German Music in France During the Fin de siècle (1870-1914)

At the outbreak of World War I, British music critic Ernest Newman feared that the conflict would force the nation to purge itself of all continental musical influences, particularly those of the Germans. In the mind of the critic and his contemporaries, such a situation was not without precedent. According to the writer, “French music is still suffering in all sorts of ways since 1870. It is so small because it is so bent on being exclusively French. By its refusal to fertilise itself with the great German tradition it deliberately cuts itself off from permanent spiritual elements in that tradition that would give it a wider range and a deeper humanity.”1 The date of 1870 is not arbitrary, for it marks the event which would haunt the French national psyche until the First World War: The Franco-Prussian war. On the surface, Newman’s statement seems almost a foregone conclusion, as would be almost natural for the French to culturally extricate themselves from their foes that had so bitterly defeated them. However, as Martin Cooper implies, Newman’s claim (and those of many contemporary British music critics up to the Second World War) shows an ignorance and almost contempt the English had towards French music. He simply remarks that “French music is generally not popular in England.”2

Ernest Newman (1868-1959)

Still, despite this contempt and even ignorance of French music, Newman’s comment bears some merit. It is true that initially, the French did attempt to shun performances of German music (particularly Wagner) and cultivate their own composers and musical identity. In the case of the former, however, both historians and primary sources agree that by the 1880s, French nationalism largely gave way to a general forgiveness of German music (particularly in the case of Wagner). In the case of the latter, it is true that the French still sought to cultivate their own music (and succeeded with the Impressionist movement of Debussy and Ravel), but by the mid-1880s, musical groups and societies had little interest in ostracizing foreign music. Indeed, although it is true that a distinct French musical identity came about in the years between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, it had little to do with the former conflict and nationalistic attempts at purging France of German music, and in fact owed much to the continued popularity of composers such as Wagner, who would go on to directly influence the likes of Debussy. 

French Music After 1870

In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, the French musical community initially reacted by attempting to purge France of German composers such as Richard Wagner. As Marion Schmid notes, the French reaction to German music could be negative at times. In the case of Richard Wagner, one of “the most famous examples of the ideological controversies surrounding” the composer involves “the nationalist revulsion against his work after the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in a temporary ban of his operas in the 1870s and 1880s.”3 Even this ban of Wagner, however, seems less to do with the war and more to do with “the composer’s misguided taunting of the defeated French.”4  Nonetheless, Deirdre Donnellon notes that the post-war “climate…brought with it a decline in the popularity of foreign opera.”5  Furthermore, Camille Saint-Saens lambasted German music by remarking “nothing could be better than to go to Germany for masterpieces, but to go there for theories… even Richard Wagner’s theories are often pernicious; his works would not be what they are if he had always conformed to them; the harm they have done is incalculable.”6 This move away from foreign opera and disdain for Wagner proved short lived, for by the 1880s, the composer would be one of the cornerstones of French musical culture.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Additionally, several nationalistic musical groups and movements spurred from the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, although such efforts usually waned by the 1880s. Zoltan Roman described the formation of the Societe nationale de musique (SNM), a group founded in the wake of the fall of Sedan in 1871, with composer Gabriel Faure being a notable member. Among one of the goals of the SNM was “to inform itself by studying the unknown works (published or not) of French composers who belong to the society,” and “non-French persons may not become active members of the society.”7 While after 1886, the rules of the group lessened to include performances of non-French music, the group maintained its nationalist focus on promoting French composers. Although these French nationalistic tendencies developed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and even proved influential to the development of a distinct Franco-musical sound at the end of the century, they ultimately did little to purge the popularity of German music in the country during the late 1800s.

Purging Wagner in the Search For A French Musical Identity

Some continued to revile Wagner even after audiences generally forgave the composer and his ilk, although this disdain had little to do with the Franco-Prussian War itself and more to do with a search for a “French” musical identity in the wake of the continued popularity of German music. Robert Orledge, for example, acknowledged that Erik Satie “was a man of ideas who questioned every aspect of inherited nineteenth-century tradition and rejected its concepts of Romantic expressiveness and thematic development. He was the first to challenge Wagner’s pervasive influence on French music.”8 Jean Cocteau emphasizes this point when he recalled a 1891 conversation between Debussy and Erik Satie which showed the conflicting attitudes towards the German composer: 

“Satie asked Debussy what he was working on. Debussy, like everyone else, was writing a ‘Wagnerie’, on a text by Catulle Mendes. Satie grimaced. ‘Take my word for it,’ he murmured, ‘that’s enough of Wagner. It’s fine stuff, but it’s not ours. What’s needed…is for the orchestra not to pull a face when an actor comes on stage…the thing is to make musical scenery, not to create a musical climate in which the characters move and talk. No couplets, no leitmotifs- we should adopt a certain Puvis de Chavannes atmosphere.’”10 

