As France celebrated victory in Europe on 8 May 1945, its army was massacring thousands of civilians in Sétif and Guelma - events that were the real beginning of Algeria’s war of independence.
THE massacres in the Sétif and Guelma regions on 8 May 1945, described at the time as events or troubles in north Constantine, marked the beginning of the Algerian war of independence. This episode in the Algerian tragedy is one of the great turning points in colonial history.
The ensuing upheavals dominated the political life of Algeria, which grew increasingly independent of political developments in France as the nationalist movement gained momentum. Each time France was at war, in 1871, 1914 and 1940, militants hoped to exploit the situation to win reforms or free Algeria from colonial rule. There were uprisings in the Kabyle region and eastern Algeria in 1871 and in the Aurès mountains in 1916. But May 1945 was different. There were widespread fears of another uprising but, despite claims, there is no evidence that it was on the agenda.
The defeat of France in June 1940 changed the terms of the conflict between the colonial power and Algerian nationalists. The French colons felt threatened by the Popular Front, even though it had yielded to pressure and abandoned its plans for Algeria, and welcomed the Pétain government and the way it dealt with Jews, freemasons and communists.
After the US landings, the climate changed. The nationalists believed the democratic and anti-colonialist rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter (12 August 1942) and felt they must set aside their differences and unite. The pro-assimilation movement broke up. The battle lines were drawn: on one side, the Algerian Communist party and the Amis de la démocratie, which advocated unconditional support for the Allied war effort; on the other, the Algerian People’s party (PPA), under its charismatic leader Messali Hadj, which was not prepared to sacrifice the interests of Algeria to the fight against fascism.
The PPA and its supporters were joined by one of the most impressive political figures of the day, Ferhat Abbas. He had dismissed the idea of an Algerian nation in 1936 but now, although he still claimed to be firmly rooted in French and western culture, he was in favour of “an autonomous Algerian republic in federation with a new, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist French republic”. When Pétain came to power, Abbas sent memorandums to the French authorities but received no reply. In desperation, he turned to the US and, with the support of the PPA and the ulemas, dispatched the document, signed by 28 deputies and financial advisers, that was to become the Manifesto of the Algerian People on 10 February 1943.
History’s pace quickened. The French authorities continued to overestimate their ability to control events and Charles de Gaulle failed to understand the strength of the nationalist movements in the old colonies. Contrary to what is often claimed, his speech at Brazzaville on 30 January 1944 did not promise emancipation or autonomy, even within the countries concerned. Pierre Mendès France wrote to André Nouschi that “this was clear from the order issued on 7 March 1944, which revived the 1936 Blum-Violette project, granting some 65,000 people French citizenship and allowing Algerians to hold two-fifths of the seats on local councils” (1). Too little, too late. These tiny reforms, granted as a favour, did not affect French domination or the preponderance of the colons.
This was a serious political situation calling for genuine discussions with the Algerian nationalists, but Paris would not negotiate with them. Their response to the order came a week later. Following discussions between Messali Hadj, speaking for the pro-independence PPA, Sheikh Bachir al-Ibrahimi for the ulemas, and Ferhat Abbas for those in favour of autonomy, the nationalists joined forces in a new movement, the Friends of the Manifesto and Freedom (AML). Although the PPA was part of this movement, it retained its independence. Its militants had more political experience, they knew how to play the Islamic card and they concentrated on challenging the legitimacy of colonial rule. The more activist and politically sophisticated young people in the cities followed suit. There were increasing signs of civil disobedience across the country. Positions hardened on both sides. European colonists and Algerian Jews lived in fear.
At the AML congress in May 1945 the PPA took over. The nationalist leaders’ original plan to seek autonomous status in federation with France was scrapped. The majority now opted for a separate state, united with the other Maghreb countries, and proclaimed Messali Hadj the undisputed leader of the Algerian people. The administration was aghast and pressed Ferhat Abbas to dissociate himself from his partners.
The confrontation had been brewing since April. On the nationalist side, the PPA leaders - to be precise, party activists led by Lamine Debaghine - were delighted at the prospect of revolt. They hoped the rise of millenarianism and calls for jihad would speed the success of their cause, but their unrealistic dreams came to nothing. On the colonial side, there were fears that the Algerians would drive the Europeans into the sea, and the plot to remove the AML and PPA leaders, hatched by the authorities at the instigation of a senior government official, Pierre René Gazagne, was gradually consolidated.
