Site icon The Journal of Africa

The painful history of North Africa during the Second World War

In the early 1940s, North Africa was in the hands of Vichy France, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. A tragic and painful period for the local populations.

A little over eighty years ago, in November 1942, the Nazis occupied Tunisia. For the next six months, Tunisian Jews and Muslims were subjected to the reign of terror of the Third Reich, as well as its anti-Semitic and racist legislation. Residents lived in fear – “under the heel of the Nazis,” as Tunisian Jewish lawyer Paul Ghez wrote in his Journal during the occupation.

We are respectively historian et anthropologist. Together we have spent a decade gather the voices of various people who endured the Second World War in North Africa, beyond their faith, social class, language and region of origin. Their letters, diaries, memoirs, poems and oral history express both hope and distress. They saw themselves as trapped by the unleashed machine of Nazism, occupation, violence and racism.

When most Europeans think of the nightmare of war or the Holocaust, they think first and foremost of events on the European continent. But North Africa has not been spared by this surge of hatred and violence.

North Africa in the hands of the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Pétain

A Jewish family in Tangier, Morocco, in 1885. Click to zoom.
LL/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

The history of the Jews settled in North Africa starts from VIe century BC, after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Another large wave of immigrants followed the Spanish Inquisition. At the start of World War II, a varied North African Jewish population of approximately 500 coexisted with Muslim neighbours.

These North African Jews spoke many languages, reflecting their different cultures and affiliations: Arabic, French, Tamazight – a Berber language – and Haketia, a form of Judeo-Spanish spoken in northern Morocco. While large numbers of North African Jews, particularly in Algeria, enjoyed the privileges of French citizenship and other Western nationalities, the majority remained subject to local authorities.

A group of young Jewish girls in Debdou, Morocco, around 1915.
D. Millet E/Wikimedia

But during the Second World War, Jews holding French citizenship in have been forfeited. Three European powers ruled all or part of North Africa during the war, all three with immense brutality: Vichy France, Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany.

Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were for most of the conflict dominated by Vichy France. All the antisemitic and racist laws and policies that the Vichy regime imposed on metropolitan France were extended to French colonies in North and West Africa, kicking Jews out of their jobs, stripping them of citizenship – if they had it – and seizing Jewish-owned properties, businesses and assets.

The Vichy regime also continued the racist policies initiated by the Third Republic, by imposing the military service for young blacks in the colonies, and exposing them to the most dangerous wartime outposts: after the German occupation of France, many skirmishers were imprisoned by the Nazis. Many were freed and handed over to Vichy authorities who used them to control the indigenous population in North African colonies and North African camps. These forced recruits came from Senegal, French Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger and Mauritania, from the French territories of Benin, Gambia and today's Burkina Faso. There were also Muslims from Morocco and Algeria among them.

Thus, in these times of war, the French carried out an anti-Muslim and anti-black campaign, associating forms of racial hatred of the colonial era with anti-Semitism. This one had deep roots in French and colonial history, but found a new vigor with Nazism.

Anti-Semitic and anti-black policy was also a component of the policy of the fascist government of Benito Mussolini, which ruled Libya during the war. Italy first tested its racist policy in its colonies in East Africa, separating local black populations from Italian settlers. Mussolini's regime then adapted this policy of racial hatred in Libya, where it drove the Jews out of working life and the economy, seized the property of thousands of people and deported them to labor and internment camps. Jews – children, women and men – died of starvation, disease, deprivation and forced labor.

Camps on African soil

Nazi Germany occupied Tunisia from November 1942 to May 1943. During this period, the SS – the elite body of the Nazi regime – imprisoned some 5 Jews in around 000 forced labor and detention camps on the front and in cities such as Tunis. German troops also terrorized the remaining Muslim and Jewish girls and women.

The Third Reich did not deport Jews from North Africa to its death camps in Eastern Europe, but hundreds of Jews of North African descent and some Muslims who lived in France met this fate. . They were deported first to the internment camp of Drancy, at the gates of Paris, then sent from there to concentration and death camps. Many died in Auschwitz.

There were also camps in North Africa and West Africa. In addition to the centers opened by the Italian fascists in Libya, Vichy France and Nazi Germany established penal camps, detention camps and labor camps.

A German Jewish prisoner named Rosenthal pushes a cart through the stone quarry of the Im Fout labor camp in Morocco.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Vichy regime single-handedly built nearly 70 camps of this type in the Sahara, breathing new life into the old colonial project of building a trans-Saharan railway to connect the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. The Vichy regime saw it as a way of sending a certain number of Senegalese soldiers to ensure the security of the Saharan forced labor camps.

In these fields, as in the Nazi camps of Eastern Europe, the complex racist logic of Nazism and Fascism was illustrated in a very concrete way. Muslims arrested for anti-colonial activities were forced into grueling labor alongside Jews and Christians who had fled war-torn Europe before being arrested in North Africa.

These men shared the bread with other forced laborers from around the world, including fighters who had volunteered alongside the Spanish Republican Army during the Civil War. These Ukrainians, Americans, Germans, Russian Jews and others had been arrested, deported and imprisoned by the Vichy regime after fleeing Franco's Spain. There were also political opponents of the Vichy regime and the Nazi regime, including socialists, communists, trade unionists and Maghreb nationalists. Children and women were also imprisoned.

Many of these prisoners were refugees who had fled Europe, either because of their Jewishness or because they were political opponents of the Third Reich. The detainees were supervised by French soldiers from Vichy as well as by indigenous Moroccans and Senegalese forcibly recruited, who were often little more than prisoners themselves. Sometimes the prisoners of the camp interacted with the local populations: Saharan Muslims and Jews who provided them with medical care, burial places, food and sex for money.

Nazism in Europe rested on a complex matrix of racist, eugenic and nationalist ideas. The war – and the Holocaust – appears even more complex when we take into account the racist and violent logic of the events which then took place in North Africa.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Professor of History, University of California, Los Angeles and Aomar Boom, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Exit the mobile version