“Concentration Camps” in French Algeria? Political Internment and the Perils of Memory, 1954–62

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:50 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Emma Kuby, Northern Illinois University
On April 3, 1955, months into the eight-year conflict later known as the Algerian War, the French Assembly passed legislation opening a “state of emergency” in the nation’s troubled trans-Mediterranean departments. Law No. 55-385 granted state authorities in Algeria extraordinary powers to control the movement of suspected nationalist rebels, but included a caveat: “In no case,” legislators wrote, would these measures “be permitted to produce the creation of camps.” This stipulation emerged as a consequence of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that the term “camp” possessed in post-World War II France: though Holocaust consciousness remained limited in the mid-1950s, Hitler’s concentration camps were broadly viewed as unmatched sites of dehumanization and, especially, as symbols of the martyrdom of Resistance deportees.

Despite the formal ban on “camps,” however, from 1955 to 1962 French military and civilian authorities constructed an increasingly extensive network of barbed-wire enclosed, windswept detention centers for many thousands of Algerian “agitators” and “terrorists” who were charged with no formal crime. This paper considers first the real and then the imagined connections between this network and the Nazi camp system. The summary imprisonment facilities that France employed during the Algerian conflict, I demonstrate, evolved out of the country’s own earlier colonial and domestic institutions of political or “racial” incarceration; in juridical, administrative, and even spatial terms they had more in common with World War II-era internment camps in southern France like Gurs and Le Vernet, often way-stations to Auschwitz, than with Auschwitz itself. But since memory of such French-run sites had long been repressed, opponents of French violence in Algeria focused on accusing their country of copy-catting German practices – a move that has now been reprised in historical scholarship on Algeria’s independence struggle, obscuring elements of France’s own considerable role in the continental and imperial genealogy of “camps.”