There is today in France but also in other European countries a persistent fear of terrorist attacks, especially attacks carried out by Muslims or people from the wider Middle East. There have been spectacular terrorist attacks which have led to the French government proclaiming a “state of emergency” and increasing the visibility of armed military and police in public places—railway stations, airports, in front of schools, and so forth. In some ways, the atmosphere resemblles 1957-1958 during the war in Algeria (though it was never officially called a war). The armed struggle for the independence of Algeria began with a series of bomb blasts in Algeria in November 1954 and went on until there was a peace agreement and independence in 1962. During 1955 and 1956, the French government and much of the population thought that the revolt would be relatively easily put down, but by 1957-1958, there was a wide-spread impression that the war would drag on and that there would be violence in France itself either between rival Algerian groups or by Algerians against the French. General De Gaulle came to power in late 1958, and there was a general feeling that he would “take care of things” though there was little agreement on what he should or would do.
The years 1957-1958 were a low point in attitudes toward the war. Suspicion was widespread, and the government expanded a program of administrative detention. Persons designated by the police or the army could be arrested and put in detention camps without a trial and with no time limit set. In France there were some 9000 persons, nearly all considered “Algerians,” in five camps usually located in a remote area far from major cities, except for one close to Paris. It was against this administrative detention and the conditions in what were called “concentration camps” that Lanza Del Vasto led nonviolent actions.
Lanza Del Vasto was born in 1901 into an intellectual and aristocratic Italian family. Much of his early education was in a cosmopolitan milieu in France, and Lanza spoke Italian, French and English. Later he did university studies in Florence, attracted by its art and literary history. There, in 1927, he published his first book of poetry, but quickly returned to France and developed a strong artistic friendship with Luc Dietrich, at the time considered as the raising star of French poetry, though today, largely forgotten.1 Del Vasto continued to publish his poems, but he tired of life in the artistic milieu of Paris.
Del Vasto considered himself as a Roman Catholic and was drawn to the idea of a pilgrimage—a journey of foot during which one discovers new parts o the world but which also has a spiritual meaning. Thus in 1936 he set out for India where he traveled largely on foot. He joined Mahatma Gandhi at Gandhi’s ashram. There Del Vasto was convinced of the spiritual and political validity of Gandhi’s nonviolence. Gandhi was also struck by the spiritual dimension of Del Vasto and hoped that Del Vasto could play a mediation role between Jews and Arabs in Palestine as Del Vasto was planning to return to Europe by going first to the Holy Land.
Del Vasto returned to France in late 1938, but the clouds of war were already gathering. In Paris, he renewed his friendship with Luc Dietrich but spent most of his time writing his Indian experiences and the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi, which became Del Vasto’s best known book Le Pèlerinage aux sources.2
It is not fully clear to me why the German censorship in Paris allowed the book to be published. They may have thought that telling about Gandhi’s struggle against British imperialism might help their cause and did not understand the power that ideas of nonviolence would have. In any case, the book was so much a “breath of fresh air” in a France worn down by the war and occupation that some 200,000 copies of the book were sold in a few weeks.
With the end of the war, the difficulties of reconstruction, and the building of a new political order, Del Vasto was able to put into practice the creation of an ashram, a vision that he had since his return from India. In 1948 he married a woman he renamed “Chanterelle” who was a musician. (Chanter in French means to sing). She put music to some of Lanza’s devotional poems. They started their ashram, a mixture of Gandhian influence with some of the practices of a Catholic religious order—though people in the order can marry if they so wish. The ashram/order is called the Community of the Ark. Del Vasto had a pessimistic view and saw violence as the underlying structure of European society, violence that might again lead to war. Thus he saw the future as arising from the practice of small nonviolent groups, somewhat in the image of society being rebuilt by a few who survived the “flood” in the Ark.
The ashram was based on the principle that everyone should share the physical work needed to produce life’s basic needs. The members of the Ark, called “Companions,” grew all their vegetables and much of their grain, using horses and hand methods—an early example of organic agriculture. No animals were raised for meat because the companions rejected killing animals for food.
