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A French military column in Algeria. November 1954.

‘Productive forgetting’ Historian Todd Shepard reflects on Russia’s war against Ukraine through the prism of the Algerian War and France’s decolonization

Source: Meduza
A French military column in Algeria. November 1954.
A French military column in Algeria. November 1954.
ullstein bild / Getty Images

From 1954 to 1962, France waged a bloody war in Algeria, primarily against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). France’s eventual defeat in the Algerian War would become a landmark moment in the history of twentieth century decolonization. However, Paris relinquishing its claim to Algeria hinged on the power of forgetting rather than postwar justice and reconciliation. In an interview with researchers Friedrich Asschenfeldt and Sebastian Hoppe, historian Todd Shepard — a professor at John Hopkins University and the author of the award-winning book, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France — reflects on Russia’s war against Ukraine through the prism of the French-Algerian experience. 

A German translation of this interview was first published by The following Q&A has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.
Todd Shepard

The war between Russia and Ukraine is often framed as a war of decolonization. How does it resonate with your research on France’s decolonization in the context of the Algerian War?

Until relatively recently, I was reticent about the portability of “decolonization” as a framework beyond the mid-twentieth century. It appeared to me particularly important that this framework had emerged in a specific moment, and part of what I try to show in my book is that it does so in part to eliminate some of the most difficult parts of what was happening in France in particular, but also in other European countries that were grappling with it [decolonization]. 

In the French context, decolonization was presented as a kind of inevitable development of tendencies that were supposed to have begun with the French Revolution. The embrace of decolonization was an effort to turn something that was, in quite stark terms, a defeat for the French (and the Dutch, the British, the Belgians) into a good thing, something reassuring. Applying decolonization to other contexts beyond the mid-twentieth century, it seemed to me, would lead to losing the term’s specificity and make its contradictions less visible. But I have now come to see the broader application of the term as something quite useful. It certainly seems that the Ukrainian case, and perhaps the post-Soviet case more broadly, speaks in many key ways to the Algerian situation. 

The rhetoric of Algeria and France being the same, entrenched as it were in the 1958 constitution, mimics Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric of Russia and Ukraine being “one people,” as exemplified in the infamous article published in June 2021. Do you see these points as fruitful angles of comparison?

There is a real need to see these similarities. Like Moscow’s claim to Ukraine, French sources insisted that the story of unity between France and Algeria was located in the deep past with references to Augustine and the Catholic Church. The Arab invasions were depicted as having disrupted the deep racial, cultural, and religious connections that supposedly made France a country with deep ties to Algeria that the Arab invasion had obscured. This type of colonial thinking is quite typical of late nineteenth century developments. 

Algeria stands out among the French imperial possessions in that it was declared part of the national territory. The reason is that when Algeria became French in the 1830s, the idea of colonialism had been discredited after the Bolivarian revolutions [the Spanish American wars of independence]. So it is not called a colony, but an extension of France and its people are declared French nationals. A certain percentage of people have active French citizenship, their votes matter, and there are Algerian actors and Algerian politicians who play key roles in French Republican politics. At the same time, there is a significant effort to impose a European population, with the expectation that it would “surpass” the local population.

What’s remarkable about the Algerian — and perhaps the Ukrainian — case is that it’s the one particular space of all of the former colonies that absorbs all the attention of the [colonial] center. Notably, the French arguments over Algeria intensified precisely at the time when “empire” became a lost cause in much of the rest of the world. Perhaps this is a parallel to Russia's treatment of Ukraine compared to other former Soviet republics.

How did the relationship between France and Algeria change when European empires were disintegrating after 1945?

In the 1950s, an enormous amount of effort was put into making Algeria “more French” — at the very moment when, retrospectively, we would say that this is a lost cause. At a time when India was already independent, Ghana was on the verge of independence, and Cambodia and Vietnam were no longer French, most observers inside and outside France insisted that Algeria was an integral part of France. 

The French left at the time was anti-colonial, in the sense that they were horrified at the torture and abuses taking place at the hand of French soldiers and officials. But at the same time, they were in complete denial that a separate Algerian identity existed. Before 1961, almost no one in the French administration, and only very few French intellectuals — like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — could accept the idea that Algeria would not be part of France. French commentators were certain that it made sense for Algeria to be part of France; that any effort to take it away from France, whether at the hands of the U.S. or the U.S.S.R, would be disastrous for Algeria and France. 

So decolonization was preceded by a move towards affirming integration? 

