Think Piece

Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Decolonization in Solidarity: Rethinking Categories for Post-1945 History

By Ariel Mond

In April 1959, in the midst of the Algerian War, the French humanitarian organization Secours populaire français (SPF) compiled a rather atypical document for its annual meeting. Under the banner of its motto, “tout ce qui est humain est nôtre” (“all that is human is ours”), the communist- and anticolonialist-aligned organization presented a few short pages on one strain of its wartime activity: aiding Algerians imprisoned or interned in the French metropole, many of whom had been arrested for their actions in support of the Algerian nationalist cause. In this document, the SPF printed letters it had received at the beginning of 1959 from three imprisoned Algerian women who wrote to thank the organization for sending Christmas packages, well wishes for the new year, and “gifts of friendship.” In each of their letters, Mériem B., Safia B., and Mesli F.—partially anonymized in this document—evoked the profound emotional difficulty of their imprisonment. Moreover, each letter writer expressed her commitment to Algerian self-determination and solidarity with the French humanitarians in the same breath: “this friendship,” Mériem B. wrote, is “the true image of the face of France,” a France that “has no fear of openly proclaiming its solidarity with oppressed peoples.”

“Quand en prison, pénètrent de tels souffles,” published by Secours populaire français [French Popular Relief], (Paris: 1959). Scan courtesy of Gallica.

While readers of this SPF document would have been left to speculate over the specifics of these women’s lives, imprisonment, and political affiliations, another contemporary organization rendered them more explicitly. In a published pamphlet entitled “Respect of the International Geneva Conventions for Algerian Women Prisoners,” a Tunis-based organization called the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc (“Committee of Women Students of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco”) identified these same three Algerians—Fadila Mesli, Safia Bazi, and Mériem Belmihoub—as women in their early twenties who had volunteered as nurses for the National Liberation Front (FLN). Arrested and transferred to penitentiaries in metropolitan France for providing medical care to Algerian soldiers, these women proudly testified that they had “accomplished their duties as Algerian women and nurses,” and that their only crime was “to have wanted to live free” (11-12). Filled with images and first-hand testimonies from detained Algerian women, this pamphlet reprinted selected articles of the Fourth Geneva Conventions that outlined specific protections for women prisoners against “rape, prostitution, and all attacks on modesty” (Article 27, Paragraph 2) alongside testimonial evidence—notably from the infamously imprisoned and tortured Djamila Bouhired—that such provisions were not being applied in France’s treatment of incarcerated Algerian women. Significantly, this pamphlet positioned French imprisonment of Algerian women—Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub included—as a violation of international law and human rights.

“Respect of the International Geneva Conventions for Algerian Women Prisoners,” published by the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc [“Committee of Women Students of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco”] (Tunis: undated).

Interestingly, these two sources—one produced by a French humanitarian organization, the other by a North African women’s student group expressly concerned with international human rights law—evoked the same three imprisoned Algerian women. Together, they offer an avenue for considering the connected relationships between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights. Further, these documents and their shared interest in Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub show how decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights were not only connected at the highest level of global politics and international institutions, but also formed the basis of meaningful solidarities between different historical actors whose paths crossed on the ground, so to speak, of decolonial activism.

Yet, this entanglement between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights has long been obscured in the historiography. To be sure, decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights are distinct even as they overlap. While, for example, humanitarianism has a long history associated with religion and charity, gendered care-taking, and liberal imperialism, among other things, “human rights” have more often emerged as a marker of the international order of the post-1945 world. However, British historian Andrew Thompson has recently argued that decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights deserve to be examined together. A reframing of these three topics as interrelated in the aftermath of World War II, he suggests, allows us to pose the following questions: what effects did discourses and practices of human rights and humanitarianism have on movements for decolonization? And how, in turn, did decolonization impact the future of international human rights and humanitarian organizations in the latter decades of the twentieth century?

