IN LATE 1956 FRENCH AUTHORITIES concluded they had to stop the protests and terrorist bombings in Algiers. The 10th Parachute Division assumed civil and military powers in the Algerian capital and its paras set about destroying the National Liberation Front (FLN) networks. The division included the 3rd Regiment of Colonial Parachutists, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard. The paras were elite shock troops, and Bigeard epitomized their toughness. He had made a daring escape from a German POW camp in World War II, outmarched the Viet Minh in the mountains in 1952, and played a heroic role at the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
On January 7, 1957, Algeria’s commandant, General Raoul Salan, ordered Bigeard’s paratroopers to immediately take control of the Arab quarter, the casbah. A frightening tit-for-tat battle ensued: the Liberation Front blew up a stadium grandstand during a soccer game, the 3rd Colonials cordoned off the casbah and searched it house by house. Men and women were hauled off for questioning. When a patrol arrested one of the Front’s top leaders, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, Bigeard interrogated him. Afterward, Bigeard made himself scarce, and the FLN leader was murdered rather than put on trial. Bigeard later told General Salan that his regiment had obtained a nearly complete order of battle for the FLN from M’Hidi, which Salan praised as “remarkable work.” Though the 3rd Colonials were often seen as more humane than other paras, neutralizing the FLN networks required intelligence that could only be obtained by interrogation. “Torture was tolerated if not recommended,” said Paul Aussaresses, the 10th Division’s top intelligence officer. The methods varied: hanging, classic water torture (dunking heads into water for prolonged periods), the insertion of bottles and high pressure hoses into body cavities, and most commonly, electrical shock. More than 3,000 Algerians disappeared, scores after being interrogated.
Many of the French soldiers conducting interrogations had fought Nazi occupiers and suffered at the hands of Gestapo torturers barely a decade before. Their dilemmas were palpable, but they were dedicated: Brigadier General Jacques Massu even submitted to electrical torture to reassure his men there were no long-term effects.
After the war ended in 1962, Bigeard repeatedly denied having used torture, on M’Hidi or anyone else. But at a trial in the 1960s another paratroop officer quoted Bigeard telling a visiting government minister, “Don’t think that one gets such results from choirboy procedures.”
Bigeard became a general in the mid-1960s and President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing later recruited him as secretary of state for the armed forces, the senior official beneath the minister in the French government. Bigeard then ran for the National Assembly and held a seat there for more than a decade.
He was comfortably retired when, in 2000, Louisette Ighilahriz, a former Algerian rebel, alleged that on orders from General Massu she had been arrested and tortured for several months in 1957. Although de Gaulle had granted amnesty for Frenchmen complicit in torture in 1962, the fresh allegations hit raw nerves. Massu confirmed the offenses and said that torture could perhaps have been avoided. After at first again denying it, Bigeard finally admitted that extreme methods had been used—though not by him. He justified them as a necessary evil.
The general died on June 18, 2010, and was buried with full honors at Les Invalides, the resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte, altogether a remarkable end for a former bank clerk. By the aristocratic standards of the pre–World War II French army, Bigeard should hardly have been an officer. The most decorated French soldier at the time of his death—holder of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre (with 17 palms), and 25 citations in dispatches—Bigeard seemed a paragon of military virtue. Yet when he died at 94, the fierce condemnations of torture in Algeria nearly eclipsed everything else he had accomplished. War crimes, even when amnestied, never go away.
Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.