As in Gandhi’s ashram, there was great emphasis on the spiritual life with an aim of inner peace and the ability to carry out nonviolent actions without developing a spirit of anger, fear, or a desire for revenge.
In 1953, Lanza Del Vasto returned to India to see the workings of the land-gift movement (Bhu-Dan or Bhoodan) led by a long-time co-worker of Gandhi, Vinoba, who wanted to end the landlessness of many Indian farm workers by convincing land owners to give a portion of their land to the landless—a form of nonviolent persuasion rather than nonviolent resistance.3
Thus by 1957, Lanza Del Vasto had a team of 30 well-trained companions whom he trusted to carry out nonviolent protests without fear or anger. He also had a wide group of “Friends of the Ark” who could supply logistic support : food, contacts with the press, with churches etc. Del Vasto also had from his writings and earlier life in the arts and intellectual milieu in Paris a wide circle of people he had known. Although he was not in regular contact, he knew that he could call upon them for support. The agreed-upon technique was for the 30 Companions to present themselves at the gates of the interrnment camps asking to be arrested with the slogan “We are also suspects.” These efforts began in June 1959 in a rural area not far from the ashram, where there was both a military camp used for training soldiers and an administrative detention camp. It was also near a Protestant area of France where the population had risen in revolt in 1700-1702 in defense of religious liberty. The area, which usually voted to the Left, is sensitive to anything that looks like repression. However, the administrators of the camp refused to accept the 30 as prisoners, arguing correctly that as administrators they ran the camp, but it was up to authorities elsewhere to decide who would be put into it.
The next camp to which the 30 went was also in a rural area but closer to a large city, Lyon, so there were more media to contact. Moreover, the demonstration was over the Easter weekend so that Friends of the Ark were free to accompany the 30. Besides, Good Friday and Easter lend themselves to the symbolism of suffering and a new life.”
This demonstration was followed by moving to Paris, the seat of political power as well as home to a good number of Lanza’s friends who were known to the media. Other friends were also involved in other nonviolent movements or were opposed to the war in Algeria. The 30 stood by a large monument in front of the Ministry of Justice which also housed the office of the head of the Paris police. The 30 set out a large banner saying “Put us under administrative detention; we are also suspects.” This time there was a good deal of media attention, so much so that it was decided to call off future demonstration as all the media attention became focused on the nonviolent 30 and not on the Algerians who were interned in the camps.
The follow-up strategy was for the Companions to go live in tents in the large shanty town near Paris where many of the Algerians in the detention camps had lived before being interned. In the shanty town, when there were police raids, the Companions would ask the police to arrest them as well as: “We are all suspects.”4
The demonstrations in Paris took place in 1960 when the war in Algeria was winding down. Difficult peace negotiations linked to referendums to vote on the future status of Algeria were taking place. Terrorism shifted to the OAS—Organization of the Secret Army—Right-wing Frenchmen who wanted to keep Algeria French . The internment camps were largely empty by the time the war came to a formal end in 1962.
However, today, the idea of some form of internment or “house arrest” is again being discussed. Several thousand people are listed by the police and security forces with the letter “s” for suspect. It is not clear who would lead nonviolent protests today, but perhaps respect for the rule of law has grown stronger since 1960 and administrative internment would no longer be possible.
René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens. He lives in eastern France.
1 For a lively account of the collaboration of Luc Dietrich, Lanza Del Vasto and others, some of whom were in the circle of the Russian-exile philosopher Gurdjieff, see Michel Randon Les puissances du dedans (Paris, Denoel, 1968)
2 Lanza Del Vasto, Le Pèlerinage aux sources (Paris, Denoel, 1944)
3 Lanza Del Vasto, Vinoba ou le nouveau pèlerinage (Paris, Denoel, 1954)
4 Regarding these efforts, see Lanza Del Vasto, Techniques et la Non-Violence (Paris, Denoel, 1971)