On this date in 1957, Algerian revolutionary Larbi Ben M’Hidi — more familiarly referred to as Si Larbi or Ben M’Hidi — was extrajudicially executed in French custody.
He was one of the founders of the militant nationalist National Liberation Front (FLN) and was a critical commander in the guerrilla war against French occupation, the Battle of Algiers. Small wonder he also features prominently in the cinematic masterpiece of the same name, where he and his opposite number, the French Col. Mathieu, are bracingly clear-eyed as to their respective sides’ necessary forms of terror.
In this scene,* for instance, the captured Ben M’Hidi is asked by a journalist whether it is not cowardly to have women kill people with bombs hidden in their baskets.
“Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” the shackled M’Hidi replies. “Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”
Bigeard respected Ben M’Hidi too much to torture him but the French brass was not so sanguine — perceiving that the Algerian would present a great danger to the occupation as a political prisoner. This was a dirty war, and men like Ben M’Hidi met dirty fates.
Major Paul Aussaresses,** the officer eventually tasked with dispatching the revolutionary, described how it happened in his The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957.
Ben M’Hidi didn’t want to cooperate and Bigeard knew full well what the consequences of such a refusal would be … would he have talked under torture? We knew that Ben M’Hidi was responsible for most of the attacks and that he deserved the gallows ten times over, yet it wasn’t absolutely certain that he would be found guilty in court.
On March 3, 1957, [General Jacques] Massu and I discussed the problem in the presence of [Massu’s second-in-command Roger] Trinquier. We agreed that a trial of Ben M’Hidi was not a good idea. There would have been international repercussions …
“So what do you think?” asked Massu.
“I don’t know why Ben M’Hidi should get preferential treatment compared to the other rebels. When it comes down to terrorism the leaders don’t impress me any more favorably than their underlings. We’ve already executed many poor devils who were carrying out this guy’s orders and here we are hesitating for three weeks just to find out what we’re going to do about him!”
“I agree with you completely, but Ben M’Hidi is not just some cipher who will be quickly forgotten. We can’t just make him simply disappear into thin air.”
“There’s no way we can hand him over to the police either. They claim they’ll give him the third degree to make him talk but I’m convinced he won’t say a word. If there were to be a trial and he hasn’t confessed, he could actually walk away free, along with the entire FLN cadre. So let me take care of him before he becomes a fugitive, which is bound to happen if we keep on hesitating.”
“Very well, go ahead and take care of him,” answered Massu with a sigh. “Do the best you can. I’ll cover you.”
I understood that Massu already had the government’s approval to proceed.
I picked up Ben M’Hidi the following night at El-Biar. Bigeard made sure he was somewhere else because he had been told ahead of time that I was coming to take the prisoner away. I came with a few Jeeps and a Dodge pick-up. There were about a dozen men from my first squad, all of them armed to the teeth. Captain Allaire was in charge and had a little combat group lined up and presenting arms. I asked him to go get Ben M’Hidi and hand him over to me.
“Present arms!” ordered Allaire, when Ben M’Hidi, who had just been awakened, was escorted out of the building.
To my amazement the paratroopers of the 3rd RPC gave the defeated FLN leader his final honors. It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend. This spectacular and somewhat useless demonstration didn’t make my job any easier. Obviously at that instant Ben M’Hidi fully understood what was in store for him. I quickly shoved him into the Dodge. We traveled very fast since an ambush to free him was always a possibility. I gave very strict orders to the NCO guard sitting next to the FLN leader:
“If we’re ambushed, you shoot him immediately, even if we come out unharmed. Make sure you knock him off without hesitating!”
We stopped at an isolated farm that was occupied by the commando unit belonging to my regiment and located about twenty kilometers south of Algiers, on the left off the main road. A pied-noir had placed the farm at our disposal. It was a modest building and the living quarters were on the ground floor. My second team was waiting for us there.
The commando unit of the 1st RCP included about twenty men, some of whom were draftees, but all of them were completely reliable. Captain Allard, nicknamed Tatave, who was very much devoted to me, was in charge. I had told him what was going on and he had been briefed. I told him to have his men set up in a corner of the room where Ben M’Hidi would be placed. The farm was messy and they had to move a few bales of hay around and sweep the floor. While this was taking place the prisoner was kept isolated in another room, which had been prepared. One of my men was standing guard at the door.
Then I entered with one of the soldiers and together we grabbed Ben M’Hidi and hanged him by the neck to make it look like suicide. Once I was sure he was dead, I immediately had him taken down and brought the body to the hospital. Following my orders, the NCO who was driving left the engine running while the car was parked, in order to be able to drive off at top speed without volunteering any explanations as soon as the emergency room doctor appeared. It was about midnight.
I immediately phoned Massu.
“General, Ben M’Hidi has just committed suicide. His body is at the hospital. I will bring you my report tomorrow.”
Massu grunted and hung up the phone. He knew full well that my report had been ready since early afternoon, just to make sure. Judge [Jean] Berard was the first one to read it. It described in detail the suicide that was to take place the next night. Berard was impressed:
“Well, this is very good! You know, it does make sense!”
Actually the report didn’t make sense for very long. Massu called me to his office a few days later.
“Aussaresses, I’m in the shit. District Attorney [Jean] Reliquet [a torture foe -ed.] has called me in.”
“What? He dared summon you!”
“Yes, to discuss the suicide of Ben M’Hidi.”
“But that’s an outrageous thing to do! Because of your position you shouldn’t have to answer the summons. I’ll go, since I’m your representative to the legal authorities.”
I therefore paid a visit to the judge’s office.
“Mr. District Attorney, I am here to represent General Massu. Because of my position I can discuss the circumstances of Ben M’Hidi’s death. I’m also the author fo the report that you’ve seen.”
The district attorney was absolutely enraged.
“Yes, of course! Let’s discuss your report! What you state in it is purely circumstantial. And only circumstantial! There’s no proof. Can you military types offer any proof at all?”
“I can offer our good faith.”
I think that had I slapped Reliquet across the face it would have had less of an impact than that answer.
“Your good faith!” he answered, choking on the words. “Your good faith as soldiers. Soldiers who are suddenly being candid?”
I put my beret back on, saluted him, clicking my heels, and walked out of the room.
We never heard from the district attorney again after that. The death of Ben M’Hidi was a decisive blow to the FLN in Algiers. The attacks died down and the bulk of the rebels began retreating toward the Atlas Mountains near Blida.
We used the farmhouse again where Ben M’Hidi had been executed. I had the men dig a long ditch and some twenty bodies, including that of a woman, were buried there.
The French military’s success by 1957 in the Battle of Algiers did not clinch its fight to retain Algeria — which attained its independence in 1962, to the horror of the far right. But it did put the army in such a vaunting position vis-a-vis the civilian authorities — one can see it in Aussaresses’s disdainful treatment of Reliquet — that the generals would author a 1958 coup led by Gen. Massu himself which called Charles de Gaulle out of retirement and initiated France’s Fifth (and current) Republic.
Larbi Ben M’Hidi’s name today graces one of the main thoroughfares of Algiers.
* The full film is a must-watch and can often be searched up in the usual places. This press interrogation occurs about 88 minutes in … closely followed by a scene of a spokeman announcing that M’Hidi “hanged himself” and Col. Mathieu allowing that he “appreciated the moral fiber, courage and commitment of Ben M’Hidi to his own ideals. Notwithstanding the great danger he represented, I pay tribute to his memory.” Game recognizes game.
** Eventually, General Paul Aussaresses … although he’d be stripped of this rank (and of his Legion of Honor) for celebrating the use of torture in Algeria in The Battle of the Casbah.