Other scholars have begun to address these questions, albeit with varying answers. Samuel Moyn has argued, for example, that while decolonization gave a platform to anticolonial nationalists around the globe to argue for national self-determination as the basis of welfare, these Third World actors’ calls for global equality did not constitute a “human rights movement.” Human rights as we know them, he argues, would only emerge out of the global neoliberalism of the 1970s. Jennifer Johnson, however, disagrees with that assessment. In her study of the FLN’s healthcare services during the Algerian War, Johnson shows how FLN leaders claimed national sovereignty not only by fighting the French for it, but also by providing healthcare and welfare services to Algerians. Significantly, FLN leaders offered these healthcare and welfare services as evidence to international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, that national self-determination was better prepared than French colonialism to guarantee humanitarian aid and human rights to the Algerian people. With help from other countries in the Third World, the Soviet bloc, and the West, the FLN successfully garnered support within these international human rights and humanitarian communities, crucially helping turn the tide of war against France. In the process, Johnson shows, “the war in Algeria demanded that the international community rethink the meaning of humanitarianism and human rights” (10) to include serving those fighting for national sovereignty on the grounds of welfare and healthcare. As such, she argues, “Algerian decolonization should be considered part of human rights history” (11). Human rights history, in other words, can and should incorporate the rights claims and humanitarian actions made by historical actors working toward decolonization and national sovereignty—even if a more recognizable “human rights movement” did not coalesce until the 1970s. In this reading, then, we can see Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub as not only prisoners receiving humanitarian aid or FLN nurses. They were also welfare and human rights workers, at once claiming and contributing to the decolonization of Algeria by offering up the nation as a framework for guaranteeing healthcare, humanitarian aid, and human rights. 

Understanding decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights as interrelated, moreover, offers an expanded view of how we might shift our perspective on decolonization from a national to a global scale. As historians Andrew Thompson and Martin Thomas argue in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire, decolonization encompasses not only the establishment of new nations at the ends of empire. It is also a series of ongoing global processes that historically linked claims of self-determination, national sovereignty, and human rights. In this view, decolonization saw actors from the Third World work on national and global levels to enter into, appropriate, and fundamentally change organizations of international human rights governance that had been established under the purview of Western empires. This is, for example, part of the arguments that Johnson makes for the FLN and that Roland Burke posits for Third World actors in the United Nations. Each author shows how decolonizing leaders acted within and across national lines in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in ways that fundamentally transformed the international stage of human rights by the 1970s. Decolonization, then, not only brought the logics of post-WWII human rights and humanitarianism to the level of national self-determination; it also globalized the concept of self-determination as a guarantor of welfare and human rights.

The historically documented cases of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub, however, pose an additional question: how and why did politics of humanitarianism and human rights map onto decolonial networks of solidarity, both within and beyond the Third World? Scholars of so-called “Third Worldism” among the European left have, in part, considered this question, particularly in the context of the student, worker, and migrant protests of 1968 and new forms of humanitarian engagement that followed. Quinn Slobodian and Christoph Kalter, in their respective studies on radical leftist movements in West Germany and France, examine how both European imaginaries of and collaboration with Third World actors during and just after decolonization fundamentally shaped the politics of these countries’ “New Left” movements in the 1960s. Eleanor Davey further contends that, for the French case, these “Third Worldist” radical left actors went on to found a “new humanitarianism” in the 1970s and 1980s that lives on in Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), founded in 1971 and still influential in today’s humanitarian and international development scene. Concerned with documenting the importance of the Third World and Third Worldism to postwar European history, these works offer radical leftist politics and humanitarianism—both of which coalesced around human rights claims—as arenas for solidarity between European and Third World actors during and beyond decolonization.

“Appel aux femmes de tous les pays” (back page of “Respect des conventions internationales”). This “Call to Women of all Countries” asks for international support for Algerian women nationalist fighters, particularly for issues surrounding the French use of the death penalty, the application of the Geneva Conventions, and support from the International Red Cross.

Significantly, the two Algerian War-era documents mentioned in the beginning of this essay position Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub at the intersection of multiple solidarities. The SPF document, through these Algerian women’s letters, shows how humanitarian action and infrastructure could help form “vertical” alliances between French and Algerian anticolonial adherents, even during the middle of a violent decolonial war. Conversely, the pamphlet published by the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc evidences human rights law as the basis of a “horizontal” alliance of Third World actors who not only shared a North African geography, but were also students and women. Indeed, the end of the pamphlet included a “call to women of all countries” to act on behalf of Algeria and donate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, specifically to help “Djamila Bouhired and her companions” (back page). This document’s focus on a particular type of women’s solidarity around human rights, humanitarianism, and decolonization is significant. It shows that the relationship between women and humanitarianism is not just one of gendered care-work, and that women had a place in human rights discourse before the United Nations’ “International Year of Women” in 1975 and “Decade for Women” from 1976 to 1985. Rather, the intersection of decolonization, human rights, and humanitarianism reveals women’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s to be a potential vector of decolonial and humanitarian solidarity across national and regional borders. As such, attention to women at the intersection of post-WWII decolonization, human rights, and humanitarianism  may allow for a gendered reading of human rights during decolonization that can help shape our understandings of the global feminist movements that emerged in the later 1960s and 1970s.

