HWO’s Radical Books series shares subversive, seminal, and seismic texts that have shaped understandings of radical history, provoked controversy in their time, or sparked social change.
‘If these reports of cruelty are even in part true . . . the blame lies not so much with the puny men who translated anger into violence, but with the high officers of state.’
The original French edition of Gangrene, published in 1959, is a collection of individual testimonies written by seven Algerian students and professionals who were tortured during the Algerian War of Independence. With its detailed, heart-wrenching accounts of physical violence and psychological abuse at the hands of French interrogators, the book immediately attracted attention from popular media outlets such as Le Monde. Within a week of its publication, French police raided the publisher’s office in Paris, destroyed the original print plates, and seized every copy they could find in a blatant violation of the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. The police action outraged journalists and commentators across the political spectrum. But the government justified this censorship by claiming that the book was defamatory and ‘endangered the security of the state’.
The suppression of Gangrene in France troubled British left-wing activists in particular. The New Left publisher John Calder perceived the French government’s use of torture and the censorship of these abuses as similar to British actions in Kenya and so printed an expanded English edition. It contained a translation of the French version along with accounts of British abuses in Kenya. These included the story of a white prison officer blacklisted by the authorities after speaking out against torture and excerpts from official documents describing the now infamous deaths of eleven prisoners at Hola Camp. To place these accounts in a broader context, the English edition also had an extensive introduction written by the British barrister Peter Benenson.
Benenson’s analysis was informed by his recent experience as an anti-torture advocate during the 1955-59 Cyprus. He explained how the legal system reinforced the colonial state’s apparatus of control and exploitation, as well as highlighting the ubiquity of this repressive colonial apparatus, which was not limited to Algeria or Kenya. Benenson argued that citizens had to hold the state accountable for its misdeeds and that the best way to do so was through public pressure. He believed that the constant media scrutiny provided by newspapers, radio, and television meant that politicians were increasingly beholden to public opinion. Ultimately, Gangrene foreshadowed Benenson’s decision to establish Amnesty International and helped place the struggle against state-sponsored torture at the heart of the human rights agenda.
Brian Drohan is a U.S. Army officer and historian (Twitter: @BrianDrohan). He has recently published Brutality in an Age of Human Rights: Activism and Counterinsurgency at the End of the British Empire (2017), which investigates how human rights activists influenced British counterinsurgency methods during wars in Cyprus, Aden, and Northern Ireland. Drohan argues that when faced with human rights activism, British officials developed startlingly consistent approaches to evade, discredit, and deflect public criticism of brutal counterinsurgency practices such as the use of torture during interrogation.