The world cannot allow France to consign its colonial-era massacres to the dustbin of history.
Victory in Europe Day is a public holiday in France for all the right reasons. The country was pulverised during World War II, losing more than half a million citizens and experiencing the humiliation of invasion and conquest.
Martyrdom at the hands of barbarians before the fight for liberation is regularly evoked by French leaders as part of a glorious national myth.
Millions of Algerians are less easily fooled by the sophistry surrounding May 8, 1945, however.
This is not just because they know that France’s woefully quick capitulation to the German Blitzkrieg was a disaster followed by years of collaboration.
Neither is it because post-war tales about the daring French Resistance are overblown, and that Allies including Spaniards and Americans actually played more important roles in freeing Paris from the Third Reich.
No, the reason Algerians still feel so unsettled on the 75th anniversary of VE-Day is because it signifies a series of massacres that are easily comparable to Nazi crimes against humanity.
As crowds celebrated on the streets of European capitals, French forces slaughtered up to 45,000 men, women and children in and around the towns of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata, in northeastern Algeria.
The North African country was the jewel in the crown of France’s colonial empire, and it was run with absolute ruthlessness.
From the earliest days of the French invasion in 1830, Arab Muslims – Algeria’s majority indigenous population – were treated as a reviled underclass.
The destruction of their villages and crops followed indiscriminate mass killings, as land was conquered for new settlers – the so-called pieds noirs (black feet) from Europe.
Anti-French sentiment was always high throughout the colonial adventure, and by 1945 it had reached boiling point. Reports about the defeat of fascism by the “free world” – with the significant support of Algerian soldiers who fought bravely and hugely effectively against the Wehrmacht – buoyed pro-independence protesters. Many used French organised VE-Day celebrations to make their voices heard.
Some of the thousands of demonstrators in Setif, for example, carried banners with messages such as “Long live a free and independent Algeria” and sang nationalist anthems. One – a 26-year-old student called Bouzid Saal – held an Algerian flag aloft and was promptly shot dead. As the bodies piled up, panic intensified and fighting spread into the countryside.
After members of pieds noirs militias also fell, General Charles de Gaulle – who was head of the French provisional government at the time – ordered mass reprisals that have been described as a genocide.
Beyond ground troops carrying out search-and-destroy missions, the French Airforce bombed civilians, flattening entire areas.
The Triomphant destroyer and the Duguay-Trouin, a light cruiser that had spent part of the war hunting German battleships with the Royal Navy, also rained shells down on villages.
Despite only a limited involvement of armed Algerian resistance fighters in the attacks on pieds noirs, the decimating of entire communities went on until the end of June. Those executed included alleged insurgents who had been forced to kneel in front of the French Tricolour at humiliating “submission ceremonies”.
Ravines and other stretches of wasteland were at first used as mass graves. The French wanted incriminating bodies to disappear, however, so they were dug up and transported by the lorry load to a settler’s farm that contained an industrial kiln.
For days, corpses were incinerated by pieds noirs fanatics assisted by the gendarmerie. The smell of burning flesh and the thick smoke coming out of chimneys caused horror and fear among all those living nearby.
As so often, French administrators deliberately underestimated the Algerian death toll by tens of thousands, while correctly putting the number killed on their own side at just over 100.
Colonial authorities are notoriously lax about registering the names and status of their victims, especially those who have suffered summary execution by gunfire, or lynching.
In fact, very little information about the savagery – merely reported in imperialist jargon as “events” which occurred while “maintaining order”– got back to Paris. Instead, De Gaulle instructed Adrien Tixier, his Interior Minister, to “bury the whole affair”.
It was only years later that the extent of the massacres began to be recorded by objective investigators. By this time, rage about such barbaric crimes had resulted in the Algerian War of Independence – a conflict that lasted eight years from 1954, and was fought both in North Africa and mainland France.
It is estimated that there were one-and-a-half million Algerian casualties, as all the tools of modern combat – from napalm to electric torture – were used by the colonisers. Their dirty war saw police and military personnel operating covertly and calling themselves the Secret Army Organisation (OAS).
Beyond repeatedly trying to assassinate De Gaulle for what they considered to be his increasingly soft leadership over Algeria, OAS terrorism included bombing a Strasbourg-Paris express train on 18 June 1961, causing 28 civilian deaths and 170 injured.
Four months later, on 17 October, Paris riot police murdered up to 300 Algerian demonstrators in central Paris and the suburbs on a single night. Many were beaten up and tortured, while others were thrown into the Seine, where they were left to drown.
It is impossible to exaggerate how hard the French state has worked to underplay its 132 years of racist atrocities in Algeria, for which no apology or any kind of offer of justice has ever been made.
The Battle of Algiers – the realistic film by the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo and the Algerian commander Yacef Saadi – was banned in France for nearly 40 years after its release in 1966.
The Seine carnage was not officially acknowledged until 2012, while the Vitry-le-François train bombing by the OAS is still barely mentioned.
As far as Setif, Guelma and Kherrata are concerned, it was not until February 2005 that Hubert Colin de Verdiere, France’s ambassador to Algeria, finally described the bloodbath as an “inexcusable tragedy”.
Despite this, we can be certain that – as always – May 8 will be a day when the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany is solely commemorated in France. It is Algerians alone who are left to mourn a genocide.
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