Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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North Africa, Role in the War

In 1939 all the countries of the Maghreb—the Mediterranean coastal region of North Africa stretching from the Atlantic shoreline of Morocco to Libya's border with Egypt—were under administration by one or more of the European colonial powers of France, Spain, and Italy. This was a relatively recent development: although Spain had possessed tiny island enclaves along the Barbary coast since the late reconquista period, the first serious encroachment did not begin until 1830, when the French began their conquest in Algeria. Morocco and Libya had not been incorporated into the European orbit until the eve of World War I. Although the Maghreb had a long history of previous colonial suzerainty from Ottoman Turkey, the problems of administering such a vast and forbidding region—1.8 million square miles spread over 38 degrees of longitude—meant that Constantinople's hold had been traditionally weak, and the indigenous peoples were very conscious of their autonomous heritage. World War II was to provoke an even greater desire among the inhabitants for national independence, establishing the conditions for the tumultuous decolonization saga of the 1950s.

Each North African state was organized under unique constitutional arrangements, and the states' wartime experiences were a product of peculiar local circumstances and events; but several general conditions applied to some degree throughout the whole of the Maghreb. Geographically, the region was composed of a fertile coastal strip running along the Mediterranean shoreline that contained most of the farms and larger settlements and a barren desert hinterland broken by the Atlas mountain chain. The population was predominantly Arabic and Berber, the Berbers tending to live in semiautonomous nomadic tribes away from the coast. About 10 to 15 percent of the inhabitants were colonists, a heterogeneous mixture of southern European stock—Spanish, French, Italian, and Maltese. This elite community owned most of the best land, controlled the local political and legal administrations, and was vociferously opposed to any attempt by their metropolitan governments to make concessions to the local population.

Resistance to the imperial regime usually came in three forms, either singly or in combination. If the Europeans had maintained a traditional client ruler, that ruler might—however complacent his manner—become the focus of patriotic opposition. Religious revivalists and unconquered tribal chieftains sometimes provided a premodern call to arms. Most significantly of all, the small class of local European-educated residents that had been nurtured to serve in each colony's petty bureaucracy became politicized during the 1920s and 1930s, spawning nationalist parties that demanded civic rights and representative assemblies. These parties were typically banned and their leaders incarcerated in periodic bouts of colonialist repression.

The outbreak of European war did not immediately disturb the Maghreb. The territories of French Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia sent regiments of indigenous and settler troops to man the Franco-German border, but their neighbors in Spanish Morocco and Italian Libya remained neutral. Italy's entry into the war on 10 June 1940 and the swift French collapse a few weeks later transformed the situation. For the next two years, Libya was a fiercely contested battleground in the war between the British Western Desert forces and the Italians, later reinforced to spectacular effect by German General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. The French North African colonies spurned General Charles de Gaulle's entreaties to continue the war against the Axis powers, and Vichy administrators remained loyal to the Henri Pétain government—a decision made all the easier by the Royal Navy's preemptive strike on units of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in northwest Algeria on 3 July 1940.

In November 1942, the combined Anglo-American forces of Operation torch landed on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, with subsidiary operations around Oran and Algiers. These met scattered and indifferent resistance, and after a few days the local Vichy authorities—who had already seen their home government overrun by the Germans as a retaliatory measure—capitulated to the Allies. The subsequent inheritance of French North Africa was a matter of intrigue, with claimants including the former Vichy commander in chief Admiral Jean Darlan (assassinated a month after the landings) and the feuding Free French commanders de Gaulle and General Henri Giraud.

Despite American opposition, de Gaulle proved more politically adept than his rivals, and it was ultimately the Gaullist-dominated Comité Fran=ais de la Libération Nationale that secured power. During this period, the Axis forces had been defeated in Egypt, and with Libya secured for the Allies, the final military encounter took place in Tunisia. In May 1943, the Germans and Italians were finally expelled from the African continent. France's triumphant reconquest of the Maghreb was at best a partial victory, however: its humiliation in 1940 had not gone unnoticed by the indigenous population, and the heady Allied rhetoric of liberation was seized on by local nationalists who saw little victory in a mere transition between imperial occupiers.

Each of the North African colonies was affected differently by the war. Algeria was the keystone of French North Africa, and uniquely among the Maghreb territories, it was administered as a metropolitan département with a governor-general answering to the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. Its 6.6 million Arab and 1 million European settler (colon) population lived mostly along the Mediterranean shore, with the massive Saharan hinterland given over to army patrols and scarcely governed Berber nomads. Moderate assimilationist reformers like the Young Algerians had given way by the 1920s to more radical nationalist campaigners, such as Ahmed Messali Hadj, who were subsequently persecuted by the colon-led authorities. An attempt by the Popular Front government in 1936 and 1937 to grant full French citizenship to certain Algerians without stripping them of their Islamic property and marriage rights—a traditional bar to naturalization—met with such tenacious resistance from the settlers that it was abandoned. After the armistice in 1940, the colons accepted the new Vichy regime with little outward dissent, the appointment of the highly esteemed General Maxime Weygand as the new delegate general for North Africa helping to smooth the transition. Their focus of attention remained the crushing of nationalist activism. In March 1941, Hadj's Parti Populaire Algérien was broken up and its leaders sentenced to long prison terms.

