When Algerian journalist Henri Alleg published his account of being tortured at the hands of the French colonial regime it became an instant bestseller. Ian Birchall tells us why the book is still as relevant today as it was 50 years ago during the Algerian War of Independence.
More than 50 years ago France was fighting a vicious colonial war in Algeria. The enemy were so-called "terrorists", North African Muslims who wanted national independence. Many episodes from that war have striking parallels with the world today.
Henri Alleg was editor of Alger Républicain, the only daily newspaper in Algeria to oppose the French colonial regime, and a member of the Algerian Communist Party. In 1955 Alger Républicain was banned and the following year it was decided to intern most of its contributors. Alleg went into hiding.
In June 1957 he was arrested by paratroops who kept him, without trial, in a building in the El-Biar district of Algiers for a whole month, while he was repeatedly tortured. Electric shocks were administered to his ears, hands and genitals. A rubber tube was attached to a tap and running water was forced into his mouth until he felt he was drowning; he was repeatedly punched in the stomach (with a few refinements this is what is nowadays known as "waterboarding"). Burning paper was applied to his legs, penis and nipples. He was deprived of water when thirsty and then taunted with a glass of water which he was not allowed to drink. He was forcibly injected with a so-called "truth drug". He was told that his wife would be brought in and tortured too. The paratroops boasted that they were the "Gestapo". Alleg resisted and did not betray his comrades.
Torture had been illegal in France since the 1789 French Revolution. But it was being used widely, mainly against Muslim prisoners from the National Liberation Front (FLN). Most of these were eventually killed, allegedly while trying to escape, as was Alleg's friend, the mathematician Maurice Audin (Audin's body has never been found). Over 3,000 people simply "disappeared" without trace.
Alleg expected to die. But the courageous efforts of his wife, despite persecution by paratroops, produced a press campaign which meant his case could not be covered up. He was moved to a civil prison. At no time was he accused of involvement in violence or terrorism. The charges against him were the extremely vague ones of "endangering national security" and "reconstituting a banned organisation" (the Algerian Communist Party).
Despite constant searches in the prison, Alleg wrote an account of his experiences. Successive sections were clandestinely passed under the table to his defence lawyers and smuggled out of the prison. Alleg remained in jail for three years until he succeeded in escaping. In February 1958 his account was published as a short book called The Question (in French "la question" means both question and torture). Fittingly, it was published by the Éditions de Minuit, originally a clandestine publishing house under the Nazi occupation.
Stark and simple
The book related Alleg's experiences in a stark, simple manner. The circumstances of its writing did not allow for literary decoration. It was an instant bestseller. Doubtless the shock it caused was partly because Alleg was white, of European descent. Most victims of torture were Muslims. But Alleg's story gave a voice to them all. The first edition of 20,000 copies sold out rapidly - some bookshops were selling over 50 copies a day. Within a fortnight 60,000 copies were sold. Then the book was confiscated by the police, the first time this had been done for political reasons in France since the 18th century. Even in the days before the internet, censorship was not easy to impose. A Swiss publisher produced a new edition within a month, and copies were smuggled into France. An English translation was issued by the publisher John Calder.
In March the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an article for the left wing weekly L'Express about the book. Within hours the police went round the newsstands and seized every copy. A pamphlet version was also seized and destroyed. But again the censorship was flouted. The satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaîné printed a reduced photograph of the article with large crosses through it; this could be read easily with a magnifying glass, and it is said there was a great increase in sales of magnifying glasses that week. The government did not seize Le Canard.
Sartre was a world-renowned philosopher, novelist and playwright - a few years later he refused the Nobel Prize. His philosophical writings are often obscure, but when he wrote about politics he displayed devastating clarity. His article, "A Victory", remains a crushing indictment of colonialism and torture.
He began by recalling that less than 15 years earlier torture had been widely practised on French soil - then it was the Nazis who were torturing French resisters. Now the French were taking on the role of torturers - who could have believed, in the days of the occupation, that one day "men would be made to scream in our name"? The comparison was apt - but outrageous. In 1950s France a Resistance record was an essential precondition for a political career. To compare French paratroops to Nazis was little short of blasphemy.
