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A Savage War of Peace:Algeria 1954-1962 (edition 2008)

by Horne, Alistair, reader: Adams (Editor), James (Editor)

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6171015,790 (4.2)69
Member:wildbill
Title:A Savage War of Peace:Algeria 1954-1962
Authors:Horne
Other authors:Alistair, reader: Adams (Editor), James (Editor)
Info:Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc. (2008), Edition: Unabridged, Audio Cassette, 16 pages
Collections:Your library, read, audiobook
Rating:*****
Tags:history, Algerian revolution

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A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne

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When the New York Review of Books republished this in 2006, a lot was made of its relevance to modern US-led adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is kind of true, but also a bit irritating (because a well-told history like this shouldn't require modern parallels to be worth reading), and for that matter also overstated – the differences were really more striking to me than the similarities. America was fighting in a foreign country. France was not, and that was really the whole point. I don't think I had appreciated before quite how French Algeria was considered to be. It wasn't like neighbouring Morocco or Tunisia. Those were French protectorates, administered by the foreign office; but Algeria came under the interior ministry, and on paper it was as French as Normandy or Provence. The French had been there since 1830, and generations of European families – the so-called pieds noirs – had grown up there who had never set foot in mainland France. Here's the (left-wing) French PM in 1953:

Mesdames, Messieurs, several deputies have made comparisons between French policy in Algeria and Tunisia. I declare that no parallel is more erroneous, that no comparison is falser or more dangerous. Ici, c'est la France!

This is one reason why the Algerian War was characterised by such total intransigence on each side. In Paris it was politically unthinkable to imagine giving up an integral part of France itself; while the pieds noirs themselves were fighting for the survival of their whole world. The French military were desperate not to lose again after humiliation in 1940 and later in Indochina. On the Muslim side, it was a simple matter of liberty and representation, which had been denied them to an extraordinary extent. Unlike, say, the British in India, who had trained a whole middle class of native administrators and civil servants that could gradually take over as the British pulled back, the French had allowed only the most token participation from Muslims in Algerian affairs.

One of the most depressing things about this story is how many good viable alternatives to war were clearly available in the 1950s. At first there was a huge middle ground of Europeans and Muslims who would have been very happy with interim solutions – a protectorate, for example, or quotas to ensure Muslim representation in state councils. Again and again such ideas were shot down by hawks in Paris and by the burgeoning independence movement in Algeria. And once they had finished shooting down ideas, they started shooting down people. Gradually – in a process that becomes a theme of this book – moderates were turned, one by one, into extremists.

It was a very violent conflict. The nationalist FLN was basically just a sprinkling of inexperienced politicians over a vast mass of angry guerrillas, whose two main targets were European civilians and moderate Muslims. Bombs in cafés, cinemas, dancehalls in the cities; in the countryside, throat-slitting, or the "Kabyle smile". Towards French soldiers, once these started to arrive in greater numbers, the guerrillas could be more cruelly creative, and the troops were always aware that they were risking not death, but something worse. Here's a French para describing how his colleague was caught in a firefight while the rest of them were pinned down by an FLN group.

My poor friend V. lay howling on his bed of stones till morning. He suffered unimaginably, both physically and mentally, a prey to mortal terror. He only really stopped at dawn, when we could perhaps have saved him. For several hours a rebel had been slithering towards him. He could have seen him all that while. There he was. The rebel touched his body. He took away his weapons. Then he gouged out his eyes. Then he slashed his Achilles' tendons, afraid, perhaps, that he might still come back and die with us. But he didn't finish him off, merely wanting him to have to lie still and suffer.

If that sounds bad, consider how sickening it is to have to say that the French were no better. In response to FLN outrages, gangs of soldiers and pieds noirs would go on indiscriminate rampages through Muslim parts of Algiers, looting shops and killing any Muslims they could lay their hands on. Towards the end, when it was clear which way the wind was blowing, some of them came together to organise a counter-terrorist group called the OAS which carried out a revolting series of bomb attacks both in Algeria and in mainland France. The French army, meanwhile, often resorted to the worst of methods to try and extract information from their prisoners: Algeria was where the whole business of institutionalised military torture first came under the spotlight in a serious way.

