The Role of Ideas in the Algerian War

POL 307 – Wars, Conflict & Diplomacy: Assignment

During the Algerian conflict, anti-colonial ideas impacted French public opinion, leading to events that may not have taken place in the absence of them. Colonial ideas once dominated the French; however, as moral questions regarding the colonial regime began to rise, domestic public opinion gradually changed. Attitudes towards colonial rule crystalized. Two factors especially aided the spread of anti-colonial ideas and urged action against the regime: new movements of Christianity within Algeria that sympathized with the poor and oppressed Muslims; and journals such as Esprit and Le Monde that were a platform for influential intellectuals, settlers, and Algerian writers. The media also played a significant role by making information public knowledge.


Christian Morality

By the late 19th century, Christianity retained its status as a long-established feature of European identity. French settlers and the indigenous Algerian population were distinguished by their religious affiliations, dividing them into “separate self-contained communities.” However, a small fragment of French settlers witnessed a gradual awakening to the harsh realities of colonialism, and hence, began to advocate for a faith that emphasized increasing the social integration between Algerian Muslims and French settlers. Consequently, there was a rise in communication between French settlers and the Muslim youth that by the pre-World War II era had begun pushing the movement of Algerian independence. It’s important to note that the communication between both led to an increased exposure to anti-colonial ideas and knowledge of the brutality of colonialism through anecdotes.

Christian settlers who were often labeled “progressivists” initiated these dialogues between the two parties. “Progressivists” consisted of Catholics and Protestants who wished to solve social issues. However, in the 1950s their involvement began to lead to several arrests of French settlers charged with sheltering members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), supporting Algerian solidarity, and “undermining the security of the French state.” This was known as the Trials of the Progressivist Christians that also happened to make victims of torture from the French settlers.[1] In 1957, Denise Walburt was tried. In her defense, she argued from the perspective of many progressivists who believed that helping the oppressed indigenous population is the Christian position.

In the same year, criticism of the French military increased, especially after the use of torture made headlines. However, General Jacques Massu, who led French troops into the Battle of Algiers, was more focused on the change in public opinion between the settlers in Algeria rather than France. The sharp focus on European settlers can be traced back to when French officials were searching for Raymonde Peschard, a young communist settler accused of being involved in a bombing campaign.[2] Massu took aggressive actions against French settlers and even criticized priests such as Léon-Étienne Duvalare for their public stances against the use of torture.[3] Indeed, Massu held those publicizing such sentiments, and similar anti-war views, as a major threat, not only inspiring settlers to aid Algerians but also encouraging Muslims in their fight against colonialism. Regardless, Massu’s concerns about the threat of opposition showcase the power of ideas.

As a result, officials arrested twelve progressivists that year. Following the arrests, the defendants were interrogated in Villa Sésini. Most of them refused to deny assisting their Algerians friends or fully blame them; rather, they raised moral questions in defense of their cases. For example, Eliane Gautrone responded to the charges by stating that she sheltered her Algerian friend in order to protect her from potential torture.[4] Statements like this demonstrate how the spread of ideas, particularly ones concerning morality, can encourage actions among people. Furthermore, revelations of the cruelties of the colonial regime such as the existence and nature of the Algerian regroupment camps furthered the Christian movements’ commitment to humanitarian aid.[5] The head of the group also urged the public to help the refugees he witnessed living under horrifying circumstances.[6]

The camps also made headlines in France, thus, negatively impacting the public image of French officials. This is seen in 1961 when Duval published a statement addressing the Algerian question. When one of the priests refused to read it, stating that Muslims Algerians are a “band of fanatics,” he received numerous death threats from the French.[7]


Published Knowledge

Written texts were also crucial in spreading awareness of the anti-colonial and anti-war ideas the Christian progressivists, and others, held. Esprit, a monthly journal that held a highly critical stand on the Algerian war, was limited to the elite. Regardless, it was influential in shaping French attitudes. As the number of philosophers addressing the Algerian question increased, more articles were published, adding up to more than 211 articles read by the French elite during the Algerian crisis.

Moral questions regarding the Algerian conflict were constantly raised in Esprit. Intellectuals like Albert Camus published writings such as The Misery of Kabylia, arguing for the reduction of “the suffering for the colonized people” and advocating for “some self-governance” (Schalk, 2005). Another prominent text was Henry Alleg’s La Question, an autobiographical account of his arrest by French officials that was quickly banned in France. However, it was immediately translated into English and reprinted in America. Republishing these texts was essential to provide alternative facts and outsmart government control over the media. Although revelations about torture and murder carried out by the French regime were already public knowledge prior to La Question’s publication, it was essential in swaying public opinion due to its human appeal, which explains why French officials saw it as a threat (Evans, 1997).

Esprit was not only a platform for French philosophers but also a tool for Algerian writers to voice their opinions. Algerian writer Kateb Yacine published Le Cadavre Encirclé in 1954 and 1955, in which he provided haunting descriptions of the effects of war.[8] In addition, prior to publishing in the journal, Yacine organized a public meeting with the help of philosophers Albert Béguin and Jean-Marie Domenach, in which he addressed the French public, pleading for Algerian independence.

