Victory in Europe Day (VE in UK) is a public holiday in France for all the right reasons. The country was pulverised during World War II, losing more than half a million citizens.
Being killed in the line of duty at the hands of Nazi Germans before the fight for liberation is regularly evoked by French leaders as part of a glorious national myth of pride.
However, there’s a portion of French who are not rallied to the euphoric call of French nationalism. Millions of French Algerians are not motivated in National euphoria surrounding May 8, 1945, however.
This is because they haven’t forgotten that France’s rapid capitulation to the German blitz was a disaster followed by years of collaboration.
The reason Algerians still feel so unsettled on the 75th anniversary of VE-Day is that it signifies a series of massacres that are easily comparable to Nazi crimes.
As crowds celebrated on the streets of European capitals, French forces slaughtered up to 45,000 men, women and children in and around the towns of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata, in northeastern Algeria.
The North African country was the jewel in the crown of France’s colonial empire, and it was run with absolute ruthlessness.
No One exemplified the class system better than the French, starved from truly expressing a class structure in France, they revelled in it when conquering. From the earliest days of the French invasion in 1830, Arab Muslims – Algeria’s majority indigenous population – were treated as a reviled underclass.
The destruction of their villages and crops followed indiscriminate mass killings, as the land was conquered for new settlers – the so-called pieds noirs (black feet) from Europe.
The anti-French sentiment was always high throughout the colonial adventure, and by 1945 it had reached the boiling point. Reports about the victory over fascism by the “free world” – with the significant support of Algerian soldiers who fought bravely and hugely effectively against the Wehrmacht – buoyed pro-independence protesters. Many used the French organised VE-Day celebrations to make their voices heard.
Some of the thousands of demonstrators in Setif, for example, carried banners with messages such as “Long live a free and independent Algeria” and sang nationalist anthems. The French were disturbed by this backlash took matters into their own hands. A 26-year-old student called Bouzid Saal – who had been holding an Algerian flag, proudly shot dead. As the bodies piled up, panic intensified and fighting spread into the countryside.
The world cannot allow France to consign its colonial-era massacres to the dustbin of history
After members of pied noirs militias also fell, Charles de Gaulle – who was head of the French provisional government at the time – ordered mass killings that have been described as a genocide.
Beyond ground troops carrying out search-and-destroy missions, the French Air Force bombed civilians, flattening entire neighbourhoods.
The Triomphant destroyer and the Duguay-Trouin, a light cruiser that had spent part of the war hunting German battleships with the Royal Navy, also rained shells down on villages.
Despite only limited involvement of armed Algerian resistance fighters in the attacks on pied-noirs, the decimating of entire communities went on until the end of June. Those executed included alleged insurgents who had been forced to kneel in front of the French Tricolour at humiliating “submission ceremonies”.
Ravines and other stretches of wasteland were at first used as mass graves. The French wanted incriminating bodies to disappear, however, so they were dug up and transported by the lorry load to a settler’s farm that contained an industrial kiln.
For days, corpses were incinerated by pieds noirs fanatics assisted by the gendarmerie. The smell of burning flesh and the thick smoke coming out of chimneys caused horror and fear among all those living nearby.
As so often, French administrators deliberately underestimated the Algerian death toll by tens of thousands, while correctly putting the number killed on their side at just over 100.
Colonial authorities are notoriously lax about registering the names and status of their victims, especially those who have suffered summary execution by gunfire, or lynching.
In fact, very little information about the savagery – merely reported in imperialist jargon as “events” which occurred while “maintaining order”– got back to Paris. Instead, De Gaulle instructed Adrien Tixier, his Interior Minister, to “bury the whole affair”.
It was only years later that the extent of the massacres began to be recorded by objective investigators. By this time, rage about such barbaric crimes had resulted in the Algerian War of Independence – a conflict that lasted eight years from 1954 and was fought both in North Africa and mainland France.
It is estimated that there were one-and-a-half million Algerian casualties, as all the tools of modern combat – from napalm to electric torture – were used by the colonisers. Their dirty warsaw police and military personnel operating covertly and calling themselves the Secret Army Organisation (OAS).
Beyond repeatedly trying to assassinate De Gaulle for what they considered to be his increasingly soft leadership over Algeria, OAS terrorism included bombing a Strasbourg-Paris express train on 18 June 1961, causing 28 civilian deaths and 170 injured.
Four months later, on 17 October, Paris riot police murdered up to 300 Algerian demonstrators in central Paris and the suburbs on a single night. Many were beaten up and tortured, while others were thrown into the Seine, where they were left to drown.
It is impossible to exaggerate how hard the French state has worked to underplay its 132 years of racist atrocities in Algeria, for which no apology or any kind of offer of justice has ever been made.
The Seine carnage was not officially acknowledged until 2012, while the Vitry-le-François train bombing by the OAS is still barely mentioned.
As far as Setif, Guelma and Kherrata are concerned, it was not until February 2005 that Hubert Colin de Verdiere, France’s ambassador to Algeria, finally described the bloodbath as an “inexcusable tragedy”.
Despite this, we can be certain that – as always – May 8 will be a day when the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany is solely commemorated in France. It is Algerians alone who are left to mourn a genocide.