Alongside Satie’s disdain for Germanic influences in French music, Cocteau also remarks the importance of the conversation on the development of Debussy’s later works, notably the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Furthermore, Cocteau implies that this movement in French music not only came about from Satie’s suggestion to Debussy, but also from the purging of Germanic musical influences from French compositions. Gertrude Schwartzman also points to the complex relationship which Claude Debussy had with the music of Richard Wagner during the late nineteenth century. While the composer “had become enthralled with Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde when he heard it for the first time at Bayreuth in 1881,” he would later “make fun of Wagner’s Tristan chord by slipping it into part of his Children’s Corner Suite, the Golliwog’s Cakewalk.”11 Furthermore, she acknowledges that “Debussy’s criticism of Wagner coincided with his desire to promote French music,” although makes no claim of tying this effort to post-war nationalism.12 Although Gabriel Faure made the pilgrimage to the Wagnerian Bayreuth festival in 1896, and gave the performances a positive review in a letter to his wife on August 5, J. Barrie Jones notes that “Faure did not admire Wagner’s music dramas without some reservations. In a letter to Marie dated 6 August he believed that ‘The Ring is stuffed with a philosophy and a quantity of symbols which are only manifestations of our misery and nothingness– no help at all.’”13 In regards to the music of Vincent d’Indy’s 1895 opera Fervaal, Norman Demuth remarked that “its symphonic propensities immediately raised a storm of indignation among those who saw it in a direct attempt to impinge Wagnerism on French art.”14

This turn of the century contempt for Wagner, however, seems little to do with the Franco-Prussian War or even a disdain for German music. On the contrary, much of the attacks on Wagner seem to be more iconoclastic appeals to separate French art away from the popularity of the composer, and the fear of the composers themselves being mere clones of the musical giant. This becomes more apparent in a 1900 letter Gabriel Faure wrote to his wife. In it, he laments that “as for work, it has reached a low point. Everything I have done seems ugly, and outrageously imitative of Wagner.”15 Additionally, in 1914, Maurice Ravel remarked 

“one might object that some twenty-years ago, an anti-Wagnerian movement became conspicuous among our young musicians… we had the right to express ourselves, and even the duty to do so. Wagner’s musical influence might have become disastrous in our country. One need only examine the important works written at that time: Fervaal, Le Roi Arthus, and even Gwendoline, in order to see a Wagnerian imprint here and there. Above all, one need only recall the deplorable multitude of theatrical works, chamber music, and songs, whose disproportion, heaviness, and sadness were so uninspired, that they have not survived these twenty years. Our inflexible position is therefore understandable.”16

Ravel doesn’t attack the music of Wagner itself, but rather the fact that French people adopted the Wagnerian influence to the point where it became a crutch to their own compositions. In fact, Ravel immediately acknowledges “Wagner’s prodigious creativeness and profound musicality.”17 Furthermore, very few of the attacks on Wagner make any mention of his ethnic background or of German music outside his sphere of influence. Wagner’s popularity in France, and not any resentment towards Germans following the Franco-Prussian war, therefore, made him the target of those who sought to extricate France from his influence.

The popularity of german music in the Fin de siècle

As the attacks on Wagner imply, the search for the French national musical identity had very little to do with the war itself, but more so to do with the prevalence of German music, both before and after the Franco-Prussian War. Martin Cooper, for example, argued that “the seeds of the new, post-war world had begun to germinate long before 1870.”18 Indeed, French national music existed long before the Franco-Prussian War, as composers such as Berlioz, Massanet and Gounod achieved pan-European prominence well before the conflict. Diedire Donnellon notes that even before the war “the success of Gounod’s Faust, Mireille, and Romeo et Juliette had already marked a change from the spectacle of grand opera in favour of greater emphasisi on sentimental characterization and emotional intensity.”19

French nationalism only went so far, however, as more often than not, German music was little affected in the years following the Franco-Prussian War, and, in the case of Wagner, became only more en vogue. In 1914, Lucian Nass described the reaction to an 1870 concert which featured pieces from Beethoven and Weber: 

they set upon the great classics, and the public, so ardently patriotic . .. praised the most beautiful passages by … German composers: Beethoven and Weber were applauded, moreover, by a public sufficiently intelligent not to confuse patriotism and chauvinism, and to welcome genius from whatever country it comes. It is difficult to imagine better proof of taste and artistic eclecticism than the example of these besieged inhabitants admiring, without reservation, the masterpieces of their enemies.20

Jess Tyre acknowledges the French separation of composers such as Beethoven with the Germans besieging Paris. She notes that “[French music critic Johannes] Weber…not only places Beethoven’s music above that of these popular composers, he elevates it to a politically ambiguous domain of aesthetics where the lines between prejudice and good taste are often blurred.”21 Furthermore, she remarks that, “the significance of Beethoven’s music can be divorced from the symbol of German creative power that the composer represents, for his art lives outside the scope of the Franco-Germanic conflict.”22  Additionally, she states that “both before and after the Franco-Prussian War, symphonic works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and other German masters dominated orchestral repertories in Paris.”23 Furthermore, many years after Satie’s initial encounter with Debussy, the former recalled “I explained to Debussy the necessity for a Frenchman to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure which in no way corresponded to our national aspirations. I told him that I was not anti-Wagner in any way, but that we ought to have our own music.”24 Satie’s concerns seem to have merit. Edward Lockspeiser notes that in the 1880s and 1890s, “the Wagnerian fever in Paris was at its height, important Wagnerian extracts being regularly given at the Paris Symphony concerts.”25 This mania is also reflected in the French “pilgrimage” to the Bayreuth festivals. As Lockspeiser remarks, “nowadays…we have some difficulty in reconstructing the religious conception of a pilgrimage associated with the Bayreuth festivals. The journey was undertaken precisely in this sanctified spirit, particularly by the numerous French visitors for whom the music of Wagner, especially after Parsifal, filled the new religious need.”26 The love for German music, therefore, not only prospered in France regardless of the Franco-Prussian War, but prevailed to such a degree that it at times even stifled the development of the French musical identity. 

