A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 8, 2014

69 Years Ago Today: The Sétif Massacre in Algeria

Sixty-nine years ago today, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany formally surrendered. In French-ruled Algeria, a Muslim march celebrating the victory in the town of Sétif near Constantine also displayed banners critical of colonialism and supporting independence. The marchers came into conflict with local gendarmes; while France  and Algerian Muslims would dispute who fired first, the clashes worsened and spread to the nearby town of Guelma. Algerian Muslims began attacking French colons in the streets, and the settler pieds noirs fought back. Over a hundred Europeans died in a five-day period, after which France struck back hard, using troops, aerial bombing, and even naval shelling. There were systematic killings and vigilante actions as well. Though the French claimed 1,020 deaths in toto, most estimates place the actual death toll several times higher, many of them villagers unconnected to the original clashes..

As Mohammed Harbi notes in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique marking the 60th anniversary in 2005:
There were many repercussions: any hopes of a deal between the Algerian people and the European colony were off. In France the political forces of the wartime resistance movement failed their first test on decolonisation, allowing themselves to be taken over by the pro-colonial party. The architect of the repressive measures, General Duval, warned: “I have secured you peace for 10 years. If France does nothing, it will all happen again, only next time it will be worse and may well be irreparable."
In fact, he had bought only nine years; it was indeed worse, and indeed irreparable. On November 1, 1954 (All Saint's Day, later known as Toussaint Rouge) the Algerians rose up in the bloody war that led to independence in 1962.

Sétif was conveniently forgotten in France, but it became  major inflammatory moment in the growth of Algerian nationalism, sometimes described in Algerian revolutionary rhetoric as a "genocide."

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