Algeria.
So the historic date 1945 preserves memory like two sides of a medal: liberation for one means oppression for the other. This fateful temporal synchrony would later result in specific, almost forgotten histories, both German-Algerian and internationalist, and these are the subject of the following article.
Savage colonial war
As a reminder: in 1830 France occupied Algiers, Oran and Bône. Bit by bit it conquered the whole of Algeria and in 1848 declared it to be French territory. It was divided up into three départements, and was thus bound to France significantly more closely than, for example, the protectorate of Morocco or the colony Senegal. The people were subjected to a policy of dispossession, expulsion, resettlement, internment, and linguistic enforcement that attempted to eradicate the identity of the Algerian people. Malek Alloula, born in Oran in 1937, remembers: ‘We spoke Arabic at home, but in the French-speaking school we only learned the history of France; Arabic was a foreign language for us in our own country.’
The events of Sétif sparked off the Algerian revolution, which began on November 1st 1954, led by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN). The war in Algeria reached as far as France: on October 17th 1961 French security forces killed almost two hundred Algerians at a demonstration in Paris; some of the corpses were thrown into the Seine. On February 8th, also during a demonstration in favour of Algerian independence, nine people were killed at the Metro station Charonne. On July 5th 1962 Algeria became independent.
Benjamin Stora, a historian and expert on the French colonial wars, mentions the Algerian war of independence in the same breath as the war in Indochina as the ‘most bitter war of decolonisation in the twentieth century’. This traumatic history, from systematic and institutionalised torture, executions and rapes by French officers throughout Algeria to the murder of Algerians in Paris, has only been addressed in France in the past ten years. At the beginning of this century, the Algerian war was downplayed in France as ‘operations to restore order’, whereas in Algeria it was called a ‘revolution’. But in Algeria too, constructing memory beyond post-colonial glorification is a difficult thing to do: Many Algerians still have problems with Albert Camus, for example, the son of a poor settler family in Algeria and an anti-colonial who waxed lyrical about a cosmopolitan Algeria.
Albert Memmi aptly summarises the psychodynamic of colonialism when he writes that a master-servant interdependency exists between the colonised and the coloniser. Stora substantiates with figure this theory of a common traumatic Franco-Algerian history. The Algerian war affected some six to seven million men and women personally: the French soldiers and their children; the ‘pieds-noirs’, i.e. the European settlers from Algeria and their children; the Jews of Algeria; and the Algerian Muslims and their (French-born) children, the ‘beurs’.
So French colonialism and the post-colonial period continue to have repercussions right up the present day, because they sparked off huge waves of migration. After the end of the Algerian war, a million pieds noirs and harkis, Algerians who had fought on the side of the French against their own compatriots, resettled in France. For more than fifty years not only have Algerians been immigrating to France, their children and grandchildren have also been born there and are thus for the most part French citizens, who are nonetheless often subjected to anti-Muslim racism.
That, then, is Franco-Algerian colonial history in a nutshell. In France, only a few intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, opposed colonialism and spoke out in favour of Algerian independence – often endangering their lives in so doing.
In post-war Germany the Algerians’ anti-colonial struggle for independence became a point of political identification for the Left. Former resistance fighters, concentration camp prisoners, Communists, Trotskyites, young Socialists – all were united by the ‘Algeria project’. Claus Leggewie, who in his 1984 book of the same name – still one of a kind today – portrays the acts of solidarity of the so-called German ‘suitcase carriers’, aptly names these lone fighters – still far from constituting a ‘movement’ – the first internationalists: long before the anti-Vietnam movement, and long before the pro-Nicaragua solidarity of the 1980s. His book offers unique insights, taken from interviews, into illegal money transfers to the Algerian liberation front, concealed weapons production, and counterfeiting rings in stuffy post-war Adenauer Germany. According to Leggewie, this had the effect of combining ‘the “classical” worker’s movement of the Weimar era with anti-Fascist combat experience and anti-colonial dedication’. One who played central role in West Germany as the hinterland of the FLN was ‘Ben Wisch’, the Social Democrat SPD member of parliament Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, who infuriated his comrades in the French socialist sister party in so doing.