If we can consider these evocations of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub as representative of broader contemporary strategies of anticolonialism, at least in the Franco-Algerian case, then human rights and humanitarianism become more than just connected to decolonization on its national and global levels. In this view, we can see how human rights and humanitarian action were crucial vectors of solidarities that connected actors across multiple categories—Algerian, French, European, North African, Third World(ist) activists, students, women—under the banner of decolonization, whether through the “high politics” of the international law of the Geneva Conventions or the interpersonal action “from below” of sending French holiday cards to imprisoned Algerians. Continuing studies in these fields, then, might fruitfully consider the solidarities that decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights made possible, in and beyond the postwar decades of decolonial conflict.

Ariel Mond is a doctoral student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she studies modern European and global history. Her dissertation research considers the intersections of French political imprisonment, the decolonization of Algeria, and the rise of postwar human rights politics from the 1940s to 1970s.

Featured Image: Abane Ramdane, Bazi Safia, Mesli Fadhila, Belmihoub Meriem and Amara Rachid, 4 May 1956, Ouazana, Algeria. Source: WikimediaCommons.

Think Piece

Silencing the Berbers

By guest contributor Rosalie Calvet

 A little less than a year ago, a prestigious American university hosted a conference about French-Algerian history, gathering the leading specialists of the topic.

A prominent French scholar closed his presentation by opening the debate to the audience. Immediately, one of his North American fellows asked “Since you do not speak Arabic, do you feel somewhat limited in your work on French Algeria?”

“I see what you mean,” he replied, “but fortunately, we have the archives of the colonial administration, so French is enough.”

Suddenly, a man, sitting on the first row of the audience, stood up, and, speaking in French, replied “I am Algerian. I was born before the Independence. You taught us French and nothing else. We had to learn Arabic after the War of Liberation. Arabic must come back to Algeria.”

And then, another man, sitting next to him, added “Arabic … and Berber. Nobody talks about Berber. Historians have forgotten that North Africa is the land of the Berbers.”

Who are the Berbers?

The indigenous population of North Africa, the Berbers call themselves i-Mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight. If over the centuries, the Berbers have split into smaller communities, the Chleus in Morocco, the Touaregs in Libya and the Kabyles in Algeria, they have remained faithful to a clear sense of unity. The history of the Berbers is that of an identity constantly reshaped by internal and external mutations, of cultural blending and ongoing intellectual developments and innovations. Invaded by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the Berbers were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 200 BC and their land constituted the cradle of European Christianity. The Arab Conquest of the seventh century led to the merging of Berber and Arab culture, the conversion to Islam and the fall of the Christian Church. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of Muslim-Berbers dynasties ruled over the Maghreb (the Arabic name for North Africa) achieving its territorial and political unity. Most of the region, except for Morocco, passed under Ottoman domination in 1553 and remained part of the empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, the three political entities composing modern North Africa emerged. While Tunisia and Morocco were to become protectorates of France, in 1881 and 1912 respectively, Algeria was to be French for over a century.

During the first decades of colonial rule (1830-1871), the French authorities privileged Berbers over their Arab fellows (8). The main goal of the administration was to eradicate Islam from Algerian identity (23). According to French observers, the Berbers seemed keener to renounce their Muslim legacy, as they more closely resembled the French and shared their Christian roots.

Eugène Delacroix, Fantasia Arabe (1833), Städelscher Museums, Germany. One of Delacroix’s most famous representations, of a “fantasia” (a traditional Berber military game played on horseback) he witnessed in North Africa. The composition, centered on three moving figures, reflects Delacroix’s fascination with the ‘wildness’ of the cultures he depicts.

To fuel this narrative, the French progressively constructed the “Kabyle Myth.” In 1826, the Abbé Raynal claimed that the Kabyles were of “Nordic descent, directly related to the Vandals, they are handsome with blues eyes and blond hair, their Islam is mild.” Tocqueville wrote in 1837 that the “Kabyle soul” was opened to the French (182). Ten years later, the politician Eugène Daumas claimed that the “Kabyle people, of German descent […] had accepted the Coran but had not embraced it [and that on many aspects] the Kabyles still lived accordingly to Christian principles” (423). This the reason why French colonial officer Henri Aucapitaine concluded that: “in one hundred years, the Kabyles will be French” (142).

