Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds


Colonial & Postcolonial History

Algeria (green) and France (orange)

In the years after World War 2 (1939-45), Algeria became a notorious battleground in the struggle between European empires and emerging nations. Repression of anti-colonial movements stirred domestic struggles in France and wide suffering in Algeria, which gained independence in 1962.

The world watched the convulsions in France and Algeria for a number of reasons:

1. Since its Revolution (1789), France had proclaimed citizens' rights, and mid-20th century French authors like Sartre and Camus were First-World intellectual leaders.

2. During the Nazi occupation (early 1940s) France suffered greatly, and the French Underground resisted nobly. Now France wrought similar suffering—deportations, internment camps, torture, martial law.

Since Independence in 1962, Algeria has undergone changes familiar in other postcolonial states, esp.  Arab states.

  • combination of socialism and military rule

  • democratic transformation threatened by Islamic parties


Population: 35.4 million

Area: 2.4 million sq km (919,595 sq miles) (4/5 of Algerian territory is Sahara desert)

Major languages: Arabic, French, Berber

Land occupied by Phoenician and Roman Empires

7c-11c: Arab invasions, Berbers are colonized and retreat to mountains; currently 30% of population

Northern coast of Africa incl. Algeria known as Barbary Coast, after Berbers

1400s-1500s Spain and Turkey contend for imperial control of Algeria. Turks win by allowing Turkish pirates, or corsairs, to establish themselves along the coast. Territories seized by the corsairs are then given formal status as protectorates of the Ottoman empire.

The first such pirate establishes himself on the coast of Algeria in 1512. Two others are firmly based in Libya by 1551. Tunisia is briefly taken in 1534 by the most famous corsair of them all, Khair ed-Din (known to Europe as Barbarossa). Recovered for Spain in 1535, Tunisia is finally brought under Ottoman control in 1574.

In 1492 Moors and Jews expelled from Spain settled in Algeria. Between 1518 and 1830 Algeria was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire (centered in Istanbul, Turkey)

16c to early 19c: part of Ottoman Empire

Piracy continues as major source of income for Barbary Coast, leading to creation of US Navy and French suppression.

Following a diplomatic fiasco over a very late payment by the French for shipments of Algerian wheat and a perceived insult by the Muslim leader or dey to French national pride, France invades and seizes control of area around Algiers.

1830: territory of France

In 1839 Abd-el-Kader, amir (prince / commander of Mascara)  proclaims jihad, or holy war, against the Christian intruders. Not until 1847 does he finally surrender. Promised safe conduct to a Muslim country, he instead spends the next five years in French jails.

1848: Algeria made a département attached to France.

1830-mid20c: French government begins process of colonization and encourages European settlement.

  • 1880s: European population of Algeria 350,000+

  • 1930s 700,000+.

  • Across same span, Muslim population increases from 3 million to about 9 million.

French state / settlers and Algerians attempt integration and assimilation into French citizens (on small scales).

Blum-Violette plan proposes vote for 21,000 Muslims on same terms as European settlers, which is opposed by settlers, leading to abandonment of plan.

1945: Nationalist agitation for independence

1947: French National Assembly passes Statute of Algeria creating Algerian legislative assembly with Muslims forming part of electorate, but new assembly achieves little.

31 October 1954 several coordinated terrorist attacks are carried out on French police and military establishments.

FLN (National Liberation Front) promises full citizenship to all who declare allegiance to new Algerian republic.

Terrorist violence and French reprisals

Build-up of French troops: army forcibly resettles some two million villagers in reserves that are compared by French leftists to concentration camps.

FLN establishes government in exile, first in Cairo, then in Tunis; diplomatic representation at UN.

May 1958 angry French Algerians, alarmed that Paris government may come to terms with FLN, seize government buildings in Algiers and establish Committee of Public Safety to ensure that Algeria remains French. Senior officers in French army in Algeria side with insurgents, while right-wing groups in Paris become agitated.

New constitution for a fifth French republic headed by General Charles De Gaulle, leader of French Resistance in WW2. 2 June 1958: national assembly accepts De Gaulle's terms.

De Gaulle turns attention first to Algerian crisis that caused his return to power. June 4, he visits Algiers and is received by an ecstatic crowd of European settlers who greet him as a savior. But as settlers listen to his speech from the balcony of Government House, their enthusiasm becomes muted.
Far from taking the expected right-wing line, De Gaulle talks of equal rights for Europeans and Muslims.

Extremist settler group OAS (Organization de l'Armée Secrète) engages in terror campaign against Muslims in Algeria and against political targets in mainland France. September 1961: attempt to assassinate de Gaulle.

March 1962: cease-fire agreed at Évian-les-Bains, to be followed by a referendum on Algerian independence.

Agreement sparks escalation of OAS terrorist activity

April 1962 the people of France endorse the Évian terms with a 90% vote of approval.

Referendum in Algeria on 1 July 1962. Nearly six million votes are cast in favour of independence, less than 17,000 against. Two days later de Gaulle formally recognizes Algeria as an independent nation. In October the new state becomes a member of the United Nations.

