French Torture Mastermind Paul Aussaresses Dies Peacefully at 95
Paul Aussaresses, the general who shocked France with his confessions that he systematically tortured and executed Algerians during the country’s bloody war of independence from France, died Tuesday at age 95.
A veteran of the French resistance during World War II and the country’s colonial war in Vietnam, Aussaresses first went to Algeria as an intelligence officer in 1955. Two years later, he was assisting General Jacques Massu, who led the famous Battle of Algiers, a major turning point in the conflict that ended in Algerian independence in 1962. Aussaresses instituted a systematic torture regime to build an intelligence network against the Front de libération nationale (FLN), the Algerian resistance army, and practiced summary executions because French prisons in Algiers couldn’t accommodate the swelling numbers of suspects he was arresting.
“Only rarely were the prisoners we questioned during the night still alive the next morning,” Aussaresses wrote in his 2001 memoir. “Whether they had talked or not they had generally been neutralized.” Aussaresses, who late in life was known for his right eye patch, the result of a botched cataract operation, acknowledged that torture was “widely used” in Algeria, and that it was “tolerated, if not recommended” at the highest levels of the French government, including by then-justice minister and future Socialist president François Mitterrand.
Aussaresses said it was the death of his brother in 1999, when he was 81, that moved him to tell the story he’d kept a secret in France since the war. He told a Paris court in 2001 that he had originally mailed the 1,200-page manuscript of his memoir to the publisher Plon because the house had published his beloved General De Gaulle. The much-shortened version of the book described frankly his involvement in Algerian torture and insisted it had been justified by the circumstances. “My wife wants me to say that I feel remorse,” he said. “But I don’t.”
Services Spéciaux: Algérie 1955-57 immediately created a firestorm: President Jacques Chirac, who also served in Algeria, said he was “horrified” by it and moved to have Aussaresses’s Légion d’honneur revoked. The Paris prosecutor pursued both Aussaresses and his two editors at Plon for “complicity in the apology for war crimes.” All three were fined, and Aussaresses was stripped of his right to wear his military uniform.
Like other ugly chapters of the country’s history, the torture regime in which Aussaresses played a central role is a focus of repressed guilt in French society, one that still has power to release waves of political controversy. The most famous revelations came early, in a 1958 book by French-Algerian journalist Henri Alleg called La question (“Interrogation”) that graphically detailed the methods being used in the conflict. Alleg had to smuggle pages of the book to his publisher, and after two weeks on shelves, French authorities banned it and seized the remaining copies. Similarly, the celebrated 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, which depicts Massu’s and Aussaresses’s torture, was banned for five years and only shown uncensored after decades had passed. Even now, French officials are watched for apologies for war’s brutality; current president François Hollande last year called the colonial rule in Algeria “brutal and unjust,” but did not apologize.
France’s abandonment of its colonial enterprise in Algeria and the mass displacement of its one million settlers there entrenched a division in the country’s political culture. President Charles de Gaulle’s decision to grant Algerian independence energized a generation of bitter right-wing troublemakers who deeply influenced France and exported their ideas to other nations. Some, like Algeria veteran and National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, channeled their anger into building a far-right political movement. Others, like Dominique Venner, who committed suicide at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris earlier this year to protest the presence of Muslims in France, sublimated it in racist pseudo-scholarship.
Aussaresses lived his Algeria afterlife a bit differently: quietly spreading his torture methods around the world before he returned to publicly defend them in France. In 1960, he went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he taught on the Battle of Algiers and his use of torture. As he revealed in the 2003 documentary Escadrons de la mort, l’école française (“Death Squads, the French School”), his students at Fort Bragg began to read the works of Roger Trinquier, another French commander in Algeria who wrote about tactics used there. Inspired, they sent Trinquier's book, La guerre moderne (“Modern Warfare”), to CIA agent Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer. Komer’s controversial Phoenix Program recreated the French methods of what Aussaresses and Trinquier called “neutralization”—interrogation, torture, and summary execution—against the Viet Cong in Vietnam, and by some estimates killed as many as 20,000 people. American Army brigadier general John Johns said that Aussaresses’s ideas had “a considerable impact on all the green berets who left for Vietnam.”
In the 1970s, Aussaresses found a new audience for lessons of la guerre moderne: the Pinochet regime in Chile, which was fighting a campaign against left-wing revolutionaries. Aussaresses was one of a number of French intelligence figures who worked with the Chilean military, personally training officers of Pinochet’s barbaric secret police.
After his disgrace in France, Aussaresses had a brief second life in the United States as part of the flurry of interest in the Algerian conflict before and amid the Iraq War. On an episode of 60 Minutes aired in September 2002, he told Mike Wallace it was “obvious” that using torture against al Qaeda was the “only way” to get suspects to talk. The English translation of his memoir, The Battle of the Casbah, was published in 2005.
Unlike Aussaresses, other French army officials eventually admitted that the torture regime, aside from being immoral, had produced mostly mountains of false information, and that the lives it may have saved were taken many times over by the new terrorists it created. Aussaresses’s own commander, Battle of Algiers architect General Jacques Massu, eventually turned from decades of “realist” apology for torture and urged the French government to condemn its use in Algeria.