War in the Mountains: Peasant Society and Counterinsurgency in Algeria, 1918–1958 by Neil MacMaster - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Behind the Cactus Plants

War in the Mountains: Peasant Society and Counterinsurgency in Algeria, 1918–1958


Oxford University Press 528pp £110

‘In the mountains, it is always much easier.’ These are almost the last words of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers. They are spoken by a French general after his troops have blown up the hideout of Ali La Pointe and thus ‘decapitated’ the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in Algiers. Neil MacMaster shows that life in the Algerian mountains was not easy in any sense of the word. It was hard for the peasant population, who often lived in abject poverty, and hard for French officials seeking to impose their authority there.

The mountains are also difficult for historians. There are numerous sources for studying the French side in the Algerian War. Almost all the senior officers and politicians involved published memoirs, as did many conscript soldiers. Discerning what the war meant for the indigenous population of Algeria has always been harder. Alistair Horne, author of the best-known English-language study of the Algerian War, was able, partly through the good offices of his publisher, Harold Macmillan, to speak to the major participants, but he found the French ones easier to understand than the Algerians and wondered whether an Islamic notion of fatality might foster an indifference to history. Turning from the FLN in the cities to the countryside is doubly difficult because it means examining a society that left few written sources.

In some ways, however, the war brought the Algerian mountains into view. Repression can be the friend of the historian. It encourages the authorities to poke into previously neglected corners of their domain and to record what they find (think of the use that Carlo Ginzburg and Emmanuel Le

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