The Impact of German music on french composers

Some historians and contemporaries argued that German music, particularly that of Wagner, made an important cultural impact on France even following the Franco-Prussian War, even directly influencing French composition. Jess Tyre remarked that “for writers…Beethoven would become a symbol of hope for an insecure France in the years following the war. Eventually the man and the music would be almost entirely appropriated within constructs of French cultural and political identity.”27 Although Camille Saint-Saens remarked that “Debussy has been praised for avoiding” Wagner, as “his music resembles in no way that of the author of Tristan,” many historians and biographers see a direct connection between the German composer and the development of Debussy’s Impressionism.28 Gertrude Schwartzman notes that the symbolist movement in the late nineteenth century, owed much to Wagner, for

It was the Wagnerian conception of art that had inspired the symbolist movement, the symbolist poets being particularly attracted to the way that Wagner combined words with sounds. They were also enamored by the symbolism of the musical leitmotif, and the mysticism, which stimulated their imagination.29

This admiration of Wagner, according to Schwartzman, continued throughout the 19th century and only waned once Debussy premiered his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Marie Rolf additionally emphasizes the role the Wagnerian leitmotif had in the development of symbolist/Impressionist music: “Borrowing from the leitmotiv treatment of Wagner, whose Tristan und Isolde he called ‘the most beautiful thing I know, from the point of view of depth and emotion,’… Debussy achieved a sense of germinal growth in [Printemps (1887)].”30 Furthermore, “he hinted at this compositional technique in letters from October and November 1885, in which…he speculated that ‘Wagner would help’ him.”31 Additionally, Edward Lockspeiser notes that even when Debussy is dismissive of the works of Wagner, as in the case of an 1893 letter, “Debussy’s anti-Wagnerism was to some extent a pose, designed to conceal both his admiration and his fear of Wagner. There is no evidence that Wagner’s huge, sensuous philosophy left him indifferent.”32 Lockspeiser is a bit unclear at this point as to whether Debussy held either strongly positive or negative feelings towards the German composer. It can be assumed, however, that Debussy’s feeling towards Wagner were positive, as Lockspeiser also notes that 

“with remarkable self-knowledge, [Debussy] writes in a letter of 19 October 1886: ‘Wagner could be of use to me, but I needn’t tell you how absurd it would even try.’… Debussy’s knowledge of Wagner at this time must have been limited…yet this judgement clearly anticipates the Wagnerian impact shortly to be made on deeper levels of his sensibility.”33

Like Lockspeiser, other Debussy biographers also note the importance Wagner had on the young composer. Victor I. Seroff remarked that “he spent weeks studying Tristain und Isolde for at that time he was Wagnerian to the point of forgetting the most elementary principles of courtesy.’”34 J. Barrie Jones notes that Gabriel Faure was unusual amongst his contemporaries for the lack of Wagnerian influence in his work. He notes that 

“although Wagner fever was soon to reach it height in Paris [around 1880] affecting composers as diverse in their aims as d’Indy, Chabrier and Debussy…[Faure’s] musical idiom was hardly, if ever, influenced by Wagner, and this cannot be said for a great majority of his French contemporaries.”35

Even the iconoclastic Faure acknowledged the debt French composers had to German music. In his prologue to Georges Jean-Aubry’s French Music of To-Day, the composer “argued against what he perceived as an insular French view of cultural history, pleading for the continued acknowledgement of the salutary influence of the German contribution to French music and literature.”36 


Ultimately, Ernest Newman’s assessment of French musical isolationism in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war comes off as not only incorrect, but even ignorant when one considers the pervasiveness of German music, particularly that of Richard Wagner, among French audiences in the decades between the composer’s death and World War I. While it is true that the French made some nationalistic efforts to promote their own music at the expense of Germanic composers, these efforts ultimately bore little fruit. On the contrary, roughly a decade after the Franco-Prussian War, “Wagnermania” swept across France, leading not only to the popularity of German music in France during the late nineteenth century, but also many French composers and musicians to take the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see the city’s Wagnerian festivals. The near-religious reverence which the French held for Wagner caused Frenchman such as Erik Satie, Gabriel Faure, and Claude Debussy to distance themselves from the German composer and attempt to create a distinct French musical sound free from his influence. Nonetheless, this seperate of French music from the grip of Wagner was incomplete, and even the most ardent supporters of a distinct French national musical identity acknowledged the debt that it owed to the music of the German composer. 


1  Ernest Newman, “The War and the Future of Music,” from The Musical Times 55, no. 859 (Sept. 1914), 572. 

2  Martin Cooper, French Music From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure, (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 1. 

 3  Marion Schmid, “The French Press Campaign against Wagner during World War I,” from French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870-1939, ed. Barbara L. Kelly, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008), 77.  

