Abdelkrim and the Rif War

A film by Daniel Cling
50 min
Production : Iskra - Arte France - Real Productions - Cinemaat Productions - CRRAV Nord-Pas-de-Calais
Langue : Français
Son : Stéréo
Format : Digital Betacam, Betacam SP, Vimeo, Fichier numérique, Bluray, DCP, HDCAM
Versions disponibles : VFR, VENG, VESP, VDE, VARAB

The Rif War started off in July 1921 by the defeat of the Spanish army that confronted the Rifian tribes led by AbdelKrim. He resisted Spain and later in France for several years, trying to bring his people freedom and independence. Their combat was brought to the end in May 1926, when the Rifian uprising was put down by the united French and Spanish army. The Rif War left thousands dead, devastated the country and the population with chemical weapons. It cost a fortune, led Spain to dictatorship, allowed Franco to make his first arms and Petain to consolidate his role as a savior. Despite the cost, the Rif War set an example for all those who, during the 20th century, dreamt of emancipation from colonial domination.


This film could have been called Abdelkrim and the War in the Rif, but we chose to keep the Western name to better dismantle the mechanisms.

The Rif War takes on its full significance when we place it in a broader context, at the center of the inter-imperialist interests of the time, the ideological substrates that run through it, the economic, political and geostrategic conflicts at stake, the colonial competition in Europe of which it is the consequence, the rise of fascism of which it is contemporary, and the struggle for the emancipation of peoples of which it is the first modern manifestation.

Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim El Khattabi belongs to a family that has been collaborating with Spain since it obtained the Rif following the secret agreement between France and England in 1904. His father is convinced that only a European power can bring progress and development to the Rif. Thus Abdelkrim, after studying law in Fez, also put himself at the service of the Spaniards as a teacher, interpreter, journalist and then judge of Muslim affairs in Melilla. But the violence of the Spaniards gradually pushed this family of notables to distance themselves from the situation, until Abdelkrim, in the middle of the First World War, declared himself a supporter of the independence of the Rif, leading to his conviction in a genuine political trial. After the death of his father in 1920, he took the lead of the tribes and managed to create unity, inflicting a series of defeats on Spain in the summer of 1921, each one more bitter than the last. Abdelkrim did not want war, and he always fought to negotiate peace, until his movement was crushed in May 1926 by the joint force of the Spanish and French armies. Considered by the Arab-Muslim world as a new Atatürk, he widened his field of action to the whole of the Rif, which he proclaimed Republic in 1923, partly to win the sympathy of the anti-colonialist left, but also to become part of modernity, with the ambition unthinkable at the time to obtain recognition from the League of Nations.

The Rif War was an earthquake, a thunderbolt in an almost serene sky. Abdelkrim’s victory over Spain very quickly overturned the traditional data of international politics and became a model in the struggle for the emancipation of the colonized peoples throughout the 20th century. Abdelkrim, who was buried in 1963 with full honors in Cairo, where he took refuge in 1947, is indeed an outstanding figure, who introduced a peasant people to successes that shook the imperialists of the time. At the height of colonial power, the colossus revealed himself to be a foot of clay and had to mobilize considerable firepower to cope with a new situation and overcome the pebble in his shoe. The industrial war is mobilized to crush the small state that is born and the tens of thousands of fighters who defend it. On the one hand, we find the mark of an indisputable turning point in the anti-colonial struggle compared to the 19th century; the military organization of the guerrilla and the lucidity of Abdelkrim, who considers that military success must be accompanied by political success on the internal and external levels (made possible by the constitution of a State), represent considerable progress. This experience, whose scope extended from the USSR to Latin America, from Stockholm to New Delhi, via Asia and Africa, would become an example for movements for the emancipation of peoples during the twentieth century.

On the Western side, this colonial war made it possible to test new strategic methods and to test modern weapons on the non-European ground; with the help of France, it tipped over into a form of counter-revolutionary warfare that would be repeated throughout the century. The violence that European armies display under the banner of civilization is not without analogies with one of the substrates of Nazi ideology. What the European powers allow themselves to do to the colonized peoples (massacres of civilian populations, the extermination of opponents, terror, genocidal practices), is only possible through well-orchestrated propaganda. The “sub-human” is already in germ in modern colonial warfare; the enemy is “barbarised” to justify his elimination. Toxic gases, which are on the verge of being banned, will be produced in the greatest secrecy in Spain thanks to Germany’s complicity or transported under cover of pesticides by the French company Schneider. The gases will be used here intensively by the Spaniards; England will do the same in Iraq in 1919 and Italy in Abyssinia in 1935.

While the Rif War was lost by Abdelkrim and his people, the shock it represented paradoxically transforms it into a victory. More than a testing ground, Abdelkrim’s experience, with all its contradictions, is obviously a first. “I am convinced that, if we had had the time, we would have become a great nation of free men,” Abdelkrim would later declare. This word is neither that of a toy nor that of a vanquished man, but rather the expression of a new force and the expression of an unfailing hope for freedom.

To conclude that war is a great mechanism that crushes men would be a truism. In the case of the Rif War, this expression takes on its full value if we consider that the great powers are not waging war against each other, but are nipping a state in the bud for inter-imperialist interests whose civilizational values they are justified in questioning. What is played out in this implacable war, with the appalling disproportion of the balance of power, is reminiscent of the interplay of tectonic plates colliding, shaping new territories. And if it has taken time to appreciate the contribution of this historical experience, it is no doubt because official history has always tried to erase, from one end of Europe to the other, the heroic figures who could have served as an example in the struggle for the emancipation of peoples.