Rhetoric of Massacre and Reprisal in Algeria’s War of Independence

Martin Thomas
Director, Centre for War, State, and Society
University of Exeter

There has long been agreement among historians of Algeria’s violent decolonization that particular massacres and, more particularly, the retributions they provoked, decisively altered the nature of the conflict. Massacre, it is averred, changed the cultural codes, the military rules, and the permissible limits to mass violence within Algeria’s population and between French security forces and local insurgents.

Why this should be the case remains harder to explain. The demonstrative horror of mass killing intentionally shrinks the middle ground. It destroys the prospects for compromise, denying political and personal space to the otherwise non-committal. Meant to polarize, its violence signifies the ultimate rhetoric of shock. Little wonder that historians of Algeria’s war concur that massacres served as decisive conflict escalators, whether strategically, symbolically, or both.

This escalatory dynamic is something with which analysts of asymmetric warfare, civil conflict and revolutionary insurgencies – not to mention the witnesses to such dreadful events – have long been familiar.[1] Less well understood is the part played by rhetoric in propagating the messages that the perpetrators of such massacres wanted to convey. Did the mass killing of civilians during the Algerian War represent an extreme iteration of what Charles Tilly identified as the ‘repertoire of protest’? Were such actions rendered logical to some because opportunities to influence the actions of the state otherwise were so limited? In the Algerian Revolution as in the French, violence, remained a last resort for the marginalized, not the first.[2]

To follow Tilly’s logic, the repressive action of colonial authorities rather than the FLN’s ruthlessness must be held accountable for precipitating such killings.[3] This was certainly the FLN’s assertion but it was hotly contested by French authorities at the time as their own propaganda sought to prove. (see figure below).

algiers governemtn
One of the least gruesome images from a 1957 Algiers government booklet, Mélouza et Wagram accusent showing Berber women grieving over children’s corpses after a village massacre carried out in reprisal for villagers’ support of the FLN’s party rival.

The intended audience of such actions must be central to resolving the argument about accountability. Equally, the focus on massacres, while discomfiting, makes sense insofar as simultaneous killing, usually of unarmed victims generated rumour, contestation, even conspiracy theories about FLN power and, by extension, the colonial state’s incapacity. This was something that, in turn, drove French military commanders to harsher collective punishments in their efforts to destroy the FLN’s Political and Administrative Organization at village and city district level.[4] Rhetoric was pivotal to this discursive restructuring of the relative strengths of the war’s antagonists. It signified what Paul Silverstein, in the context of Algeria’s 1990s civil war, has characterised as ‘vernacular knowledge production’, a means of communication with discreet rules and styles of diffusion. The rhetorical depiction of massacres and the rumours they generated, in other words, gave rise to a new ‘regime of truth’. Regardless of its objective veracity, this was one that the French authorities struggled to control.[5] Driven by growing popular unease about FLN ruthlessness and security force retribution, rumours became harder to refute. Spreading such rumours – or constructing this form of vernacular knowledge – was not just part of the rhetorical battle between French and Algerian versions of events; it was an integral part of the FLN’s psychological warfare.

As these points suggest, the particularities of decolonization’s public spheres deserve closer investigation, informed, perhaps, by the recent global turn in imperial history. To do so, this paper examines three off the most notorious mass killings of the Algerian war: the Constantine massacres of August 1955, the lethal ambush of a French army patrol near a famed beauty-spot, the Palestro gorge, in May 1956, and the war’s single largest incident of mass civilian killing – at Mélouza a year later. The first marked the war’s decisive reversion to an asymmetric dynamic of targeted FLN killing and mass security force reprisals. The second was a more conventional military encounter in which this asymmetry of Algerian versus French losses was reversed. And the last confirmed the conflict’s descent into fratricidal killing and unacknowledged Algerian-on-Algerian civil war. In each case, perpetrators and victims differed. Yet the rhetorical outbursts surrounding each instance of massacre evinced remarkable similarities in the ways such violence was supported, condoned or condemned.

Alongside the analysis of massacres as calculated practices of demonstrative violence – and, as such, phenomena without any uniquely ‘colonial’ dimension – it is useful, if also troubling, to recall that such mass killings in decolonization conflicts spoke to at least three discrete audiences. The first of these was the surrounding civilian population to whom demonstrations of collective punishment functioned for all warring parties as a means to deny agency, either by silencing dissent or by narrowing the spaces, public and private, in which the non-committal could avoid taking sides. The resultant slippage between civilian neutral and compromised inhabitant was itself part of the terror process. The grinding fear that resulted perhaps did more than anything else to erode everything from social cohesion to mental health amongst populations that conventional accounts of the Algerian war might simply label ‘civilian’.

The second target audience were the political elites and domestic publics of the imperial power. All strata of the metropolitan population regardless of status, gender or age might be counted here, the visibility of massacre, the commentaries it elicited, and the lingering unease it created, changing the terms on which the colonial presence was evaluated and understood. On the one hand, insurgent groups employed massacres, whether of civilians (and settlers especially) or of captured military personnel, to cultivate revulsion, war fatigue and consequent public pressure for withdrawal. What for some remained incomprehensibly extreme violence still conveyed its own logic, fostering the sense that compromise was impossible, lasting colonial attachment unachievable. On the other hand, imperial security forces undertook retributive violence, which its authors described as anything other than massacre, to affirm the colonial state’s greater capability to impose, or re-impose, security on its own terms. Retributive certainly, state violence of this type was also inherently reactive. It was less a means to sustain social control in the affected colony than a bid to convince home audiences that the advances made by insurgents in attaining such local control could yet be reversed.

Increasingly, however, it was massacres’ third audience that acquired singular importance, not least in the Algerian case. For it was in its appeals to a transnational and global audience of ‘world opinion’ that the FLN most comprehensively defeated the French security forces. A final objective of this paper, then, is to relate massacre and its rhetorical depictions to the wider issue of the Algerian conflict’s internationalization. The FLN persuaded much of the foreign press, the majority of UN General Assembly members, and countless observers the world over that it would win.

The FLN’s rhetorical story here was less one of justice denied to colonial subjects than of the compelling force of nationalist mobilization. In this reading, the FLN alone represented the ‘tide of history’ inexorably rising towards sovereign independence. Reduced to its essence, the message was clear. The FLN was the future, French colonial authority the past.

This is a digest of a paper that Professor Thomas will deliver at the Rhetoric of Empire conference on 22 May 2014


[1]Outstanding examples include: Elisabeth Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) Daniel Branch, Defeating Mau mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[2]Micah Alpaugh, ‘The Politics of Escalation in French Revolutionary Protest: Political Demonstrations, Non-Violence and Violence in the grandes journées of 1789,’ French History, 23:3 (2009), 336-8.

[3]Charles Tilly, ‘Collective Violence and Collective Loyalties in France: Why the French Revolution Made a Difference,’ Politics & Society, 18 (1990), 527-52.

[4]Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 29-30.

[5]Paul A. Silverstein, ‘An Excess of Truth: Violence, Conspiracy Theorizing and the Algerian Civil War,’ Anthropological Quarterly, 75:4 (2002), 643-6.