4  Deirdre Donnellon, “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates,” from French Music Since Berlioz, eds. Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter, (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 2. In a footnote, he elaborates that “the composer’s remarks were undoubtedly a symptom of his bitterness towards the French following the resounding failure of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.”

5  Ibid. 

6  Camille Saint-Saens, “German Influence,” on Musicians on Music, ed. Ferruccio Bonavia, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul LTD, 1956), 82.. 

7  Excerpt from the “Statuts de la Societe Nationale en 1871,” quoted in Zoltan Roman “Gradus ad Parnassum: Selected Early Songs of Gabriel Fauré in the Socio-Cultural Context of His Time,” from Studia Musicologica 48, No. 1/2 (Mar., 2007), 12

8 Zoltan Roman “Gradus ad Parnassum,” 12. Furthermore, Deirdre Donnellon notes this shift when he remarks that “In 1886 Vincent d’Indy introduced a motion to allow foreign music to be performed at the Societe nationale ” in footnote of Deirdre Donnellon, “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates,” 3.

9  Robert Orledge, ed., Satie Remembered, (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995), 141. 

10  Robert Orledge, ed., “Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)”, from Satie Remembered, 45-46.

11 Gertrude Schwartzman, “Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande: Secrecy, mystery and ambiguity in Debussy’s life and art,” from International Forum of Psychoanalysis 25, No. 1 (2016), 34.

12 Ibid.

13  J. Barrie Jones, ed., Gabriel Faure: A Life In Letters, (London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1989), 79.

14  Norman Demuth, Vincent d’Indy, 1851-1931: Champion of Classicism, (Salisbury: Rockliff, 1951), 48.

15 J. Barrie Jones, Gabriel Faure: A Life In Letters, 96.

16 Maurice Ravel, “Parsifal,” from A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, ed. Arbie Orenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 376.

17 Ibid., 376-377..

18 Cooper, French Music, 8.

19 Deirdre Donnellon, “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates,” 2.

20 486*’, Essais de pathologie historique (Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1914), 72. Translated quote lifted from Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” from The Journal of Musicology , Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring 2005), 179. 

21 Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” 181.

22 Ibid.

 23 Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” 182.

24 Victor I. Seroff, Debussy: Musician of France, (New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1956), 111.

25 Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, Vol. 1, 1862-1902, (London: Cassell, 1962), 90.

26 Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 92.

 27 Jess Tyre, “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune,” 180.

 28 Camille Saint-Saens, “German Influence,” in Musicians on Music, 82-83.

 29 Schwartzman, “Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande,” 34 

30 Marie Rolf “Debussy’s Rites of Spring,” from Rethinking Debussy, eds. Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 17. 

 31 Ibid.

 32 Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 91.

 33 Ibid, 76.

 34 Seroff, Debussy: Musician of France, 73.

 35 J. Barrie Jones, Gabriel Faure: A Life in Letters, 51.

36 Zoltan Roman “Gradus ad Parnassum,” 11.

works cited

Cooper, Martin. French Music From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Demuth, Norman. Vincent d’Indy, 1851-1931: Champion of Classicism. Salisbury: Rockliff, 1951.

Donnellon, Deirdre. “French Music Since Berlioz: Issues and Debates.” In French Music Since Berlioz, edited by Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006:  1-18.

Jones, J. Barrie, ed.Gabriel Faure: A Life In Letter.London: B.T. Batsford LTD, 1989.

Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind, Vol. 1, 1862-1902. London: Cassell, 1962.

Newman, Ernest. “The War and the Future of Music.” The Musical Times 55, no. 859 (Sept. 1914): 571-572. 

Orledge, Robert, ed.Satie Remembered. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995.

Ravel, Maurice. “Parsifal.” In A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, edited by Arbie Orenstein New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Rolf, Marie. “Debussy’s Rites of Spring.” In Rethinking Debussy, edited by Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Roman, Zoltan. “Gradus ad Parnassum: Selected Early Songs of Gabriel Fauré in the Socio-Cultural Context of His Time.” In Studia Musicologica 48, No. 1/2 (Mar., 2007):  5-44.

Saint-Saens, Camille. “German Influence.” In Musicians on Music, ed. Ferruccio Bonavia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul LTD, 1956: 82-83.

Schmid, Marion. “A Bas Wagner: The French Press Campaign against Wagner during World War I.” In French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870-1939, edited by Barbara L. Kelly. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008: 77-91.

Schwartzman, Gertrude. “Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande: Secrecy, mystery and ambiguity in Debussy’s life and art.” In International Forum of Psychoanalysis 25, No. 1 (2016): 1-9.

Seroff, Victor I. Debussy: Musician of France. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1956.)

Tyre, Jess. “Music in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune.” In The Journal of Musicology 22, No. 2 (Spring 2005): 173-202.

