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Sétif Uprising (8 May 1945)

An anticolonial uprising in Algeria that signaled the start of a liberation movement culminating in Algerian independence in 1962. On 8 May 1945, as much of the world celebrated the end of World War II in Europe, riots broke out among the Berber population of the city of Sétif in the Department of Constantine in Algeria. It began as just another victory parade, which had been approved by the French authorities.

Because 8 May was a market day, it attracted many Berbers from around the city who nursed long-standing grievances with the European settlers over the seizure of their ancestral lands. While marchers did carry posters proclaiming the Allied victory, there were also placards calling on Muslims to unite against the French for the release of nationalist leader Ahmed Messali Hadj and death to Frenchmen and Jews. Early in the parade a French plainclothes policeman pulled a revolver and shot to death a young marcher carrying an Algerian flag. This touched off a bloody rampage, often referred to as the Sétif Massacre.

Muslims attacked Europeans and their property, and violence quickly spread to outlying areas. The French authorities then unleashed a violent crackdown that included Foreign Legionnaires and Senegalese troops, tanks, air force planes, and even naval gunfire from a cruiser in the Mediterranean Sea. Settler militias and local vigilantes supported the authorities and took a number of prisoners from jails and executed them. Major French military operations lasted two weeks, while smaller actions continued for a month. An estimated 4,500 Algerians were arrested, of whom 99 were sentenced to death and another 64 were given life imprisonment. Casualty figures remain in dispute. At least 100 Europeans died. The official French figure of Muslim dead was 1,165, but this is certainly too low, and figures as high as 10,000 have been cited.

In March 1946 the French government announced a general amnesty and released many of the Sétif detainees, including moderate nationalist leader Ferhat Abbas, although his Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty political party was dissolved. The fierce nature of the French repression of the uprising was based on a perception that any leniency would be interpreted as weakness and only encourage further unrest.

The Sétif Uprising, which was not followed by any meaningful French reform, drove a wedge between the two communities in Algeria. Europeans now distrusted Muslims, and the Muslims never forgave the violence of the repression. French authorities did not understand the implications of this and were thus caught by surprise when a rebellion began in Algeria in November 1954.

Thomas D. Veve and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Gordon, David C. The Passing of French Algeria. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.; Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962. New York: Viking, 1977.; Smith, Tony. The French Stake in Algeria, 1945–1962. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.; Tucker, Spencer C. "The Fourth Republic and Algeria." Unpublished doctoral diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1965.
 

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