All history, it has been said, is contemporary. What is remembered and how it is remembered depends on the axes that people wish to grind.

Whether or not this is always the case, it is clearly sometimes the case. For example, there has been a renewal of interest in Europe recently in the Armenian massacres, although nothing fundamentally new has been discovered about them. It is easy to divine the reason for this renewal of interest: not a sudden upsurge of sympathy for the Armenians of the past, but of anxiety about the possible accession of Turkey to the European Union. The demand that the Turks should recognize their genocidal history as a condition of admission is tantamount to an outright rejection of their application to join, and an atavistic fear of the migration of a huge mass of unassimilable cheap labor, strong but disavowed, is thus transmuted into an ethically more dignified and acceptable historical argument.

The celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied victory over Germany also illustrated the complexities of historical memory. In France, whose war record was equivocal to say the least, and the subject of a continuing neurosis, the newspapers recalled that the German capitulation coincided—to the very day—with that of a massacre of Algerians in Setif who were demonstrating for independence. The official number of dead given by the French was 1,000; the Algerian nationalists claim 45,000. Between May 7 and 9, French newspapers quoted figures of between 15,000 and 30,000. This sudden recollection of what had always been available to memory coincided with the signing of a treaty of friendship between France and Algeria, and the number of dead at Setif appears not so much a matter of historical truth as of political conjuncture or convenience. We may also be sure that the nationalists will not use the massacre to reflect upon their own historical and political record, which is far from spotless when it comes to the inviolability of the individual or the value of human life.

Meanwhile, the celebrations in Moscow were somewhat soured by the absence of representatives from the Baltic States. The liberation of Eastern Europe was, of course, the replacement of one terrible tyranny by another, a fact that the Russians wanted to forget, and wanted the rest of the world to forget; moreover, the record of the Baltic States themselves during the Nazi occupation was not one to be proud of, which was something they also did not want to remember. In short, there is nothing so painful to remember as the past.

Two books have just been published, almost simultaneously, about a barely remembered episode in recent British and African history, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the 1950s. This anticolonial conflict is unusual, in that it is not only the former colonial power but also the newly independent country that has wanted to forget it, or at least to cover it up. Most newly independent states were only too anxious to make the most political capital possible of the cruelties, misdeeds, and crimes of the former colonial masters, real and imagined, but this did not happen in Kenya. The Mau Mau revolt is thus an exception to the rule of anti-colonial nationalist historiography.

For Caroline Elkins, a professor of history at Harvard and the author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, the explanation is simple: Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, was a conservative, neo-colonial politician whose main complaint against the colonial state was that he was not head of it. 1 Once in power, he changed very little, apart from replacing the colonial administrators with his own men; the nationalist leader who had once been regarded by white settlers as the devil incarnate became their hero. The idea of Mau Mau, with its implicit if inchoate social radicalism and egalitarianism, was a threat to his regime, as it had been to the British colonial regime; he therefore expunged it from the official record.

David Anderson, a research fellow in Oxford, and author of Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War and the End of the Empire, provides a much more nuanced account. 2 His book, unlike that of Professor Elkins, is not a relentless case for the prosecution, though the British come out of it badly enough, but, as he also demonstrates, there was plenty in the Mau Mau record that no nationalist would—or should—want to remember, at least in the sense of glorifying it. For him, Kenyatta genuinely thought that amnesia was the best policy; the past should be forgotten for the sake of the future.

The Mau Mau was never a centralized organization, something which it took the British, with their long history of formally constituted political parties, a long time to understand. It was a more or less spontaneous protest by an unknowable proportion of the Kikuyu against their conditions of life in the colonial state after the war. The British believed that the Mau Mau was organized by Kenyatta, an essentially moderate nationalist who in many ways was pro-British; they locked him up for several years, but it made no difference to the unfolding of the Mau Mau emergency.

The Kikuyu at the end of the Second World War were in an unenviable position. Their population was increasing fast, but the land available for their cultivation was fixed by colonial fiat. The settlers in what were then called the White Highlands had unjustly appropriated some Kikuyu land; more importantly, they had foreclosed on the possibility of Kikuyu expansion. As white farms became more mechanized, they had less and less need for Kikuyu labor. Hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu had either to scratch a living from the increasingly eroded tribal reserve, or to drift into Nairobi, where living conditions were deplorable, in the hope of employment.