The Search for Berber Identity: Kabyle Nationalism, 1949-1980

In “Between Algeria and France: The Origins of the Berber Movement,” Fazia Aïtel describes a notable 1977 soccer match involving the Kabyle Berber team (Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie, or JSK) at the Algerian Cup soccer tournament:

“…the stadium was full and President Boumedienne attended the event. Nearly all the spectators, possibly 90 per cent of them, were Kabyle and the game became a focus for the Berber cause. Many incidents took place during the game. The president was booed… and the singing of the national anthem was disrupted as was the minute’s silence for the martyrs of the revolution. The JSK won the game and, given the tension in the stadium, the president had to leave via an underground passageway. The crowd celebrated the victory and marched towards the centre of Algiers carrying banners written in Tifinagh (the Berber language)… for the first time, a new word appeared and was chanted by the spectators: ‘imazighen’.”1

The incident proved a notable precursor to the ‘Berber Spring’ riots which occured only three years later, and came about as a result of a relatively recent surge of nationalism.  Although Kabyle nationalists would use the 1949 “Berberist crisis” within the Algerian People’s Party as a starting point for the establishment of their identity, nationalistic fervour only emerged in Algeria the decades following independence and government-sanctioned Arabization. While the period of 1949 to 1980 proved crucial to the development of modern Kabyle national identity, the topic has been little approached by historians in the English-speaking world.2 With its roots in the 1949 “Berberist Crisis,” Amazigh nationalism, and its attempt to distinguish itself from French and Arabo-Islamic influence, evolved as a response to Arabization throughout the 1960s and the 1970s through Berber music, literature, language, and education, culminating in the “Berber Spring” of 1980. 

Pre-Independence Amazigh Identity

Early on, the Kabyle nation showed relatively little interest in having a separate national identity from the Arabs. In a 1993 interview, the “local representative for the ultra-secular RCD party,” recalled that “most of the parents of his generation… did not distinguish between Muslims and Arabs; for older Kabyles, the claim that ‘We are not Arab’ was tantamount to renouncing their Muslim identity, an unthinkable prospect.”3 Instead, it seems that Kabyles focused their energies on a united Algerian national identity which sought to separate itself from French imperial influence.

In her memoirs, Fadhma Amrouche, a Kabyle Christian, also mentions her disdain for French colonial rule: “As I set foot on Algerian soil [in 1957], I said, ‘Farewell, France!’”4 This is best epitomized by the attempts of the French to play Berber and Arab nationalism against each other during the Independence War, usually to great failure.5 Berbers such as Belkacem Krim and Ait Ahmed proved among the most important leaders for Algerian independence, and, as Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes, “Kabylians held commanding positions or were disproportionately represented in nearly every political and military grouping in the struggle against French rule.”6

However, to say that Berber nationalism during the independence war and before was merely anti-French oversimplifies the issue. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, for example, recognized the sometimes paradoxical views of Berber national identity when he described how nationalist leaders “emphasized the historical continuity of the Berbers in their resistance to foreign rule and assimilation… opposing assimilation did not preclude being steeped in the ways of the French language and culture, while also emphasizing fidelity to the Berber language and communal traditions, which could and should underpin the political culture of independent Algeria.”7 Additionally, he acknowledges that “the Kabylians disproportionate participation in the newly established French educational system resulted in French becoming the Kabylians’ second language to an even greater extent than among the rest of Algeria’s Muslims.”8 This is emphasized when Berber writer Katib Yacine stated that “the deepest alienation for an Algerian is not to think that he is French, but that he is an Arab.”9 Furthermore, during the war, Edgar O’Ballance notes,“Berber tribal leaders…were deeply engrossed in feuds, and several nominally either joined the insurgents, or declared for the French, with the sole object of obtaining arms for their own private uses.”10 Fadima Larouche implied this lack of Berber unity when she remembered her own precarious situation among the Kabyles and to the French, when she remarked “To the Kabyles, we were…renegades…to the army, we were Wogs, like all the rest.”11  The Berbers’ complex relationship with the French ultimately proved a fundamental aspect of Amazigh nationalism in post-colonial Algeria, becoming detrimental to the Kabyle population in the wake of the Arabized Algerian nation.


During the colonial and post-independence eras, Algerian nationalists and government officials pushed for a unified Arabo-Islamic nation, smothering Berber culture in the process. Arabization, headed by Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj, sprung out of the earliest efforts of Algerian nationalism, beginning in the 1930s. As Benjamin Stora notes, the goal of Arabization was quite simple, to start anew in the wake of colonialism, described as “the battle against the perpetuation of the French language.”12 Martin Stone similarly reported that “the objective” of the program, “was the full transformation of of a Maghrebi European society into a purely Arab one.”13 Upon independence, Algerian presidents Ben Bella and Boumedienne implemented a policy of Arabisation based on the values of Messali, as “an attempt to restore a so-called “Algerian” identity to Algeria, aggressive Arabization measures were taken to eradicate all traces of the colonial past.”14 As Fazia Aïtel noted, “the process of Arabisation – which was to be implemented in classical Arabic, which few people in Algeria spoke or read – was intended to permeate all aspects of everyday life.”15 Furthermore, the imposition of classical Arabic “was often accompanied by a programme of Islamisation – that is, the enforcement of an orthodox notion of Islam displacing or eradicating North African traditional Muslim practices”16 This move away from French culture most directly hurt the Kabyle population, whose national identity was more influenced by the colonizers than their Arab counterparts. As Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress note, “the growing use of the written form [of Arabic] as the traditional language of literacy and educated speech in place of French had begun to threaten those Berbers who… had enjoyed an advantage from their proficiency in French, but for whom standard Arabic was a third or even fourth language.”17  Furthermore, they remark that Arabization went beyond simply a standardization of language and religion: 

“Direct cultural repression was a phenomenon that started as early as the mid-1960s, when the transmissions of the one Berber radio station became limited to four hours a day, and it became illegal to give children Berber names. Systematic repression of festivals, of musical groups, and finally the abolition of Mammeri’s course in Berber at the University of Algiers were all aimed at establishing the linguistic and cultural unity of the country, preventing the growth of Berberism into a political force.”18

The prevalence of Arabization in Algeria, intending to unify Algeria under classical Arabic and traditional Islam, instead galvanized the Berber population, who felt their own culture getting smothered.

