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Observation Deck

Interpreter of Malice

A half-century after he diagnosed postcolonial aggression, Frantz Fanon may shed light on the violence afflicting Europe today.


The Paris attacks in November and the assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have transformed the European discussion about Islam and immigration. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under fire for allowing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Germany—even though most of the men arrested in Cologne turned out not to be Syrians. French President François Hollande has launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Raqqa—even though the perpetrators at the Bataclan, Le Petit Cambodge, and other sites turned out to be natives of France and Belgium.

In fact, the one thing that the two groups of criminals have in common is that they trace their origins to North Africa. The terrorists in Paris were descendants of Algerian and Moroccan immigrants, and many of the Cologne attackers come from the same places. But then, the history of violence between Europe and North Africa did not begin in 2015. Before there was today’s jihad, there was the decolonization struggle; before the Islamic State, there was Algeria’s National Liberation Front, whose shootings and bombings shook Paris in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The great, incendiary theorist of that struggle was Frantz Fanon, whose 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, explores the social structure of liberation movements from a Marxist perspective and the reasons so many produce failed economies and governments. The book is most famous, however, for its insights into the psychology of revolutionary violence, which Fanon defends as necessary and justified. Its stirring combination of philosophy and exhortation has made it a bible for freedom fighters since its publication.

Fanon lived on both sides of the barrier between colonizer and colonized. Born in Martinique, he fought with the Free French in World War II, was trained as a psychiatrist in a French school, and then moved to Algeria to practice. During that country’s war for independence, he treated both French torturers and Algerian terrorists, as well as their victims. The Wretched of the Earth was written (dictated, actually, as Fanon lay dying of leukemia) in historical circumstances very different from those facing Europe today. Yet the text’s trenchant analysis of what makes people rise up in anger is still relevant—perhaps even necessary.

Violence, in Fanon’s view, is not merely a political tactic, a way of forcing the colonizer to surrender power. It is a redemptive act in which the occupied reconstitute themselves as full human beings. “Decolonization is truly the creation of new men,” he wrote. “But such a creation cannot be attributed to a supernatural power: The ‘thing’ colonized becomes a man through the very process of liberation.” That process, as Fanon vividly wrote, “reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives.”

He argues that violence is made inevitable by the way the Europeans once divided the colonial world into two unequal parts: prosperity and “civilization” for the white colonist, but poverty and “savagery” for the occupied. “This compartmentalized world, this world divided in two, is inhabited by different species,” he wrote. “The ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, ‘the others.’” Such a world is “totalitarian” in that it appropriates not merely physical goods, but moral ones, for the exclusive use of the European: “[T]he colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil.” Liberating violence overturns this equation. “For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists,” Fanon said.

This confrontation has a natural endpoint, achieving its purpose when the colonizer leaves and allows the local population to create its own nation. Fanon described such a nation in nearly mythical terms, as a place in which internal strife and difference are abolished. “Since individual experience is national, since it is a link in the national chain, it ceases to be individual, narrow and limited in scope, and can lead to the truth of the nation and the world,” he wrote. A true member of a nation, in other words, thinks and feels for the collective before himself.

What Europe confronts today might be described as a reinscription of the colonial boundaries Fanon portrayed, but on the continent and even within its cities. When the descendants of the colonized make their way to Paris and are relegated permanently to the banlieues, or when they go to Germany and live in refugee camps, there is a reprise of what Fanon saw as the Manichaeism of colonialism. The oppression is nowhere near as extreme; borders, for instance, are usually guarded by police officers instead of soldiers. Once again, however, there are two worlds: one prosperous and integrated, one poor and excluded. They view each other warily in close quarters, and impulses toward self-assertive violence are expressed.

The critical difference between then and now is that no liberation or separation of peoples in France and Germany is possible. Indeed, for immigrants the promise of Fanon’s nationalism can only be a reproach: They are living in Europe precisely because post-colonial states in North Africa are struggling politically and economically, while others, such as Syria and Iraq, are failing spectacularly.

Perhaps this is why disaffected Arabs in Europe today raise the flag not of nationalism but of religion, which Fanon dismisses as both reactionary and negligible. (“Fatalism relieves the oppressor of all responsibility,” he wrote, “since the cause of wrong-doing, poverty, and the inevitable can be attributed to God.”) It was not as citizens of any country, for instance, but as soldiers of the Islamic State’s caliphate that the Paris attackers killed, exerting the cathartic violence Fanon championed during his lifetime, but in a manner he never imagined.

In midcentury Algeria, people were fighting for a divorce from Europe: “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world,” Fanon wrote in the conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth. What’s clear, now that millions of refugees and immigrants are pouring northward, is that the divorce didn’t stick; the fates of colonizers and their colonies remain inextricable. And as long as the people once subjugated challenge their former masters with violence, we will need Fanon to help us understand why.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April issue of FP.

Illustration by Edmon De Haro

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