The Kikuyu population was increasing fast partly because their traditional way of life, which had included natural methods of restraining population growth, had broken down under the impact of western civilization (the Kikuyu, like most Africans, were deeply attracted to the appurtenances of western life), and partly because of modern medicine. One of the questions that first galvanized Kikuyu anti-colonialism was that of female circumcision, which the missionaries denounced as barbaric. One Christian missionary, an elderly woman, was murdered after having been subjected to a forced clitoridectomy in reprisal for the missionaries’ condemnation of the practice. In Kikuyu society when the Europeans arrived, however, female circumcision was a culturally important ritual, without which no woman could marry or be considered fully adult. Kikuyu Christians pointed out that there was no injunction against female circumcision in the Bible, and broke away from European-led churches to form churches of their own, which subsequently became nurseries of nationalism. By comparison with Mr. Anderson, Professor Elkins downplays this part of the story, for fear—I suspect—of leading her female readers to conclude that there might have been something to Britain’s civilizing mission after all.

The authors are agreed that land hunger was at the heart of the Mau Mau uprising, and there was a lot of talk of a return of land stolen by the white farmers. This amounted to 60,000 acres: a lot of land for a few people, perhaps, but only 1/25th of an acre, or 194 square yards, per Kikuyu: not exactly a solution to all their problems. As for the lost opportunity for expansion out of their traditional area, this was unfortunate for them, but not quite the injustice it was cracked up to be: besides which, the increase in their population was such that it would soon have necessitated even further expansion, into the land of other tribes. (In this connection, it is of note that this year there have already been several violent clashes between the Masai and Kikuyu on the question of land.) Like most people, the Kikuyu could not believe that some, perhaps a great deal, of their misfortune did not result from the wickedness of identifiable wrongdoers.

Professor Elkins never comes to grips with, or even considers, the implications of an aspect of the Mau Mau uprising of cardinal importance: that it was almost entirely confined to the Kikuyu, and had almost no resonance among the other ethnic groups of Kenya. The Kikuyu, although they are the largest and perhaps the most adaptable of the Kenyan tribes, make up only about a quarter of the population of Kenya. The lack of support for them from other tribes during the Mau Mau would present a difficulty for any Kenyan nationalist historiography that emphasized the Mau Mau as the forgers of Kenyan independence. Three quarters of the Kenyan population would simply not believe that the Kikuyu had been acting on their behalf.

The Kikuyu were in much closer contact with the settlers than other Kenyan tribes. Anyone who has observed white colonialists in Africa close up will have noticed that they are often offensive and arrogant, taking a delight in humiliating those upon whom they rely for their welfare and comfort, as if making others look small added to their own stature. Not all colonialists were alike, of course, but enough behaved in this fashion for the Kikuyu to feel humiliated as a race. The desperation of their economic situation and the petty insults which many had to endure almost daily were enough to spark the Mau Mau revolt. Even the British general in charge of the suppression of the revolt, General Erskine, thought the white settlers were deeply repellent in their attitudes and behavior, and he loathed them all, at least as much as the Mau Mau did.

Desperate poverty and constant humiliation do not necessarily bring out the best in people. If they did, they would be advisable as an aid to spiritual advancement, rather than things to be avoided wherever possible. Mr. Anderson has no hesitation in describing the cruelty and barbarism of the Mau Mau, whereas Professor Elkins is distinctly coy on this matter. For her, if the British were bad, then the Mau Mau had to be good. Mr. Anderson, by contrast, describes the intimidation the Mau Mau applied to those Kikuyu unwilling to join them. (The Kikuyu, incidentally, attached almost transcendental power to oaths, even involuntary ones, which was why oath-taking ceremonies were so important to the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau were like African Nechaevs, realizing that there was no better way of binding people to them than by implicating them deeply in their crimes.) The split in the Kikuyu population made the Mau Mau emergency as much a civil war as an anti-colonial one.

A member of the Mau Mau, J. M. Kariuki, who later became a prominent politician and deputy minister in post-independence Kenya, and who in 1975 was brutally murdered and found in a ditch after the hyenas had had their way with him, wrote in his memoir Mau Mau Detainee how he took the oath. He was led at night to a place where the oath was given without having first been asked whether he wanted to take it.

