The Liberation War of Algeria and Its Many Mistakes


The campaign for liberation of Algeria took place over fifty years ago. However, wars characterized the liberation war of Algeria, where the French fought against the Algerians; who were seeking independence from their colonizers. The liberation war in Algeria lasted for eight years and in the end, the natives achieved independence against the French. Nevertheless, the war in Algeria had no definitive winners. In the end, the destruction of Algeria meant that both the natives and the European colonizers won nothing of value. For instance, the French citizens who were famously known as “Pieds Noirs” reacted to the defeat by the natives by burning hospitals, fuel-storage reserves, libraries, and any destructible infrastructure. The aim of the French citizens was to ensure that they ‘left Algeria as they found it’- a desolate desert land. Other than the wanton destruction of the country, there are many other mistakes that occurred during the Algerian war, some of which have acted as lessons in latter liberation conflicts. It is also important to note that by the end of the war, the French citizens had to free Algeria because they could not co-exist with the residents of their former colony. The war in Algeria is one of the most notable conflicts of the last century. The war is also a source of mixed feelings from both sides of the conflict. This paper is a review of the Algerian liberation war in respect to its notable historical mistakes and lessons learnt.

The War and its Background

Algiers, the capital of Algeria was a thriving city in the 1950s and it was one of the most sophisticated cities in Africa. The city was a cosmopolitan cultural hub that featured a predominantly Muslim population with various European elements in its midst. Some of the cultures that thrived in Algiers were Italians, Spanish, Maltese, Catalan, and French (Evans 47). The Algerian population was tolerant of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Given the rivalry that was being witnessed in most colonies across Africa in the 1950s, it was widely believed that Algiers would eventually become the African equivalent of California where diversity could be the main driver of progress. The oil resources also provided the country with a stimulus of economic progress.

The trigger of the liberation war was an incident that occurred in November of 1954. In this incident, several conflicts involving French-Christian and Native-Muslim population occurred spontaneously across Algeria. Consequently, from the day of the initial conflict “the situation escalated following the known spiral of provocation and retaliation” (Horne 103). The fast war-centric faction was the National Liberation Front (FLN). The FLN’s initial acts of violence led the French authorities to retaliate with what can be termed as ‘unnecessary force’. These initial engagements were all it took to create the environment of a revolution. Although this is the short version of the story of how the liberation war of Algeria broke out, experts believe that the underlying causes date back to the early 1940s (Galula 80). In 1945 when local Muslims were celebrating the victory of the Allies in World War II, clashes broke out between the celebrating crowds and the French authorities. In the aftermath of this conflict, French police are thought to have shot and killed approximately 15,000 native Muslims. On the other hand, approximately a hundred French settlers were killed. The violence that occurred in 1945 and its underlying massacre eventually died down on the account of the French authorities overcoming the local inhabitants. Nevertheless, this event became a source of mistrust between the natives and French settlers. Following this initial conflict between the inhabitants and the French settlers, there were various attempts to mend the broken relationships between these two sides. However, the attempts bore no fruit and there were evident tensions between the two sections of the population. For instance, it was not until the year 2005 when France issued a formal apology to Algeria for the 1945 massacre.

From the onset of the liberation war in Algeria, there were obvious mistakes in regards to perceptions. First, the population of Algeria had a ratio of one French settler to nine mostly Muslim inhabitants. The situation translated to the minority having so much power over the majority. The local Algerian population rarely took part in the active administration and development of their nation even though they were the majority. This ‘indifference’ was the main cause of the vicious destruction of the country’s infrastructure by the settlers because they felt that they had ‘single-handedly’ built Algeria. Nevertheless, it is not easy to understand why the local population had so little interest in nation building, because prior to the 1940s; relationships between the natives and the settlers were mostly cordial.

Another point of misunderstanding between the Algerian settlers and the French nationals was the notion that the French settler was an, ‘entitled individual’; who had access to unlimited land. Consequently, most of the events that happened in relation to the French settlers in Algeria were rarely reported back in France. For example, most people in France were not aware of the violence that broke out in Algeria in 1945. The truth was that the first generation of French settlers who moved to France encountered various challenges. Most of the French settlers who were in Algeria in the 1950s were second and third generation, and they no longer had any strong ties with their homeland.