At least one general freely admitted that torture was used, and seemed perfectly happy with it. The preferred method was the infamous gégène – a field dynamo with electrodes attached to the victim's body, usually to the genitals. Occasionally things were even worse: girls deflowered with glass bottles, high pressure hoses inserted in the rectum, and so on.

Almost as painful as the torture inflicted on oneself was the awareness of the suffering of others nearby: "I don't believe that there was a single prisoner who did not, like myself, cry from hatred and humiliation on hearing the screams of the tortured for the first time," says Alleg, and he records the horror of the elderly Muslim hoping to appease his tormentors: "Between the terrible cries which the torture forced out of him, he said, exhausted: ‘Vive la France! Vive la France!’ "

I've lived with this book for a couple of weeks, and typing this passage out is making me lose my breath with distress all over again. There are a few heros: Paul Teitgen, head of the Algiers police, was faced with a real-life example of the famous "ticking bomb" scenario, when a terrorist was caught planting a device in a gasworks, but it was believed there was already a second bomb somewhere which had not yet gone off. Would Teitgen give permission to torture the suspect to find out where it was, potentially saving dozens of lives? Teitgen had himself been tortured by the Gestapo. He refused. "I trembled the whole afternoon. Finally the bomb did not go off. Thank God I was right. Because if you once get into the torture business, you're lost."

And the French were lost. French society was increasingly outraged by what it heard, and by the time the war ended – it went on longer than either of the world wars – it had directly brought down no fewer than six French governments.

Alistair Horne tells the story well, but thoroughly – this is a very dense book and I don't know that it could really be considered general interest. There are a few updates in it, but most of the writing is from 1977, and I'm curious to know what historical sources have become available since then, especially on the Algerian side. Historians have been nervous of touching the subject because A Savage War of Peace is so widely considered, still, to be the definitive treatment. And it's easy to see why. Modern parallels or not, this is extremely enlightening. ( )
2 vote Widsith | May 27, 2013 |
I listened to an audio edition of this book. It was necessary to listen to it twice to get adequate coverage of the material. It was so good I am feel compelled to get a print copy for reference. I had only sketchy knowledge of the events set forth in the book and I am sure I will want to go through it again.
This book is not only a lengthy and thorough history of the Algerian revolution it is an excellent description and analysis of modern wars of insurgency and tactics of counter-insurgency. It is said to be read by Osama Bin Laden and American officers in Iraq.
The author also provides an excellent description of the French civil wars that resulted from the Algerian conflict. For anyone who enjoyed The Day of the Jackal this book gives the historical background for that story.
While the book is lengthy it is never dull. At times it reads likes a suspense novel with several ongoing story lines. The major conflict is the revolution of the Algerians, led by the FLN, against the French. That conflict led to the fall of the French Fourth Republic and the coming to power of Charles de Gaulle in May of 1958.
In 1960 there was an insurrection by the pieds-noirs (the French community in Algeria) and a splinter faction of the army formed the OAS which conducted terrorist activities against the French government. It was the OAS who made several assassination attempts on de Gaulle. The French army was able to win the military battle against the FLN but their indiscriminate use of torture helped turn the French public against the war.
In 1961 de Gaulle made a decision to make peace with the FLN. After the peace the pieds-noirs and Algerians who had fought for the French left Algeria for France. This is only a brief outline of the author's narration of a stormy and violent era in French history. There are many interviews with the principal actors and a cogent analysis of the events. I enjoyed the book very much and give it a five star rating. ( )
1 vote wildbill | Oct 6, 2011 |
A Savage War of Peace tells a story of Islamic terrorism, right-wing terrorism, insurrection, military coup, near civil war, torture, and repeated attempts to assassinate a head of state -- all involving France in the second half of the twentieth
century. I found myself repeatedly amazed that these things happened on this scale so recently in a western democracy.