I was told to move over to a place where three other people who were all known to me were standing. We were to take the oath together …. The other three who were in my group were hit about a little, but … the people said: “Do not beat the student,” and I was left alone.

A few pages later, he wrote:

In January 1953 John Kamonjo … was arrested near his father’s house which had been used for an oath ceremony at which one of those present had refused to be initiated. Some of the young men acting as stewards had tried to frighten him into agreeing by putting a strangling rope round his neck.

Since the writer wished to vindicate Mau Mau as a movement of national liberation, we are surely safe in assuming that far worse things were done to intimidate the unwilling. It is unlikely, as Professor Elkins implies, that Kikuyu opponents of the Mau Mau were either few or completely corrupt. Where intimidation is widespread, it is in fact extremely difficult to assess levels of voluntary support. But even if were true that the overwhelming majority of Kikuyu supported the Mau Mau, this would not necessarily justify it, any more than that Nazism was ever right because it was popular.

Professor Elkins mentions, more or less en passant, the pivotal event in the Mau Mau emergency, the massacre at Lari, that caused an escalation in the colonial government’s response, but spares us the details, just in case we should draw some wrong conclusions about the Mau Mau. Mr. Anderson, who is no apologist for colonialism, has no such qualms, and describes the massacre thus:

In five or six separate gangs, each numbering one hundred or more persons, the attackers descended on their targets. Their heads swathed to protect their identities, armed with pangas, swords, spears, knives and axes, and with some carrying burning torches, they swarmed over the unprotected home-steads. They carried with them ropes, which they tied around the huts to prevent the occupants from opening the doors before they set the thatch alight. As the occupants struggled to clamber through the windows to escape, they were savagely cut down. Most of those caught in the attack were women and children, but they were shown no mercy by the attackers. … By 10 p.m. some 120 bodies lay dead or grievously injured in the smouldering ruins.

The killing was not at random, however. The women and children killed were the wives and offspring of “loyalists,” who supported the government rather than the Mau Mau, and had benefited materially as a result. The children were killed because the attackers assumed that they would grow up to be loyalists like their fathers, and to inherit their material rewards. By this attack, the Mau Mau made it clear that they believed that an entire social class, or class of people the heads of whose households held certain ideas and opinions, had to be killed, irrespective of their personal conduct.

The British response was ferocious and indiscriminate. They were like blindfolded men in a room searching for an attacker. Many, though not all, were blinded by racial stereotypes. They interned tens of thousands of Kikuyu men, often in lamentable conditions, scarcely distinguishing between friend and foe. Abuse amounting to torture was widespread, and there were large numbers of deaths, if not nearly so many as Professor Elkins suggests (her estimates are ten times anyone else’s). In a kind of African imitation of the Bloody Code, almost any contact with the Mau Mau, voluntary or not, was sufficient to earn a man a death sentence. Over 1000 men were hanged after trials during the emergency, most of which were a mockery of due process (though even so, 40 percent of the accused were acquitted). In one particularly heartrending case, a Kikuyu servant was hanged who had saved the life of his white employer during one attack by the Mau Mau, only to be forced to kill him during a subsequent Mau Mau attack, or be killed himself by the Mau Mau. Such was the hysteria reigning among the white settlers at the time that the judge in this case dared not acquit the man, or at least commute the sentence, as natural justice would have required. This case, described by Mr. Anderson, exemplifies the terrible logic that the Mau Mau emergency wrought. As in all such conflicts, justice was regarded by the government as a manifestation of weakness, not as an ethical necessity, for it is almost impossible to maintain a belief in standards of proof when enemies are unseen and intimidation is everywhere. (If Professor Elkins is right, and 90 percent of Kikuyu supported the Mau Mau, the detention of thousands of Kikuyu was not indiscriminate or unreasonable: she is at one with the most hysterical of the white settlers, except that she assigns a positive rather than a negative value to the Mau Mau.) But it is almost a law of rebellion that anti-insurgents kill more people than insurgents; this, however, is not by any means an ex post facto justification of insurgency.

