Challenging Censorship: European Publishers During the Algerian Revolution



During the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), the FLN deemed important to have a part of the French public opinion on their side to reach Algeria’s independence. Todd Shepard tells us how publishers in Paris and Lausanne had to organize against censorship to describe the horror of the French colonial war.

The so-called era of decolonization began at the end of World War II, swelled to great heights by the mid-1960s, and continued to destroy empires and change boundaries into the early 1970s. In this context, thinkers, activists, writers, and leaders from the Global South created new ways of thinking and doing things, which included the establishment of novel information networks. Inspired by such initiatives, a new type of book publisher came into being in several countries of western Europe, which brought otherwise silenced colonial truths into Western public debates, and also drew from fast-moving anti-colonial and “Third Worldist” inspirations to alter left-wing politics. In 1954, for example, Italy’s Giangiacomo Feltrinelli published the first of what, after 1968, would grow to be a veritable library of anticolonial and radical texts: a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, the nationalist who took the helm of independent India in 1947. One anticolonial struggle in particular catalyzed the larger trend: the Algerian Revolution, which the previously unknown Front de libération national (FLN) and the Armée de libération nationale (ALN) launched on November 1, 1954 to liberate their country from over twelve decades of French domination.

This struggle began with a series of attacks against various sites and people across Algerian territory that, an accompanying declaration explained, incarnated French imperialism. The goal was “to re-establish Algerian sovereignty” and armed struggle was, the declaration affirmed, “the necessary means.” Over the following eight years, this fight engaged hundreds of thousands of Algerians in a war to liberate Algeria from French rule. It also engaged many people around the world in solidarity with their demands for liberation; this included a very small group of pro-independence militants in metropolitan France. A somewhat larger French public movement coalesced that was sharply critical of how France ruled its overseas colonies and repressed pro-Algerian independence activism. Repeated revelations that the systematic and brutal use of torture and extra-juridical murders typified French repression nurtured this critique. Because of their intensity and violence, it appeared vital to some that these French abuses be exposed to people in France and around the world. At the same time, the French government worked hard to insist that the war in Algeria was merely a set of domestic “events” — Algeria was considered by the French authorities to be fully part of France — that required the application of French law and order. The government actively muzzled those who spoke out in favor of what officials derided as FLN “outlaws” — “hors-la-loi, bandits” (“fellagha” was the pejorative Arabic term) — as well as, increasingly, those who alerted people to the viciousness, immorality, and even illegality of French anti-independence tactics. Censorship was one result; new modes of publishing, meant to get around this censorship as well as new publishing houses quickly followed.

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Pour Djamila Bouhired (For Djamila Bouhired), published by Minuit in 1957.

The most intriguing of the new European publishers born from Algeria’s struggle was La Cité, which resulted from the efforts of Nils Andersson, a young man in his mid-twenties based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The French editor Jérôme Lindon was his model. Of the same generation as Feltrinelli, the weight of World War II and anti-fascism framed Lindon’s decisions in 1957 to repurpose the famed éditions de Minuit, a publishing house he had founded under Nazi Occupation to support the French Resistance. In the 1950s, the house had left politics behind to focus on literature, yet Lindon committed to release books that revealed the horror of French government action around Algeria. This meant braving the repressive French laws and decrees that authorized the censorship of any publication that evoked the “events in Algeria.” This concerned books as well as periodicals, yet Lindon quickly recognized that the financial implications of censorship on the latter were far more serious than for the former. While impediments to the distribution of one book had costs, if a given issue was censored, the newspaper or magazine risked losing more than its entire potential revenue, since the absence of sales would be magnified by the need to reimburse advertisers. In addition, the censors could only act once a book was published, whereas periodicals had to receive official permission to publish. There was an urgent need to get news of what France was doing in Algeria into the hands of the French public. In the face of censorship, as Lindon stated, “publishing houses must do what the press cannot.” In mid-1957, the éditions de Minuit published Pour Djamila Bouhired, in which the lawyer Jacques Vergès alongside journalist George Arnaud told of how his client, a young Algerian woman, had suffered torture at the hand of French soldiers during the just finished Battle of Algiers.

As the violence of French efforts to crush the Algerian revolution grew in intensity and amplitude, so, too, did official efforts to shut down public debate in France. On February 18, 1958, Minuit published La Question by Henri Alleg. Alleg, who was still in prison, was a member of the Algerian Communist Party and the former editor-in-chief of the daily Alger-républicain. His book recounted his arrest by paratroopers in Algiers, and the torture he subsequently suffered at their hands. An initial run of 5,000 copies immediately sold out and, by mid-March, it was a best-seller, with some 66,000 copies in circulation. Protestors brandished copies of the book as they marched in Paris against torture. A costly advertising campaign splashed posters about the book all around Paris in order, not to increase sales, Lindon later wrote, but “to fight against torture, to sound and expand the limited space of liberty available.” The book’s echo outmaneuvered aggressive government-imposed obstacles, notably the censorship of every press article that evoked the book, including a long article that the famed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre penned for the center-left weekly L’Express. La Question remained on bookshelves until March 27, when the authorities ordered all copies confiscated. While a couple of other book had been censored for political reasons linked to the war in Algeria, this decision — perhaps because it happened in Paris, rather than Algeria itself — led to an uproar among intellectuals.