The situation shifted in 1871 when two hundred and fifty Kabyle tribes, or a third of the Algerian population, revolted against the colonial authorities. The magnitude of the uprising was such that the French decided to “fight the Berber identity […] which in the [long-run] empowered the Arabs.”

From then on, the differences between the Berbers and the Arabs became irrelevant to France’s main priority: to maintain its control over the local populations by fighting Islam. The idea emerged that to be assimilated to the French Republic, Algerian subjects needed to be “purified” from their religious beliefs.

By the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, the French had ruled that “Muslim Algerians were granted the right to apply for French citizenship […] once they had renounced their personal status as Muslims”(444). This law, which had established a direct link between religion on the one hand and political rights on the other, now further reflected the general sense of disregard towards the diversity of cultural groups in Algeria, all falling into the same overarching category of Muslim. After the 1880s, the French gave up on the Kabyle myth, marginalizing the Berbers who had become a source of agitation.

Henri Rousseau, La Baie d’Alger (1880), Private Collection. In this view of the Bay of Algiers, the Douanier Rousseau pictures a Berber tribe.

As the independent Republic of Algeria triumphed in the Fall of 1962, the newly funded regime identified the Berbers as posing an “existential threat to the Arabo-Muslim identity of the country” (103).

Repeating the French practice of destroying those regional identities allegedly challenging the legitimacy of an aggressively centralized and centralizing state, the leaders of Algeria denounced the political claims of the Berbers as a “separatist conspiracy,” and after 1965 the Arabization policy became systematic throughout the country.

To assess the respective impact of colonization, nineteenth and twentieth century nationalist pan-Arab ideologies and the role of post-independence Algerian leaders upon the persecution of the Kabyles after 1962 constitutes a somewhat limited debate.

It is, however, critical to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the marginalization of the Berbers after the 1871 Kabyle riot. Progressively, the colonial administration changed a model of mixed and complex identities strongly rooted the Maghreb tradition into a binary model (235). Within this two-term model, people could only define themselves on one side or the other of a rigid frontier separating authentic French culture from supposedly authentic colonized culture. As Franco Tunisian Historian Jocelyn Dakhlia argues in Remembering Africa, “the consequence of such a dualistic opposition of colonial identities was [… ] that the anticolonial movement stuck to this idea of an authentic native Muslim Arabic identity,  excluding the Berbers” (235).

The very existence of the Berbers thwarts any attempt to analyze Algerian society in a way that resorts to a rigid griddle, whether in racial, cultural or religious terms.

This is probably the reason why the French, and after them the independent Algerian state, have utterly repressed the legacy of Berber culture in the country: for the Berbers could not exist in the dualistic narrative underlying both colonial and anti-colonial. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, would argue, they became unthinkable, and were silenced and excluded from History.

Yet, the most curious factor in this non-history is the paucity of French scholarship on the issue. (50). While some academics do focus on creating conversations and producing literature on the question of Berber identity, the most renowned French scholars systematically fail at doing so. As a direct consequence, most French academic discourses reproduce and maintain the somewhat convenient imperial division opposing the “Arabs” in the North to the “Blacks” in the South of Africa, thereby forgetting that the Sahara is not a rigid racial frontier, and that for centuries the Berbers have been circulated throughout the region.

Centenaire de l’Algérie – Grandes Fêtes Sahariennes, Affiche, Musée de l’Immigration, Paris. This poster, issued by the French government in 1930, is an invitation to a military parade featuring colonial soldiers to commemorate the centenary of the 1830 conquest of Algiers.

Ultimately, the Berbers blurry the lines between colonial and post-independent notions of identity in North Africa. To acknowledge the Berbers would require scholars to accept their fluidity – a direct threat to the Western appeal for systemic and pseudo-universalist thinking, still prevalent in French academia despite the emergence post-colonial studies in the 1960s.