The British defeated the Mau Mau. Partly this was because they were extremely ruthless, and partly it was because the Mau Mau lacked the kind of ideological coherence or underground organization that can keep a guerrilla movement going even in its darkest days. Mr. Anderson’s history of the movement is impressive because intellectual honesty shines through it, while Professor Elkins’s book is wholly (and conventionally) parti pris. For example, she mentions the principal “hero” of the Mau Mau, Dedan Kimathi, only once, because he is slightly embarrassing as a hero; Mr. Anderson provides a memorable and not wholly flattering portrait.

He was born in the Nyeri district, probably in 1920 or there-abouts … . The boy did well, being praised for his skills in writing and as an orator; but there was a nasty, bullying side to his character that even came out when he was among his age mates. Fiercely competitive, Kimathi baulked at any discipline or control, and was always in trouble with his teachers. He drifted in and out of education, never fulfilling the potential of a bright academic career… . [He signed] up with the Britsh army… . After one month he was discharged, for drunkenness and persistent violence against his fellow recruits… . He did a little bit of everything, from primary-school teaching, for [sic] which he was dismissed after accusations of violence against his pupils.

I know the type well; in Britain or America he would have been a career criminal, but in Kenya he was a leader of the Mau Mau.

Who would prefer him to the moderate, intelligent, and partly anglicized Kenyatta? Professor Elkins of Harvard University, apparently. She thinks that the primitive redistributionism that the Mau Mau wanted (insofar as they developed anything that could be called a policy) offered a better hope for Kenya than the corrupt, quasi-one-party state that eventually developed under Kenyatta’s leadership. Kenya under Kenyatta was highly imperfect; it was certainly not very democratic, but by African standards, admittedly low, it functioned quite well, at least for a time.

Would Kenya have been better off if the Mau Mau had succeeded in dislodging the British? The answer must surely be no. They were members of a single tribe, the Kikuyu, in a country in which there were many tribes, most of which were suspicious of the ambitions of the Kikuyu. The record of supposedly egalitarian movements in Africa is universally one of oppression and dramatic impoverishment. Had the British left Kenya to the Mau Mau, there would have been anarchy and further civil war, perhaps even genocide.

Did the Mau Mau bring about or hasten the independence of Kenya? Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but again the answer must surely be no, though the Mau Mau could not have known this at the time of their revolt. But the fact is that the British relinquished the Sudan, the Gold Coast, Somaliland, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Tanganyika, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, Swaziland, Basutoland, and Bechuanaland within a matter of a few years. It is most unlikely that they would have hung on to Kenya alone of all their possessions. It is true that they gave political autonomy to the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia, retaining only a vague and ineffectual suzerainty, but this they were never prepared to do for the white settlers of Kenya, which would have achieved independence under black leadership anyway, perhaps sooner than it actually did.

Thus the Mau Mau rebellion achieved nothing, except misery for untold numbers of people. The fact that the Kikuyu had justifiable grievances, and the British reacted with brutality, cannot alter this conclusion. When the British said that Mau Mau was primitive, they were right, even if their response was itself cruel.

Professor Elkins has far too deeply conventional a mind to be able to understand the deeper currents of African history. For example, she repeats the old saw about the illogical boundaries imposed on Africa by the colonizing powers as being a source of current problems. But in several of those countries where the boundaries are ethnically and historically more logical, the results have hardly been happy: Somalia, for example, or Rwanda.

While she is able, in my view correctly, to see the hypocrisies and evasions of the colonial civilizing mission in Africa, she is completely blind to the equal hypocrisies and evasions of the anti-colonial liberation movements. If colonialism in Africa was fundamentally dishonest, it does not follow that African anti-colonialism was correspondingly honest. She derides the colonialists for lack of self-knowledge, but such a stricture must also apply, even more, to African nationalists. There are very few countries in Africa that are freer or more justly administered than they were under colonial rule, and very few where struggles for so-called liberation were not, in fact, struggles merely for power and Swiss bank accounts (all too often the same thing in Africa). Moreover, independence has been an economic failure for most—though not quite all—African countries. The only certain freedom that independence brought was freedom from white rulers. If that is important in itself—well, it is to admit the importance of race feeling in politics, a most dangerous admission.

1 Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, by Caroline Elkins; Henry Holt, 496 pages, $27.50.

2 Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War and the End of the Empire, by David Anderson; W. W. Norton, 406 pages, $25.95.