The failure to adopt formal education among the local inhabitants was also another mistake that could have precipitated the liberation war in Algeria. It is important to note that “illiteracy among the Muslim population was widespread and nothing was being done to reverse this situation” (Stam and Shohat 282). However, there were no formal systems that were preventing the Muslim children from attending school. High levels of unemployment mostly among the unskilled workers exacerbated this situation. The gradual urbanization in Algeria led to the development of slums that bordered every major town in the country. Most French settlers were under the impression that the Muslim population had adapted to its poor living conditions. The most important factor in the case of French and Muslim populations was that all citizens were the same under their French heritage and they had equal rights and responsibilities. Nevertheless, the country’s healthcare and education systems were more inclined to serve the settler population. The political systems allowed all citizens the right to vote although the “native Algerians could only vote in different polling stations and their votes counted as half that of French settlers” (Fanon 46). Most native Algerians had low stakes in their country’s political system and they mostly chose to excuse themselves from voting. In the course of this political quagmire, there was no intention or drive to harmonize citizenry from either the settlers or the natives.

War The initial mistake that happened in the pre-conflict period was that both the French settlers and the local population did not attempt to pursue any formal channels of maintaining their peaceful co-existence. Consequently, when the violence broke out both sides remained as parallel entities that had almost no shared development or social history. Overall, the French were unable to ‘comprehend the aspirations of the third world’. This particular mistake was common throughout the history of colonization whereby the colonial powers attempted to perpetuate their imperial agendas against third world revolutions (Fanon 29). By the time the war was ending, most of the contributions that the French had made in Algeria came undone all because the settlers failed to notice social changes.

The War and its Mishaps

When the liberation war of Algeria started, most of the stakeholders in France were under the impression that this was a simple revolt that would soon die down, as it was the case in 1945. Consequently, the first batch of troop reinforcement that was sent to Algeria was mostly made up of fresh army recruits. This development contradicted the French policy of not sending recruits to war zones as a result of the defeat that the troops had encountered in the Indo-China war. Officially, the situation in Algeria had not been recognized as a full-blown military war. The mindset of the troops that were sent to Algeria was that “they would simply be spending a few months in sunny vacation spots, but the young squad was terrified by the situation it encountered on the Algerian fields” (Evans 47). The French authorities reacted by declaring a state of emergency and assigning an army general to remedy the situation in Algeria. France cluelessness in regards to the situation in Algeria was responsible for the various tragic events that characterized the liberation war. For instance, throughout the war, France was merely reacting to the actions of the opposition. Consequently, the French troops were barely under control in regards to having first-rate information during the eight-year war period. The unpreparedness of the French authorities in regards to the war was also reflected by the United Nation’s discussion of peace agenda in Algeria. France initially interpreted the United Nation’s peace agenda in Algeria as a vote of no confidence against the country’s actions. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the actions of the UN had no regard to Algeria’s need for independence from France.

FNL’s offensive against French interests officially began in 1956 under General Massu. The very first battles took place in Algiers and they prompted the French troops to ask for back up from the French government. However, these early requests for more trooped were rebuffed by the French government because they went against public interest and also because Algeria was not considered as a significant economic or political interest by France, hence a waste of resources. Nevertheless, the liberation war caught the attention of France when it threatened to spillover to French territory. By the time Charles de Gaulle was elected as leader of France, Algeria was already a pressing issue. Gaulle’s first action as leader was going on a strategic tour to Algeria in France where he was received positively. Gaulle had an obvious advantage because both sides of the conflict considered him to be a liberator (Horne 70). On one side, the settlers were hoping that the general would be compassionate to their plight. On the other hand, the Muslims were aware of Gaulle’s contributions in the World War II and they adored him for that. When Gaulle gave his first public address in Algiers he uttered words of hope to the crowd when he said “I understand you…I know what has been going on here” (Merom 44).