Recognizing the Berbers necessitates first, as claimed by Algerian scholar Daho Djerbal, to ask: who is the subject of History? This is the only way in which one can hope to put an end to the overly simplistic politics of identity imposed by the political power—on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rosalie Calvet is a paralegal working in New York City, freelance journalist and Columbia class of 2017 graduate. As a history major, Rosalie specialized on the historiography of French imperial history. Her senior thesis, “Thwarting the Other: a Critical approach to the  Historiography of French Algeria” was awarded the Charles A. Beard History Prize. In the future, Rosalie wishes to continue reflecting on otherness in the West—both through legal and academic lenses. More about Rosalie and her work is available on her website.

Think Piece

Histories We Repeat

by guest contributor Timothy Scott Johnson

 You know, I’ve always been suspicious of analogies. But now I find myself at a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies, and I’m beginning to wonder if by any chance there isn’t a reason.

            Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (William Weaver, trans.)

Analogies abound in historical writing. Despite their near-ubiquity, however, I find historical analogies drastically under-examined in modern historical analysis. When examined, they usually emerge under the rubric of explaining why one historian’s analogical reasoning proves defective. But examining historical analogies used by our historical subjects can prompt us to ask larger, important questions.

The work done by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White on historical tropes and metaphor, Reinhart Koselleck on concepts, and Hans Blumenberg on myth and metaphor all importantly contributed to the study of historical representation. None directly address analogies as such, however. At best, they treat analogy as a subset of metaphor, one in which the connecting logics are perhaps more clearly (or crudely) asserted than in mythic or metaphoric representation. Whereas myth and metaphor tend to be impressionistic with underlying logics pushed to the background, process and structure are foregrounded in historical analogy. Processes, narratives, and historicities embed themselves in historical analogies.

Analogies themselves are one of the key ways of thinking difference and similarity. Accordingly, we should not be all that surprised that the likes of Kant, Humboldt, and Droysen foreground the analogy’s role in rational judgment. And insights on analogy litter the first and concluding chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Even thinkers further afield like Fourier and Swedenborg were captivated by analogical reasoning. Without planting flags in any particular philosophical camp, it is not, I think, too controversial to recognize the importance of analogical thought in epistemology and aesthetics in general. To push even further, we could speculate with the linguist George Lakoff that analogies are a universal anthropological fact to be dealt with and not simply an anti-rational demon to be exorcized.

If analogies prove part of our human understanding, what then of historical understanding? For historians, analogies provide something akin to the efforts at modeling the so-called hard sciences developed after the Renaissance, making past reflections a sort of historical laboratory for contemporary and future reflection. Luciano Canfora’s brief study Analogia e storia offers some provisional insights into how historians have thought analogically. Dating as far back as Thucydides’ introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War analogical thinking has been at the historian’s disposal for discerning shared processes and dynamics among different events. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are perhaps an even clearer exemplar. Canfora’s colleague Carlo Ginzburg has also made the case that Aristotle’s discussion of paradigms in the Rhetoric is essential for understanding his view of history. Yet, at the same time, Canfora observes that large-scale similarities brought about by analogy also tend to obfuscate small-scale differences and represent history as tautological and self-referential. Thus, for instance, by definition every revolution risks being interpreted according to the French or Russian Revolutions. The political as well as historical pitfalls of such heuristics are many. Often, Canfora claims, these analogical oversimplifications can be productive in their own right; they can also be political expedients with little concern for historical understanding.

If the particular analogy of a given event to the French Revolution seems familiar—even well-worn, thanks perhaps to the legacy of Theda Skocpol’s comparative revolutions approach—the French Revolution has had other, more surprising, analogical applications. Often, these applications occurred by historical subjects themselves as a way of grounding their own historical situation. Even before French historian Albert Mathiez claimed the Bolsheviks were neo-Jacobins, for instance, Lenin adopted the mantle for himself. When grasped from the subject’s perspective, examining the historical analogies subjects use to describe and understand their own historical moments, the analogy actually has the power of getting beyond the pitfalls of the historian’s macrohistorical determinations. Rather than foreclosing analysis, they can point to analytic surprises.

Following De Gaulle’s return to government in May 1958, on the cover of the French magazine L’Express a Marianne, symbolic of the French Republic, is ready to guillotine herself.

Take, for instance, the French Revolution’s role in deciphering the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) and the fall of the fourth French Republic. Beyond an occasion to examine the important tensions between colonial difference, identity, and hybridity in postwar France and Algeria, the French Revolution analogy can also act as a diagnostic index uniting assumptions about French politics and history with assumptions about Algerian politics and history. That individuals on all sides of the war would refer to the French Revolution to mediate their own experience is both obvious—nationalism 101, so to speak—and illuminating. It highlights the various expectations actors had of the limits and possibilities of their moment. The historical analogy thus serves as a way into the microhistorical world. Taking subjects’ own large-scale assumptions about the unfolding of history as a starting point allows the historian to reconstruct their moment from within.

