Albert Camus on Algeria

The New York Times Book Review published a wonderful review of Camus's Algerian Chronicles, a collection of his writings on the intractable battle between the French government and Algerian nationalists in his native country -- and on all those trapped between the warring factions.

Here's an excerpt from Susan Rubin Suleiman's review:
Even more eloquent, perhaps, are his remarks on the responsibility of intellectuals in times of hatred: “It is to explain the meaning of words in such a way as to sober minds and calm fanaticisms.” Great writer that he was, Camus placed hope in the calming power of language carefully used, and of reason; in the preface, he asks his readers to “set their ideological reflexes aside for a moment and just think.”

Lisa Lieberman's essay, Dirty War, explores Camus's dilemma in the context of postwar French history. As early as 1947, Camus had denounced the “Gestapo methods” routinely employed by the French in their colonies—torture, collective reprisals, executions.  “Three years after having felt the effects of a politics of terror, the French take in the news like people who have seen too much,” he charged.  “And yet the facts are there, clear and hideous as the truth: we are doing over there the same thing that we reproached the Germans for doing here.”

Born into a pied-noir (the term for European settlers) family in Algeria in 1913, Camus would surmount poverty and illness and go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature for 1957, singled out for his “authentic moral engagement,” a commitment to justice, peace, and human rights exemplified in his life no less than in his literary works.  During the Nazi Occupation he had founded an underground newspaper in Paris, Combat, that sought to unify the various factions of the Resistance under the banner of de Gaulle’s Free French organization.  Upon the Liberation he advocated for reconciliation and publicly opposed the death penalty, even in the case of war criminals—a position he would maintain throughout the Algerian war.

Camus was always one to put people before causes, but the conflict tested his loyalties.  “When one’s own family is in immediate danger of death, one may want to instill in one’s family a feeling of greater generosity and fairness . . . but (let there be no doubt about it!) one still feels a natural solidarity with the family in such mortal danger and hopes that it will survive at least and, by surviving, have a chance to show its fairness.”  Attacked for his unwillingness to reject colonialism outright, Camus had stopped commenting publicly about Algeria several years before his death in 1961, though he continued to lobby discreetly to mitigate the harsh sentences imposed on Algerian nationalists.  Nevertheless the key features of his argument, the correlation he drew between French colonial authorities and the Gestapo, along with his ambivalence, would resurface in the torture debate a decade later. And it is worth noting that the most outspoken critics of France’s dirty war would be those who, like Camus, had been active in the Resistance.

Lisa Lieberman is the translator of Jean-Paul Sartre's essay, "Paris Under the Occupation" and Simone de Beauvoir's essay, "An Eye for an Eye".

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