A Brief History
On May 8, 1945, the French territory of Algeria, a colony incorporated into greater France since 1830, was the scene of one of the great massacres of protesters against colonial rule in European colonial history. The native Algerian, almost exclusively Muslim, population of Algeria had long chafed under French colonial rule, and although most in France now considered Algeria as an integral part of France proper, World War II brought a new wave of national fervor to the Algerians wishing for independence.
During the German occupation of France (1940-1944), the Free French had established a government in exile for France, and since 1943 when the Axis powers were evicted from North Africa, the seat of Free France was in Algiers, Algeria. Apparently, the French did not understand how any people, specifically the Algerians, could somehow not want to be part of France! A movement for independence called “Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté” (AML) grew up around the idea of Algerian nationalism. World War II and its aftermath spelled the end of many colonial territories and the independence of many “new” countries no longer under the yoke of European powers. In Algeria, many of the people strongly sensed that their time had come. (They were wrong, as independence did not come until 1962, and only after a long hard violent struggle that left hundreds of thousands of Algerians dead, and many more wounded or crippled.)
When thousands of Algerians took to the streets to protest continued French colonial control of Algeria, the French authorities were eager to quickly and decisively stamp out the independence movement with a considerable show of force. European colonies such as India, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Indonesia and French Indo-China were all powder kegs of potential independence movement, and a France weakened by almost 6 years of war and nearly 5 years of occupation felt the pressure of native people clamoring against colonial oppression. Colonial riot police engaged the protestors with live fire from small arms, mowing down protestors and triggering a violent reaction, resulting in an even more violent re-action. Algerians began attacking French colonials wherever they could be found, destroying property and attacking people. French reprisals were swift, and the gendarmerie took a fearsome toll of protestors and rioters, killing at least a thousand people (French estimate) and as many as 45,000 (Arab estimate)!
Although the Algerian independence movement had suffered a decisive blow, the seeds had been sown for irredeemable resentment against the French and the colonials, resulting in the long and bitter war for Algerian independence from 1954 to 1962 (known as “The Algerian War” in France). The Algerian War cost many more lives than the shocking slaughter of protestors in 1945, as many as 300,000 Algerians as well as the displacement of about 2 million Algerians. The French suffered greatly as well, with about 25,000 troops killed along with another 50,000 pro-French Algerians and 6000 European (mostly French) civilians. A million Europeans were obliged to flee from Algeria.
How much of a role did the Sétif and Guelma Massacre play in steeling the resolve of Algerians for independence? We have to believe the savage treatment of Algerian civilians in 1945 had to play some role in convincing many Algerians of the need for independence. Do you?
Question for students (and subscribers): Should France or other European countries ever have colonized other lands? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Henni, Samia. Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria. gta publishers, 2018.
McDougall, James. A History of Algeria. Cambridge University Press, 2017.