Kenyan Constabulary - Getty - 11.5.12
The lieutenant of the Kenyan Constabulary issuing instructions for a village raid, during the Mau Mau Uprising. Photo by Getty Images
Text size

Shortly before the sun began to set on the British Empire, the governors of the colonies received, one after another, orders to pack up the most "sensitive" documents in their possession and transfer them to London. These included, among other things, reports about oppression of the local populations. The language of the paperwork was in any case generally sanitized: The documents' authors didn't write "murder" or "torture"; they wrote "combating terrorism" and "restoring order."

However, when they arrived in London, the documents were not transferred as usual to Britain's National Archives, but rather were hidden away in collections whose existence only few knew about. Apparently the most "sensitive" files were sent for incineration and, in a few cases, dummy files were inserted in their place.

Years went by. If the crimes of British colonialism became known to history, it was to a large extent thanks to the testimony of its victims. For example, a few years ago, four elderly citizens of Kenya embarked on a complicated legal battle, at the height of which a British court allowed them to sue for compensation for torture they said they had been subjected to during the Mau Mau Uprising, which took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. For the purpose of the court hearing, the British Foreign Office was compelled to admit for the first time the existence of the secret archives.

Kenya became a British colony in 1895, and when the Mau Mau Uprising broke out, there were some 40,000 white settlers there; most made a living growing tea and coffee. (Inidentally, nobody knows for sure what "Mau Mau" means. The term primarily served the British and the Western press. ) The rebels, mostly Kikuyu from central Kenya, described themselves as fighters in the Land and Freedom Army. Lacking firearms, for the most part, they were more likely to use knives to slaughter their rivals. British propaganda exploited this fact, and the term "Mau Mau" became a synonym for particularly brutal murderousness, including crimes the rebels committed against fellow Kikuyu.

According to recent research, the conflict between the rebels, on the one hand, and the white settlers and British army, on the other, killed some 2,500 on the British side, among them some 2,000 African mercenaries. On the rebel side some 25,000 were killed, many of them civilians.

It is customary to place Algeria at the top of the cruelest anti-colonial struggles. Likewise, the Boer War in South Africa, events in Malaya, Dutch Indonesia, and the Philippines under American rule, are all known for their brutality. But current scholarship indicates that no oppression in the history of colonialism was more brutal and racist than in Kenya. While it took place, some 80,000 Kenyans were held in concentration camps. They were detained without trial. Abuse of the prisoners and acts of hair-raising torture were routine, including beating to death, starvation, rape, burning and more.

The British defeated the rebels, but lost Kenya; this happened apparently also because of the cruelty of the oppression. In 1963 Kenya became an independent nation.

And now it's official: After years of fallacious whitewashing, the British Foreign Office decided to admit the existence of a clandestine archive where the secrets of colonialism have been preserved, and to open it to scholars. The process began last week.

Via the Internet, Britain's National Archives explains the publication of the documents. An archivist with a pleasant voice warns historians and scoop-seeking reporters, with admirable candor: The papers that were made public last week are less interesting than was hoped. Part of their original contents was destroyed long ago. Much of what remains documents mere bureaucratic routine. The process of making the papers public takes time and is being done alphabetically. One of these days they will get around to P, and then we may learn something new about the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. Or maybe not.

Forgetting Deir Yassin

The Menachem Begin Heritage Center is a state-run commemorative enterprise that operates in Jerusalem by law, like similar enterprises for other national leaders. Among other things, the center is involved in publishing books. Recently, through Carmel Publishing, it brought out a book by Jacob Markovitzky, a senior lecturer on military and pre-state history at the University of Haifa and the Carmel Academic Center. The book, titled “Hamefaked” ‏(The Commander‏), describes Begin as “a leader of an urban guerilla organization.” He comes across in the book as a kind of supreme military leader. Markovitzky relies on archives and unpublished documentary material, but for the most part goes along with Begin’s own 1951 book, “The Revolt.”

In order to describe Begin’s role in the Irgun underground’s operations, it is necessary to ascertain, among other things, to what extent he in fact directed the actions of the organization and was informed about the details of its activity. Furthermore, it is necessary to contend with a series of embarrassing affairs and controversial actions, such as turning in rival Lehi members to the British, the terror attack at the King David Hotel, the murder of the British sergeants, the Altalena, and more.

As such, it is naturally interesting to know how the Begin center handles the events that took place in the village of Deir Yassin, the horrors of whose conquest in April 1948 ‏(including the massacre of dozens of residents‏) spurred the flight of the country’s Arabs from their homes.

Begin himself wrote about Deir Yassin under the heading “The Big Lie.” The author of “The Commander” does not repeat Begin’s version, but neither does he recount what really happened. In fact, he does not say anything about it at all: The conquest of the village “in a joint operation with Lehi” is mentioned only in tiny letters − on a map.