1949 “Berberist Crisis”

The first major issue of Kabyle nationalism came about during the 1949 “Berberist Crisis,” in the PPA-MTLD, where Amazigh leaders opposed Messali’s Arabization policies. Kabyle nationalists, inspired by secularism and communism and led by intellectuals such as Yahia Henine, Mabrouk Belhocine, and Sadek Hadjeres, directly opposed Ahmed ben Messali’s Arabic and religiously Islamic view of Algeria. They argued that Berber and Algerian Arabic dialects were the languages of the nation, and not the fusha recommended by Messali.

More notably, many of the movement’s followers were more militant than those of the Arabo-Islamic movement. As Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes, Messali and his ilk emphasized the distinct nature of Berber national followers by saying that “Kabyles could not be real Algerians, it was said, so long as they spoke the ‘jargon’ which ‘burns our ears.”19 Messali also accused the Berbers of being pawns of the French imperialists, who allegedly used Kabyle nationalism as a dividing factor within the party. Ultimately, the “Berberist” movement failed to gain any real traction, as many of the most radical aspects were purged out of the party and the issue was fundamentally swept aside. Azzedine Layachi briefly described the conclusion of the crisis when she remarked, “many Berber militants in the PPA and the MTLD ended up either leaving the movement or being thrown out. Others were assassinated.”20 While the crisis was quickly extinguished, it would remain as a rallying point for Berber nationalists during the post-independence era. As John Ruedy notes, “while these problems were eventually papered over, they were not resolved and would resurface from time to time as major issues in Algerian politics.”21 While the movement was relatively brief and quickly stamped out of the PPA-MTLD, and had little popular support, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes that it showed the complexities of national identity in Algeria, and served as a catalyst for the intense clash between the Arabists and the Berbers in the post-colonial era.22

Post-Colonial Berber Cultural Identity


In the 1960s and 1970s, despite facing pressure from an Arabized government, Kabyles began developing a sense of cultural identity through the popularization of Berber music, literature, language, and education. Music proved an essential part of the development of Amazigh identity. In 1969, Berber radical Mohand-Arav Bessaoud “organized the first Berber concert with great success,” using the event to spearhead the new Berber academy in France.23 For example, the very word “Amazigh,” (meaning “free people”) which Berbers would use as a part of their self-identity did not appear in the public consciousness until 1976, when Idir used the word in his song “Muqley.”24 Furthermore, Jane Goodman notes that the music of Idir helped propel Kabyle identity to the forefront, giving Berber identity an increased global recognition, particularly with the 1973 song “A vava inouva.”25 Furthermore, Fazia Aïtel recognizes the music of 1970s Berber singer Taos Amrouche as an important musical development in Amazigh nationalism. She remarks that Amrouche

“sang traditional Berber songs… though she gave these songs a particular dimension, singing them and recording them as part of a patrimony on the brink of extinction. Singing outside her own community to foreign audiences in France and elsewhere… she coupled her recitals with a new discourse about authenticity and the danger her Berber heritage faced – a patrimony that, she reminded her audience, also belonged to the world, so it was important for it be saved and protected…Her role, then, was predominantly involved with the recognition of the Berber situation and the cultural and historical mission of its supporters. She endowed her songs with an international prestige and provided them with a place in world music.”26

Idir ““A vava inouva” (1973)

The importance of music in Kabyle nationalism, therefore, cannot be understated, as the resurgence of traditional Berber songs (via Taos Amrouche) and Amazigh-inspired folk music (like Idir) provide a valuable voice for Kabyles, both in Algeria and beyond. 


In Algeria and France, Berbers further strove to establish their identity by codifying and popularizing their languages. In 1968, for example, students of the University of Algiers formed the Cercle Culturel Berbère, which created the journal called Taftilt (‘Light’). Around the same time, another journal named Itij (‘Sun’) emerged, using the Tifinagh script.27 More important, however, was the subsequent popularization of the Berber language through the efforts of Mohand-Arav Bessaoud. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he “continued to address the working-class Berber constituency, and with the help of students and factory workers he published a bilingual monthly bulletin (in French and Berber) called Imazighène,” which sought to “focus was on the ancient history of North Africa and the defence of the Amazigh language.”28 Fazia Aïtel noted the popularity of the bulletin amongst Algerian students: “While its radicalism and sometimes virulent content led some to dismiss it or to disassociate themselves from it, the impression it left on students in Algeria was unforgettable. [Berber writer] Saïd Khelil…recounts ‘the emotional charge’ conveyed by the simple use of the Tifinagh alphabet.”29 In the 1970s Mouloud Mammeri “produced the first grammar of Kabyle Berber that was written entirely in Berber…and supervised a team of students who produced Amawal, the dictionary of Tamazight neologisms.”30 Around the same time, Kateb Yacine pushed for the popularization of Berber languages when he “encouraged the Kabyle translation of his play Mohammed prends ta valise” and “helped students to stage the play” with great success around Kabylia.31 As Azzedine Layachi writes, this linguistic push was not in vain, for “this cultural output [including music and literature] helped improve the status among the young of the Berber language in relationship to the formal Arabic and the national dialect.”32 These effort of codifying and popularizing the Berber language and alphabet, therefore, helped push it to a wider audience, helping preserve Kabyle identity in the face of heavy Arabization. 