Let’s look at three specific instances of this analogy during the war. First is testimony from Jean-Claude Paupert, a veteran of the war in Algeria and subsequent member of pro-Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) support networks. Despite declaring years later that he was no “revolutionary hothead,” Paupert was tried and found guilty of providing material aid and support to the FLN in 1960. In his closing trial declaration, Paupert explained his actions were meant to defend French civilization and French values, particularly those tied to the Revolution:

I have not chosen to help the Algerians because of their mistreatment, but because the struggle of the Algerian people is a just struggle, and I have not chosen to aid Algerian militants in spite of their terrorism, but because terrorism is their destiny.… Being French is not a virtue stored in a refrigerator, it is a fidelity one invents. To be French today is to be Algerian … We know well, for both princes and for valets, that fraternity is a terrorist act.

The Revolution’s Jacobin ideals of terror and fraternity were applicable in 1960 since Algeria was going through its own revolutionary moment that obeyed the same dynamics as the French Revolution. In this way, examining statements like this one and the many others like it from the war, we can build an understanding of what a nascent metropolitan third worldist engagement meant.

Next is a completely different sentiment, a message from General Jacques Massu, a rightwing supporter of French Algeria. By the end of the war he would help direct the Secrete Army Organization (OAS), a rightwing terrorist group bent on keeping settler control over Algeria. In May of 1958, however, he proved instrumental in bringing down the Fourth Republic and returning Charles de Gaulle to power. In a letter addressed to “Mon Cher Camarade,” dated 13 May 1958, the day of the Algiers generals’ putsch that would bring down the Republic, Massu wrote, “I must ask the best of yourself in order to combat the enemy and make the great ideas of generous France triumph in Algeria, these ideas that, since 1789, have shaken the world” (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Fonds Daniel Guérin). Pro-colonial military action and the perpetuation of the civilizing mission were behind this instance of analogy to the French Revolution.

Lastly, analogy to the French Revolution emerged as popular among FLN supporters educated either in France or in state-run francophone North African schools. The poet, radio host, and FLN spokesman Jean El-Mouhoub Amrouche, criticized the ethnologist Germaine Tillion for failing to see Algerian nationalists as properly modern political subjects:

It is true that one can hardly recognize these hungry souls demanding the destiny of free men and being inhabited by spiritual needs. ‘Liberty or death’: it was good and true for the great ancestors of 1793 and the barefoot of Year II. Who could imagine the fellagha [rebels] of the Aurès, Oranie, Soummam, or the clandestine actors from the towns or villages of Algeria, have discovered in their desperation the only path towards the light by proclaiming themselves free and sovereign over the land of their forefathers?

Amrouche saw the legitimacy of the Algerian nationalist cause through the prism of the universal French ideals the civilizing mission encouraged him to embrace. Recognizing the FLN’s political legitimacy meant recognizing their affinities with Revolutionary actors.

Jean-Claude Paupert, center, was part of support networks that sheltered Algerians and laundered money for the FLN. (Image from Mediapart)

Simply observing these three different analogies to the French Revolution does not automatically reveal any obvious conclusions, except perhaps about the sheer elasticity of what the French Revolution could mean to different hereditary claimants. And the variety of events within the Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1799 allowed for a large degree of adaptation, highlighting on the one hand citizen military defense or on the other radical Jacobin universalism. But the analogy also works like an index of the type described by Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory, pointing in various directions to further research questions. Why, for instance, would Paupert and Amrouche think that Algerian history was at a moment similar to the end of old regime France? North African history had been denied by historians throughout the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps something had changed in perceptions of North African history (and indeed, much had changed). After all, the analogy is not present in earlier moments of anticolonial violence in North Africa. Further, why would a rightwing military officer feel the need to call upon the principles of 1789 when planning a government coup? What conditions would drive Massu to connect French Republicanism with a rather Bonapartist move (another historical analogy ever present in 1958 France)? Insofar as analogies reveal a subject’s assessments of the logics at work in a given moment, they grant a uniquely valuable point of entry for intellectual historians.


Timothy Scott Johnson recently defended his dissertation on the use of the French Revolution in the French-Algerian War at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the intellectual history of postwar France.