Writings in Esprit and similar journals such as Les Temps Modern offered the French insight into the colonial regime. They contained highly detailed and information-flooded arguments that allowed for settlers to truly understand anti-colonial ideas, which the French media helped reaffirm. As colonial realities continued to make headlines, more people were willing to express their anti-war and anti-colonial stances. The French regime found itself the target of criticism and its public image was tarnished. In 1960, a poll was conducted by La Vie Catholique to display the hardships the French experienced in Algeria, shedding further light on the topic as well as bringing it closer to home.[9]


Where The Two Meet

The changes in Algerian and French public opinion were not independent of one another, nor was this also true of the influence of Christian movements and intellectual texts. For example, priest Bernard Boudouresque worked with the FLN, which could employ violence, but was himself committed to the peace movement, which also opposed French colonialism. Boudouresque’s Christian values were not the only factor that awoke his anti-colonial stance. He exposed himself to anti-colonial literature, which allowed him to gain insight into anti-colonial ideas.[10]



Ideas lead to action. Esprit was not a mere journal that addressed the Algerian question, nor was it just a platform for writers; rather, it was a tool to call for action. Through Esprit, intellectuals were able to organize a silent protest in France as a demonstration of peace.[11] The extent of Esprit’s influence can be seen when the OAS bombed it due to its threat to the colonial ideology. Religion also played a significant role in reasserting Christian values and the Christian position. Thus, between 1959 and 1962 France saw a gradual change in public opinion. Specifically, an increasing amount of people abandoned the “Algeria is France” notion for decolonization and emphasized the importance of freeing Algeria (Shepard, 2006).

The impact of anti-colonial and anti-war ideas resulted in the questioning of French morality. The impact of ideas was threatening to the French regime. It was also vital in the process of Algerian independence. If moral questions were not raised, dialogue would not have initiated and literature would not have been published, which would have left a vast majority of the French, including settlers in Algeria, blind to the cruelties of their own government.



[1] Denise Walburt reported being stripped and tortured with water and electricity for several days (Fontaine, 2016, P.85).

[2] “The FLN’s Algiers operational executive conducted a plan in which three attractive Algerian women placed bombed in highly populated civilian targets in the center of Algiers, including the Air France office and the Milk Bar café” (Fontaine, 2016, P.82).

[3] In his book La Vraie bataille d’Alger, he said “the most serious opposition to his tactics came from the ‘attitude of “Mgr Duval, and certain priests, notably abbé Jean Scotto’” (Fontaine, 2016, P.83).

[4] Gautron’s statement: “I knew that the Muslims I shelterd were at risk of being tortured. I know what I am talking about. I was [tortured] myself. I want to make clear that if the three men who tortured me were one day worried, and rang at my door, I would shelter them anyway” (Fontaine, 2016, P.85).

[5] The report “pushed Chrisitan organizations like Climade and Secours catholique to engage much more fully in the Algerian War in the capacity of humanitarian and development organizations” (Fontaine, 2016, P.151).

[6] Mgr Rodhain “launched an appeal to the French to help the ‘million refugees’ that he found in a state of massive hunger when he visited the regroupment camps in Algeria (Fontaine, 2016, P.151).

[7] One of the priests spoke in defense of the OAS and referred to Algerian Muslims as “strays” and “band of fanatics” who aim to install a communist regime in Algeria. As a result, he received many anonymous death threats stating the following: “We are hesitating no longer. You will have a Beautiful Plastic Bomb” (Fontaine, 2016, P.166).

[8] Excerpt from Yacine’s text of character who was surrounded by corpes: “Here is the street of Vandals, of the ghosts, of the militants, of the circumcised young gutter urchins and the newly weds; here is our street.

[9] In response to the question “what has been the reader’s worse experience” in Algeria, “126 referred to the hardships of war as such; whereas 132 specified atrocities committed by the French, or acts of torture heard about, witnessed, or participated in; against only sic who had cited their own wounds” (Horne, 2006).

[10] E.g. La Quinzaine, Témoignange Chrétien and France-Observateur (Evans, 1997, p.85).

[11] “It took place in June 1957, in Paris in the gardens of the Palais Royal, with only five to six hundred present… Forty-nine were then arrested” (Schalk, 2005, p.85).



Fontaine, D. (2016). Decolonizing Christianity: Religion and the end of empire in France and Algeria. New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, M. (1997). The Memory of Resistance : French opposition to the Algerian war (1954-1962)(Berg french studies). Oxford: Berg.

Shepard, T. (2006). The Invention of Decolonization : The Algerian war and the remaking of France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Horne, A. (2006). A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (New York review books classics). New York: New York Review Books.

Schalk, D. (2005). War and the Ivory Tower : Algeria and Vietnam (New ed. ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

8 thoughts on “The Role of Ideas in the Algerian War

  1. The first person who surrounded a piece of land with a fence and thought of saying “This is mine” and found people who were silly enough to believe him was the real founder of bourgeois society. How many crimes, wars, murders, misery, and terror would have been spared the human race if someone had ripped out the stakes and shouted to his fellow men: “Beware of believing the deceiver, you are lost, if you forget: the fruits belong to everyone, but the earth belongs to nobody.

    An adequate, reasonable sentence from Joyce: “The history of mankind is a nightmare from which I’m still trying to wake up.”


    1. Mankind was never peaceful even during the state of nature when property didn’t exist. If anything, ownership of land created communities and families. I don’t believe this specific concept can be directly linked to wars and colonization that occurred years after, which were mostly caused by the balance-of-power system and greed.

      Thank you for your comment! Love the quote 💙


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