The aim of torture, he wrote, was "to convince us of our impotence". He derided the argument, still produced today by apologists for torture, that it was necessary to save lives. Nobody even claimed that Alleg had been involved in terrorism; all his torturers wanted was the address of the comrade who had given him accommodation.
As he showed, the target of torture was not organised terrorists, but the Muslim population in general. "People are arrested at random; all Muslims can be tortured whenever the authorities feel like it. The majority of those tortured say nothing because they have nothing to say, unless they agree, in order to stop suffering, to tell lies or confess voluntarily to an unsolved crime which it is convenient to accuse them of." For Sartre torture was not an atrocity that could be blamed on a particular set of brutal individuals; it was inherent in the whole logic of colonial warfare, just as "terrorism" was the only option available to the weaker side:
"In Algeria our army is deployed right across the territory; we have the advantage of numbers, money and weapons. The insurgents have nothing but the trust and the support of a large part of the population. Despite ourselves, we have defined the main features of this people's war: bombings and shootings in the towns, ambushes in the countryside. The FLN didn't choose these forms of action; it is simply doing what is possible for it. The balance of forces between them and us obliges them to attack by surprise; invisible, uncatchable, unexpected, they have to strike and disappear, or else they will be exterminated.
"This is the difficulty for us: we are fighting a clandestine enemy. A hand throws a bomb in the street; a shot wounds one of our soldiers on the road. Our troops rush up, but there's nobody there. Later, in the surrounding area, they will find Muslims who have seen nothing. Everything is linked; a people's war, a war of the poor against the rich, is characterised by the close link between the rebel units and the population. As a result, for the regular army and the civil authorities, the whole throng of the wretched become the permanent, uncountable enemy.
"The occupation forces are disturbed by a silence that they themselves have given rise to; they sense an elusive determination to remain silent, a secret that is everywhere but can never be pinned down. The rich feel hunted down amid the silent poor; embarrassed by their own strength, the 'forces of order' have no means of answering the guerrillas except reprisals and searches. They have no answer to terrorism except terror. Something is hidden, everywhere and by everyone: they must be made to speak."
The French claimed they were in Algeria in pursuit of a "civilising mission". In fact they had destroyed the pre-colonial civilisation, but kept their own civilisation closed to the Muslims. Algerians were demanding independence because they had been refused integration; they could not be given equal rights, for that would threaten the very foundations of colonial exploitation. So, Sartre concluded, the war could not be "humanised"; torture was an inextricable part of it. The only solution was to open negotiations and end the war.
Algeria won its independence in 1962. But most of the torturers went unpunished. Some helped to train US troops in the art of torture for use in Vietnam or sold their services to Latin American dictators.
In France today many realise that the problems of racism can be confronted only through an understanding of history. A recent play based on Alleg's book attracted an enthusiastic audience of young people not born at the time of the war. Alleg himself, now in his 80s, remains true to his Communist principles. In a recent interview he was asked about the continuing relevance of his book. He replied:
"It is quite possible that new conflicts will arise - there are already many of them - where young French people will be called upon to intervene to 'fight terrorism', 'save democracy' and 'defend freedom', when the real reason for intervention will be to exploit deposits of oil, gas, ore and diamonds, and to prevent certain peoples from liberating themselves."
I first read extracts from Sartre's article in the Observer in 1958, back in the days when it was a serious newspaper. A little later I read Alleg's book and, like most people reading about torture, I wondered how I should face up to it. Happily I've never had to find out.
But when I reread these texts today, the truly shocking thing is just how little has changed. The torture and Islamophobia of the Algerian war have recurred again and again and again. Torture lies at the very heart of imperialism, and will only perish when the whole rotten system is destroyed.
Henri Alleg's The Question, together with Sartre's article, is published by the University of Nebraska Press. For a selection of Sartre's political writings, including the splendid preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, but unfortunately not "A Victory", see the Marxists Internet Archive