Algeria still feels the scars of France's colonial massacre

By Reda Amrani, The New Arab, 09 May 2023

78 years after French forces killed tens of thousands of Algerians fighting for their freedom, Reda Amrani explores the significance of the event in sparking Algerian independence and shaping its collective memory.

Today, the majority of Western countries commemorate the 8th of May, a day that marks the end of one of the bloodiest wars in modern human history.

On this day, Europeans remember how 78 years ago, their societies were on the verge of being dominated by Nazi power. The scales of history tipped in the opposite direction, and Europe was finally relieved from a totalitarian regime threat that had emerged from within.

However, while Europeans exhaled the euphoria of the end of the Second World War, simultaneously and across the Mediterranean sea, Algerians were faced with a sobering reality. The French colonial regime was arresting and massacring tens of thousands of civilians in retaliation for their fight for liberty. Freedom was too expensive of a commodity to be shared amongst all.

Algerians had been living in dire socio-economic conditions for over a century of French occupation when WWII broke out across Europe, and had therefore underestimated the prospect of its consequences spilling over to the colonies.

But at times of war, military goals transcend human values and tens of thousands of Algerians found themselves forcibly enrolled in the French army as cannon fodder, often in front lines fighting the Nazis. Poorly equipped and ill-trained, those foot soldiers paid the highest price to help defeat the army that was occupying their occupier.

Encouraged by the global decolonisation movement that started sweeping many dominions, Algerian fighters who joined the French army aspired to reap their fair share of the hard-won freedom.

However, their hopes were dashed when many Algerians took to the streets, claiming their promised independence. French authorities responded with the utmost violence to swiftly smother this sprouting desire for freedom in its most important colony.

Emmanuel Macron would only go as far as committing to “symbolic acts” aimed at promoting reconciliation.

Indeed, the apology demanded by Algeria represents a very divisive issue in France.

It took the French army and police up to seven days to massacre up to 45,000 people and bury them in mass graves or burn their corpses in brick ovens. A resonating message had just been sent by the French authorities to recurrent calls of independence made by determined independence movements within the Algerian civil society.

Historians who studied the Algeria occupation era consider the 8th of May 1945 as turning point in the journey for independence. The remarkably violent knee jerk response from the French authorities to independence calls crystalised the armed resistance's legitimacy to uproot their occupier and recover territorial sovereignty as the demise of the colonialist chimera accelerated globally.

Today, the youth-dominated Algerian population only learns about the 8th of May massacre through history books. However, this painful chapter in Algerian modern history has left an indelible mark on the collective memory of the Algerian people.

Even though the vast majority of the population was born post-independence era, the 8th of May 1945 continues to be commemorated and remembered to this day.

78 years later, it is still hard to imagine how a country that is internationally known for peddling human rights could paradoxically commit such atrocities on armistice day. However, the events of that day have left a deep and shameful scar that many French people struggle to come to terms with. It is a reminder that even in the midst of celebration and victory, violence and injustice can still rear their ugly heads.

The 132-year long French occupation of Algeria is undoubtedly one of the darkest chapters in French history books and one of its most horrific sins to be absolved to this day. Regrettably, the numerous calls voiced by Algerian authorities for an official apology for all the losses suffered during the occupation remained unanswered.

When historical legacies fuel political dividends, short term interests at stake outweigh moral integrity virtues. The time elapsed awaiting the recognition has ingrained the wounds rather than healed them.

The responsibility of acknowledging the truth of this terrible bloodshed lies on the shoulders of honest and courageous historians from both sides. An acknowledgement of the perpetrator’s historical crimes and accountability is the first step towards an apology and justice for the victims.

The memory of the 8th of May massacres is not only a source of pain and trauma for the Algerian people, but it is also a testament to their resilience and strength. Despite the horrors they have endured, the Algerian people continue to strive for a better future, one that is built on the principles of justice, equality, and freedom.

The memory serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of remaining vigilant against injustice and oppression, and of the need to fight for a better world, one where human rights are respected and upheld.

In memory of my grandfather, Salah Amrani, and the other 45,000 thousand victims of the crime against humanity.

Reda Amrani is a petroleum engineer from Algeria. Reda has a special interest in North Africa, and is particularly passionate about exploring matters related to energy transition, contemporary history, socio-economy and governance in Algeria. As a descendant of one of the many martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Algerian revolution against the French occupation, he is deeply committed to preserving the memory of this important historical event.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the New Arab and CEMAS.