Algeria: A Case Study of Decolonization

Challenging the narrative that colonialism was really as “evil” as it is popularly portrayed.

No matter how delicately one tries to speak about 20th century European colonialism, saying anything positive of former colonial powers is usually seen as elitist and Eurocentric, at best, militaristic and racist, at worst. This is especially true of a complicated place like Algeria.

This past week, the international community memorialized the fifty-year anniversary of Algeria’s independence, granted by French President Charles De Gaulle on July 3, 1962, after a bloody eight-year war against pro-independence revolutionaries.

But what exactly is being commemorated? Algeria today is an absolute mess. My research work, which has taken me to the country several times in recent years, indicates that it is a highly fractured and unstable society. There is also a constant Islamist threat. Putting it bluntly, I have found the country chaotic, filthy and tension-filled. It should be an embarrassment to the country’s leaders — and to the international development experts who have advised it for decades.

Algeria’s revolutionary violence during the 1950s seems to have achieved little more than leaving an estimated 700,000 dead, and thousands more scarred physically and psychologically. Driven by an ideology of Communism and early Islamism, groups like the National Liberation Front mercilessly used guerrilla tactics, torture and terrorism against their own people. French paratroopers responded ruthlessly with their own counter-insurgency tactics — and, for a while, they succeeded. (Gillo Pontecorvo’s excellent 1966 film, “The Battle of Algiers,” depicts some of the battles and the tactics used by both sides.)

I won’t tax readers with a detailed account of that horrific war; there are numerous excellent published accounts (such as Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace). But it is worth noting that even after independence was granted, attacks on Algerian civilians —including Berber peoples — at the hands of various factions of insurgents continued for decades. The terrifying civil war of the 1990s between various Islamist rebel groups and the government left another 200,000 dead. The poor, doomed Cistercian monks of Tibhirine — seven of them decapitated by an Islamist group in 1996 — were the most famous victims of that awful decade. (This is beautifully memorialized in the poignant 2010 film, “Of Gods and Men.”)

In short, decolonization and independence from France did not result in dignified self-rule, peaceful development or political order as promised by the pro-independence ideologues of the 1950s. If anything, the departure of French authorities and the exodus of French families — the pieds-noirs (that is, Algerians descended from Europeans) as well as Catholics, Jews and loyalist Muslim intellectuals — left the country insecure and culturally impoverished. Algeria’s so-called “war of independence” effectively removed the one group that could maintain political order, promote development and ensure peace in Algeria: the French.

It is one of the “what ifs” of history: Would Algeria have had a brighter future had it remained under French rule? One certainly could argue that with continued access to French language and culture, manners and moeures, the Algerian population would have been imbued with European civilization — and would have benefitted from the cultural inheritance of the West. Instead, successive regimes of fanatically pro-independence leaders and Islamist groups seem to have repudiated the country’s European roots.

Mind, I am not necessarily arguing for the superiority of one culture over another; rather, I am extolling the virtues and benefits of having different cultural and linguistic traditions interact with — or “encounter” (in post-modern parlance) — each other. The assimilation, blending and intermingling of different cultures and traditions within the bosom of the West throughout history is precisely what has made Western civilization vibrant, resilient and strong.

Is all this a veiled defense of colonialism? No, it really isn’t. But it is a critique of the common and widely-held assumption that European colonial powers only brought suffering, exploitation and destruction to their former colonies. Such overly simplistic arguments — sadly, too common among liberal internationalists and Marxist academics — ignore the benefits and contributions that colonists brought to the developing world.

The political institutions and administrative procedures inherited by India from Britain, for example, have contributed directly to its growth. Similar things can be said of Hong Kong. (For an excellent explanation of Hong Kong’s success under the British, find the pre-handover speech, “Two Cheers for Colonialism,” delivered in 1997 by Derek Davies, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review). Algeria, in contrast, has retained precious little of its French colonial past.

A Parisian friend recently told me that his mother and her family had visited the capital of Algiers a few years ago. They had been pieds-noirs. He recounted how they had visited their ancestral home, with the permission of its new occupants, and had been surprised to find many of the family’s belongings — 19th century paintings, heirloom furniture, etc. — still there, just as the family had left them in the 1960s. The only difference was that everything was covered in dust and grime, the paintings were faded, the furniture was damaged, all of it neglected by the families now sharing the house.

My friend’s family recognized that none of it belonged to them anymore; but they were still heart-broken to see so many reminders of what once was — ruined remnants of European civilization. It was, my friend said, almost like seeing a lonely old ghost wander the halls of a forgotten, ruined palace: hauntingly tragic — and a reminder that Europe’s cultural legacy is eroding around the world.

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