Horne's book is balanced, well researched, and well written. If you're interested in this type of history or, given some remarkable parallels between the Algerian war and what's currently happening in Iraq, if you're seeking to better understand current events, I recommend this book. ( )
  dwieringa | May 28, 2010 |
Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin has chosen to discuss A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne on FiveBooks as one of the top five on her subject - Terrorism, saying that:

“…I think it is one of the best books written in the 20th century. It is about one very violent case study of terrorism and insurgency in the Algerian War for Independence and it’s a rare combination of an excellent detailed historical book that also brings a timeless strategic perspective. …”



The full interview is available here: http://fivebooks.com/interviews/audrey-kurth-cronin-on-terrorism ( )
  FiveBooks | Apr 27, 2010 |
1487 A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne (read 9 June 1978) (Book of the Year) This most fascinating book tells the awful and depressing story of Algeria from 1954 (the war began Nov. 1, 1954) to 1962. I was aware of the war as it was going on, but it did not seem very non-boring to me. But this book puts it all together and it is the sheerest dramatic tragedy. The book was especially poignant for me since in 1953 I spent several joyous days in Oran and Algiers--scenes of some of the most awful aspects of the war. The French colonists and their lunatic fringe literally forced Algeria to be solely Muslim eventually. Really sad, but certainly the result could have been foreseen. It is a dramatic story, dramatically told. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jan 13, 2009 |
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(From Back Cover)

"Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace, has been an under-ground bestseller among U.S. military officers over the last three years__Indeed, 'Algeria' has become almost a codeword among U.S. counterinsurgency specialists—a shorthand for the depth and complexity of the mess we face in Iraq__Anyone interested in Iraq should read this book immediately."

The Algerian War lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, returned de Gaulle to power, and came close to provoking a civil war on French soil. More than a million Muslim Algerians died in the conflict and as many European settlers were driven into exile. Above all, the war was marked by an unholy marriage of revolutionary terror and repressive torture. Nearly a half century has passed since this savagely fought war ended in Algeria's independence, and yet its repercussions continue to be felt not only in Algeria and France, but throughout the world. From today's vantage point the Algerian War looks like a full-dress rehearsal for the sort of amorphous struggle that convulsed the Balkans and that now ravages the Middle East—struggles in which questions of religion, nationalism, imperialism, and terrorism take on a new and increasingly lethal intensity.

A Savage War of Peace is the definitive history of the Algerian War, a book that brings that terrible and complicated struggle to life with intelligence, assurance, and unflagging momentum. It is essential reading for our own violent times as well as a lasting monument to the historian's art.

"[This] universally acclaimed history...should have been mandatory reading for the civilian and military leaders who opted to invade Iraq."
-Washington Times
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670619647, Hardcover)

The Algerian War lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, returned de Gaulle to power, and came close to provoking a civil war on French soil. More than a million Muslim Algerians died in the conflict and as many European settlers were driven into exile. Above all, the war was marked by an unholy marriage of revolutionary terror and repressive torture.

Nearly a half century has passed since this savagely fought war ended in Algeria’s independence, and yet—as Alistair Horne argues in his new preface to his now-classic work of history—its repercussions continue to be felt not only in Algeria and France, but throughout the world. Indeed from today’s vantage point the Algerian War looks like a full-dress rehearsal for the sort of amorphous struggle that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s and that now ravages the Middle East, from Beirut to Baghdad—struggles in which questions of religion, nationalism, imperialism, and terrorism take on a new and increasingly lethal intensity.

A Savage War of Peace is the definitive history of the Algerian War, a book that brings that terrible and complicated struggle to life with intelligence, assurance, and unflagging momentum. It is essential reading for our own violent times as well as a lasting monument to the historian’s art.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:00 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

The Algerian War lasted from 1954 to 1962. It caused the fall of six French governments, led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, and came close to provoking a civil war on French soil. More than a million Muslim Algerians died in the conflict, and as many European settlers were driven into exile. Above all, the war was marked by an unholy marriage of revolutionary terror and state torture. At the time, this brutal, intractable conflict seemed like a French affair. But from the perspective of half a century, it looks less like the last colonial war than the first postmodern one: a full-dress rehearsal for the amorphous struggle that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s and that now ravages the Middle East, struggles in which religion, nationalism, imperialism, and terrorism assume unparalleled degrees of intensity.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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