Commemoration of Maurice Audin's thesis

Laurent Schwartz published Commémoration de la thèse de Maurice Audin assassiné pendant la guerre d'Algérie in Gaz. Math., Soc. Math. Fr. 75 (1998), 11-16. In this article he described the 1997 celebration of the 1957 posthumous defence of Maurice Audin's thesis on the fortieth anniversary of the event. We give below an English language version of Laurent Schwartz's article, but first we give a review of the paper:

Review of Laurent Schwartz's article.
The well-known French analyst and opponent of the French war in Algeria (1954-1962) reports on the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the presentation "in absentia" of Maurice Audin's thesis in December 1957. Audin, a communist from Algiers, had been arrested in June 1957, and vanished after torture by French soldiers. The posthumous presentation of Audin's thesis on topological vector spaces, which was, according to Schwartz, "totally original" and contained one "beautiful spectral theorem", was generally understood as a sign of protest against the war by French universities. It led to the donation of a "Prix Audin" and to the foundation of a "Comité Audin" that pressed for the prosecution of war crimes in Algeria.
Commemoration of the thesis of Maurice Audin who was killed during the Algerian war.
The posthumous defence of the thesis of the mathematician Maurice Audin took place on 2 December 1957; it was an important event in the Algerian war. On 2 December 1997 more than 250 people, including some thirty mathematicians, met in the Hermite amphitheatre of the Henri Poincaré Institute, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of this event. Michèle Gendreau-Massaloux, Rector of the Paris Academy and Chancellor of the Universities, presided over the meeting. With her at the tribute were former members of the Audin Committee (Madeleine Rebérioux, historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, historian, Jacques Panijel, biologist, and me) and Josette Audin, his widow. In the room were her three children, Michèle, professor of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg, Louis and Pierre, and all her grandchildren, The big white screen of the IHP showed a beautiful portrait of Maurice Audin two years before his death.

The war in Algeria lasted eight years, from 1 November 1954 to 19 March 1962. It was atrocious, abuses were committed on both sides, but considerably more numerous on the French side: 50,000 French dead, 500,000 Algerian dead and more than one million tortured Algerians; 1.5 million peasants locked up in "regroupment camps", which were nothing like the Nazi camps, but made those in them entirely dependent on the French soldiers. The war nearly destroyed our republican institutions. After the legislative elections of 1956, Guy Mollet became President of the Council on February 1st. It was located to the left of the Socialist Party, everyone felt he would take important initiatives for peace. However, after a short trip to Algeria on 6 February, during which he received a rain of tomatoes from the colonists, he made a sudden turn, and replaced General Catroux by Robert Lacoste as Minister resident in Algiers. He obtained special powers by a strong majority on 12 March. Robert Lacoste entrusted the full powers to General Massu on 7 January 1957 to put down the rebellion by "all means". Instances of torture, assassinations, massacres, lawsuits, or death sentences were then repeated. Torture was taught in a military school. Of the 18,000 prisoners arrested from January to September 1957, Paul Teitgen, a senior official, Secretary General in charge of general police of the Prefecture of Algiers, formerly deported, brother of a former minister, a Christian of extreme honesty, counted 3,024 permanent disappearances for more than 18,000 arrests.

It is in this frightful context that I received, in the spring of 1957, a visit from Maurice Audin. In Algiers, he had been a pupil of René de Possel, a professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Algiers, who, as a member of Bourbaki, had introduced me in 1940 to the new methods of "this" mathematician, teaching me general topology, uniform structures, filters, abstract differentiable varieties and their tangent vector spaces. Audin had become de Possel's assistant and had begun, advised by him, a thesis on some properties of vector spaces. He wanted to finish his thesis with me, on de Possel's advice. Unfortunately, I considered that this thesis was not yet ready and that it would take several months to develop it. He explained to me that he was a member of the PCA (Communist Party of Algeria), banned and very strongly pursued by the paratroopers of Algiers. I was completely internationalist and anticolonialist, and from the first days I had taken sides for the independence of Algeria. So I immediately understood the dark threats that weighed on Audin. On 11 June 1957, he was arrested. Several paratroopers invaded his apartment at about 11 pm and took him away; he said to his wife Josette, "If it is reasonable, you will see me again in an hour," he never reappeared. Several soldiers impounded her at home, without any news from outside, until 15 June. They agreed, inevitably, to do some shopping for her because she had her three children at home, aged three years, twenty months and one month. She was mortally worried but could not warn anyone. As soon as she was free, she displayed extraordinary activity to hear from her husband; she sent letters, telegrams, to all possible and imaginable authorities. The first official news arrived on 1 July: she was told that during a jeep ride on 21 June he jumped out of the car and escaped into hiding and had not been found. This left room for the worst assumptions. No other official version was ever given. On 12 June, Henri Alleg was arrested; also member of the PCA and an excellent friend of Audin, he went to his house, but a trap had been organised; he perceived it quickly on arriving; he presented himself as an insurance agent, but was not believed, was arrested, and transported to the El Biar Centre where he found Audin was already. He was horribly tortured, like Audin, immediately after his arrest, and described what he had suffered in a book that went around the world, The Question, Editions de Minuit (Jérôme Lindon), February 1958. This book was seized 7 weeks after its release, but still published, by Testimonials and Documents, the Journal of the Audin Committee. He tells how he met Audin at El Biar: they were put in together, and Audin simply told him: "It's hard, Henri". Little progress was made in the knowledge of reality during the summer of 1957, but in autumn two new circumstances appeared. The first is an initiative of de Possel: why not pass the thesis of Audin at the Sorbonne "in absentia", (in fact a posthumous thesis)? We went to Dean Joseph Pérès who perfectly accepted the solution. He did not lack civic courage: after the thesis, he received the press, and said it was a "normal pedagogical procedure". Not so normal: I've never heard of another example before or after. The jury would be composed of Jean Favard, President, myself rapporteur, and Jacques Dixmier, the third member of the jury. It was decided that de Possel would present Audin's results on the board. The day set for the thesis was 2 December.