The newly elected leader was also prompt in his attempts to stem the conflict in Algeria. Consequently, Gaulle started instituting social changes among the Muslims and offered amnesty to the FLN’s operatives in 1958. The nobleness of Gaulle’s action brought little changes in the conflict because by this time both sides of the conflict were too invested in the conflict. After Gaulle’s efforts appeared to bear no fruits, he attacked the problem directly and for the first time he uttered the words ‘self determination’ in regards to the liberation war. The leader’s actions were most likely prompted by the fact that he was quick to see the signs of the time. The liberation war was also taking its toll on the France’s economy, a situation the leader wanted to resolve as quickly as possible. Throughout the actions of the French leader, various things that were expected to happen failed to transpire. First, the popularity of Gaulle within the two sides of the conflict failed to translate into any tangible results. The conflict between the “Pieds Noirs” and the FNL was at its prime and input of Gaulle was not enough to neutralize the situation. Another ‘historical mistake’ that features in the events of the liberation war in Algeria was that General Gaulle failed to address the underlying issues of the conflict in the first place. The leader attempted to use his political clout to bypass the real issues in the Algerian war. Thirdly, the General assumed that the “Pieds Noirs” would eventually adopt his way of thinking.

The Insurgency

When General De Gaulle made the promise of self-determination in respect to Algeria’s quest, the settlers interpreted his actions as outright betrayal. According to historians, “the ‘Pieds Noirs’ felt betrayed by everyone; the French people, the army as an institution, the French government, and above all General Gaulle” (Allen 12). The reaction of the settlers was immediate and significant. The settlers set up barricades, started a revolt against their own government, and fought against the French troops. Furthermore, in 1961 the settlers created a secret terrorist organization that was known as the (Secret Army Organization) OAS. The OAS’s main instrument was terror and the group attempted to carry out mass bombings in both France and Algeria (Stam and Shohat 282). Nevertheless, the force of the OAS was a mere reaction to the inevitability of self-determination in Algeria. In 1962, a referendum led to the self-determination of Algeria and France consequently recognized the country’s independence.

The insurgency in Algeria has provided a framework for fighting this form of uprising in an established society. The French government considered the insurgency of the French settlers to be a threat against not only the sovereignty of Algeria, but also a major hazard towards the institutions of France. Consequently, the insurgency in Algeria was met by unimaginable forces towards France and the FNL. For instance, at one time there were over 400,000 troops fighting against the insurgency of a few thousand settlers. The use of force as opposed to military tactics proved to be a major mistake on the side of the French government. The tactics of the OAS became more bold and calculated in response to the pressure of French troops. Consequently, Algeria lost strategic resources and infrastructure in the process of the clandestine warfare. The situation in Algeria was replicated 50 years later when the United States began fighting against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq (Porch 239). Incidentally, President Bush’s administration repeated the same mistakes that the French government had made in Algeria in the late 1950s. France instituted a war that appeared endless and one where the insurgents were in control of the situation most of the time. However, the ‘zero tolerance against terrorism’ policy only served the purpose of strengthening the insurgency. It never occurred to the French government to pursue diplomatic measures a move that could have saved most of Algeria’s strategic interests. In addition, the end of the war meant the settlers could not co-exist with the local Muslim population because one faction had already been labeled as terrorists (MacMaster 117).


The liberation war in Algeria brought about new dimensions in revolutionary struggles. Until today, most aspects of the liberation war remain mysterious to most people due to the high levels of secrecy that characterized this conflict. In the end, the conflict pitted French against their fellow countrymen but it is Algerians that paid the price of this infighting. Innocent citizens were the victims of bomb blasts and the infrastructure that made Algeria a great city was left desolate. Furthermore, some of the stereotypes that fuelled the conflict between settlers and the local Muslim population have not yet disappeared. The reconciliation that was expected to take place after the liberation war was over never took place. As a result, Algeria has failed to benefit from the cooperation that mostly occurred between most African countries and their former colonial masters. There are fears that the element of the ‘Pieds Noirs’ terrorism might haunt Algeria forever if the issue is not revisited in a sober manner.


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Evans, Martin. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism, New York: Grove P, 1967. Print.

Galula, David. Pacification in Algeria 1954–1962, California: The RAND Corporation, 2006. Print.

Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, New York: Pan Macmillan, 2012. Print.

MacMaster, Neil. Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ’emancipation’ of Muslim Women, 1954-62, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

Merom, Gil. How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and The Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

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Stam, Robert, and Ella Shohat. “History, Empire, Resistance.” Postcolonial Film: History, Empire, Resistance 30 (2014): 282. Print.

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