Skip to main content

The Strange Death of Maurice Audin

ISSUE:  Spring 1976

Europe’s loss of empire can be read in the signposts of the cities of the Third World. The main thoroughfare of Algiers, the rue Michelet under the French, is today called the rue Didouche Mourad. And Colonel Amirouche, Ben Mahdi Larbi, and Abd El Kader have supplanted Victor Hugo, Sadi Carnot, and Richelieu. Yet in the heart of Algiers, adjacent to the University and at the intersection of streets bearing the Arab-sounding names of heroes of the Algerian Revolution, is to be found the place Maurice Audin, a name unmistakably French. A vestige of Algérie Française, an inexplicable oversight in the politics of municipal symbolism? The 1974 edition of the scholarly guide bleu to Algeria (the first to be published since the outbreak in 1954 of the war for independence) notes the central location of the place, but without explaining why it is named after a Frenchman, and an obscure one at that. Who was Maurice Audin?

Late in the evening of June 11, 1957, in the course of the so-called “Battle of Algiers,” French paratroops arrested a young university mathematics instructor named Maurice Audin. He was taken from his apartment to a villa in the fashionable neighborhood of El Biar and questioned about his relationship with two members of the Algerian Communist Party whom the Army suspected of terrorist activity. When after several days he failed to return home, family and friends made inquiries about him. Military authorities reported that on June 21, 1957 he had escaped their custody. Maurice Audin vanished, never to be seen again.

Did Audin escape, as the authorities claimed, or did the paratroops accidentally kill him, as his friends charged, and then connive with the Army command to cover their tracks? The notion that the Army had concealed a blunder for “reasons of state” stirred memories of the Dreyfus Affair. Opponents of the Algerian War saw in Audin the Army’s victim and made his fate symbolic of the fate of thousands of other victims, Europeans and Muslims, revolutionaries and bystanders alike. The campaign to discover what had happened to him was at the same time a campaign against the conduct of the war in Algeria. The Audin Affair dragged on for years, as the Dreyfus Affair had done, and ended far more inconclusively than the campaigners had hoped. In their view, guilty men went unpunished and important questions went unanswered.

Important questions about the Dreyfus Affair remain unanswered to this day. If Dreyfus did not hand information on the French artillery to the Germans, for example, who did? Who was the real spy, —if indeed there was one? Material on the Audin Affair is far more scanty than the evidence in the Dreyfus Case. The official archives, barring any changes in the so-called 30-year law, will remain closed until the turn of the century. Only one attempt to draw together the evidence on Audin’s disappearance has been made. Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s L’Affaire Audin, published in 1958 in order to arouse public interest in the case, is a partisan text. Nevertheless, it is based on written documents and the testimony of eye witnesses; it is the work of a trained historian. No one, so far as I am aware, has ever challenged its accuracy. Unless one of the participants in Audin’s arrest and interrogation comes forward with his side of the story, we are not likely to do much better in the way of direct evidence on the disappearance.


Maurice Audin, the son of European settlers, joined the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) in 1950. Dominated by Algerians of European origin, the PCA never had more than a few thousand members; after 1954 leadership of revolutionary nationalism in Algeria passed to the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). In the early years of the insurrection, however, the French government, convinced that the FLN was heavily under the influence of Moscow, exaggerated the importance of the PCA and kept a sharp eye on its members.

Thus Audin’s membership in the PCA made him a candidate for police surveillance. Yet it is doubtful that he would have been arrested—certainly he would not have been arrested by the Army—had it not been for the Battle of Algiers. In January 1957 the police found themselves unable to cope with a rising incidence of bombings and assassinations, and the Resident Minister, Robert Lacoste, brought the Tenth Paratroop Division into Algiers with orders to put an end to terrorist activity.

The Tenth Division was neither trained nor equipped for the task. Automatic weapons were of no use against an enemy who lived amidst the civilian population, as Mao had admonished, “as a fish in water.” The paras’ superb physical conditioning was of less use than the street wisdom of a pot-bellied police detective would have been. For the pursuit of urban guerrillas more closely resembles police work than it does traditional military activity—with the important difference that in urban guerrilla warfare neither side feels obliged to observe the restraints that bind both criminals and the police. In the Algerian case, however, this distinction was muddied by the French government’s insistence that it did not have a war on its hands. Their refusal to recognize the belligerent status of the FLN enabled the French to pretend that the guerrillas were not soldiers but malefactors. The trouble with this position was that the criminal law affords to suspects rights that the laws of war do not extend to enemy soldiers. Thus the government sought to remove, by means of exceptional legislation, the obstacles that the laws of France placed in the way of its Army. The Special Powers Law of March 16, 1956 provided, among other things, for the arrest and internment of anyone, for an indefinite time, without the need to bring charges against him. This enabled the Army and the police to control the movement of suspects and to interrogate people against whom insufficient evidence of illegal activity had been gathered.

The paratroops were armed with these Special Powers when they knocked on Maurice Audin’s door. They had learned of Audin’s association with Paul Caballero, a suspected terrorist, from a Dr. Hadjadj, whom they had arrested on June 10. Hadjadj, a physician and member of the PCA, admitted that in April he had examined an ailing Caballero in Audin’s apartment. Audin was picked up the day after Hadjadj’s disclosure. On April 26, when Caballero left Audin’s apartment, Audin saw his friend and fellow party member Henri Alleg, editor of the Alger Républicain; Alleg introduced him to André Moine, whom the paras also wanted. Vidal-Naquet’s account does not indicate who told the paras about Audin’s meeting with Moine—perhaps Audin himself did. In any case, the paratroops arrested Alleg on June 12, the day after they brought in Audin. By such means—the piecing together of bits of information acquired in the course of thousands of interrogations—who are your friends? to whom do you report? what is your function in the organization?—the French Army cracked the terrorist network in Algiers.

To be sure, terrorists did not come in off the street and volunteer to tell the paratroops what they knew. Suspects who remained silent under questioning were made to talk. Dr. Hadjadj later stated in a deposition that he had been tortured in the villa in El Biar on the afternoon of June 11, hours before Audin’s arrest. Late that evening, Hadjadj said, he had been led into another room; he had seen Audin, stretched out on a board, electrical wires leading from his right ear and left foot to a magneto placed close by. That the French Army in Algeria resorted to torture in the interrogation of prisoners is beyond doubt; its incidence remains a subject of controversy. The character of the evidence—or the lack of it—makes questionable whether the controversy will ever be satisfactorily resolved. The victims of torture and their friends made charges for which they seldom could provide tangible proof. In the face of such charges members of the Army either remained silent or issued denials. Testimony from third parties is extremely rare. The FLN, in view of the propaganda value of the issue of torture, was not scrupulous about the accuracy of its own allegations; as torture is not the sort of practice on which records are kept, the official archives are unlikely to yield any dark secrets.

But both the Army and Audin’s friends agree that Audin disappeared; they agree that he was detained in the villa in El Biar between June 11 and June 19. On Audin’s movements after June 19 we have only the testimony of the paratroops.

The paras obliged Madame Audin to remain in her apartment for four days after her husband’s arrest; they forbade her to use the telephone, apparently in the hope that some unsuspecting member of the PCA might drop round and fall into their hands. On the morning of June 16, released from virtual house arrest, Madame Audin began to make inquiries about her husband. Finally, on June 22 she was relieved to read in the Echo d’Alger an official notice of her husband’s internment, the first news of his whereabouts she had managed to obtain. A week later Louis Martin-Chauffier, an investigator for the Commission Internationale contre le régime concentrationnaire, a private organization of former inmates of Nazi concentration camps, learned from an Army captain of his acquaintance that Audin had been moved from El Biar to a detention center in the neighborhood of Bouzaréah. This seemed to confirm what Madame Audin had read in the newspaper.

In the meantime, her attorneys had been seeking a meeting with Colonel Yves Godard, commander of the Algiers-Sahel sector, which included Audin’s neighborhood, the man usually regarded as the organizer of the Battle of Algiers. According to Vidal-Naquet’s account, on June 27 Godard finally informed Madame Audin’s attorneys that both Audin and Alleg were to be brought before an examining magistrate forthwith; the following day he asked that Madame Audin come see him on July 1. When Madame Audin arrived at Godard’s headquarters, presumably in the expectation that she would soon be permitted to see her husband, she was met by Godard’s executive officer, Lt. Colonel Roger Trinquier, who read to her a report dated June 25 and signed by Colonel Jean Mayer, commander of the regiment whose members had arrested Audin. Mayer’s report, the only official explanation of Audin’s fate that has ever been made, stated that he had escaped.

On the morning of June 22, Mayer’s report explained, Audin was to have been questioned by the civilian police. But on the evening of June 21, as he was being transferred by jeep from El Biar to the precinct house where his interrogation was to take place, Audin jumped from the back seat and ran. Audin’s escort, Sergeant Misigri, fired a burst from his automatic pistol and then pursued his prisoner on foot. He encountered an inhabitant of the neighborhood, Dr. Jean Mairesse, who had seen from his terrace the shadow of a figure heading in the direction in which Audin had presumably fled. Mairesse, two other civilians, and some paratroopers who had come running at the sound of gunfire joined the chase, but they came up empty-handed. Audin had vanished, Misigri, the Mayer report concludes, was confined to quarters for 15 days for “not having taken sufficient precautions to prevent an escape attempt by a detained suspect.”

In his pamphlet on the Audin Affair Vidal-Naquet charges that Audin’s captors staged the “escape” themselves. The running figure whom Dr. Mairesse had seen was a paratrooper playing the role of Audin; Misigri had fired his pistol in the air. The Mayer report and testimony taken in later inquiries, he maintains, contain too many inconsistencies, coincidences, and contradictions to be plausible, even when allowance is made for the faultiness of human memory.

Indeed, Madam Audin told Colonel Trinquier that she did not believe the Mayer report. On July 2 Martin-Chauffier learned from his contact in the prefecture that notice of Audin’s escape had been communicated to the police official in charge of such matters only eight days after it had allegedly taken place. Moreover, the commander of the camp at Bouzaréah had asked that Audin’s order of internment be cancelled, even though regulations provided that an escapee’s internment was to remain valid except in the event of his death. Not until July 18, a month after he was said to have escaped, did anyone bother to file a “wanted” bulletin on him in the offices of the Sûreté nationale in Algiers.

In the meantime Madame Audin, convinced that if her husband had really escaped he would have tried to contact her, unsuccessful in her own efforts to discover his whereabouts, and disbelieving the official explanation of his disappearance, demanded a judicial inquiry into the possibility of his murder. On July 4 she lodged with an examining magistrate a complaint of homicide against “X.”


If Audin was only one of hundreds—some say thousands— to disappear in the course of the Battle of Algiers, why was his case singled out, made symbolic of all the others? As an Algerian of European origin did he seem more “real” to the French, even to those sympathetic to the FLN, than did the Muslims? Perhaps. Did Audin’s case attract attention because the French Communist Party felt obliged to concern itself with the fate of a party member? Possibly. What certainly made Audin’s case different from thousands of similar cases was his wife’s persistence and his status as a university teacher. The friends and relatives of others whom the paratroops arrested must have been frightened and bewildered by such a turn of events—too frightened of French officialdom, indeed, to make inquiries, ignorant of how and to whom such inquiries should be made, too poor to hire a lawyer to represent them. Madam Audin, on the other hand, hired lawyers and made inquiries. It took little imagination for Audin’s fellow academics to put themselves in his shoes. The midnight knock on the door, motif in the intellectuals’ debates on totalitarianism, now seemed to have sounded at home.

The political activists in the University of Paris were well prepared to articulate the issues that Audin’s disappearance raised and well disposed, by temperament and tradition, to organize public protest. The Audin Affair was just the sort of business that the political intelligentsia dealt with best. In the French context, where the Communists belonged to the Opposition, civil liberties afforded a bridge over the chasm that separated Communists from non-Communists on defense policy, centralized planning, or the cult of personality. Moreover, French intellectuals belong to a small world and therefore are easily mobilized. As centralized in Paris as is the government, based mainly in the Sorbonne, the publishing business, and the professions, its members are bound together by ties of friendship, blood, and marriage. Little wonder that its feuds have often taken on the intensity and ugliness of a family quarrel.

Convinced that she was not getting the truth from the authorities in Algeria, Madame Audin turned to the mainland for help. In a letter published in Le Monde in mid-August she set forth the circumstances of her husband’s arrest, the report of his escape, and of rumors circulating in Algiers that he had been confined, in poor physical condition, in some secret prison. August, the month of the annual vacances, is a drowsy time in France; the French, scattered at favorite retreats, are turned in upon themselves. Nevertheless, the readership of Le Monde is constant in its devotion, and Madame Audin’s letter provoked a large correspondence. That many letters carried several signatures suggests that the case of Maurice Audin had provoked considerable discussion. With the end of summer vacation, signs of organized protest against the government’s handling of the case began to appear. The teachers’ trade unions called for an investigation into Audin’s disappearance; the League of the Rights of Man, which had been founded to do battle for Alfred Dreyfus, demanded to know what had become of the investigation of Madame Audin’s complaint against X; in a speech in the National Assembly Jacques Duclos, perennial second-in-command of the French Communist Party, charged that the paratroops had murdered Audin; in a speech to the Radical party congress Pierre Mendes-France, perhaps the most influential voice on the non-Communist Left, reiterated this accusation. Neither Felix Gaillard nor Ren6 Billeres, members of the government in attendance at the congress, rose to contradict him.

Shortly before his arrest Maurice Audin had completed his doctoral thesis in mathematics. In France the defense of a thesis is a public exercise and Audin’s friends saw in this a means of dramatizing his disappearance. On Dec. 2, 1957 more than a thousand people, including a number of well-known literary and political figures, gathered at the Sorbonne to hear the defense in absentia of Audin’s thesis. That not more than a handful of the audience could understand the discussion was beside the point. Attention fastened not on the substance of the thesis but on the absence of its author. But the university’s solemn display of solidarity with one of its own members failed to elicit the response from other sectors of society for which its organizers had hoped; one of them, Jean-Jacques Mayoux, professor at the Sorbonne, lamented in Le Monde the indifference of the public toward the fate of Audin.

In early December Le Monde managed to breach the wall of official silence around what had now become the Audin Affair. In March 1957, in response to the public outcry on the issue of torture, Guy Mollet, the prime minister, had established a Commission de sauvegarde des droits et libertés individuelles. The Commission, a panel of prominent citizens—doctors, lawyers, and retired high civil servants, for the most part—had been on a tour of inspection in Algeria at the time of Maurice Audin’s disappearance, and Madame Audin had appealed to them for help. But the eminence of the Commission’s membership did not compensate for the feebleness of its authority. Unable to subpoena documents, unable to hear witnesses under oath, its investigation depended on the voluntary cooperation of the investigated. Instead of publishing the Commission’s findings, as it had promised to do, the government sat on them, and this gave rise to dark rumors about the contents of the report.

The Fourth Republic, however, was a regime that could not keep a secret, and someone leaked to. Le Monde a copy of the Commission’s report. Its findings do not explain the government’s reluctance to release it. Zig-zagging between condemnation of the FLN and censure of individual members of the French Army, the report betrayed, in both tone and substance, the existence within the Commission of deep differences of outlook and opinion. To those who had become Maurice Audin’s champions, its findings were a disappointment. In the main, the report simply laid out the Army’s version of what had happened. A government attorney in Algiers, the report concluded, had promised to keep the Commission informed of any new developments in the case, but in several letters of July and August he reported that nothing new had turned up.

The Army’s repeated insistence that Audin had escaped, the government’s unwavering support of the Army’s version of what had become of him, the leisurely pace of the judicial inquiry into his disappearance, the inconclusiveness of the Commission de sauvegarde’s report, all made the prospects of discovering what had happened to Maurice Audin seem gloomy indeed.

With the failure of early efforts to obtain a full disclosure of what had taken place in the villa in El Biar, the friends of Maurice Audin prepared themselves for the long haul. In late January 1958, roughly 100 university and lycee professors, men and women who had for the most part followed the case from the beginning, founded the Comité Audin. The committee continued to press for an inquiry into the disappearance of Audin, but this became a battle of briefs and appeals, carried on in private and unremarked by the press for long stretches of time. The energies of the greater share of the committee’s members were devoted to the conduct in Audin’s name of a campaign against the use of torture in Algeria. The Audin Committee in Paris set to work organizing in the provinces what amounted to committees of correspondence. These committees, charged with disseminating literature on the use of torture, organizing local meetings and demonstrations, and raising funds to support these activities, proliferated. But their rapid growth also betrayed their narrow social base. In the main, the Audin committees of the provinces, like the parent committee in Paris, were composed of professors and schoolteachers, people who resembled Audin himself. The committees had no trouble raising audiences for antiwar rallies held in meeting halls near the universities, but these were exercises in preaching to the converted. The great street demonstrations of the Popular Front era (and of May-June 1968), when the working class itself seemed on the march, surging arm in arm down down the broad avenues from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la République, were beyond the committees’ reach. Until the incident at the Charonne metro station in February 1962, when a police charge provoked a stampede that left eight people crushed or suffocated to death, no antiwar rally drew many more than 25,000 people (and the rally that followed the Charonne incident was as much a demonstration against the police as against the war).

The Audin committees, or at least the parent committee in Paris, were more effective as publicists than as organizers of mass protest. The ground for a literary campaign against torture had been prepared by the time the committee was established. Well-known Catholic writers and returning conscripts of whom no one had ever heard had taken the lead in exposing the Army’s practices. Le Dossier Jean Muller, a Catholic reservist’s account of what he had seen in Algeria, published in 1956, was the first expose on the practice of torture to receive wide notice; the novelist Francois Mauriac was the first member of the literary establishment to raise the subject in print, in his column in the weekly Express; the critic Pierre-Henri Simon, a reserve officer who had spent five years as a prisoner of war of the Germans, published in 1957 Contre la torture. Such writers as Mauriac and Simon lent respectability to criticism of the Army—everyone expected attacks from the Left, whose anti-militarist traditions went back to the turn of the century. The outcry from the unexpected quarter of patriotic Catholicism may well have been among the pressures that led Guy Mollet to establish the Commission de sauvegarde (indeed, collaboration between Catholics and members of the secular Left was one of the most significant outgrowths of the war).

At any rate, the first important publication of the Audin Committee, Vidal-Naquet’s L’ Affaire Audin, was brought out in May 1958, in the midst of the crisis that returned de Gaulle to power. Éditions de minuit, the Audin Committee’s publisher, founded in 1942 as a clandestine press of the Resistance and specializing after the war in the writings of the avant-garde, had a history of taking risks and making itself troublesome to the authorities. The relationship between the publishing firm and the Audin Committee illustrates the tightness of the world of the French intellectuals. The publisher, Jérôme Lindon, whose father had died in a German concentration camp, had friends among the leadership of the committee and shared its opposition to the Algerian War. His firm not only published the Audin Committee’s material but became the leading publisher in France of antiwar books and documents. The founders of Editions de minuit had under the German Occupation published books at the risk of their lives; during the Algerian War a publisher’s risks were mainly financial. Under both the Fourth and Fifth Republics the seizure of antiwar books and periodicals in which antiwar opinion was expressed was common; repeated seizures, by depriving a publisher of the chance to recover his editorial and printing costs, could drive his firm into bankruptcy. Indeed, most of the big firms did not publish antiwar literature, whether from conviction or prudence it is hard to say. Those which did got into the business only during the latter stages of the war.

As the Audin Committee agitated for an end to the practice of torture, the judicial inquiry into the disappearance of Audin himself went forward at a leisurely pace. One can only speculate as to the reasons for this. Certainly the city of Algiers, whose settler population feared and hated the likes of Audin, did not afford the sort of atmosphere in which justice could easily be done. Bavoilleau, the examining magistrate in the case, himself a settler, heard only one witness between March and November 1958. The government in Paris, rickety and irresolute, had no desire to provoke a restive and politically ambitious officer corps, as an inquiry would surely have done.

The demise of the Fourth Republic, which the Army did everything to assist, removed from office those politicians who had associated themselves with the Army’s version of Audin’s disappearance. Charles de Gaulle, who had no intention of making himself the Army’s creature, was bent on restoring not only the authority of the state but confidence in its institutions, and this required not only measures but the right sort of men to carry them out. As minister of justice de Gaulle chose Edmond Michelet—Resistance hero, former inmate of Buchenwald, prominent Catholic layman, and a man with a reputation as a civil libertarian. In April 1959 Michelet ordered that the investigation of Madame Audin’s complaint be transferred from Algiers to Rennes. This removal of the investigation to a jurisdiction far from the sights and sounds of war was the best news Audin’s friends, had received from the authorities since his disappearance.

The examining magistrate, Hardy, promised to be a good deal more inquisitive than his colleague in Algiers had been. In June 1959 he began to question the first names in a long list of witnesses. The inquiry soon hit a snag, however, for the ministry of defense raised procedural objections that delayed the appearance of the most important military witnesses in the case. For months, most of them found reasons for not making the trip to Rennes.

As Hardy’s inquiry inched along, the pace of events in Algeria seemed to accelerate. Sometime in 1960 it became fairly evident that de Gaulle, who had turned this way and that in his search for a way out of the labyrinth, had chosen to remove France from Algeria. At this the settlers and the activists in the Army turned against him. When two rather theatrical attempts at insurrection failed either to stay de Gaulle’s course or to remove him from power, the diehards of Algérie française turned to a vengeful terrorism. In its last months the Algerian War became a three-cornered struggle among the Secret Army Organization (OAS), the FLN, and the French Army.

The signing of a cease-fire at Evian in March 1962 did not bring an end to the shooting, but it did signal an end of the eight-year-old struggle to keep Algeria French. The cease fire also seemed to dash whatever hopes remained for a public accounting of the disappearance of Maurice Audin. For following on the signature of the cease fire, the Elysee Palace issued a decree of amnesty covering “deeds committed within the framework of operations of the maintenance of order directed against the Algerian insurrection.” So far as the law was concerned, these deeds had never taken place. To the surprise of no one, on April 20, 1962 Hardy, the examining magistrate, dismissed the complaint of homicide against X, thus closing the inquiry he had begun nearly three years before. The liberation of Algeria, the cause for which Audin had struggled, appeared to have frustrated efforts to do him justice. Henceforth no one could be held responsible for his death.


The months following Algerian independence, which came in July 1962, brought the Army’s return to the mainland, the destruction of the OAS, and the end of the backward-looking obsession with empire that had characterized French public life since 1945. The national network of Audin committees, built on the rallying cry of opposition to the war, went out of business. France was at peace for the first time in 23 years, and the French were eager to pursue the pleasures of a prosperity the likes of which the nation had not experienced in half a century. Maurice Audin became a name in an episode that seemed best put out of mind.

Nevertheless, partly out of the concern for justice that had moved it to act in the first place, partly in the hope of achieving some small victory after the enormous investment of time and emotion that the struggle against the war had exacted, partly out of sheer stubbornness, no doubt, the leadership of the Audin Committee was determined to establish in the public record the circumstances of Audin’s disappearance. Amnesty had closed the door on the judicial inquiry, but one other door to the discovery of what had become of Audin remained ajar. On Jan. 20, 1960, Georges Ras, a right-wing journalist who later joined the OAS, had charged in the Voix du nord, a conservative Lille newspaper, that the Audin Committee had no proof of its allegations and had been deliberately deceiving the public. Someone on the committee had seen in this charge an opportunity to be exploited; Ras should be sued for libel. In order to try such a suit, it was reasoned, the court would need to hear witnesses who possessed information about the disappearance of Maurice Audin and who therefore could testify as to the accuracy of the Audin Committee’s allegations. This strategy had originally been conceived as a means of shortcutting Hardy’s interminable inquiry.

But the committee had reckoned without the ways of the law. The suit against Ras was no shortcut to the truth. More than seven years and numerous appeals in several different courts of law were required in order to determine that the leadership of the committee had the legal standing to sue Ras and the Voix du nord and that amnesty did indeed cover anyone who might have been involved in the death of Audin. This ruling meant that the Audin Committee could not avail itself of testimony on Audin’s disappearance; some of the most peripatetic witnesses in the history of modern France, summoned to one court after another, only to sit in silence, were never permitted to testify.

In November 1967 the Court of Appeals of Amiens convened to hear arguments in the case. The “Audin Affair,” which had once provoked a nationwide protest, had been reduced to the technicalities of a civil lawsuit argued in a nearly empty courtroom. Robert Badinter, the Audin Committee’s attorney, frustrated in his attempts to call witnesses, read into the record a document that might have altered the outcome of the Audin Affair, had its contents been public knowledge eight years earler. In a letter dated Dec. 4, 1959, a member of the legal staff of the ministry of justice described to Edmond Michelet, the then minister, a long conversation with Paul Teitgen, former secretary-general of police in Algiers, who had come to see the staff member (whose name Badinter did not disclose) about the Audin Affair. In this conversation Teitgen recounted the visits that he and Georges Builles, a commissaire de police, had paid to Hardy, the examining magistrate.

Teitgen described in detail the difficulty he had had in getting the military authorities to admit that they had Audin in their custody. Commissaire Builles, Teitgen continued, had been assigned to the staff of General Massu, commander of the Tenth Paratroop Division, in order to supervise the movement of civilians whom the Army held in the detention centers of Algiers-Sahel. A police officer attached to the staff of the Algiers-Sahel sector had come to Builles, his superior, with most disquieting news: in the evening of June 21, in the course of a final interrogation, Maurice Audin had been strangled. His body had been secretly buried at Fort L’Empereur, the “escape attempt” mounted, and the cover story arranged. Builles, the staff lawyer’s letter concluded, had confirmed in a separate interview the details of Teitgen’s account but had refused to reveal the name of his informant.

Suppose that at the height of the war, in 1957 or 1958, Badinter had revealed, evidence in hand, that a French army officer had in a fit of rage strangled a prisoner in his custody, and had then acted in concert with the military hierarchy in Algiers to cover up the deed. It is hard not to think that the public outcry would have been considerable—sufficient, at the least, to force the government to conduct an investigation into the death of Audin and perhaps to press charges against those found responsible. Perhaps such a response would have made the Army more circumspect in its treatment of prisoners; perhaps an investigation would have goaded an already suspicious, resentful, and hypersensitive officer corps into a fury; perhaps an inquiry would have made no difference at all in the way things turned out. In any event, by 1967 the case of Maurice Audin was no more than an unpleasant reminder of a war that most of the French had shown every indication they were eager to forget.

Did someone in the ministry of justice suppress the letter which Badinter read in court? Why didn’t Teitgen, who resigned in protest over the Army’s use of torture, or Builles, the police officer, themselves make public what they had told Michelet’s assistant? Did Michelet have this information? Was the unnamed informant an eyewitness to Audin’s death and burial or was his story hearsay? These questions remain unanswered.

The judges of the court of Amiens did not hurry their deliberations. In 1969 they ruled that Ras had libelled the four members of the Audin Committee in question and awarded them the symbolic one franc in damages.


In a certain sense, Maurice Audin might be considered a casualty of war. A man in league with terrorists who planted bombs in cafes and slit the throats of women and children, Audin, many doubtless believed, had simply paid the price of his associations. But Audin was neither a soldier taken prisoner on a battlefield nor a terrorist apprehended with a satchelful of bombs. He was a civilian—a political activist, to be sure—whom men acting in the role of police had arrested, detained for several days, presumably tortured, and then accidentally killed. Apologists for the use of torture in Algeria employed an argument of expediency; they claimed that counterguerrilla warfare, in which information was an essential weapon, made the resort to such practices unavoidable. In their memoirs, high-ranking officers have assured their readers that no one found these methods more abhorrent than they did. Those who found the Audin Affair most disquieting—civilians and political activists themselves— feared that these practices might find their way to the mainland and from wartime into the peace. How could anyone be sure, they asked, that the authorities would not find other circumstances in which to resort to the argument of expediency? These critics did not find it hard to imagine the fingers of an enraged policeman, frustrated in his search for information, closing around their own throats.

In France, each new abuse of the power of the state at the expense of an individual sets off what Gordon Wright has called the “Dreyfus Echo.” Audin’s friends were quick to hear this echo, to draw parallels between the fates of the Algerian Communist and the French Army officer. To be sure, the Audin Affair raised many of the same issues as the Dreyfus Affair; it dragged on even longer in the courts. But the Dreyfus Affair was a drama played out on the center of the political stage. By comparison the Audin Affair was a sideshow; it had a long run before small audiences. The Audin Affair aroused the intellectuals but it failed to stir the professional politicians or the public at large. No politician of the stature of Clemenceau made himself the champion of Audin; no ministries—not even a single career—were destroyed on his behalf.

Tools for measuring the impact of a struggle waged in print upon a struggle waged with guns have yet to be invented. The leaders of the Audin Committee have themselves been gloomy, in retrospect, about the efficacy of their campaign against torture.

They write as if their works had been so many messages in bottles, lost at sea unread. It is true that the campaign against torture did not provoke the vast outpouring of public indignation for which its sponsors hoped; it did not shorten the war; it probably had little or no effect on the Algerian policy of General de Gaulle. But much the same sort of thing can be said of the French Resistance movement—it did not measurably shorten the war against the Germans; as a military force, it had a nuisance value, at best. Perhaps the work of the Audin Committee, like the Resistance, needs to be measured otherwise than in its impact on the course of events. The French Army in Algeria stood accused of the same practices the Gestapo had employed against the Resistance (it was such parallels as this that embittered the controversy over the war). Not many of the French protested the use of torture in Algeria; not many of the French joined the Resistance. But some did, and those few in each instance save one from having to contemplate a past in which no one raised a finger against injustice.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading