Algerian War: “The conscripts were witnesses to what France was not what it said it was”

In his new book Dad, what did you do in Algeria?, Raphaëlle Branche questions and probes a silence, that of the conscripts from Algeria. They were 1.5 million young conscripts who left for a country they did not know much about and for a war they knew nothing about. During these so-called “events in Algeria” and again afterwards, silence constituted the bottomless pit in which this experience could be lost, be silent, also be stifled. A muffled silence that Raphaëlle Branche, professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre, had already detected in her previous books, including Torture and the army during the Algerian war [1954-1962]**.

In Dad, what did you do in Algeria ?, she works with various materials, diaries, letters, notebooks, testimonies, to best convey this loss of innocence that has been called this nameless war for many. Exploring with nuance and delicacy the webs and family ties caught in the nets of Algeria, Raphaëlle Branche reconstructs the reverse side of a war, flushes out personal silences like the great silence of the official story. She also tracks signifiers as well as unspoken through these singular experiences, which she then brings back in the same movement in history from which these conscripts had sometimes been excluded. Or where they might have felt lost. A masterful work of archeology of affects. Interview.

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Le Point Afrique: You have chosen to approach the war in Algeria from the point of view of the conscripts and their family circle. What can this story, tackled from the back and which touches the intimate, say?

Raphaëlle Branch: The meaning of my approach is to promote an object of history as such and which is rarely identified by contemporary historians: the family as a place of construction of memory and an element of social memory. The family seemed to me a way of entering into this nagging question concerning the veterans of the Algerian war, namely silence: why had they not wanted to talk about it? It seemed to me that the real problem to ask was “to talk to whom?” “. Going back to the heart of their experience and the first moments of it, it occurred to me that the first people they spoke to were their relatives. I wanted to come back to these first stories. Families are objects of history, they grapple with history too. These families that they form today with their wives, children and grandchildren are quite different from the family model that these called themselves knew as children in the 1930s. I therefore had to sketch a history of families French to understand how it was possible or not to speak by returning to the specificities of each context. I had to come back to words: how which were possible or also impossible. So many thoughts related to the Algerian experience, but not only. This book therefore attempts to re-read the question of silence, which is a dominant impression, in a broader historical perspective, which cannot be explained only by the Algerian question. The title of the book is a question addressed to the fathers. This book traces the history of this question, which is often impossible to ask, except under certain conditions that I am trying to clarify.

A veiled woman and her child walk through a street in Algiers as a French soldier looks on during the Algerian War on December 12, 1960.
© AFP

You followed the trail of this war through stories, letters, testimonies. When did these biographical and intimate elements make sense to shed light on this war?

Shedding light on the meaning of past actions and reflecting on the conditions under which individual stories speak of a collective situation are recurring questions for any historian. We are working from traces of the past and we must find the right tools to interpret them. I worked on the basis of questionnaires, and by crossing the sources of the time. I try to explain why I retain this or that element to support my demonstration. So I try to put them in a larger context. I can explain, as a historian, what it was like to be 20 in the 1950s, what it was to grow up in a bourgeois environment, the expectations of military service, what it was like to to be a man. I link these elements to try to understand how people have been penetrated by these patriotic, national, virility values.

You worked for a period of twenty years. By your irruption in the life of these families, have you triggered speeches or awareness of things that have been hidden?

I made the choice in this book not to be withdrawn. I’m part of the investigation, sort of. At least, in part. In any case, every historian is also situated. Part of the investigation is based on my interactions with families over sometimes several years. So people spoke to me, with a certain idea of ​​what my job as a historian was. This issue of the effects of the investigation is familiar to me and is also part of the work. I have tried to reflect this aspect of my work, in particular by reproducing as best as possible the words of the witnesses. This survey has indeed been used by some who have told me “you have made things happen in us”. Writing this book was also intended for readers to be able to use it to tell or to question.

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You write that structures of silence are historical objects to be analyzed. Between the silence of the conscripts and that of French society on the same subject of the Algerian war, which was the first or reflected the other? Or did they feed each other?