Mouloud Mammeri


Another essential element in the development of Berber self identity against Arabization was the growth of Kabyle-centered education, both in Algeria and in France. Berber-focused academia began in France during the 1970s, when the Groupe d’Études berbères at the University of Paris VIII “started to function in 1973 and fully emerged with the adoption by the university of a programme of courses in the Berber language and civilisation taught by Professor M’barek Redjala.”33 While the French Berber efforts proved important in promoting Kabyle identity in France and Algeria, the development of the University of Tizi-Ouzou proved absolutely essential to the development of Kayble identity. While the state opened the University in 1977 to ease overcrowding in the University of Algiers, however, its admission of largely Berber students caused it to evolve into a hotbed of Amazigh nationalism and discussion. Jane Freeman notes that by 1980, “the university was also a place where new forms of social organization were emerging. Young men from different villages and regions were coming together in a state-centered location, where age- and lineage-based conventions of public speaking that prevailed in their villages of origin were no longer operative.”34  Historians generally believe that the existence of the University directly played into “Berber Spring.” Bruce Maddy-Weitzman claimed that the university’s establishment and its push back against Arabization was one of the key precursors of the Berber insurrection.35 Jane Goodman takes this development a step further when she noted that “the events of April 1980 took on such importance because they occurred in a location where several rapidly expanding institutional networks converged…in particular, the University of Tizi Ouzou Hasnaoua.”36 The importance of Berber academia in the development of Kabyle nationalism cannot be understated, as it helped focus Berber identity into a more unified form. 

1980 “Berber Spring”

The development of Kabyle nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s culminated in the 1980 “Berber Spring,” the biggest development in modern Amazigh nationalism. As Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji succinctly describe the event, “an official decision to ban a lecture on Berber poetry at Tizi-Ouzou University in Kabylia coincided with protests and several days of unrest and clashes with police that left between thirty and fifty persons dead and hundreds wounded.”37 As Jane Goodman notes, “echoes were felt as far away as Paris, where some 600 demonstrated…at the Algerian embassy, against the orders of French authorities.”38 While the riots themselves were massive in scale, they alone did not turn “Berber Spring” into a defining moment in Kabyle identity. As Andrews and Ennaji point out, “the ban…galvanized students and teachers to take advantage of university organizations to cooperate with other Kabyle groups against the Algerian government.”39 While Kabyle protests were nothing new, historians and Berbers generally agree that “Berber Spring” marked the beginning of a united sense of Amazigh culture in opposition to Algerian Arabization. Andrews and Ennaji remark that, “the scope of the protests, the nature of their demands, and the ensuing crackdown ensured that the Berber genie could not be put back in the bottle…Berber Spring gave birth to a powerful ideology that linked the diverse concerns of Kabylia’s Berbers and gave them a common voice.”40 Berber Spring proved so pivotal to Kabyle identity that Berbers unofficially commemorate the event every year in Algeria and France.41 Jane Goodman describes the importance of the event in Berber consciousness when she notes its application both “forward and backward, superimposed on other violent episodes in Kabyles’ relation to the state”:

A deadly 1949 clash between Berberists and Arabo-Islamists over the question of Algeria’s national language is construed by one scholar as ‘the first Berber Spring’…alternatively, the Berber Spring has been seen as inflecting a later event…for example, a period of violence that began in April 2001… is popularly termed the ‘Black Spring,’ despite the fact that the insurrection lasted for well over a year.42

Thus, a 1980 protest which started from the government ban of a Kabyle lecture proved a pivotal moment in Berber identity in Algeria, as it for the first time presented Amazigh culture in unified opposition to Arabization, and became a symbol of Kabyle resistance. 


While “Berber Spring” proved the watershed moment in the development of modern Kabyle identity, it was most certainly not the first event. Instead, it arose from a rising sense of Amazigh identity throughout the 20th century, most often as a response of the Arabization in nationalist movements and government policies. The first notable attempt at establishing a Berber idea came in the 1949 “Berberist Crisis,” a failed attempt at bringing Kabyle issues to the fore in the Algerian People’s Party. While this ended in disaster, it provided impetus to galvanize Amazigh nationalists following Algeria’s independence. While the Algerian government imposed Arabized measures on the Kayble populace, Berbers pushed back by promoting their own music, language, and academia in the 1960s and 1970s, subsequently leading to the nationalist explosion of “Berber Spring.” Although the “Berber Spring” proved essential in the development of Kabyle national identity, the subject remains a contentious one even into the 21st century, with the Amazigh population still searching for their role in the mostly Arabized Algeria.


1 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France: The Origins of the Berber Movement,” from French Cultural Studies 24, no. 1 (2013), 66. This paper uses the word ‘amazigh’ in place of ‘imazighen’ to describe Berber identity. 