The written thesis (of which I showed a copy at the ceremony) contained a number of errors or inadequacies. Dixmier and I made corrections in a four-page erratum. If, indeed, we had begun to correct the errors in the text, nobody would have known whether it was the thesis of Audin or of Dixmier and me. But the thesis retains its value, and it was necessary to admit the errors since it was submitted after the death of Audin and it could not be completed. The defence was very moving. The small room of the Sorbonne was filled, not only many mathematicians attended, but also many people active in the fight against the war in Algeria. François Mauriac attended and described the session in his next notebook of L'Express; Josette Audin was present. At the beginning of the meeting, President Favard asked aloud in the room: "Is Maurice Audin present?" I had found this idea a bit far-fetched, but he was right, and the total silence that followed was very awe inspiring. (In fact Audin was already dead.) Favard then asked de Possel to explain the thesis, which he did very well. ...

This thesis had extraordinary repercussions in France, it was a real detonator in the middle of the resistance to the war of Algeria. The president Thorp said to me: "It is the revolt of the University". I myself used this sentence as the title of an article requested by L'Express, where I explained the situation. A very large picture of me illustrated the cover. My students at the Henri Poincaré Institute, where I usually delivered my Mathematical Methods of Physics course in the Hermite amphitheatre, covered the clock of the amphitheatre with this picture. I used to watch the clock from time to time during the class: I did not do it right away. As soon as I did, I obviously saw everything and laughed. The students applauded, wanting to show their overall solidarity with what we had just done. The intellectuals were the main resistance against the Algerian war and, among them, solidly, the students. They were concerned in primary importance: the young soldiers or officers of the contingent were sent to war in Algeria. It was extremely traumatic for them because the majority of them would hear about torture, or witness torture, or forced to torture; a small minority did it voluntarily.

After the thesis, a subscription was launched among the mathematicians for the foundation of a Maurice Audin prize, which raised 500,000 francs. Five Audin prizes of 100,000 francs were awarded: the first year to Michel Lazard, who has since died, the second year to André Néron, also dead, and to Jean-Pierre Kahane, the third year to Paul André Meyer and Pierre Cartier. Mathematicians were leading in the resistance to the Algerian war. I believe that this is partly due to the very "pure" state of mind of mathematicians in the midst of all other intellectuals, but Audin's thesis, an act entirely theirs, has completely launched them into the battle.

The second event that changed the circumstances was the founding of the Maurice Audin committee in November 1957, just before the thesis. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a world-renowned historian of ancient Greece, was the Sherlock Holmes of the Committee; despite the official lies, he reconstructed all the circumstances of the torture and assassination of Audin by Lieutenant Charbonnier: he, during a torture session on 21 June (so 10 days after his arrest!) was seized with a fit of rage and, with a brutal gesture, strangled Audin. The team of torturers was then frightened of the consequences of this act: Audin was not an unknown Muslim but a French, university, member of a party which possessed an important parliamentary group and a press; it needed another "acceptable" version of the disappearance. The team at the El Biar centre immediately invented the escape and immediately organised a false escape scene. Our version was quickly widely accepted, and received many confirmations (especially that of Teitgen). General de Gaulle, after 1958, even says that the culprit of the assassination should suffer a heavy sentence of forced labour. But it was not so. The case was never won in court, only the official version of the escape remained despite its obvious contradictions, and the torture disappeared there. It remains forever the historical certainty, the thesis of Audin, a street Maurice Audin in Saint-Denis and the square Maurice Audin in the centre of Algeria, many books and articles, including books by Vidal-Naquet, which became one of the best histories of the Algerian war (L'affaire Audin, Editions de Minuit, 1989), and the still alive memory of Audin, tortured and murdered, in all the actors of this period.

As for the paratrooper Charbonnier, qualified Archangel by General Massu, he retired in 1981, as colonel and Commander of the Legion of Honour.

Last Updated January 2019