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Les disparus: Le cahier vert (The Disappeared: The Green Booklet), published by La Cité in 1959.

It was a context of moral outrage, as a text that recounted how French soldiers, in the name of the French Republic, used methods reminiscent of the Nazis, inspired summons that the government must return to the principles protesters aligned with the French revolutionary tradition. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a historian of Ancient Greece and of the most incisive anti-torture campaigners at the time, would later term this response the “Dreyfusard tendency.” The category referenced the late-19th-century public campaign by intellectuals for the liberation of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army imprisoned in the name of “the national interest” on false premises. Yet this moment in early 1958 also gave birth to a new publishing house, one that rather quickly would shift to introducing a new revolutionary tradition, anchored in Algeria and other non-European lands, into French debates.

One year earlier, Andersson had decided that he could most effectively do something that mattered by making already published works, notably those “that are dear to us,” available to Swiss audiences. He took the train to Paris and met with the editors of three publishing houses that had no Swiss distribution: Minuit, Arche, and Pauvert. Each was associated with various shades of radicalism, whether partisan, aesthetic, or sexual. He asked their publishers to let him bring their works out in his homeland. Although he had little experience in the publishing industry, and no demonstrable financial support, all three agreed. With a colleague, he launched La Cité, with a name that invoked the historic anchor of the polis; quite quickly, other French publishing houses, most left-wing, turned to them for Swiss distribution. This is what led Lindon to meet with the young Nils Andersson on March 28, 1958, and ask him to publish a Swiss edition of the just-banned La Question. This would guarantee that the book would remain available to francophone audiences. Lindon evoked the years of Nazi occupation, when Switzerland had been a refuge for some, and asked Andersson, from his location outside French borders, “to demonstrate that truth cannot be silenced,” that it was impossible to “isolate those French people who denounce torture.”

Only 14 days after the French government had seized French copies of La Question, La Cité published its first book, a Swiss edition of Henri Alleg’s testimonial with the addition of the censored article that Jean-Paul Sartre had written for the French weekly L’Express, “Une Victoire.” Henri Alleg had been able, a few pages at a time, to smuggle his testimonial out of prison. His wife, Gilberte Serfaty Alleg, had stubbornly persisted until she found a publisher willing to edit the testimonial. Lindon had committed himself and his publishing house to continue the work of defending what was right in France that the éditions de Minuit had begun under Nazi occupation. Even then, Andersson’s ability to bring printing presses, paper, and the expertise of Swiss workers who mastered the production process all proved invaluable to keep La Question available in French. Rarely do we see the delicate web of people and institutions that is necessary to make the life of the mind accessible to others quite so clearly. This expeditious piece of editorial work set the stage for subsequent publications in the same vein, the first of which, like La Question, would echo the éditions de Minuit in their format, cover art, and layout.

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La question (The Question, i.e. torture) and Une victoire (A Victory), published La Cité in 1958.

La Cité next published La Gangrène, a collectively authored collection of seven testimonials from Algerian men who had been arrested and tortured by French authorities on French territory north of the Mediterranean. French authorities seized the éditions de Minuit publication on June 19, 1959, only three days after it was published in France. Andersson was able to have it back in circulation on July 10 of that year. In letters between Andersson and Lindon they referred to La Question as “from the other coast” and La Gangrène “from the inside,” in reference to how each revealed the workings of the French repressive machine on different coasts of the Mediterranean. La Cité added an “Appeal to the International Committee of the Red Cross [CICR]” to its edition of La Gangrène as an appendix. Both editor and the Red Cross were based in Switzerland and both, this act emphasized, worked to draw the attention of international audiences to their work.

La Cité’s La Gangrène sold well — some 10,000 copies — in large part because of the quick censorship it has suffered in France. La Cité took advantage of the distribution network first set up to supply Swiss readers but also sent copies semi-clandestinely into France itself, largely through partisan, union, and pro-FLN connections. Copies made it, for example, to La Joie de Lire in Paris, which in 1955 the young editor François Maspero — who launched his own publishing house, éditions Maspero in 1959 — had set up in Paris. Far more copies were produced and distributed via semi-clandestine publishing operations, such as “Témoignage et Document” and “Verité Liberté,” which made copies of banned books as well as revelatory documents about the Algerian revolution available through unofficial distribution networks across France. Despite the concerted efforts by the authorities to financially destroy the publishing houses run by Lindon and Maspero, “Algerian” publications continued to circulate. A third new publishing house also emerged in France, run by Pierre-Jean Oswald. He published, Barberousse (1960), which detailed conditions in the Algiers prison where Mustapha G. was tortured, as well as Complainte des mendiants arabes de la Casbah

(1960), a late 1940s poem by Ismaël Aït Djafer about the suffering of the poorest Algerians under French rule. By late 1960, Oswald had fled France under police threats, seeking refuge first in Lausanne, then in Tunis.