On 25 April 1945 Messali Hadj was abducted and deported to Brazzaville following incidents at Reibell, where he was under house arrest. This lit the fuse. Some people, including the Islamic scholar Augustin Berque (2), feared that a show of strength by the nationalists might lead to US intervention. The PPA, furious at the seizure of its leader, was determined to secure his release. The party decided to march in a separate contingent with its own slogans in the labour day procession on 1 May, since the largest trade union, the CGT, and the French and Algerian communist parties had remained silent on the nationalist issue.
In Oran and Algiers police and some Europeans were upset by the nationalists’ slogans and opened fire. There were casualties, dead and wounded, and many arrests, but the nationalists continued to mobilise.
North Constantine, bounded by the towns of Bougie, Sétif, Bône and Souk-Ahras, was under army control at the time. On VE day people in the region were preparing to celebrate the Allied victory in response to a call from the AML and the PPA. The instructions were clear: there were to be peaceful demonstrations to remind France and its allies of the Algerian nationalists’ claims. There was no order to start an insurrection. So why were the events confined to the Sétif and Guelma regions? Why the riots, the massacres?
The war had raised hopes of an end to colonial rule and these were encouraged by international developments. The nationalists, particularly the PPA, wanted to force the pace and hasten the natural course of events. All the available political resources were employed to mobilise the people: calls for an end to poverty and corruption, to defend Islam. Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer has pointed out rightly: “The only safe haven, common to all sections of society, was religion, with jihad as a weapon of civil rather than religious war. The call to jihad induced a state of religious terror that found an outlet in warfare” (3). Political maturity did not rank high in rural society, where people followed their instincts.
On the European side, vague anxiety was succeeded by real fear. Despite all the changes, the idea of treating Algerians as equals was intolerable, to be avoided at all costs. Even the lesser threat in the order of 7 March 1944 terrified them. Their response to the Algerian claims was to call for militia to be formed and demand repressive measures. They found a sympathetic ear in Pierre René Gazagne, the prefect of Constantine, Lestrade Carbonnel, and the sub-prefect of Guelma, André Achiary, who undertook to lance the boil.
In Sétif the trouble started when police tried to seize the PPA flag, now the Algerian flag, and banners calling for the release of Messali Hadj and Algerian independence. It spread to the surrounding countryside, where tribes rose up.
In Guelma the events were triggered by arrests and the actions of the militia, which provoked tribes to take revenge on local settlers. The European civilians and the police responded with mass executions and reprisals against entire communities. To remove all traces of their crimes and prevent investigations, they opened mass graves and burned the bodies in the lime kilns at Heliopolis. The army’s actions caused a military historian, Jean-Charles Jauffret, to say that its conduct “resembled a European wartime operation rather than a traditional colonial war” (4). In the Bougie region about 15,000 women and children were forced to kneel before a military parade.
The final toll is speculative, as the French government closed the commission of inquiry directed by General Tubert and the killers were never tried. We know all about the judicial measures that were taken and the number of Europeans who died, but the number of Algerian victims is a mystery and is still debated among Algerian historians (5). The figures released by the French authorities are not reliable. Pending impartial investigations (6), we must agree with Rey-Goldzeiguer that, for 102 European dead, thousands of Algerians paid with their lives.
There were many repercussions: any hopes of a deal between the Algerian people and the European colony were off. In France the political forces of the wartime resistance movement failed their first test on decolonisation, allowing themselves to be taken over by the pro-colonial party. The architect of the repressive measures, General Duval, warned: “I have secured you peace for 10 years. If France does nothing, it will all happen again, only next time it will be worse and may well be irreparable.” The French Communist party, which described the nationalist leaders as “paid Nazi agitators” and called for “the ringleaders to be shot”, was generally considered to be in favour of colonial rule, although it subsequently changed tack and called for an amnesty. In Algeria, after the AML was disbanded on 14 May, the pro-autonomy faction and the ulemas accused the PPA of playing with fire, and the nationalist camp broke up. The PPA activists set a date “for mounting a new kind of challenge” and called on their leaders to set up a national paramilitary organisation. They emerged on 1 November 1954 as leaders of the National Liberation Front. But the Algerian war really began at Sétif on 8 May 1945.
Mohammed Harbi was a member of the FLN, joining the government of Ben Bella after independence, but arrested and imprisoned for six years after the 1965 coup by Houari Boumedienne
Image - Ben Bella with Mohammed Harbi (right) and Hadj Benalla, Algeria, April 1964