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Michael Rothberg on the multidirectional connections between the Holocaust and the struggle for Algerian independence

Michael Rothberg, UCLA Photo: David Wu, UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies

On 17 October 1961, at the height of the Algerian war for independence, 30,000 Algerian supporters of the National Liberation Front (FLN) protested in Paris against a curfew imposed by the French authorities on “French Muslims of Algerian origin”. Police prefect Maurice Papon, who as an official of the collaborationist Vichy regime had been responsible for the deportation of France’s Jews 20 years earlier (a crime for which he would only be held accountable decades later), had called for the curfew.

Michael Rothberg teaches English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. His latest book is The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford University Press, 2019).

The state’s violent response to the protest took the lives of at least 40 Algerians — some historians put the number at up to 200. A number of victims were thrown into the Seine. Ten thousand Algerians were detained, sometimes for days. The massacre subsequently vanished from collective memory for decades, and was only brought back into public consciousness in recent years by the actions of victims’ associations and historians. Last year, Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to take part in a commemoration ceremony.

Sixty years later, connections between French colonization and repression in Algeria and the state’s complicity in Nazi atrocities have become impossible for historians to ignore. To further explore these connections, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Andreas Bohne spoke with Michael Rothberg, a leading scholar of Holocaust memory and author of Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).

Discussions about your book Multidirectional Memory in Germany mainly focus on the connection between the Holocaust, colonial crimes, and racism. Your chapters on 17 October 1961, on the other hand, barely register. Can you tell us a bit more about the multidirectional connections between decolonization, using the example of Algerian independence and the crime of 17 October 1961, and the Holocaust?

You’re right that discussions of Multidirectional Memory in Germany — at least the critical ones — never engaged with the sections of the book on the Algerian Revolution. And yet, those sections make up half of the book — and are key in illustrating what I mean by the dynamics of multidirectional memory. I didn’t know about the connections between anticolonial struggles like Algeria and the development of Holocaust memory before starting the book. I essentially stumbled on them in the course of doing research on the writings of the Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo. Then I came across the 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, both of which I discuss at length.

There are a few connections worth highlighting. First, there is the obvious case of historical proximity: the Algerian War of Independence is usually dated to 1954 — in other words, it began less than a decade after the end of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France. If you consider the uprisings and massacres of Algerians that took place starting in May 1945 in Sétif and Guelma, you can make an even stronger case for temporal continuity between the World War and the French-Algerian War. More important than those precise dates, however, is the fact that proximity in time meant that there were millions of people who had lived through both events — in other words, who still had fresh memories of the Nazi occupation during the Algerian conflict.

You can find a multidirectional dynamic linking the Holocaust and Nazi occupation to the war of decolonization and the 17 October massacre in the publicly articulated memories of such people — primarily French people who were active in the resistance and even deported to Nazi camps. Why? Because they recognized some common forms of violence between the otherwise very different events: the French rounded up and deported Algerians from France, held two million Algerians in camps, and tortured hundreds of thousands. There are famous cases of people who had been tortured by the Gestapo and then perceived the torture perpetrated by the French state as an echo of their own experience. The same goes for the presence of concentration camps, which Delbo also talks about.

From a historical perspective, the Nazi genocide of Jews and France’s brutal attempt to maintain its empire are obviously not the same kind of event — and, in truth, nobody was saying they were identical. Rather, they were saying that the events of the 1950s and 1960s reminded them of what had happened under the Nazis.

You see this quite a bit in the early reporting by leftist journalists about the massacre of 17 October 1961. The thousands of Algerians arrested that night were held in similar — sometimes identical — facilities as Jews had been held after, for example, the infamous rafle du Vel d’Hiv — the roundup of “foreign” Jews by the French police in July 1942. The New Left newspaper France-Observateur published a picture of incarcerated Algerians with a caption that read “Doesn’t this remind you of something?” Libération similarly published a picture of Algerians being deported from Paris back to Algeria with a headline that read “Departure from Orly to camps in Algeria; Drancy in other times” — a reference to the camp from which Jews were deported east by the Nazis.