Precisely. Until 1961, recognizing Algerian independence was simply unthinkable to most people in France. Because Algeria was never deemed a proper colony, there was an effort to declare all Algerians full citizens of France in the wake of World War II. When the Algerian War started in 1954, even the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) thought that they would move on to establish its independent space as part of a federation, with other Maghrebi or African countries, perhaps even with France. This was a moment when much bigger spaces such as the Soviet Union or the United States were seen as key models. 

It now seems often inevitable that the era of decolonization produced nation states. But at the time, as [historian] Frederick Cooper and others have argued, this was not at all how many people saw the future. They were fixated on national self-determination. However, this did not necessarily imply the framework of a nation state. In fact, with the 1958 constitution all existing legal distinctions between Algerians and French people were eliminated. Part of the story of Algerian decolonization is the totally unexpected defeat of the federalist vision. 

In a conceivable future scenario, the Russian elite must come to understand that Ukraine is an independent state. Talk about how French elites went from seeing Algeria as essential to its place in the world to seeing it as a separate entity.

In the Invention of Decolonization, I try to show how Algeria, previously regarded as wholly exceptional among French imperial possessions, came to be regarded as the paradigmatic case of decolonization. What I term the “invention of decolonization” is the shock of seeing that in late 1961, people have no explanation for what they're doing. The French government simply decides that the empire is over. The term that they kept coming back to was the “tide of history,” the courant de l’histoire [in French] — there was nothing that could be done about it. They don’t have a logical explanation for why France is abandoning its claim to Algeria. Embracing “decolonization” allowed them to present the loss as a victory. Everyone was becoming decolonized, they argued, therefore we need to let this go. 

Framing the loss of Algeria as part of an inevitable historical evolution allowed them to avoid grappling with that loss. It erased the idea that France had been defeated when they clearly were. The fact that it was no longer running Algeria, in turn, allowed France to present a picture of itself as a white European nation, much more than it had been in the past. In fact, a silence over France’s colonial past emerged at the time that Algeria was gone.

Metropolitan France lost [approximately] 75,000 soldiers in Vietnam and 25,000 soldiers in Algeria. What was the significance of wartime violence in relation to decolonization? How did the loss of French soldiers affect public sentiment? And how did public outrage over the atrocities of French soldiers contribute to the delegitimization of French rule in Algeria? 

Given the levels of French repression, it’s unfortunately unimaginable how the FLN could have succeeded without resorting to violence. The explicit adoption of anti-imperial violence, like terrorist tactics in response to French attacks on civilians, inspired anti-colonial nationalists across the Arab world and beyond. The violence of both the FLN and the French authorities was utterly crucial for the formation of the Algerian nation state.

What won the revolution was a strategy of persistent violence that produced French responses that were out of control, like the systematic use of torture. This drew international attention to Algeria, and the FLN was incredibly effective in using the violence to generate an international consensus that Algeria must be independent. This forced the French hand. The French had defeated, for the most part, the military threat of the FLN, but the FLN was able to keep up a persistent paramilitary struggle that drew international attention, putting pressure on the French. 

Would you say that the human price of the intervention in Algeria and the commitment to Algeria eventually became too high for France?

What made the situation in Algeria a weighty political issue in France was in many ways less the casualties than the draft of metropolitan French citizens for service in Algeria. Almost all males from one generation of French [people] were brought to Algeria during the late 1950s. Everyone who was top of their class in France was automatically brought to Algeria to teach in Algerian schools, an entire generation of young intellectuals and the top civil servants had been sent to Algeria. Every French family suddenly had a deep connection to that space. So the government had to explain to its citizens what their sons or husbands were doing over there and had to give meaning to it. 

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From 1960 onwards, French elites began to de-emphasize the imperial past as a part of the French republic’s history and remained silent about the fact that Algeria had been part of France for 130 years. How does such “productive forgetting” operate?

My use of the notion of “productive forgetting” is a response to scholars who have argued that the French have been so traumatized by the violence of the war, notably by French atrocities, that they stopped talking about Algeria. But what I wanted to show is that the government was very, very effective in promoting “decolonization” as a new framework that allowed people to stop talking and erasing the previous commitment to Algeria. Productive forgetting entails active erasure. It allows people to move on, but also elides a lot of things. 

It seems as though this might be a [potential] scenario for Russia, though currently it’s not much discussed. While we find maximalist future scenarios from intellectuals like Alexander Etkind, who argues that Russia has to go through a process of conscious decolonization, with all its implications, you argue that another scenario is to simply “forget” about the empire and the violence it entailed. 

