When Memory Becomes a Prison of Nations
When Memory Becomes a Prison of Nations
Should the writing of history be treated as a governmental project? French President Emmanuel Macron and his Algerian counterpart Abdul-Majid Tebboune seem to think so. They have ordered the creation of a joint commission to write the history of relations between the two countries since the French annexed that strand of North Africa in 1832.
Macron and Tebboune are not the first rulers to seek an officially vetted and approved narrative of our human story. However, their case is unique because other rulers just wanted to tell their side of the story while Macron and Tebboune demand a two-voices, presumably parallel, narrative.
There is one more difference between the old official histories and what we are likely to see this time. Old official histories were often presented with the modesty they merited as chronologies. And because they carried a heavy load of hagiography, they never pretended to be scientific. Macron and Tebboune, of course are not looking for props to build a cult of personality with. However, they may be seeking something even less dignified: the presentation of history in the colors of current, and necessarily transient, fads of political correctness.
Macron has already shown those colors by stating that colonialism was “a crime against humanity”. Benjamin Stora, the historian chosen to represent the French side, goes even further by labelling colonization as
“violent, unequal and illegal.”
Tebboune, for his part, has cast Algeria as a helpless and innocent victim of Imperialism.
What Macron does not realize, or perhaps chooses to ignore, is that because colonization has been a constant feature of history from the start we might suggest that mankind has always lived in the context of a crime against humanity. When they invaded Gaulle, the Franks, a Germanic tribe, were colonizers who subdued the natives by force, imposed their language and culture on them, and ended up giving their own name to the country they had colonized. Even on the eve of the French Revolution only 12 percent of the population had French as mother tongue, although most used it as lingua franca.
In any case, the concept of crime against humanity is a new one, having taken shape in the aftermath of World War II and to apply it retrospectively would be confusing at best and dishonest at worst.
President Tebboune might also want to rethink his victimhood narrative. To imply that the Algerian people, in their rich diversity, were nothing but objects in their own history for some 130 years is not very flattering.
The French could not have colonized Algeria without the participation of large chunks, perhaps even a majority, of the population. Tens of thousands of Algerians of all ethnicities helped the French build the infrastructure needed for a colonial presence. Algiers, a beautifully French-style city, was built by Algerian labor supervised by the French.
Over the decades large numbers of Algerians who served in the French armies fought in two world wars and a number of colonial wars notably in Indochina. In the meantime, Algerians of all ethnicities adopted French as their lingua franca creating a rich literature and press. Algerian friends tell me that they regarded the French language as “war booty”, presumably the same as English which has made India the largest English-speaking country in the world.
Writing or re-writing history should not be a means of making the French of today feel guilty or humiliating today’s Algerians.
Stora says the Macro-Tebboune project aims at a reconciliation of memories. This means imposing a single monochord narrative that, rather than fostering reconciliation, could injure everyone’s memory. The nostalgia-stricken adepts of Algerie-francaise (French Algeria), the Harkis driven out of their homes and made stateless for decades, the Pied-noir (black foot) settlers who had been born and bred in Algeria for generations, would not have the same memories as the thousands of Algerian freedom fighters who were tortured by the French or the many more Kabyle and Arab peasants who had their villages burned by colonialists.
Keeping alive the narrative of victimhood, successive Algerian leaders have tried to divert attention from their own shortcomings not to say misdeeds. Covering the 1990s troubles in Algeria I was often told by Algerian politicians of all colors that all of their country’s troubles including terrorism in the name of religion and police brutality were due to French colonial rule. After a while, having gotten tired of that shibboleth, I suggested to Algerian interlocutors to fix a certain date up to which everything was the fault of the French but after that regard Algerians as responsible for their own troubles.
Almost two decades later, that suggestion has not gone anywhere. The new project is partly designed to “probe the colonial roots of Algeria’s socio-economic problems” as if six decades of independence didn’t count.
Can governments play a role in the writing of history?
The answer is yes. The first thing they need to do is to refrain from trying to dictate history. Next, they could make their archives accessible to researchers. They could also loosen the rules of “official secrets acts” to make as many “sensitive” documents as possible available for scrutiny.
Interviews with officials could also help provided they are not under gagging orders. In some cases, especially in closed societies, granting visas to historians could also help.
Above all, governments should not use the writing of history as a means of advancing partisan political aims, noble or ignoble. To say that the object of the Macron-Tebboune project is “reconciliation” is an abuse of history for a laudable political aim. If France and Algeria need reconciliation, Macron and Tebboune should find their ways of achieving their objective, leaving history alone to do its work.
In any case, as an outsider but a friend of both sides, I don’t think France and Algeria need reconciliation. Millions of French citizens of Algerian descent provide a human bond that is rare between any other two nations.
Today’s French, many of whom descendants of European and other immigrants over the past century were in no way involved in the conquest of Algeria or anywhere else, and thus have nothing to apologize for unless today’s Germans also apologize for the invasion of Gaulle by the Franks. Today’s Algerians also have no need of masquerading victimhood because, looking to the future, they don’t want to become prisoners of the past.