Books on the war in Algeria, including on the Algerian side alone, there are already hundreds and hundreds of all kinds: more or less exhaustive accounts of the entire conflict or of this or that episode of the fight for independence, memories of mujahideen or politicians (mainly from the FLN but sometimes also from the messalist movement or the communist sphere), essays on the near or distant origins of the war and on its course and its extensions after independence…
But there are still “holes” for anyone who wants to know what has happened since the beginning of colonization in 1830, but also and above all within the FLN during the war of liberation, from 1954 to 1962. among them, certainly, concerns the memoirs of the main actors in the armed struggle, of those who were “in business” and could therefore recount in detail what they did and what they saw.
An unpublished document
If, among others, the former Presidents of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic Ferhat Abbas and Benyoucef Ben Khedda, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the same GPRA Saad Dahlab or the former “boss” of Wilaya II Ali Kafi have certainly writes books, it is more about essays, undoubtedly very interesting but very subjective, than stories and texts. We will of course never be able to read, written or told orally by themselves, the Memoirs of a Larbi Ben M’hidi, an Abane Ramdane, a Zighout Youssef, a Mostefa Ben Boulaïd or a Amirouche, all these leaders who disappeared during the hostilities.
No more than those of Krim Belkacem, Abdelhafid Boussouf, Ahmed Ben Bella or Houari Boumediene, to name just four of these major players in the war until 1962, who died well after the war. independence without having left something to feed historians and all those who would like to know how the struggle was thought out, organized and carried out by the leaders of the FLN. This is why the recent publication in two copious volumes (published by Chihab) of the Memoirs of Lakhdar Bentobbal, nationalist and independence activist since his youth at the very end of the 1930s, is a real event. The Algerian politician was a first-hand witness to the fighting of the FLN, which he led on the ground in Constantinois in the mid-1950s, then to the action of the GPRA, of which he was continuously one of the main heads from 1958 to 1962.
Boumediene, Ferhat Abbas, Ben Bella…
If the document is exceptional because of its very existence, having no real equivalent to tell from the inside the course of the direction of the FLN from 1954 to 1962, it is also exceptional by its content from start to finish. another bit banal. The account that Bentobbal delivered to the historian Daho Djerbal for six years between 1980 and 1986 indeed bears the mark of the author, a “pure and hard” man who wanted to be an uncompromising follower of the revolutionary line among the separatists, close to the people and especially the people of the countryside. A man who never hesitated to make known his point of view, generally very radical, vis-à-vis the other nationalist leaders and, towards the end of the war, during the negotiations in which he took part, vis-à-vis the representatives of the French State. And who, removed from power after independence, was no doubt all the more inclined to speak without filter and without taking into account the “official” version of history imposed by the regime.
Documentary: the Algerian war by those who lived through it
This certainly explains why it took nearly forty years for us to have access to the transcription of these remarks, which the author’s family – against his wishes – did not want to authorize. From where this publication finally carried out without the agreement of this one.
The portraits that Bentobbal offers us here and there of his fellow fighters in the instances of power are unfriendly and sometimes fierce. Are thus singled out, among others, Boumediene, described as thirsty for power from the time of the famous “meeting of the ten colonels” of the National Liberation Army (ALN), at the end of 1959, and as capable of “treachery during the execution at his request, at the beginning of 1960, of Captain Zoubir, in violation of a solemn promise to spare him.