It seems to me that the answer depends on the moment. One of the evidences of the difficulty to constitute a discourse on the war in Algeria in the French collective memory, and even among the ex-combatants, is the fact that the war lasted eight years. It was therefore very different, in its reality and in its expectations, as the war progressed. Leaving until 1957, 1958, 1959, it is still possible to think that we are leaving to defend French Algeria and maintain the empire. From the end of 1959, it is no longer possible to believe this, because it is no longer the official discourse. The link between what is felt in the field and what is said in society is not of the same nature as what people who left in 1957. They discovered colonialism when they had been told that ‘they were there to defend French civilization. They found in front of them people who fought for their independence with articulate speech and not savages simply hungry for blood. The shifts can then be violent. They are of a different nature at the end of the war, when, for example, French soldiers can be targeted by the Secret Army Organization. It is in these gaps between collective beliefs and an individual experience that the silence is partly nestled. The other element that explains the silence refers to the family. Furthermore, it is important to remember that these conscripts do not only discover the war in Algeria. They discover another country, another people and the reality of colonization. All this is the occasion for questions, doubts and sometimes silences, because sometimes nothing is understandable. We must not forget the importance of French ignorance on the situation in Algeria. This is far more ignorance than denial. France was a democratic country, with a free press. However, overall, Algeria was of little interest, except in a few very informed militant circles. Ignorance about Algeria does not date from the war but is earlier.

Was not this silence also due to the fact that this war did not speak its name and was qualified as “events”? In this, these conscripts could not register in a glorious genealogy of the First and then of the Second World War …

I wanted to restore the successive interlocking of registers available to individuals wishing to apprehend reality. What is a war? For many, this is what the great-uncle in Verdun or the father in Dunkirk did in 1940, not what these conscripts do in Algeria. In Algeria, what is more, they do their military service, with all that that supposes of obedience. They are told that after 18 months it will be the keel and also that Algeria is not war. The official speech, which recognizes neither the enemy nor the legitimacy of its national struggle, insists on the role of the army in building French Algeria with soldiers from the contingent who will have to fight but also build roads, monitor markets and streets, go to school and support vaccination campaigns. Acts that do not look like war, but neither do military service. We talk to them about pacification, about police operations. These conscripts therefore find it difficult to think of themselves as combatants. In fact, many have never fired a single shot. Thereafter, they will find it difficult to be recognized as veterans. Because to be is to have participated in a war and to have been in a position to be killed. But it was indeed the case! If some did not wield weapons, they were still exposed to death. When they return, they come back from a war and not just from military service. But the official denial made their speech about the violence of their experience hard to say and hear.

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You quote extracts from letters of conscripts and the impression that emerges is above all that of flat boredom …

War is not a continuous rhythm. It is a global experience, in discontinuity. For Algeria, this is true a fortiori, because the intensity of the armed confrontation is weak and above all very localized. These conscripts can go on operations, with surges of adrenaline, but they can especially wait on the pitons where their units are installed. With an obsessional complex that sets in, with fear as well. These called people are therefore very bored. Also, they do not know for how long they were gone, as the length of military service varied, depending on the needs of the war. This had psychologically deleterious effects and families were not spared. Time was suspended for everyone. The inability to be able to project themselves into the future, due to this suspended time, explains why, when these conscripts return, they especially want to move on.

Did the conscripts participate in raising awareness of the Algerian reality or were they unable to do so?

Even though it was not a war, there were forms of control over soldiers that were far superior to control over military service in peacetime. They were not allowed to speak about what they saw. They couldn’t even tell their relatives where they were stationed. They had to give a coded address. As for testifying, some have had the desire to do so by writing to the press or by copying documents to transmit them. These are a few cases out of more than a million and a half called. But these efforts mainly took place after their return. They could have been informants, or, as we would now say, whistleblowers. It must be remembered that press correspondents did not have access to military land, except to be with the troops. So it was difficult for them to get a point of view that was not the official one of the army.