‘Algeria is everywhere’ – this was the title of Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s inaugural speech for the first exhibition, put together by students, about the atrocities committed both by the French and also by the FLN in Algeria. For a small group of German activists and intellectuals this much was clear: Germany was an accomplice in this war, and it was a historical duty not to allow any concentration camps to exist anywhere at all – with which we are back at May 8th. The director Volker Schlöndorff, who during his time as an exchange student in Paris was confronted with the reprisals against Algerians, made his first short film Wen kümmert’s? [Who Cares?] in 1960 about Algerian soldiers who had deserted from the French army, fled to Germany, and were being hunted by the ‘Red Hand’ of the French secret service.
After independence, there were hopes for a new Algerian ‘project’. And this was not only an idea of the Left; internationally, too, Algeria – like other formerly colonised countries – became a projection screen for socialist utopias. As with many ‘young’ African nations freed from foreign domination, Algeria too was confronted with the question: towards what should we orientate ourselves? Towards the West, to the United States; or towards the East, in the direction of the Soviet Union? The former head of the FLN, Ben Bella, became president in 1962: he aspired to an Arab socialism similar to that of Nasser in Egypt, and looked to the Soviet Union. In 1964 the FLN became the party of state and government. Algeria wanted to follow its own path, a socialist one, but not like that of other models, such as Cuba, for example. In 1974 they signed a labour recruitment agreement with East Germany, and many Algerian students were sent to the German Democratic Republic. And so today – another piece of German-Algerian history – there are many Algerians in former East Berlin, as well as the descendants of East German-Algerian couples in search of their fathers, who were expelled.
A great past, and a miserable present
In the 1970s Algeria became a place of great symbolic importance, but also an actual place of exile, for persecuted ‘revolutionaries’ from all over the world; from Africa in particular, but also from North America. As part of the ‘rediscovery’ of the African continent and Black nationalism, people in the United States were reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), and his analyses in Black Skin, White Masks, which establish the connection between ‘white supremacy’ and colonialism but also address the psychological traumas of those colonised. Fanon thus became an important initiator of the Blackness and Black Power movement in the US. The psychiatrist from Martinique worked in a psychiatric clinic in the Algerian town of Blida, before himself joining the FLN. In July 1969 the Pan-African Cultural Congress took place in Algiers, and was opened by President Boumedienne; one prominent guest was Eldridge Cleaver, the information minister of the Black Panther Party, who had fled via Cuba from the United States, where he was a wanted man. The Black Panthers opened an office in the heart of Algiers and organised an exhibition – they felt an affinity with the Algerian revolution; that they were fighting for similar anti-imperialist goals. In 1970 the office became the International Section of the Black Panthers, which was the contact point for members of the radical Black civil rights movement who had fled the United States, and was awarded diplomatic status.Meanwhile, today, in the fiftieth year after independence, there are hardly any signs of the Arab Spring blossoming in Algeria. Since the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) won the elections in 1991, which were invalidated by the military, a total of 150,000 people have died in the civil war, among them countless civilians and intellectuals. The state security forces instigated a brutal crackdown. Today, in a period of what only looks like domestic peace, Algerians are tired of fighting. They may observe the democracy movements in the neighbouring Arab countries with fascinated interest, the Algerian newspaper El Watan may organise debates, and so on; but in Algeria a strange quiet reigns after all the years of struggle for independence and the terror of the 1990s. Yet here, as in other Arab countries, one could find similar grounds for a pro-democracy movement. Youth unemployment is high, and mafia-style authoritarian structures prevail. But by making the concession of passing a new political parties act, President Bouteflika succeeded in keeping the peace. We must wait and see what happens in 2012, because the president wants to allow international observers in for the coming parliamentary elections. Algeria too will have to change.
was the Programme Director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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