Solidarity with students and the Algerian war of independence

Ignaz Bender as a student

In the first fifteen years after the Second World War, France released most of its colonies in Africa into independence. France also had to withdraw from Indochina with heavy losses. But Algeria was not considered a colony, it was a motherland. Every striving for independence was rigorously fought. The liberation movement was met with war. The Algerian student association UGEMA, which advocated independence, was banned. Many students went underground or fled abroad: to France, French-speaking Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and also to the Federal Republic of Germany.

Solidarity of German students in the Algerian conflict

Again, as after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the solidarity of German students towards the students who fled was impressive. The German Committee of WUS and local WUS groups raised money to provide scholarships. Many WUS members took care of the refugees. Several General Student Committees (ASTA) funded scholarships or organised fundraisers.

When I accuse the French, I defend France I got involved in the Algerian conflict in a special way. As ASTA president at the University of Bonn, the Verband Deutscher Studentenschaften (VDS) elected me to its International Committee, happy to have a student representative with knowledge of French who had contacts with foreign student associations, refugee students, and local groups of WUS and ISSF.

The VDS sent me to several congresses and seminars of the French student association UNEF. The latter openly declared its support for Algerian independence. At the very first UNEF seminar in Lille, the problem was virtually on the table. Someone had put out leaflets with the heading “censure” (censored). They were newspaper articles about torture in Algeria that were not allowed to appear in Le Monde, for example, because of the censorship imposed. A solidarity committee of French intellectuals around Francois Mauriac and Jean Paul Sartre undermined this ban with the handbills.

The reports were outrageous. After my return, I wrote an article for the Bonn student newspaper Spuren. The title was: “Horrible things are happening in Algeria”. I ended the description of the torture with a quote from Romain Rolland: “Si j’accuse les francais, je defends la France” (When I accuse the French, I defend France).

The French secret service observes

The article had an effect. When it became known in the Chancellor’s Office, I later learned, the torture in Algeria was discussed in a morning briefing with Chancellor Adenauer, with the result that he was to be more cautious in dealing with Algeria and to keep his distance from France. In some way, the representation of the Algerian liberation movement “Front de Libération Nationale” (FLN) in Bonn learned of this. It reported on this development at an FLN congress in Tripoli. The French secret service had observed the congress and was horrified. It tried to find out more about the cause of the German change of opinion.

After five semesters of law in Bonn, I had enrolled in Freiburg im Breisgau to finish my studies there. After a few weeks, I received a visit from a French journalist from Paris. He had made an adventurous journey to find me. In Bonn, where he first went, he heard about my transfer to Freiburg. He boarded the train to Freiburg in Switzerland and learned there that there was also a German Freiburg. In Freiburg im Breisgau, he found out my street address with house number 18. I had lived there, but shortly thereafter had moved to the neighbouring house, No. 16. I had not yet reported the move to the university. When he rang the bell at house number 18, an architect named Bender was standing in front of him.

When we finally saw each other, he let me know that they were worried in France about my article. Whether I would not have sympathy for torture by French soldiers who arrest a suspect at noon who they believe knows in which bar in Algiers a bomb will explode at 4 pm, killing dozens of people. I replied that if France could only hold on to Algiers with torture, it was too late. This was no longer the France of human and civil rights with universal aspirations. I maintained my negative stance on torture. He asked to be allowed to take a photo of me.

Media scolding

Six weeks later, the Parisian magazine Aux Ecoutes du Monde published an explosive article about me with a photo. It was not Professor Jeansson and a circle of students at the Sorbonne University in Paris, against whom a treason trial was underway, who were at the centre of the resistance against France’s Algerian policy. The head is rather the former ASTA chairman of Bonn University, who now studies in the strategic border triangle of Germany, France and Switzerland in Freiburg. He had an address where, instead of the person he was looking for, he met an architect with the same name. He spoke fluent French, maintained contacts with the French student association and operated a radio station in his study room. Only the head of an agent network could afford such camouflage. The article made waves in Bonn. In my newspaper counterstatement, I referred to the coincidences to which the author had fallen victim. A heating sun had become a radio station. Actually, a rather amusing story.

Half a year later, I learned that the Military Counter-Intelligence Service (MAD) of the Federal Republic of Germany had been monitoring me around the clock for six weeks. Not because they thought there was anything to it. MAD interviews with professors, assistants or people who knew me (perhaps also with Harry Ganns of Freiburg WUS) had quickly brought that to light. No, it was feared that an assassination attempt would be made on me by the ultra-right French terrorist organisation “La Main Rouge” (The Red Hand).

“Ben Wisch” intervenes It did not come to that. It came differently. On November 1, 1962, the German Foreign Office, mindful of the involvement of German students in the Algerian conflict, sent four German students together with Manfred Wischnewski (“Ben Wisch”), a member of the German Bundestag, to Algiers for the independence celebration. After the victory parade, hundreds of thousands of people crowded the diplomats’ honorary stand. The delegations were surrounded. The diplomats were each crammed into the car that had just made its way through the crowd. We four German students ended up in the open car of the special ambassador of the United States, Achilles. He represented President John F. Kennedy, who had lobbied France massively in 1962 to end the bloodshed. When people recognised the US standard on the float, they embraced us as supposed representatives of the US to thank us for the Kennedy’s involvement. Our attempts to make the cheering people understand that we were the wrong ones to be giving them kisses and hugs were futile. This unusual bath in the crowd lasted for over an hour. When we reached the ambassador’s residence, the driver turned around and said “You did a good job for America”.


Author profile
Ignaz Bender

Prof. Dr. Ignaz Bender studied law at the Universities of Bonn and Freiburg, was Chairperson of the General Student Committee (AStA) at both universities, member of the International Committee of the Association of German Student Bodies (VDS), co-author of the VDS Charter (1962), VDS Vice Chairperson for International Affairs (1963/64), initiator of Aktion 1. July Education in Germany (1965) and initiator of the educational advertising campaign "Student aufs Land" (1965-1967). He did his Second State Examination in Law (1967) and was employee of the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs of Baden-Württemberg for the preparation of a study on the Causes of the Student Unrest (1968). He was Chancellor of the University of Trier from 1970 to 2001 and became president of the International Conference on Higher Education (ICHE) in 1989.