Algerians Remember Massacres of May, 1945

Algerians Remember Massacres of May, 1945
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After fighting for the independence of Europe, Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East were massacred by the military forces of their alleged Western nation allies, such as on May 8, 1945 when French soldiers clased with Muslims who were celebrating the collapse of the Nazi regime in Germany

By Abdennour Toumi

Massacre of Algerian Muslims by the French on May 8, 1945, after Algerians fought with the West to defeat the Nazis in Germany

Massacre of Algerian Muslims by the French on May 8, 1945, after Algerians fought with the West to defeat the Nazis in Germany

Ankara, Turkey — One of the darkest chapters in the history of Algeria and France, which ruled the North African country from 1830 to 1962, occurred on May 8, 1945, in the towns of Sétif, Guelma and Kharata. What began as a parade by the local Muslim population to celebrate the surrender of Nazi Germany, ended tragically when marchers and French gendarmes clashed, ending in a blood massacre.

The paradox of this massacre occurred just as heroic Algerian soldiers were returning from the battlefields of Europe, Africa and elsewhere where they had fought to defend France’s interests. But on May 8th the French colonial administration, in response to mounting anti-French riots, fired on peaceful demonstrators, and colonial forces launched an air and ground offensive against several eastern cities, particularly Sétif, Guelma and Kharata.

There had been uprisings in the Kabyle (Berber) region and eastern Algeria as early as 1871 and in the Aurès mountains in 1916. But May, 1945 was very different. There were widespread fears of another uprising, despite claims to the contrary, but there is no evidence it was on the agenda.

The defeat of France in June, 1940 changed the terms and the dynamic of the conflict between the colonial power and Algerian nationalists. The French “colons” (settlers) felt threatened by the Popular Front in power in France, though it had yielded to pressure and abandoned its plans for Algeria. For the moment it welcomed the government headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain and the manner, in which it dealt with Jews and communists.

After the U.S. debarkation, the conflict’s tone and tactics changed. The Algerian nationalists believed the democratic and anti-colonialist rhetoric brought on by the American presence in August, 1942, and they felt they must set aside their differences and unite. Hence the pro-assimilation movement broke up.

The battle lines were drawn, on the one hand, between the Algerian Communist party and Friends of Democracy (les Amis de la Démocratie), which advocated unconditional support for the Allied war effort; on the other, the Algerian People’s party (Parti du Peuple Algérien) under its charismatic leader Messali Hadj, who was not prepared to sacrifice the interests of Algeria to the fight against fascism.

The Arab Daily News

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Massacre of Algerian Muslims by the French on May 8, 1945, after Algerians fought with the West to defeat the Nazis in Germany

Massacre of Algerian Muslims by the French on May 8, 1945, after Algerians fought with the West to defeat the Nazis in Germany

On April 25, 1945, following incidents at Reibell, Messali Hadj was abducted and deported to Brazzaville, where he was held under house arrest. Some people feared that a show of strength by the nationalists might lead to American intervention.  However, the PPA, furious at the seizure of its leader, was determined to secure his release.

The party decided to march in a separate contingent with its own slogans in the Labor Day procession on May 1st, since the largest trade union, la CGT (General Confederation of Labor) and the French and Algerian communist parties had remained silent on the nationalist issue.

In Oran and Algiers police and some Europeans, upset by the nationalists’ slogans, opened fire. There were casualties, dead and wounded, and many arrests, but the nationalists continued to mobilize the people, mainly the farmers in the rural and mountainous areas.

North Constantine, bound by the towns of Bougie (Béjaia), Sétif, Bône (Annaba) and Thagaste (Souk-Ahras), was under army control at the time. On “Victory” day people in the region were preparing to celebrate the Allied victory in response to a call from the AML and the PPA. The instructions were clear: there were to be peaceful demonstrations to remind France and its allies of the Algerian nationalists’ claims.

There was no order to start an insurrection so why were the events confined to the Sétif and Guelma regions? Why the riots, the massacres?

There were many repercussions, and any hope 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 decolonization, allowing themselves to be taken over by the pro-colonial party.

The French Communist party, which described the nationalist leaders as “paid Nazi agitators” and called for “the ringleaders to be shot,” was generally considered to be in favor of colonial rule, although it subsequently changed tack and called for an amnesty.

In Algeria, however, after AML (les Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté) was disbanded on May 14, the pro-autonomy faction and the Ulemas (Islamist reformists) accused the PPA of playing with fire, and the nationalist camp broke up. However, the young PPA militants set a date for mounting a new challenge and called on their leaders to set up a national para-military organization.

Thus l’OS (Secrete Organization) emerged on the eve of November 1st, 1954 as an emanation of the National Liberation Front and National Liberation Army. But the war for the liberation of Algeria really began on May 8, 1945.

The Arab Daily News

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Abdennour Toumi
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