Algeria: Capcov, BBY and the “3 Bs”
Ferhat Abbas does not escape criticism either. He is described as an “abdicard” for having been ready to compromise during the peace negotiations over the Sahara (“You can’t sacrifice yourself for sand”, he allegedly told a horrified Bentobbal). Dahlab is considered “very superficial”. Concerning Aït Ahmed, his study proposing to give a North African dimension to the Algerian revolution is considered “aberrant”. Ben Bella is described as ready to do anything to find himself at the head of the country, Belkacem Krim, as obsessed with his desire to lead the GPRA. Mohammed Khider is “versed in agitation” and “does not have the stature of a statesman”. And Amirouche is unable to understand how he was manipulated during the terrible purge he ordered against all “intellectuals” in his wilaya, in 1958 and 1959, which caused the death of thousands of mujahideen…
Revelations about the war
Bentobbal, as we can see, does not spare the heroes of the War of Independence who were his combat comrades. He also distances himself from conventional speeches to recount the war, from its beginnings to independence. What makes all the interest of his stories from the inside, full of unpublished information, on most of the crucial moments of this war, such as the “meeting of the 22” (the one where the main “activists” of the nationalist party of Messali Hadj then in full crisis, future leaders of the FLN, decided definitively in the summer of 1954 to launch the armed struggle against the colonizer), the outbreak of hostilities on November 1, 1954 with disappointing results in the region of Constantinois, the design and the implementation of the August 1955 offensive in the same region – which spectacularly relaunched the war of independence less than a year after its beginnings – the preparation and holding of the FLN Congress of Soummam in clandestinity in inside Algeria summer 1956, which saw the temporary triumph, to Bentobbal’s great regret, of the partisans of the pre-eminence of “civilians” or “politicians” over the “military” at the initiative of Abane Ramdane and his allies.
But also the revenge of the “soldiers” (with in particular, in the first place, Bentobbal, ally of Krim and Boussouf), who take in fact a power that they will never leave again barely more than a year after the Soummam whose decisions they overturn (in particular by now granting preeminence to the “soldiers” over the “civilians”, a decision with serious consequences for the future of Algeria), the creation of the GPRA and the incessant struggles for power within it or between this government and many leaders of the ALN, the terrible period for the independence fighters of the French military revival after the return to power in France of General de Gaulle in 1958 and the devastating offensives of the Challe Plan from 1959, the “meeting of the ten colonels” at the end of 1959, the diplomatic initiatives to obtain better support from the Soviets and the Chinese (who we would like to see send sorts of “international brigades” in the theater of operations).
Algeria: Ben Bella, Boumediene… The Evian Accords and the battle between “politics” and “military”
And finally all the episodes of the secret or public negotiations between the French government and the separatists in which Bentobbal participated and which will finally see the FLN achieve all its war aims in 1962, starting with independence without the slightest loss of territory.
The mystery surrounding the death of Abane Ramdane
Among all the revelations and details contained in these accounts, it is undoubtedly necessary to set aside those concerning the seizure of power within the FLN by the “soldiers” and especially its consequence, namely the elimination of Abane Ramdane at the end of 1957. We know that the assassination of the latter, for a time the strong man of the FLN, by his combat comrades, the circumstances of which were not known, apart from insiders, until long after the end of the war, remains largely a controversial affair.
Why was it necessary to get rid of this man at all costs, whose stature, probity and revolutionary convictions no one denied? Who, among the leaders of the FLN, decided to put to death the organizer of the Soummam Congress? Were there other hypotheses envisaged to remove him definitively from power? How was it executed? In the book, if he does not answer all these questions to the end, Bentobbal, while reaffirming as he had already done that he was certainly in favor of the forced shelving of Abane, but personally against the assassination, gives many convincing details on the collective responsibility of the principal members of the direction of the FLN in this “affair”. This undermines, if it were still necessary, the denials of a Krim Belkacem, a Mahmoud Chérif or an Amar Ouamrane, who have often tried to exonerate themselves from the crime.
Determined and disappointed activists
What general impression do we keep from reading these Memoirs of Lakhdar Bentobbal? We are impressed first of all by what they reveal of the incredible determination of all the nationalist militants and independence fighters before and during this Algerian war, of which there is no need to underline how deadly and often at the limit, even beyond the limit, of barbarism. We are just as impressed, even if it is not a question of a revelation but of a confirmation, often unpublished details in support, by the bitterness of the permanent internal struggles within the FLN where the regulations of accounts between leaders are merciless and where – to use an expression of Mao Zedong – the revolution was not considered “like a gala dinner”.
Finally, when it comes to revolution, we can understand to what extent the “pure” like Bentobbal may have been disappointed by post-independence Algeria, where the leaders hardly gave him satisfaction as to what seemed to him the essential, namely a policy solely at the service of the people, far from personal rivalries.
Lakhdar Bentobbal – Memories from within – 400 p, 15,99€
Lakhdar Bentobbal – The Conquest of Sovereignty – 304 p.
Statement collected, formatted and annotated by Daho Djerbal
Chihab Editions (October 2021, mars 2022)