The Algerian Revolution and the Communist Bloc: Evidence from the Algerian National Archives

imagesPierre Asselin

The onset of the Algerian War of Independence in November 1954 was an important development in the international history of the Cold War. Coming as it did on the heels of the end of the First Indochinese War, the Algerian conflict further emboldened national liberation forces throughout the colonial and semi-colonial world, a region of increasing importance to policymakers in Washington and Moscow. For Soviet and other communists committed to world revolution and proletarian internationalism in particular, the so-called Third World offered infinite possibilities, a fertile ground for the pursuit and realization of their aspirations, including the neutralization of American and other western imperialistic ambitions.

The leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN, Front de libération nationale), the umbrella organization that coordinated the struggle against France, were nationalists, first and foremost, who believed in the merits of revolutionary violence to secure the independence of their country (applied through the movement’s armed wing, the National Liberation Army [ALN, Armée de libération nationale]). While they may have harbored leftist proclivities at one point or another, those leaders never considered themselves—or pretended to be—communists or dedicated socialists. In fact, according to one document (Document No. 3.1), members of the Algerian Communist Party (PCA, Parti communiste algérien) were in their eyes “counter-revolutionaries” working “outside” the revolution. Theirs was a movement seeking the abolition of French colonial control, and its substitution with sovereign Algerian rule under a secular nationalist regime.

However, such proclivities did not mean that FLN leaders altogether refused to engage the socialist camp and collaborate with it. Despite their lack of adherence to communist ideals and manifest contempt for Algeria’s own communist party, they recognized the congruence of certain interests between themselves and the communist camp, and the potential for using that camp to meet their ends by soliciting its assistance.

In September 1958, the FLN founded the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA, Gouvernement provisoire de la République algérienne) under the presidency of Ferhat Abbas, a moderate nationalist.[1]  The GPRA effectively replaced the Coordination and Implementation Committee (CCE, Comité de Coordination et d’Exécution), the core decision-making organ within the FLN. Based first in Cairo (1958-60) and then Tunis (1960-62), the GPRA not only directed the Algerian revolutionary effort, but also served the purposes of legitimizing the Algerian independence struggle internationally while acting as a potent diplomatic tool for enlisting foreign support for that struggle. The GPRA eventually secured recognition from a variety of states (Document No. 13), which in turn allowed it to open in those states diplomatic missions whose primary tasks consisted of publicizing the plight of the Algerian people while soliciting material and other forms of assistance from host and other governments. Among the states that promptly recognized the GPRA were members of the socialist camp, which would thereafter play an increasingly meaningful role in the Algerian conflict. Indeed, it was not long after its establishment that the GPRA engaged communist bloc countries with a view to garnering moral, political, and material support from it. To that latter end it dispatched missions to communist states, or otherwise entertained relations with them through their diplomats posted in Egypt and Tunisia.

Evidence from the Algerian National Archives (ANA, Archives nationales d’Algérie) sheds revealing light on the relations entertained by the GPRA with the socialist camp. While that record is partial at best, it nonetheless provides us with interesting insights into the way Algerian revolutionary leaders perceived the communist bloc and sought to curry favor from it (Document No. 1.1 and Document No. 14). It also gives us a sense of the type of support proffered by members of that bloc (Document No. 2, Document No. 3.2, Document No. 7, and Document No. 15), as well as of the means by which material assistance reached the ALN in Algeria proper (Document No. 4).

One document addresses the GPRA’s efforts to “internationalize” the Algerian struggle by using the United Nations (Document No. 10), a story related in Matthew Connelly’s A Diplomatic Revolution, and another its attempt to pressure the Afro-Asian bloc into doing more on behalf of Algeria (Document No. 11).[2]  To be sure, despite their limited resources, Algerian revolutionary leaders closely monitored the so-called international situation, and actually sought to tailor their foreign policy accordingly (Document No. 8, Document No. 12, and Document No. 14). Among the most remarkable documents in this collection are a summary of a meeting that took place in Havana in 1961 between two GPRA envoys and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (Document No. 5), and the minutes of a meeting during which the Chinese ambassador in Cairo lectured GPRA envoys on the merits of fighting while negotiating (Document No. 6).

My visit to the Algerian National Archives —my first and only, to this point—took place in June of 2014, and lasted two weeks. Due to a recent reshuffling of personnel, including the appointment of a new director, access to materials proved more challenging than I—as well as two American graduate students who arrived shortly after I did—had anticipated. Like most American scholars seeking to conduct research in Algeria, prior to my visit I sought “sponsorship” from a local organization —the Centre d’études maghrébines en Algérie (CEMA) in Oran, in this instance—which provided me with a letter of invitation (to secure a visa) and petitioned the ANA on my behalf for access to its collection.[1]

I had been told that CEMA sponsorship effectively guaranteed access to the archives; it turned out that was no longer the case. For reasons never made clear to me, the ANA’s new director would not honor CEMA’s petition on my behalf, which I only found out after my arrival in Algiers. Under the new leadership, an assistant to the Director told me (as the latter was away on “mission”), researchers must petition the National Archives directly to gain access to its collection. After lengthy discussions with the Assistant, during which I explained my purposes and specified that I am actually a Vietnam scholar seeking documentation on relations between Algeria and Vietnam/the Communist camp during the Cold War, I was given permission to request and eventually read files from the GPRA record group, but reminded that next time I would need to petition the ANA directly.[2]  In retrospect, that experience was in many ways reminiscent of my first attempts to access the collection of National Archives Center 3 in Hanoi, nearly two decades ago. As has proven true of my dealings with the Vietnamese, so it might be with the Algerians that the more familiar they become with one’s person and work, the easier they make it to access their archives. Scholars such as Jeffrey Byrne of the University of British Columbia would know more about this and related matters; after all, Byrne is a bona fide Algeria specialist who has repeatedly visited that country for research. His advice to me actually proved invaluable on making my trip as productive as it was.

The ANA main building is located at 20 Rue Hassan Bennamane in Birkhadem, Algiers, and is easily accessible by public transportation from the city center. The reading room is on-site, and consists of 26 large tables and very comfortable office-type chairs; the members of its staff proved incredibly helpful and friendly, and speak impeccable French. For students of the Cold War, the <GPRA, 1958-62> record group (fond) is arguably the most interesting and easily accessible. Practically all files in that collection are in French, which, ironically enough, remained the lingua franca of Algerian revolutionary authorities throughout the war. Access to other pertinent record groups is likely to require an extended stay in Algiers, and a great deal of patience. Post-independence (1962) diplomatic materials are for all intents and purposes off-limits. To my knowledge, only one western scholar—the aforementioned Byrne—has been granted permission to peruse such records. I was told by the ANA staff during my visit that to see Foreign Ministry files of the post-independence era, I would have to present a formal request to that end to the Algerian Foreign Ministry through its embassy in Washington, D.C., or its mission in New York. I have yet to do so.

I extend my utmost gratitude to the Cold War International History Project and its director, Christian Ostermann, for a generous grant that helped make possible this research trip to Algeria. Profuse thanks, too, to my student, Paulina Kostrzewski, for her assistance in transcribing all the documents that appear in this collection and, above all, for her patience and diligence.

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