  • Summer 1962: app. 3/4 of French colonists (known as pieds noirs, or black feet) flee Algeria for France, leaving only some 250,000 (reduced by end of 1960s to fewer than 100,000).

Following a brief ruling triumvirate, Houari Boumedienne becomes president of a military one-party state with officially socialist policies.

1960s-70s: socialist state

Agricultural estates abandoned by departing French transformed to state farms under management of workers.

1970s: land reform redistributes large Algerian estates as small holdings for peasants.

Algerian economy supported by reserves of oil and gas found in the south.

1979 economy liberalized to market orientation, decreasing socialism

Late 1970s-early 80s supported Western Sahara’s separation from Morocco, opposing France which supported Morocco

1987: measures put in place to break up 4000 state farms into six times as many smaller units.

1989: new constitution omits any mention of socialism. Political parties other than FLN now allowed

FIS (Front Islamique du Salut, or Islamic Salvation Front).

1992 National election won by Islamists annulled.

In first ballot in December, FIS wins 188 seats in the National Assembly, 28 seats short of an overall majority. Party is expected to achieve majority on second ballot in January 1992, but the ballot never takes place.

Three days before polling booths are due to reopen, army intervenes to cancel the election.

State of Emergency, Civil War: 150,000 killed, brutal atrocities by both sides, causing most remaining foreigners in Algeria to flee.

1999 Amnesty to rebels, truce

Al-Qaeda in the Land of Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM).

oil reserves: nearly 12 billion barrels

2011 January: Major protests over food prices and unemployment

Algeria under President Bouteflika has won praise from the West for backing the US-led "war on terror".



BBC News

Arab German Consulting: “Algeria—History”

Carroll, Christopher. “The Vanished City.” Review of Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by Richard Miles The New Republic 2 Nov 2011

Ahmed Ben Bella, Revolutionary Who Led Algeria After Independence, Dies at 93

by Joseph R. Gregory, New York Times 11 April 2012

Ahmed Ben Bella, a farmer’s son who fought for France in World War II, turned against it in the brutal struggle for Algerian independence and rose to become Algeria’s first elected president, has died at his home in Algiers, the capital. He was 93.

The state news agency announced his death on Wednesday morning.

Tall, athletic, handsome and charismatic, Mr. Ben Bella was known for his quick mind, courage and political cunning, traits that became tools of survival in a turbulent life. He faced heavy combat in wartime France and Italy, escaped French assassination attempts as well as a prison, then survived the murderous intrigues of political rivals as he struggled to impose socialism on his sprawling, divided country in the anarchy that followed independence in 1962.

On June 19, 1965, after less than three years as prime minister and president, he was ousted in a coup led by an old ally. He spent the next 14 years in confinement and never again held power. But he remained a powerful voice for the third world amid the conflicts of the cold war and the unrest within the Arab world over Israel, Iraq and radical Islam.

“My life is a life of combat,” he told an interviewer in his last years. “It is a combat that started for me at the age of 16. I’m 90 years old now, and my motivation hasn’t changed; it’s the same fervor that drives me.”

Ahmed Ben Bella was born on Dec. 25, 1918, in Marnia, a small town in the mountains of western Algeria, to a family with Moroccan roots. His father, a Sufi Muslim, supported his five sons and two daughters by farming and small-time trade. The oldest brother died from wounds received in World War I; two other brothers died from illness, and another went to France and disappeared in the mayhem of the Nazi victory in 1940.

Mr. Ben Bella chafed at colonialism from an early age — he recalled a run-in with a racist secondary school teacher — and complained of France’s cultural influence. “We think in Arabic, but we talk in French,” he said.

His education was truncated when his father officially changed the year of Ahmed’s birth to 1916 so that he could return to work on the farm. The move had unintended consequences: Ahmed was conscripted in 1937, two years ahead of his class.

He took to soldiering as readily as he had taken to soccer back home. He was promoted to sergeant and won celebrity as a soccer star in Marseille, France, where his regiment was based. In command of an antiaircraft section during the German invasion of 1940, he kept to his post, firing away as others fled, as waves of Stuka dive bombers pounded the city’s port. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the city’s surrender, he declined an offer to play professional soccer and returned to Algeria, where he joined a Moroccan regiment fighting with the Free French. Through 1944 he fought his way up the Italian boot, winning battlefield citations, including one for recovering three abandoned machine guns in the face of German tanks. Gen. Charles de Gaulle personally awarded him the Médal Militaire, the highest decoration of the Free French forces, kissing him, in the French military tradition, on both cheeks.

On May 8, 1945, as France celebrated the Nazis’ capitulation, a protest march in the Algerian town of Sétif against the cruelties of colonialism, made worse by wartime shortages, exploded into five days of rape and killing. More than 100 Europeans were killed.

The retaliation was merciless. An official report put the Algerian death toll at under 1,500; anticolonialists put it in the tens of thousands.

The brutality shocked Mr. Ben Bella. He refused an officer’s commission, returned to Marnia and entered local politics. The authorities, learning that he had joined an opposition movement, sent armed assailants to his farm to assassinate him. In a shootout, Mr. Ben Bella, wielding a semiautomatic pistol, wounded one.