What interests me about these kinds of examples is not simply that they make connections between the Holocaust and the Algerian War, but also what they tell us about the dynamics of memory. It is especially significant, I believe, that these “multidirectional” connections were made around 1961. In standard histories of Holocaust memory, 1961 is considered a turning point because of the global impact of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. This is the moment at which Holocaust memory really became publicly articulated in a prominent way on a transnational scale.

What I found in working on the French-Algerian material was that there was another story to be told about the emergence of Holocaust memory, one that placed it in a larger dynamic with decolonization — a story that, as I show in the book, can also be traced back to the immediate post-war years in writings of people like Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire. It wasn’t simply that the references to the Holocaust and Nazi occupation were used to bring attention to the Algerian events, but that the Algerian events were also stimulating more public remembrance of the Holocaust, at least in France.

What’s also remarkable about these multidirectional links is that they were created decades before anyone knew that Maurice Papon, the police chief responsible for the 1961 massacre, had also been a Nazi collaborator who deported Jews to their deaths during the occupation. When that became known in the 1980s, of course it led to even further multidirectional associations.

Your book covers 17 October not only through contemporary sources such as articles, but also through literature. What is the advantage of this approach?

Well, I’m a literary critic. I believe literary and other cultural sources can provide important insights into history, politics, and collective memory. Obviously, literary sources are different from archival sources, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have advantages. In the case of histories that have been marginalized for a long time, like the 17 October massacre, literature and film often provide access to histories that cannot be found in more standard “scholarly” or “official” sources.

It’s a generally accepted fact that after the initial weeks, in which you find quite a bit of discussion of the massacre in the press — including many of the multidirectional references I described above — 17 October basically fell into oblivion for two or three decades. Yet, in 1963, the African-American writer William Gardner Smith published The Stone Face, a novel that described the massacre in detail based on the author’s eyewitness observations. Equally interesting, the novel brings together not just the perspectives of its African-American protagonist and the Algerians in Paris he meets, but also prominently features a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland who is the love interest of the protagonist. It’s a multidirectional work and it appeared long before the events returned prominently to public consciousness or any official histories had been written.

Similarly, the return of the events to public consciousness was also accompanied by prominent cultural works like Didier Daeninckx’s 1984 novel Meurtres pour mémoire and Leila Sebbar’s 1999 novel La Seine était rouge or Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché — all of which I describe as multidirectional in my book.

You use the terms “solidarity” and “complicity” to grasp the complexity of multidirectional memory. What is the power of this dichotomy for your analysis?

I’m not sure I think of solidarity and complicity as existing in a dichotomy, actually. That is one of the lessons of my more recent book, The Implicated Subject.

It’s true that meaningful solidarity can only exist with certain people and against others in a political struggle — so there’s something of a dichotomy there. But the kinds of solidarity that especially interest me do not pretend that they can escape entirely from problems of complicity. Instead of “complicity,” however, my more recent work speaks of “implication” and “implicated subjects! and attempts to supplement and transform the framework of “victims, perpetrators, and bystanders” that remains prevalent, especially in Holocaust Studies.

My concept of the “implicated subject” is meant to describe people who enable, perpetuate, benefit from, or inherit histories of violence and structures of inequality without being themselves direct perpetrators and without having initiated or controlled those histories and structures. I prefer implication to complicity because it takes us out of the legal realm and also because I think it works better for questions of historical responsibility — you can be implicated in events that took place before your birth (think of young Germans in relation to the Holocaust), but you can’t be complicit in those events.

In addition, I suggest that many people are “complexly implicated” — that is, they have lines of connection to histories of both victimization as well as perpetration. In this context, solidarity involves the creation of bonds between groups of people with different relations to the issues at stake. Take structural racism, for example: if white people want to be involved in struggles against racism, they will necessarily do that from a position of implication (or “complicity”, if you prefer). Solidarity will only be possible based on a recognition and working through that implication/complicity. So, rather than being a dichotomy, solidarity and complicity represent a field of tension in which politics necessarily unfolds.

You headline your chapter on 17 October 1961, “A Site of Holocaust Memory?”, with a question mark. What’s the answer?

