There were just a few mentions in the French media in the last week of the death of Henri Alleg, at the age of 92. After all, there was the baby of a foreign royal family to worry about.
Alleg was a Jewish refugee from central Europe, who settled in Algeria when that country was still part of France. A courageous journalist, he opposed the increasingly violent repression of the Algerian independence movement, with its free use of assassination and torture. Arrested by the Army in his turn, he was tortured, but never gave any information about his sources. Unlike most of those who passed into the hands of the Army – and probably because he was white – he left the prison in Algiers alive.
More importantly, though, he managed to keep and smuggle out a diary of his terrible experiences. Published in 1958 as La Question, it created an enormous scandal and sold 60,000 copies before being banned. For the first time, the dark rumours of what the French Army had been doing in Algeria were substantiated, torturers were identified by name, and public and elite opinion, formerly equivocal, began to turn against the war, and its methods.
How quaint and old-fashioned all of that seems today, when the willingness to kill and torture is perceived as a sign of manliness, and where killers and torturers themselves are the subject of flattering profiles and books, and have films made about them. But in those days people – including elites – were a lot closer to the actual experiences of war, occupation and resistance than we are. Many of them knew exactly what it was like to be tortured, and, ironically, the Foreign Legion units who did most of the dirty work in Algeria were often made up of former German soldiers from the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS. Some ironies of history are almost too excruciating to contemplate.
But all that means little today. The media and the intellectuals have become cheerleaders for assassination and torture, and politicians no longer feel impelled to say that it’s wrong to drown people or give them electric shocks to make them talk, because they are afraid of being thought soft and unmanly if they do.
Meanwhile, even the few media stories that covered Alleg’s death did so in terms of mumbled equivocation. Marianne went out of its way to remind its readers that Alleg was a Communist, and remained one until his death, with the clear (if unspoken) implication that perhaps he deserved to be tortured, at last a little bit.
How far we have descended, I sometimes think, even in my lifetime.i