MESA Banner
Beyond Paradoxes and Contradictions: Forms of Anti-Colonial Resistance during WWI in North Africa and the Middle East

Panel IX-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
The history of North Africa's contribution to the First World War has not yet been fully written and has remained fragmentary. Indeed, until recently, Eurocentrism remained dominant in the writing of the history of the First World War, and the so-called colonial theaters were relegated to a subordinate level. Moreover, the transversal and translocal dynamics between North Africa and the Middle East have remained little addressed. Our panel will highlight particularly important and complex issues that arose in North Africa during the First World War, especially forms of resistance. Between paradoxes and apparent contradictions, the forms of anti-colonial resistance took a multiplicity of paths. The Ottoman Empire relied on plural strategies to defend Ottoman North Africa, building anti-colonial alliances with local actors, such as the Sanūsī brotherhood and the spread of Ottomanism through political campaigns. We will see how the anti-colonial alliances forged during the Tripolitan War, relying on a religious referent, continue to be operational during World War I in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and the forms they take. Enlisted to fight on the Western Front, hundreds of thousands of North African soldiers fought on the Western Front with France. The experiences of the North Africans taken prisoner of war by Germany are manifold. Many of them, through individual choices, negotiated forms of resistance in captivity and beyond in order to open up emancipatory horizons. In addition, the anti-colonialist rebels were exiled in Berlin or Geneva and they disseminated apparently contradictory or paradoxical concepts such as pan-Islamism, Ottomanism, Arabism, and the ideas of an "Algerian-Tunisian people" or a "Tripolitan republic. The complex positionings are also illustrated by the political trajectories of the heirs of the emir Abd al-Qādir al-Jazāirī and their ambivalent relations with the colonial powers. The trajectory of his youngest son Amīr ʿAbd al-Mālik , in the service of France at the beginning of World War I, will be presented. From 1915, Amīr ʿAbd al-Mālik organized an anti-colonial resistance in Morocco. Indeed, breaking his collaboration with the French authorities, he launched the largest uprising in northern Morocco during World War I.
  • This presentation will examine new perspectives and approach new debates. Indeed, local dynamics in North Africa and particularly in Morocco during the First World War have been largely ignored for various reasons. Our case study will focus on the uprising that started in Taza in 1915 and lasted until after the end of the First World War. One of the main actors is ʿAbd al-Mālik, the youngest son of Abd al-Qādir al-Jazāirī, who took refuge in these same territories more than a quarter of a century earlier. Born in Syria and raised in the Middle East, he came to Morocco around 1902. His ambivalent trajectory is perceived in historiography as the fruit of foreign power instrumentalisation. However, these approaches have largely ignored the perspective of the actor, with a reading grid focused on the relations between the great European powers and their will to instrumentalise. It seems interesting to us to consider the duality of its action, by re-situating it in a more local perspective. When the war broke out in 1914, ʿAbd al-Mālik was employed by the French administration as a police officer in the port of Tangier. In March 1915, he sent his whole family to Tetouan, a city under the Spanish Protectorate, out of reach of the French authorities. Then, he suddenly abandoned his post to find refuge in the North and to fight France. ʿAbd al-Mālik’s entry into the dissent in March 1915 can be considered a turning point in the resistance movement and uprisings in Morocco. He managed to mobilise powerful support to continue his revolt throughout the war. ʿAbd al-Mālik benefited from the support of Germany and the Ottoman Empire who sent him officers and other reinforcements, such as German legionnaires. ʿAbd al-Mālik spent about 20 years of his life in Morocco, nine of them (1915-1924) in dissidence. At the end of the war, he wandered between the two borders of the French and Spanish protectorates. Then, during the last five years (1919-1924), his collaboration with Spain took many by surprise because he condemned and fought the movement of ben ‘Abd al-Krim. Because of his different positions, he was considered versatile. As early as 1917, France was suspicious of Spain’s secret support for ʿAbd al-Mālik. This contribution draws from various archives and documents throughout different sides of the conflict, such as Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, France, Germany, Great-Britain and Spain.
  • This presentation will examine the experiences of North Africans in the French army made prisoners of war by Germany between 1914 and 1918. Some were deserters or chose to collaborate with the Central Powers after their capture, making use of their captivity to oppose France and its colonial rule over their homelands. Others resisted German and Ottoman entreaties to switch sides and take up arms against France, indicating through their words and behaviors the broad range of interests and calculations that lay behind individual choices. Many of these men negotiated a path between these two poles of behavior, for instance by volunteering to serve in the Ottoman army, only to desert at the first opportunity. Looming over German and Ottoman actions was the question of Islam and Muslim identity, since men were encouraged to follow their faith and join in the Ottoman “jihad” against the Entente powers, but often other factors—national and ethnic identities, personal interests, position in the colonial order, military or social status and rank, and many others—shaped the way these men acted in dangerous and uncertain contexts. Probing these matters is possible because of very rich archival resources in numerous repositories in Germany and France, which include not only military and intelligence records, but also original handwritten letters from the captives while in Germany, as well as other personal testimonies from individuals. Ultimately, the experiences of these men shed light on both the possibilities for and the limits to a verity of forms of resistance in military and colonial contexts in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe during the Great War.
  • With the 1911 Italian invasion of Tripolitania, Istanbul’s last footing in North Africa came under threat. Outclassed and seemingly outmaneuvered by their Italian opponent, the Ottoman resistance was compelled to rely almost entirely on North African volunteers to fill the ranks of its makeshift army. This paper demonstrates how the exigencies of fighting an asymmetric war in Tripolitania inflected the ideological commitments of Ottoman elites and informed an emerging anticolonial strategy to defend the empire. Recent interpretations of the final wars of the Ottoman Empire (1911-1923) as one unremitting conflict—a “Long First World War”—provide a fruitful framework to understand the development and implementation of these anticolonial strategies. This paper thus discusses the efficacy of Ottoman asymmetric warfare in North Africa and accentuates the limitations and contradictions inherent in Ottoman anticolonialism. Often the building of anticolonial alliances with local stake holders like the Sanūsī Order of Cyrenaica clashed with simultaneous political efforts to reinforce an Ottoman nationalism among the combatants and inhabitants of the North African provinces. Utilizing seldom explored documents from the Turkish General Staff archives and Turkish Red Crescent archives as well as Italian and German archival sources, this paper follows the Unionist officers, like Mustafa Kemal, Enver Pasha, and Eşref Kuşçubaşı, whose anticolonial zeal harmonized with the sentiments of local recruits eager to fight off the Italian invader, on their incognito expedition into Tripolitania to construct a disciplined volunteer force of irregulars. Ultimately, the securing of anticolonial alliances proved more effective than instilling a lasting sense of Ottoman nationalism in the combatants. Still, thousands of volunteers served under Ottoman officers in an anticolonial offensive against the European menace and, despite the signing of peace in 1912, the war persisted with Ottoman backing until the Mudros Armistice (1918). The surreptitious channels of communication, covert supply lines, and the Teşkîlât-ı Mahsûsa, a secret paramilitary organization, initially developed in the 1911-1912 conflict remained decisive features of a continued Ottoman anticolonial campaign in North Africa over the course of World War I. Moreover, the effectiveness of this anticolonial strategy was not lost on the officers who modeled later insurgent movements on their experiences in Tripolitania. The Italo-Ottoman War became the staging ground for Ottoman anticolonial warfare, a feature of the empire’s strategy and resistance in the Long First World War.