I used the question mark because I realize it’s a provocative claim in a couple of different ways.

I definitely don’t want to assert that 17 October primarily concerns the Holocaust. Given how long the memory of the massacre was marginalized in France, it’s clear that it first has to be established as a site of late colonial memory — as has finally started to happen in recent years, as my colleague Lia Brozgal shows in her wonderful book Absent the Archive.

In addition, I would not claim it’s a central site of Holocaust memory on the order of, say, Drancy in France. And yet, I think I would still answer the question with a careful “yes”: 17 October 1961 is also a site of Holocaust memory. I say that first of all because of the multidirectional dynamic I described earlier: for many people who witnessed the event, it called up memories from the not-so-distant past of Nazi occupation and genocide. Together with the larger context of the Algerian War of Independence, the 17 October massacre stimulated remembrance of various aspects of the Holocaust that were not regularly being voiced publicly at that time.

Second, 17 October teaches us something about continuities between colonial and Nazi violence. This is a controversial proposition in Germany, but I’m talking about an irrefutable empirical fact: the prime responsible person for the 1961 massacre was also a Holocaust perpetrator. Maurice Papon’s career moved seamlessly between participation in the Nazi genocide and the perpetration of violence in colonial contexts, both in Algeria and in France.

With the knowledge we gained retrospectively when Papon was “outed” as a Nazi collaborator in the 1980s, we find an opportunity to adjust the memory of the Shoah and to see that we can — and indeed must — remember the genocide alongside colonialism. Such a memory does not require “equating” those very different histories or claiming that the Holocaust is a “colonial genocide”, which is not my argument. Multidirectional memory allows what I call a “differentiated solidarity” — a solidarity that is not based on identity but on the recognition of differences among proximate events.

You yourself emphasize that the French Left marginalized the massacre. What do you base that assertion on?

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, there was quite a bit of coverage in some regions of the left-wing press, but soon the events largely disappeared from public discussion for decades. This happened for a variety of reasons, including the unsurprising reluctance of the French state to discuss its own repression, the somewhat more surprising reluctance of the post-1962 Algerian government to memorialize the massacre because of its focus on building a new, independent state, and, yes, also the silence of the French Left in the intervening years.

For the Left, one of the factors was the fact that just a few months after 17 October, another shocking example of police violence took place: the murder of nine French leftists at the Charonne metro station during an anti-war protest. The victims of this brutality became martyrs and their memory far outlived that of the much more numerous Algerians victims of 17 October.

You are neither Algerian nor French, yet you write that 17 October could be a “source of possible future reconciliation”. In what sense?

I am indeed neither Algerian nor French, and I do not attempt to speak for either group — or really anyone but myself.

I think you are alluding to my discussion of Leila Sebbar’s La Seine était rouge, a novel for young adults that concerns the intergenerational transmission of memory — or the failure of transmission of memory — about 17 October within a French Algerian family. In that final section of Multidirectional Memory, I provide an interpretation of Sebbar’s novel, which I think does suggest the contours of a possible “concord” of memories.

Reconciliation is of course a key term of discourse about post-conflict reckoning — what is often called transitional justice. Think of the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Latin America, among other places. In many, if not all, of those situations there is a tension between desires for reconciliation, for truth, for justice, and sometimes even for revenge.

Reconciliation is certainly a value I can understand for societies that have been torn apart by violence, as both France and Algeria were in those years, but personally I think of it as a future hope that will have to come after some sort of justice has been obtained. The bracketing of justice in the interests of creating a premature reconciliation is common in transitional situations, but it can easily lead to the perpetuation of injustice in the post-conflict era, as the example of South Africa clearly shows.

When it comes to the events of 17 October 1961, I cannot say exactly what either justice or reconciliation should look like. In the realm of memory, at least, the demands of justice — and the possibilities of reconciliation — will require a more thorough Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung than has taken place thus far. That’s a lesson France could learn from Germany. But that Aufarbeitung, I’ve tried to suggest, should be conceived as multidirectional, since, through the figure of Papon, the event ties together colonial violence and the Holocaust — and that’s a lesson Germany might learn from this French-Algerian history.