2 The historiography of Berber national identity has been relatively unexplored, particularly in the English-speaking world. Many of the sources from the period of 1949 to the 1960s reflect this relative lack of interest in an identity distinct from “Algerian.” Much of the European literature often conflates the Berbers with the Arabs, particularly when reporting on the war, although some works such as Pierre Bourdieu’s The Algerians (1962) and Edgar O’Ballance’s The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62 (1967) attempt to describe the Kabyle population as distinct from the Arabs. Some sources, such as Fatima Amrouche’s autobiography, along with the literary works of Taos Amrouche, Katib Yacine, and Mouloud Mammeri reflect the complexities of Berber nationalism in the pre-independence period. Historians writing outside of Algeria tended to ignore Amazigh nationalism until the period of the Algerian Civil War, when Jane Goodman began interivewing Berbers about their memories of “Berber Spring” and its fallout, and Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress published their survey of the Berbers in 1996. Following the “Black Spring”violence of 2001, some more historians, notably Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Faiza Aïtel approached Berber nationalism, with the former emphasizing the role of Berbers in politics and the latter emphasizing the role of culture and national identity. Still, many historians of Algeria, such as Martin Evans and Martin Stone tend to make mere passing references to Kabyle nationalism, underplaying the role of the Berbers in many of the trials the country faced following independence. 

 3 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005), 32. 

4 Fadma Amrouche, My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman, Dorothy S. Blair, trans. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 166.

5 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Question in Algeria: Nationalism in the Making?” in  Minorities and the State in the Arab World, eds.Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor, (Boulder, CO:  Lynne Rienner, 1998), 32 and Edgar O’Ballance in O’Ballance, The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1967) 71. 

6 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Question in Algeria,” 37. The importance of Belkacem Krim in particular was noted by contemporaries such as O’Ballance in The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62, 47. 

7 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. 1st ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 46

8 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Question in Algeria,” 35.

9 Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen: The Development of Algerian Berber Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014), 111. 

10 O’Ballance, The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62, (Hamden: Archon Books, 1967), 49 

11 Fadma Amrouche, My Life Story, 167.

12 Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, trans. Jane Mary Todd (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001), 169-170.

13 Martin Stone, Agony of Algeria, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 52. 

14 Quote from  Janice B. Gross,”The Tragedy of Algeria: Slimane Benaïssa’s Drama of Terrorism,” from Theatre Journal 54, no. 3 (2002), 371. Martin Stone, Agony of Algeria, 52, describes the process and goals in greater detail

15 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 64. 

16 Quote from Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 64. Azzedine Layachi, “The Berbers in Algeria: Politicized Ethnicity and Ethnicized Politics,” from Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies, ed. Maya Shatzmiller (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 204-205, goes into much further detail about Kabyle resistance to Islamization. 

17 Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996), 273.

18 Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers,  274.

19 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 47

20 Azzedine Layachi, “The Berbers in Algeria”, 201. 

21 John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 154. Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 108-109 and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 45-47 discuss this incident and its importance to Berber identity in great detail. 

22 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 47. 

 23 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,”  67.

24 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 30.

25 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 49, Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen, 120, and Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 70.

26 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 69.

 27 Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen, 121, and “Between Algeria and France,” 71.

 28 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 67.

 29 Ibid. 

30 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 113. 

 31 Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen, 121

 32 Azzedine Layachi, “The Berbers in Algeria”, 202.

 33 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 67.

 34 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 41.

 35 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 81. 

36 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 33.

37 Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji, “Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco,” from Minorites, Women and the State in North Africa, ed. Moha Ennaji (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2016), 64. Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, 357, agrees with the estimates of Andrews and Ennaji. Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 33, contests these numbers, stating that no one died in 1980. 

38 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 30.

39 Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji, “Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco,” 76-77. 

40 Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji, “Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco,” 77. 

41 Ibid., and  Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 30.

42 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 33.

Works Cited

Aïtel, Fazia. “Between Algeria and France: The Origins of the Berber Movement.” French Cultural Studies 24, no. 1 (2013): 63-76.

Aïtel, Fazia. We Are Imazighen: The Development of Algerian Berber Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014.

Brett, Michael, and Fentress, Elizabeth. The Berbers. Peoples of Africa.: Blackwell, 1996.

Amrouche, Fadhma A. M., and Dorothy S. Blair, trans. My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Andrews, Mathew and Moha Ennaji.“Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco.” In Minorites, Women and the State in North Africa, edited by Moha Ennaji, 63-84. Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2016. 

Evans, Martin. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 

Goodman, Jane E. Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Gross, Janice B. “The Tragedy of Algeria: Slimane Benaïssa’s Drama of Terrorism.” Theatre Journal 54, no. 3 (2002): 369-87.

Layachi, Azzedine. “The Berbers in Algeria: Politicized Ethnicity and Ethnicized Politics.” In Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies. Edited by Maya Shatzmiller, 195-228. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. “The Berber Question in Algeria:  Nationalism in the Making?,” in Minorities and the State in the Arab World, edited by Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor, 31-52. Boulder, CO:  Lynne Rienner, 1998.

O’Ballance, Edgar. The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62. Hamden: Archon Books, 1967.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 

Stone, Martin. The Agony of Algeria. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Stora, Benjamin.  Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History. Translated by Jane Mary Todd. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001.