I think we’ve been bogged down after 1989 in a truth and reconciliation framework [based] on the example of South Africa. The Algerians and the French never engaged in a similar process. The French shut down debate about the atrocities in the war. In Algeria, to take a later case, it’s still illegal to talk publicly about the violence that took place during the 1990s civil war. It’s not at all clear that truth and reconciliation produce justice or significantly better societies. There are ways to move on by making sure that people don't talk about the terrible things that happened.

You have critiqued, via the philosopher Étienne Balibar, the “false simplicity of two” — the artificial separateness of colony and metropole. In the field of Russian and Ukrainian Studies, such dichotomies have reappeared quite starkly since 2014. This appears to be one of the central challenges in making sense of the past and present of Russia and Ukraine, which for hundreds of years had such tightly interwoven populations and elites. Explain what you mean by the “false simplicity of two.” 

For Balibar and the political tradition that he has been aligned with, it took an incredible amount of work and blood and death to insist that Algeria and France were not part of one nation — that France was not the sovereign and should not be sovereign in Algeria, what he calls the “false simplicity of one.” But his second point is that to pretend that they’re two separate nations with two completely separate histories would be to mistake things, above all for the French side; to ignore how deeply transformative its occupation of Algeria and the participation of Algerians in its history were.

Balibar thus suggests that the history of Algeria and France was “neither one nor two.” One can acknowledge that political communities can have specific routes or specific forms of government without turning to “the false simplicity of two,” the idea that there’s nothing in common between these two peoples, these two spaces, these two groups. The question then becomes how to establish claims to “nation-stateness” while staying committed to the idea that different histories work together.

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A central point of your work has been to argue that the category of decolonization lends the mantle of historical inevitability to highly contingent events. Now, the idea that decolonization was a “tide of history” is again widely spread. [Ukrainian] historian Serhii Plokhy, for example, has argued that “if history shows us one thing, it is that eventually every empire must fall.” Do you think he’s right? Or is there, in your mind, a false optimism about the inexorability of the end of empires in the twenty-first century?

I fear that such optimism about the decline of empire in the twenty-first century is unwarranted. I tend to think of empire more in terms of state forms and I certainly have a more skeptical understanding of how nation states work. Like all states, they are caught up in reproducing and stabilizing forms of hierarchy and domination. And all states fail. But to simply celebrate that another nation state is coming and that this is inevitable, it seems to me, avoids the question of why things happen at specific moments and for specific reasons. I don’t think the “tide of history” is at work here. Empires collapse, but some of them are very, very durable

Do you think that Algeria offers a model for how to end an empire?

Certainly, the decolonization of France offers a model for how to get out, based on lies and a willingness of the rest of the world to allow this to happen. In a sense, it provides a useful way to think about how to deal with defeat: the Algerians got what they wanted and the French were able to move on. 

In fact, [French President Charles] de Gaulle used decolonization to redesign the state: much of the specific institutional framework of the current French republic took shape alongside Algeria’s independence, through the legal process that hived Algeria off from France. But part of what helped the French overcome their imperial nostalgia was “the thirty glorious years” (Les Trentes Glorieuses), the economic boom that began in the late 1950s. It solved a lot of problems. Issues between France and Algeria remain, but there is still a tight relationship between the two countries. Algerian people remain very interested in France, and deeply connected to it. 

Defeat in Algeria was obviously crucial in changing France’s trajectory without giving up on its self-understanding as a great power. But the history of France after losing Algeria also shows that de Gaulle did not lose power, and France continued to play a role on the world stage as a “small great power.” Must Russia be defeated in order for it to remain a great power? Would you say that shocks such as military defeat are necessary to abandon imperial ambitions?

I certainly hope that Russia abandons its imperial ambitions. And it seems a defeat would be a helpful thing. At the same time, it also seems to be important that Russia remains a player on the world stage. I’m very skeptical of many of my friends on parts of the left or from Algeria whose reasonable critique of the United States leads them to think of Ukraine as a puppet state that is waging a proxy war on America’s behalf. I think that's simply inaccurate in terms of what's happening. 

At the same time, Russia is not the first country that has violated international law, just like the French were not the first to use mass violence against civilians. So being knocked down in a significant way would be necessary for Russia, and seems to be highly important. However, it appears that the imperial forms of thinking on the Russian side make it impossible [for them] to take Ukrainian positions seriously or not see them as deeply threatening.

On the other hand, I would also emphasize that Russia has such a rich set of cultural, political, and historical experiences that would be useful on the world stage if they were brought to bear. And Russia certainly has the resources to be a country that can survive without an empire and could make far more of itself if it focused its energies on domestic development. 

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Interview by Friedrich Asschenfeldt (Princeton University) and Sebastian Hoppe (Freie Universität Berlin) 

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