Publish at October 20 2021 Updated November 01 2021

Teaching the Thorny Algerian War

How Do You Deal with a Subject that Is still Sensitive in the News?


Algeria will be celebrating its 60th independence anniversary on July 5th, 2022.  Algeria gained its independence following what is known as "The Algerian War of Independence" with France, its colonial master. The war which lasted almost 8 years between 1954 and 1962  remains a sensitive subject, both in France and Algeria. An estimated number of 250,000 lives were lost on the Algerian side, but few figures are agreed upon, other than the 25,000 French soldiers killed. Yet this historical period often goes unnoticed in education, as much as the wars that happened before it, that was hardly more glorious.

No Apologies, but Education

In January 2021, the historian Benjamin Stora handed a report to the French President, Emmanuel Macron. The French president had indeed asked for a document "on the memorial issues relating to colonization and the Algerian War." For the specialist, there is no doubt that France must commemorate more about what happened by creating, for example, a "Memory and Truth" commission giving a voice to the survivors of the war. The issue of cooperation between the two countries is also meant to be paramount to lower tensions.

Although Mr. Macron recognized the massacre of the Harkis in 2018 and Algerians who fought under the French flag, on September 30, 2021. He, however, accuses the Algerian government in power of having expunged the "truths" of national narrative and even questions the existence of the Algerian nation. A slip that has made Benjamin Stora himself uncomfortable.

For the historian, apologies about the colonial past would bring nothing and would not solve the underlying problems which in his opinion is based on entrenched racism and prejudices about a war that is very badly taught in France. Besides, the flagship measures are facilitating archive work on the period of the war and to transmit its story much better to young people.

A War? What War?

In fact, for many years after the skirmishes, the Algerian War did not appear in any history textbook. It was not until 1983 that it officially entered the curriculum. Despite this entry, this does not mean that it is taught in detail. On the contrary, textbooks will mostly emphasize the bad sides of the belligerents, omitting the methods of torture, among others, used by French forces to keep their grip on the country.

It is important to understand that the colonial fact, in France, has long been inculcated as a source of pride. As early as the Third Republic, teaching stressed in broad strokes, the benefits of colonization, the "civilizing" mission towards these "underdeveloped populations." After all, the French brought them roads, schools, and hospitals. Again in 2019, an exercise offered by an undergraduate teacher addressed this "beneficent triptych" while obscuring many less glowing aspects. For many historians, the colonial question is no longer about "good and evil". Rather, it is a complex context that cannot rest on a Manichean grid.

That's why, according to Stora, a more nuanced education and a real dive into this war would allow us to get out of sterile debates and reunite two nations that ultimately suffered during this period. Especially since the children of migrants from Algeria to France experience a real dissonance between what they read at school and hear at home. By failing to mark the less glorious acts of the French army towards the population, the state gives the impression to this Algerian diaspora that it wants to hush up the affair. Nothing to establish a climate of peace and reconciliation.

Giving a Face to the War

How then can the school address this still thorny subject among the French population? Dealing with such a complex war in a few hours with marked concepts such as the Harkis, the generals' putsch, or the "pieds-noirs" is not simple. Nevertheless, for history experts, the teacher can go diving into the war memoirs. French archives can be a starting point for reflection on the subject. Especially as the declassification in March 2021 could allow for an even clearer picture of what happened there.

So, the use of cinema can also be an entry to the subject. It must be said that the traumatic period fueled the interest of French and Algerian filmmakers. At one time, these were mostly about soldiers leaving or returning from the war (examples: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La Belle Vie, Cléo de 5 à 7). Since then, cinema has become more interested in what happened during the war.3 different films told various stories in this pivotal period in 2007 alone.

As this historian reminds us, it is also important to have real images and testimonies of the Algerian War. This digital exhibit provides an opportunity for historians and people who lived through the war to explain the various concepts. Sites like INA have more than twenty excerpts showing the French media coverage and treatment in the following decades. Finally, this site is for teachers using Lumni in the "edutheque" version. There is access to numerous videos on the evolution of the French power's attitude towards the subject throughout the war.

However, it is difficult to obtain documents from Algerian archives since these were abused by the French power at the dawn of the end of the war. Nevertheless, it is possible to look at the media in that country and the treatment of the confrontation, the Algerian cinema that deals with it, etc.

The aim of all this is not, contrary to what some polemicists would like to believe, to point the finger solely at the French officials but rather to offer a complete panorama with all these shadowy areas. So that such a tragedy is not repeated.

References :

Bui, Doan. "Des Manuels Plus Offensifs Que Les Politiques : Comment Enseigne-t-on La Guerre D’Algérie ?" L'Obs. Last updated January 31, 2021.

Chanda, Tirthankar. "L’enseignement De La Guerre D’Algérie En France: Entre Histoire Et Mémoire." RFI. Last updated May 8, 2021.

Deszpot, Thomas. "La Guerre D'Algérie Et La Colonisation Ont-elles Longtemps été Passées Sous Silence à L'école ?" LCI. Last updated: 21 January 2021.

"France-Algérie : Peut-on Réconcilier Les Mémoires ?" Last updated: February 11, 2021.

"France-Algérie: Benjamin Stora Répond Aux Critiques Sur Son Rapport." BFMTV. Last updated January 25, 2021.

"Guerre D'Algérie: Ce Qu'il Faut Retenir Du Rapport Stora Remis aujourd'hui à Emmanuel Macron." Franceinfo. Last updated: 20 January 2021.

"La Guerre D'Algérie. Histoire Commune, Mémoires Partagées?" : Nouveau Volet Numérique De L'exposition." Office National Des Anciens Combattants Et Victimes De Guerre. Last updated: January 15, 2019.

Lahmar, Amina. "Guerre D'Algérie : La Différence Entre Le Discours Familial Et Mes Manuels Scolaires." Bondy Blog. Last updated July 5, 2021.

Moumen, Abderahmen. "Comment Enseigner La Guerre D’Algérie ?" Chaire Citoyenneté Sciences Po Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Last updated November 2019.

Ricouard, Jean-Marc. "La Guerre D'Algérie à Partir Des Images D'actualité." Lumni | Enseignement.  Last updated: January 8, 2021.

Sandoz, Aurélien. "Enseignement De La Guerre D’Algérie : « Au Lieu De Nous Diviser, Comprendre L’histoire Nous Unit »." Le Last updated March 23, 2021.

Stora, Benjamin. "La guerre d'Algérie dans les médias : l'exemple du cinéma." Last updated 2008.

Véronique, Paul, and Charlotte Lalanne. "France-Algérie : Le Malaise Des Historiens Après Les Propos D'Emmanuel Macron." Last updated October 14, 2021.

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