The attackers fled, but Mr. Ben Bella was forced into hiding. He joined the resistance movement that was to become the Front de Libération Nationale.

In 1949, Mr. Ben Bella helped rob a post office in Oran, Algeria. Tracked down, he was sentenced to a long stint in the Blida prison. In 1952, with the aid of a file hidden in a loaf of bread, he broke out and went to Cairo, where he became one of the liberation movement’s nine top leaders.

On Nov. 1, 1954, as the French celebrated All Saints’ Day, the rebels struck, beginning a war of massacre and mutilation, summary executions and rape. Terrorists exploded bombs in busy nightclubs and shot down passers-by on crowded streets. French officers who had once fought the Nazis had Algerian prisoners tortured and shot.

Mr. Ben Bella spent most of the war outside Algeria, organizing clandestine arms shipments and coordinating political strategy. His life was in the shadows, but the French knew who he was.

In 1956, he refused to accept a package delivered to his Cairo hotel by a taxi driver. The bomb exploded as the taxi drove away, killing the driver. Later that year, in Tripoli, Libya, Mr. Ben Bella was waiting at his hotel when a French gunman entered his darkened room, fired and wounded him. The assailant, fleeing, was killed by guards at the Libyan border.

That October, Mr. Ben Bella and other rebel leaders boarded a Moroccan airline’s DC-3 flight from Rabat, Morocco, to Tunis to take part in a Northern Africa summit conference. The French Army, acting without approval from Paris, radioed the pilot, who was French, with instructions to land in Algiers. There the passengers were seized by French troops.

Gen. Paul Aussaresses wrote in his memoir, “The Battle for the Casbah” (2002), that the Army had originally ordered fighter planes to shoot the plane down but called them off at the last minute when it was discovered that the DC-3’s pilot and crew were French. Mr. Ben Bella’s arrest “was a mistake,” General Aussaresses recalled a senior officer as saying. “We intended to kill him.”

The incident, widely publicized, brought Mr. Ben Bella new prominence. Held in France for the next five and a half years, he was treated by the government as a valuable asset in a potential peace deal and kept in moderate comfort. Free to read, he completed his education, absorbing the idealistic socialism of the French left. In 1961, as serious peace talks began, he was in an excellent position to negotiate independence with the war-weary French.

The independence agreement was signed in Évian-les-Bains, France, in 1962, and Mr. Ben Bella returned to Algeria, where power was up for grabs. He suppressed the Communists, outmaneuvered his rivals and used his new post as prime minister to push through a constitution. In September 1963, running unopposed and supported by Col. Houari Boumedienne, chief of the Army of National Liberation, he was elected president.

“I am the sole hope of Algeria,” Mr. Ben Bella declared as he set out to forge a socialist state. Pledging that the new Algeria would “serve as a beacon” to the third world, he took to wearing a simple blue Mao jacket and issuing pronouncements like “Castro is my brother, Nasser is my teacher, Tito is my example.”

Still, he was shrewd enough to maintain ties with the West. A deal with de Gaulle’s government brought $200 million a year in aid, allowing France access to Algerian oil and the right to nuclear and missile tests in the Sahara. He accepted aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union.

But his efforts to push through agrarian and educational reforms foundered. A plan to have elected workers run the country’s farms and factories proved impractical, as did an appeal to Algeria’s women to donate their jewelry to the state.

“Ben Bella always wanted his teammates to pass the ball so that he could score,” a former schoolmate recalled. “He was the same in politics.”

As his profile grew overseas, his domestic base eroded. In May 1964, a bomb exploded in front of his official residence in Algiers. In June, violence flared between dissidents in the Kabilya region and the government. In July, Col. Mohamed Chabani led the Sahara regional army in a revolt that ended quickly with his capture and secret execution. Though Mr. Ben Bella had promised “a revolution without gallows,” other potential rivals were jailed.

On June 19, 1965, Mr. Ben Bella was deposed in a coup led by Colonel Boumedienne, his former comrade in arms. Mr. Ben Bella was thrown in an underground prison, where he was held for eight months. Taken to an isolated villa in Birtouta, outside of Algiers, he was kept under house arrest for 14 years.

Though a prisoner, Mr. Ben Bella was allowed a private life. In 1971, his aging mother arranged for him to marry Zohra Sellami, a 26-year-old Algerian journalist. The couple adopted two children. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Colonel Boumedienne died in 1978, and in 1980 Mr. Ben Bella was allowed to go into exile in Lausanne, Switzerland. He returned to Algeria in the 1990s and took part in efforts to end civil strife there. He was present when protests erupted in 2010 in the first weeks of what became known as the Arab Spring.

Even in old age he remained a vocal observer of international affairs, opposing America’s wars against Iraq and the rise of global capitalism. Although he was critical of radical Islamists, calling their movement misguided, he remained a fervent Muslim, telling an interviewer that the Koran had been his comfort during long years of captivity.

“I am,” he said, “Muslim first, Arab second and then Algerian.”

Peter Braestrup contributed reporting.