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The Amnesty Law is not greeted with relief or joy, but rather with shame. Moreover, this feeling of shame seems significant, in Algeria but also a posteriori …

This amnesty prevented any legal proceedings for actions committed during the Algerian war. It therefore equates all soldiers with those who may have committed criminal acts. It also protects those who have committed these kinds of acts. Shame refers to a very intimate feeling, the gap between the image we have of ourselves and what we do. It is a theme that returns under their feathers and that sometimes takes root during the war. It can be seen in their diaries. This shame also becomes more complex in the relationship with the family, because they did not want their image to be damaged. I quote the notebooks of a communist activist who explains how he struggles to convince his comrades to respect the humanity of prisoners. He suffers terribly from it, as an activist but also as a humanist. He still managed to overcome the shame by going public with his diary. This feeling of shame has been identified as important by psychiatrists who have treated some called with disorders. This shame persists decades later.

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Basically, did these conscripts recall too much the narcissistic wound that the loss of Algeria could also have been for France?

They are not the only ones, because we must remember the French from Algeria, repatriated, the harkis too. There are many troublesome witnesses to colonization and this violent war. For those called, the specific dimension is that they came from metropolitan France. They are in a way the witnesses of what France was not what it said it was, of what it failed to do: develop Algeria and develop links between these two peoples. of equality and respect. They are witnesses to failure. This is not pleasant for a nation, even if the official discourse will value the ability to bounce back from failure. This is what General de Gaulle will do with a very proactive speech which amounts to describing Algeria and the empire as balls.

General de Gaulle addresses the crowd on December 12, 1960, who came to listen to him in Akbou, Algeria. The United Nations is about to adopt the resolution recognizing the right of the Algerian people to self-determination and independence.
© AFP

What was the political future of these conscripts, in particular through their vote? In other words, did the war structure their future as citizens?

This is a question to be explored. For the returnees, work in political science on the so-called “blackfoot vote” has shown that there is a fabrication of this vote in the sense that it is made to exist by saying that it exists. But it has not been shown that the Pieds Noirs vote in a specific way systematically and in all circumstances. As for the conscripts, there are no studies that would allow the question to be answered. It seems to me that this question was not asked because it did not interest. I sketch in the book of tracks, because things were reached during their Algerian experience, for example everything concerning the relationship with Algerians and in particular anti-Maghrebian racism, the relationship with the army and the authority also. One could imagine that these attacks had political effects on some of the witnesses.

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You also show the unconscious effects of this war on the descendants of these conscripts …

These effects show to what extent we are crossed by legacies that are not always explicit. A whole clinic, in collaboration with historians, shows this transgenerational. In other words, things that pass from one generation to another without being passed on explicitly. Through a few cases studied, I show that people are as though inhabited by a memory that comes from the past and the Algerian experience of fathers. The descendants were able to receive an unconscious inheritance, until being penetrated by it in a certain number of acts of their life. But I also show how some have taken hold of their father’s story by placing it in their own story, in acts of creation. It is not just a legacy suffered, but it can be a legacy that can be seized.

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Is this memory of Algeria finally now more affordable? Will Emmanuel Macron, by generational effect, be to the war in Algeria what Jacques Chirac was for Vichy?

The generational key is indeed an element that must be taken into account. Emmanuel Macron gave several proofs of his commitment to questions of the relationship of French society to its colonial commitment. A commitment to understand in the sense of clarification. The text made public in September 2018 on the occasion of her visit to Josette Audin was extremely important. The fact that, in this text, he wanted to go beyond the case of a man to speak of a system and that he speaks of the responsibility of the State in this system is a strong act. However, this text lacks any reference to the colonial.

But are there not ambiguities with regard to the remaining difficulty in accessing certain colonial archives?

On the memory issue of Algeria, it seems to me that there are not many ambiguities. I note an evolution of the presidency, even if it is not necessarily linear. The president is not everything and the question of classified archives shows it. This is not linked to Emmanuel Macron, but to administrations which have, in fact, practices in contradiction with the presidential word. This does not only concern Algeria, but a larger section of contemporary France whose writing of history is compromised when access to freely communicable archives is hampered. There is therefore a tension at the very heart of the State which concerns, more broadly, citizens’ access to the archives of this recent period, and in particular of the Algerian war.

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* Raphaëlle Branche, “Papa, what did you do in Algeria? “. Inquiry into a family silence, Paris, La Découverte, “Human Sciences” collection, 2020.

** “Torture and the army during the Algerian war [1954-1962] “(Gallimard, 2001)

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