By 1960 Andersson’s operation had survived and also staked out a position that was clearly political rather than moral. La Cité began to publish its own Algerian books and, almost immediately, these included texts authored or ordained by the FLN itself. The first document that La Cité produced that was not the republication of a book that had been banned in France was Les Disparus, in which lawyers Jacques Vergès, Maurice Courrégé, and Michel Zavrian made public the available details pertaining to 175 cases of Algerians who had disappeared during the Battle of Algiers — a Green Dossier [Cahier vert] which included facsimiles of letters and reproduced documents — along with their demand to the CICR that it seek to locate them. A postface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “The Green Dossier Explained,” detailed the various aspects of the repressive machine that the French government had established and warned readers that “the ‘disappearance’ is no more than a mask that most often covers up torture and assassination.” His argument was devastating: “Nothing works better than a death without a cadaver to sow at once terror and despair.” Andersson’s next step was to link his work directly to the FLN.

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L’aliénation colonialiste et la Résistance de la Famille algérienne (The Colonialist Alienation and the Algerian Family Resistance), published La Cité in 1961.

In 1959, Andersson received a proposal from the FLN’s Federation of France to publish a book that would inventory French efforts on both sides of the Mediterranean to defend colonialism and crush Algerian hopes for independence. The idea was to have it appear under the byline The FLN and with the title “The Black Book of Six Years of War in Algeria”. Andersson convinced the FLN leadership that it would be far better, first, to guarantee both the accuracy of the claims and the quality of the project’s writing and organization, second, to have one individual assume authorship, and, last, to give it a title with some punch. With the help of multiple individuals — the head of the French Federation of the FLN, Ali Haroun, worked to verify all assertions, the brilliant Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine reorganized and sharpened the text — La Cité published La Pacification in March 1960, under the byline of Hafid Kéramane, the GPRA’s “ambassador” to West Germany. Its subtitle was The Black Book of Six Years of War in Algeria. It was in large part financed through a direct payment from the FLN to La Cité, as documents seized in a police raid on French supporters of the nationalist organization revealed. Among its many contributions, the book offered the first public revelations that a former French parliamentarian, the Parisian deputy Jean-Marie Le Pen, actively participated in torture when he served as a paratrooper in Algiers. 25 years later, in 1985, when a French newspaper quoted those lines, the then-leader of the far-right Front national sued them for libel. Just a few weeks after the book appeared, others who, like Le Pen, had committed themselves to armed struggle to prevent Algeria’s independence used the pretense of sending copies of the book to deliver letter bombs to pro-Algerian activists in Belgium — one man was killed when one exploded, while his son was severely injured.

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La pacification: Livre Noir de six années de guerre en Algérie (Pacification: Black Book of Six Years of War in Algeria), published by La Cité in 1960.

La Pacification was an important turning point, as both La Cité and Nils Andersson himself became clearly associated with the FLN, thus moving beyond a moral position “against torture” to a clear alignment with the nationalist organization’s violent liberation struggle. Andersson and La Cité, that is, ideologically distinguished themselves from Lindon but also from Maspero: both editors acted primarily in terms of their political visions of France. Almost immediately, Algerians fleeing persecution or seeking to link up with the FLN in exile began to search out both the publishing house and the publisher. A new FLN representative in Switzerland prioritized efforts to aid FLN members seeking to escape French police operations, and Andersson played a key role. Non-Algerian supporters of the struggle, too, turned to Lausanne in order to offer aid and encouragement to the FLN. Over the next several months, this solidarity work displaced editorial work: La Cité published no “Algerian” texts during the ten months that followed the appearance of La Pacification. Andersson did, however, contact Lindon to get him to publish Le Déserteur, a pseudonymous account of a French conscript who fled his post to seek refuge with the FLN. It led to Lindon’s unique appearance before a French court. In 1961 and 1962, La Cité published three more Algerian-authored texts even as its presses also printed the francophone version of El Moudjahid, the official newspaper of the National Liberation Front, edited in Tunis, so that copies can be distributed to militants and supporters in France.

It was Algeria’s liberation struggle that made La Cité into a real publishing house, which entailed reinforcing transalpine links — with editors, writers, and activists in Germany, Belgium, and Italy as well as France — in order to support what the FLN worked to achieve in North Africa. The publishing houses and networks that came into being or became newly politically engaged through this campaign played a vital role in bringing the textual accompaniment to Algeria’s revolution into the hands of many. The Algerian books of Frantz Fanon, which Maspero began to publish in 1959, have been the most influential. Such textual production — and the international connections among militants that made them available — played a key role in reshaping radical left-wing politics across western Europe. Algeria’s revolutionary struggle, that is, directly shaped the remaking of radical politics in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and elsewhere, including Switzerland. La Cité, éditions Maspero, the Italian publishers Feltrinelli and also Il Saggiatore continued after Algerian independence to nourish activists and thinkers who began to call themselves “Third Worldist” but also the broader radical new lefts that challenged pro-Soviet communists from their left and set the stage for “1968,” and beyond. In January 1968, however, the Swiss government expelled Andersson — although he was born in Lausanne, he was a Swedish citizen — which put an end to La Cité. It was too late, however, to stymie the the movement from the Global South of ideas and transnational connections that both the man and the publishing house had encouraged.