David Elstein: Daniel Goldhagen Recycles Fantasy on Kenya's Mau Mau Uprising





[David Elstein is currently Chairman of openDemocracy. He is also Chairman of DCD Media, Screen Digest, Luther Pendragon, and the Broadcasting Policy Group.]

A scholar who makes large claims must expect to be held to an exacting test of accuracy. If it is failed, the integrity of the work is called into question. In this respect, Daniel Goldhagen’s treatment of events in colonial Kenya in the 1950s - which takes up thirty pages of his new book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (Little, Brown, 2009) - deserves careful scrutiny.

Daniel Goldhagen made a name for himself with Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Random House, 1997) in which he argued that millions of Germans - not just a hard core of evil Nazis - were directly involved in the extermination of Jews during the second world war. Worse Than War presents an overview of various historical and contemporary acts of “elimination”, whilst attempting to construct a way to prevent further “eliminationist” outbreaks (including genocide) in the future...

During the state of emergency in Kenya in 1952-60, British forces battled to suppress a violent uprising by radicals whose support-base lay among the country’s largest single ethnic grouping, the Kikuyu. The radical movement, which came to be known as “Mau Mau”, cemented support amongst its followers with bloodthirsty oaths and rituals. Daniel Goldhagen’s description of what happened in this period is emphatic. He refers, inter alia, to:

“Mass murder”; “mass slaughter”; “butchered victims”; “1.5 million Kikuyu incarcerated”; “tens of thousands killed (estimates range from 50,000 to 300,000)”; “perhaps a half million Kikuyu” driven into an “extensive and murderous camp system”; one million “restricted to deadly barbed-wire villages” where “the death tolls were enormous”; “worked to death”; “beaten to death”; “most of the Kikuyu dead resulted from British starvation policies”.

Goldhagen concludes his litany of British atrocities by saying they were “all, according to the British, in response to the putative threat and unsurpassable savagery of the Kikuyu liberation movement known as the Mau Mau. How many whites did the bestial Mau Mau kill? Thirty two?”...

In the first place, when Goldhagen contrasts what he believes to be 300,000 Kikuyu dead with thirty-two white settlers murdered during the conflict, there is a missed connection. For the emergency was declared not in response to the killing of whites but after a series of fatal attacks on Kikuyu leaders who supported British rule - a reminder in turn that the Mau Mau uprising was as much a civil war within the Kikuyu as it was a revolt against British rule and British land policy in Kenya. Nearly all of the 1,800 known civilian victims of Mau Mau were Kikuyu, killed for refusing to take oaths, or in settlement of old scores, or for staying loyal to Britain (see Daniel Branch, Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization [Cambridge University Press, 2009])....

In any case the Kikuyu, although the largest ethnic group in Kenya, represented only 20% of the country’s African population (it is not clear whether Goldhagen is aware of this). Few non-Kikuyu joined Mau Mau, and there is scant evidence that in Goldhagen’s own terms the colonial power targeted non-Kikuyu ethnic groups for “elimination”....

More generally, there are grave doubts over Goldhagen’s principal source for his account of Kenyan “genocide”: namely, Caroline Elkins’s book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt, 2005).

Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (as the book was called in the United Kingdom) may have been written by a Harvard University professor and won a Pulitzer prize; but it was widely criticised even by sympathetic reviewers for its shrill comparisons between British policy in Kenya and the Nazi holocaust (see, for example, Neal Ascherson, “The Breaking of the Mau Mau” [New York Review of Books, 7 April 2005]). Some academic reviewers were more dismissive. Susan Carruthers of Rutgers University, who noted that Elkins had managed to confuse the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda, said: “she proves the least reliable guide to history: this was not genocide - history is not well served by its sloppy invocation”....

There is no doubt that many of the white settlers who joined in the military campaign to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion were deeply unpleasant and malevolent racists. The accounts of torture and murder of captured suspects – often given boastfully by the perpetrators themselves - are gruesome and almost certainly true. Some of those responsible were tried, convicted and imprisoned for their misdeeds, but the atmosphere of menace and hysteria that Mau Mau generated meant that much brutality and violence was either inflicted or condoned by British soldiers as well as their auxiliaries....

So where was the genocide?...

If Daniel Goldhagen had removed all reference to Kenya in Worse Than War, it would not in any way have affected his broad thesis. In retaining the section on Kenya, he exposes himself to the charge that he is the kind of scholar who is either unaware of the facts or prefers to exclude those which do not fit his thesis. Either way, he has done himself - and history - no favours.



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list