Following the torch landings and Algeria's reversion to the Allied cause, there were new nationalist initiatives, predominant among them the "Manifesto of the Algerian People" presented to the authorities in February 1943 by its author Ferhat Abbas (later first president of the Algerian Republic). Governor General Marcel Peyrouton provisionally accepted Abbas' manifesto, which called for wholesale reforms of the colony's legal and political structure and the end to the hegemony of the colon elite, but as French sympathies proved ever more lukewarm, Abbas' lobbying group, Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté, was suppressed on charges of sedition. The Free French government did make some effort to address the changing realities of imperial politics: in 1943, de Gaulle spoke of a new compact with the indigenous peoples as a reward for their loyalty during the war, and the following year the Brazaville Conference on colonial reconstruction expounded a new model of autonomous self-government, if not outright independence. But Algeria's wartime story ended disastrously on V-E Day when a celebratory crowd in Sétif turned into a pro-nationalist demonstration and was fired on by troops; a cycle of reprisals and even greater counterreprisals ensued in which tens of thousands of people, mostly Algerians, were killed. This souring of the hopes for a postwar rapprochement prefigured the brutal civil war of a decade later.

Unlike its larger neighbor, Tunisia was a protectorate (established in 1881) with a ruling indigenous monarch, the Bey of Tunis, who theoretically maintained absolute rule with only the "guidance" of the French resident general. Relations between the 200,000 settlers and 2.6 million indigenous people were somewhat less abrasive than in Algeria, but the colony had nonetheless gone through several political disturbances during the 1920s and 1930s. The most important nationalist force was the Destour, or Constitution, Party, which lobbied without success for a greater Arab role in Tunisian affairs. In 1934, lawyer Habib Bourguiba created a radical breakaway party, the Neo-Destour; four years later, this splinter group was broken up in a repressive purge, and Bourguiba was transported to a French metropolitan prison.

Politics under the Vichy regime were complicated by the evident Italian desire to include Tunisia in its regional sphere of influence. In June 1942, a new bey, Sidi Mohammed el Moncef, took the throne: his obvious sympathy for the nationalists alienated the French authorities from him, but when Vichy fell in November 1942 he was feted by the Italians in the hope that they could win him over to their cause. Bourguiba and the other Neo-Destour leaders were also transferred to Italian custody as potential puppet rulers, but neither the monarch nor the attorney were persuaded by this line of reasoning. When Axis forces evacuated Tunisia in the spring of 1943, the bey was promptly deposed and Bourguiba, who had returned to Tunis that March, fled into exile.

On the western edge of the Maghreb, Morocco was also under a protectorate established after the 1912 Agadir crisis by the Treaty of Fez. Nominally a united country under a single sultan, Morocco was in reality partitioned between French and Spanish zones, with the town of Tangier (the traditional diplomatic center) having international status. The French, who controlled 90 percent of the country, spent the interwar years developing the cities of the Atlantic coastline, building a new administrative capital at Rabat, and expanding the port of Casablanca. By 1939, the population stood at 6.25 million, including about 190,000 European settlers. As with the other Maghreb colonies, Morocco had its persecuted nationalist parties such as the Comité d'Action Marocaine: there were also more traditional forms of interwar dissent, such as the so-called Rif Rebellion in 1926 and the Berber tribes' resistance to the "pacification" of the interior.

But it was Sultan Mohammed Ben Youssef who was at the heart of anti-French loyalties, especially after the Vichy takeover. He objected to the repeal of the 1872 Crémieux decree that had given North African Jews rights of citizenship and refused to accede to resident general Auguste Nogu?s' demand that he retire from the capital after the torch landings. Youssef's greatest coup was his private meeting with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1943 Casablanca Conference, in which the American leader expressed his sympathy for eventual Moroccan independence. The following year, an Independence Party formally petitioned the occupying Allied administration for the right to self-government: the French responded with some unconvincing accusations of collaboration between nationalists and the Axis forces, and in accompanying riots in F?s, several demonstrators were killed.

Libya, the second largest but most sparsely populated of the Maghreb states, was occupied by Italy in 1911 during its war with Ottoman Turkey. The coastal provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica fell relatively quickly, but pacification of the Berber hinterland continued for the next two decades and was accelerated with great brutality in the 1930s by generals such as Rodolfo Graziani and Pietro Badoglio. By the outbreak of war, Italian settlers made up about 10 percent of Libya's 900,000 people. The country's poverty and scattered population centers precluded the development of a strong nationalist movement before 1939, but the unpopularity of the Italian regime was made evident by the enthusiasm with which Libyans greeted their British "conquerors" during the war. After Italy's final ejection from its North African territory, few traces of colonial culture survived long.

Alan Allport


Further Reading
Barbour, Nevill, ed. A Survey of North West Africa (The Maghrib). 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.; Cantier, Jacques. L'Algérie sous le régime de Vichy. Paris: Jacob, 2002.; Grimnal, Henri. Decolonization. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1978.; Quinn, Frederick. The French Overseas Empire. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.; Thomas, Martin. The French Empire at War, 1940–1945. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998.
 

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