A Savage War of Peace
- Algeria 1954-1962
- Narrated by: James Adams
- Length: 29 hrs and 56 mins
- Unabridged Audiobook
- Release date: 01-25-08
- Language: English
- Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Regular price: $38.47
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Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By David on 04-10-16
Excellent history of France's Viet Nam
Algeria, "France's Viet Nam," is a conflict most people outside of France and Algeria don't know much about. You've probably heard it was one of the last an anti-colonialist wars, and that it pitted Muslims against Westerners, and that there were atrocities on both sides. But the details are fuzzy for most Americans after half a century. It was a conflict happening in a part of the world we didn't care much about at the time, and even during the Cold War, neither the US nor the USSR was heavily invested in it.
But, it brought down several French governments, almost led to more than one coup, did (at least indirectly) lead to France pulling out of NATO, and set the tone for French relations for decades. As well, the fate of Algerian Muslims who emigrated after independence echoes to this day in France - every time you hear about riots by "unemployed youths" in French urban areas, they are usually talking about the descendants of those refugees.
Alistair Horne's book, A Savage War of Peace, is considered pretty much the definitive book on the subject. It is comprehensive, and on audio it's difficult to keep all the names straight for an American reader - everyone, after all, is either French or Algerian, and the cast of characters is huge. Successive governments, movements, splinter groups, all tussling over a patch of North Africa for eight bloody years.
At its heart, the Algerian war was a war for independence. The Algerians wanted to be independent; France didn't want them to be. But it was different from some similar colonial struggles for several reasons. France did not consider Algeria to be a colony; Algeria was considered French soil. Therefore, giving up Algeria was akin to giving up Normandy.
While Muslims in Algeria did suffer from racism and a sort of apartheid which only grew worse during the war, the Pied-Noirs ("Black Feet"), or native French residents of Algeria, were another faction with interests that were not always aligned with those of their erstwhile countrymen back home. Some of them had been living in Algeria for generations. They had mixed and complicated views of their Muslim neighbors - often they were friends and colleagues, but always there was racism and European superiority. When the war broke out, as in the Middle East, or the Balkans, people who'd lived side by side peacefully for years would suddenly turn on each other with incredible savagery.
The war brought out incredible savagery on all sides. The FLN (National Liberation Front) and MNA (National Algerian Movement) operated like guerrilla/terrorist groups always do, butchering men, women, and children. The French Army, in response, began to make systematic use of torture, a scar that France has not yet healed from. "The Question," as it was called in France, was controversial even at the time, with some defending it with the familiar "ticking time bomb" defense, while at least one French officer, faced with the prospect of a literal time bomb, elected not to use torture and hope the bomb wouldn't go off (it didn't).
The issue of torture is of course one Horne covers heavily in the book. He examines whether it really was necessary and/or effective, and argues that it was not, while also admitting that in fact the French army would not have been able to roll up the FLN the way it did without its extensive intelligence network backed by torture. He also describes how French bureaucrats and military officers debated the nuances of what did or did not qualify as "torture," in the same sort of arid, legalistic language we have heard US officials more recently use to defend waterboarding. It's not the only thing in the book that clearly resonates today. (In fact, in one of his afterwords, the author says he sent a copy of his book to the Bush White House, hoping to impress upon them the importance of not going down that path. He never received a response.)
The Algerian War was unquestionably a brutal one, and the catalog of atrocities committed by both sides is horrific. Dismemberments, rape, prolonged torture, dashing babies' skulls against walls, carving out brains and guts and scattering them on the street, as well as the usual bombs left in cafes, drive-by shootings, and frequent assassinations, were constant for eight years, right up to the end when the MNA was trying to derail peace talks.
Today we'd describe this as a struggle against Islamists, but while Algerian independence was clearly a Muslim movement, it wasn't that simple. Some Muslims were loyal to France; many French were sympathetic or even outright supportive of the FLN, and the Pied-Noirs themselves were divided over the great question of Algerian independence. In fact, Islam was hardly a factor in the war at all, other than one side being predominantly Muslim. Communism was probably a stronger guiding principle for the resistance, and even communism was more of a unifying ideology than an actual motivation.
Algeria brought Charles De Gaulle to power, and almost cost him his life. The great irascible statesman, formerly a French Freedom Fighter during Nazi occupation, seemed perpetually playing both sides in the conflict between leftists who wanted to give the Algerians their independence and right-wingers who wanted Algeria to remain French.
Ultimately, De Gaulle would be responsible for cutting Algeria loose, but to this day, the author can't say for certainty what De Gaulle's intention had been from the beginning, and when or where or whether he changed his mind. But De Gaulle himself is an interesting character worthy of his own book, and his maneuvering, his tantrums, his diplomacy, and his leadership are all an intrinsic part of the Algerian War and its resolution.
The author includes several afterwords following the original publication of this book in 1973. One was in the 1980s, after he'd been able to interview many more people who were involved in the war who he hadn't had access to when he was first writing the book. Another is post-9/11, in which he describes Algeria today (well, early 2000s), and how the unrest in the Middle East, the Palestine/Israel question, and all those other issues that have riven the Muslim world have played a part in also affecting a relatively separated and not-so-Muslim Algeria.
For all that, the book is almost entirely about a conflict that happened half a century ago and is of mostly historical interest now. There are certainly things to reflect upon, in the way they have affected France and Algeria in the modern day, but that was a different world. But it is valuable history and a bloody, savage war that merits this sort of close examination. I recommend it to anyone who'd like greater understanding of some of the factors that still affect French life and politics, as well as an early look at the sort of Western/Muslim conflicts that would come to dominate the 20th and 21st centuries.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
By Judith on 07-12-08
A fascinating book
I've always been very aware of the Algerian War, but I never knew about it in any depth. This books goes from its beginning to the end of the French role in Algeria. The rise of De Gaulle, and the OAS are startling to those who didn't live through this period in history.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Dave on 03-26-12
This is a wonderfully told story of an often horrific series of events which chronicle one of the more tragic chapters in the history of the decline and fall of colonialism. It is far more than just a telling of events - it takes great pains to examine the motivations and thinking of both sides, and explains how some of France's apparently most loyal subjects could contemplate revolt and the murder of their leader. With hindsight it all seems like tragically pointless violence, but this book puts those events on context, and clearly benefits from considerable correspondence and interviews with many of the major participants.
A good book is easily spoiled by a poor reader, but this one is top notch. Always clear, and never sounds like he is tiring of what he is reading. The reviewer that said 5% of the text was in French is talking nonsense. Yes there are a few phrases which are untranslated, and that is indeed a pity for those of us with only a long-forgotten school-boy French to rely on, but it does not materially impair a thoroughly enjoyable book that illuminates one of the more terrible episodes in the recent history of Europe's retreat from empire, and explains events that deserve to be better known in the English-speaking world.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
By Tom on 11-10-11
A fine and interesting book
I read this book when it was first published many years ago, and was looking forward to the updated edition. Alistair Horne tells the story of Algeria's war of independence in an absorbing and interesting way. There's plenty of detail, but he doesn't let it get in the way of the narrative and his judgements seem to the point and well balanced, particularly when he is drawing comparisions with the present day. Hindsight is wonderful, but you do wonder how politicians dont seem to learn from history.
I did find it quite hard to keep a grip of the huge cast of characters, not made easy by the foreign names, but that's me not the book's fault! But you might want to keep a map of Algeria handy if you're not familiar with the geography. Understanding and keeping track is greatly helped by a wonderfully well paced and clear narration, One of the best I've heard.
Quite a long book but well worth a listen if you are interested in modern history from off the beaten track.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful