Feb 02, 2011
Benjamin Stora is in demand these days. He fields calls from international journalists several times a day. The topic? The current situation in North Africa. The far-reaching consequences of French colonial rule in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are part of Stora’s research as he spends this semester as a visiting professor at the Center for French Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.
Stora has been studying the history of the former French colonies in North Africa for nearly forty years now. The main focus of his work is the Algerian war for independence from France, which lasted from 1954 to 1962 – not least for personal reasons. Born in 1950 in the Algerian city of Constantine, Stora emigrated to France with his parents at the age of twelve. This experience had a marked impact on his later professional career: “For a very long time, I worked in archives, like a traditional historian,” Stora reports, “but then I started to get interested in how memory works, and how the act of remembrance writes history. I went looking for eyewitnesses and original records and moved farther and farther away from the traditional style of working.” To Stora, that means that he no longer wants to reach just academic circles, but also a broader audience, with the results of his research.
As for how to do so successfully, his latest book on Algeria is a prime example. It is a collection of one hundred unedited original documents. Full-color reproductions of letters, diary entries, and notes made by those involved in the Algerian war of independence present a vivid image of the times. “Tangible history” is how Stora describes what he is trying to achieve as a historian.
His ability to convey history with immediacy, to a broad audience, in his books and documentary films has made Stora, a professor at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris, a well-known figure. In his documentary works, he relies not only on strong visual impressions, but also on fictional elements, to bring historical events to life for younger generations. As a result, he views working with and in the media as definitely being a “political stance” as well. As one of the first historians in France to become interested in the country’s colonial history, Stora has openly decried the policies pursued by former French presidents De Gaulle and Mitterrand in his publications.
Even to this day, critical examination of this topic is not yet a matter of course in France. “My path into the public eye brought me a great deal of criticism and made me a great many enemies,” Stora admits. In light of his intentions, however, he is willing to accept the controversy surrounding his work: “By themselves, questions about the colonial era don’t get us anywhere. We also have to ask the questions that are relevant to the present.” Migration processes and European perceptions of Islam are just some of the topics he means.
Stora, a professor of history and sociology, is teaching three seminars at the Center for French Studies at Freie Universität this semester. His stay in Berlin, through a program funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the cultural affairs department of the French embassy in Germany, now offers him the opportunity to consider German history as well. After research and teaching stints in Hanoi and New York, Berlin is an “intellectual experience” that Stora is enjoying – despite the many inquiries from the media.