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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Assassination of Lumumba

Ludo De Witte

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To purchase The Assassination of Lumumba

Title: The Assassination of Lumumba
Author: Ludo De Witte
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 196 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Assassination of Lumumba - US
The Assassination of Lumumba - UK
The Assassination of Lumumba - Canada
L'assassinat de Lumumba - France
Regierungsauftrag Mord - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: De moord op Lumumba
  • Translated by Ann Wright and Renée Fenby
  • Includes a new Preface to the English-language edition by the author (April, 2001)
  • Includes a Map of the Congo in 1960, a Who's Who on 17 January 1961, a chart of The International Actors, and a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

-- : important book, with exhausting detail -- but a very problematic text

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 4/10/2001 Neal Ascherson
The LA Times A 15/7/2001 Ronan Bennett
The NY Rev. of Books . 4/10/2001 Brian Urquhart

  From the Reviews:
  • "De Witte writes without stylish frills or narrative tricks, but this is a vivid and utterly compelling account of a nation strangled at birth by the West. (...) Big business, foreign armies and an array of stooges are still trampling over the unfortunate population to be first in line to plunder and enrich themselves. If you want to know who to thank for this, look no further than De Witte's The Assassination of Lumumba." - Ronan Bennett, The Los Angeles Times

  • "De Witte has performed an important service in establishing the appalling facts of Lumumba's last days and Belgium's responsibility for what happened. (...) The ideological setting in which De Witte frames his findings is less convincing." - Brian Urquhart, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       De moord op Lumumba was an important and controversial book, first published in 1999, that led to a re-examination of the Belgian role in the Congo in the early days of independence. A Commission of Inquiry was set up by the Belgian Parliament to look into the allegations set forth in the book, and there was great deal of press coverage of De Witte's disturbing findings.

       The Assassination of Lumumba is, apparently, the English-language version of this book. We guess.
       We have unfortunately not had the opportunity to examine the Dutch original, or any of the other translations, but the English version (Verso, 2001) raises some uncomfortable questions.
       Notably, the Dutch original and the French version each have more than 400 pages. The German translation comes in at over 300. The English one -- even with its "Preface to the English-Language Edition", endnotes, and bibliography -- barely makes it over 200. Is it all in the small print, or has there maybe been some editing going on here ?
       More disturbingly: the book was written in Dutch, but there is no indication that it was translated from the Dutch -- and a great deal that suggests it wasn't. In their Translators' Note Ann Wright and Renée Fenby speak of terms used "in the original French text" and mention that "a few terms have been left in the original French". Some of the terms -- such as "the crucial two words" from the 5/6 October 1960 telegram (élimination définitive) were, one assumes, also presented in French in the original Dutch edition of the book. But the book was written in Dutch. Could it be that this edition was translated from the French edition ?
       Nowhere in the English edition of The Assassination of Lumumba is it, in fact, stated what language the book was translated into English from (though the The New York Review of Books' review confidently proclaims the book to have been "translated from the Dutch"). The only previous translations by Ann Wright we could find were from the Spanish, from which it is quite a jump to the Dutch. (We couldn't find any previous translations by Renée Fenby.)
       Does it make a difference ? This is not a literary work, after all -- it is a documentary work of history (and lots of the documents actually were originally in French). Still, something always gets lost in translation and here quite a lot seems to have gotten lost in the process (and whatever other editorial processes were involved).
       Matters are not helped by some unfortunate copy-editing: in the introduction we read of Jacques Brassinne:

On 17 January 1971 he took part in a meeting of Belgians who could have taken the decision to save Lumumba's life, had they really wanted to.
       Since Lumumba was killed ten years earlier (to the day) this would have been a truly remarkable feat ..... Okay, so this is merely bad proofreading (the date should be 1961) -- though it begs our too frequently asked question: who edits and proofreads this stuff ? anyone ? hello ? anyone ? Certainly mistakes like this don't help win over readers growing more suspicious page by page of what they are being presented with.
       Reassurance won't be found a few pages into the text, when readers are treated to the description: "Bakwanga, the capital of Albert Kalonji". Since Al was introduced as a person a few pages earlier, it is disconcerting to find that he has a capital. (Kalonji ruled over the Congo-province of South Kasai, and Bakwanga was apparently the town he designated as its capital.) This is possibly simply a mis-translation, but whatever the excuse it is yet another disturbing slip.
       Readers might also wonder what exactly it is the translators are up to when they provide explanations such as this one in their Translators' Note:
The term casques bleus which is used for the UN peacekeeping forces in the original French text has been rendered as Blue Berets, although this English term was apparently not used until the 1970s.
       The translators apparently did some research in making this determination. Note, however, that the French term "béret" (with or without the accent) doesn't appear in the original French term (casques bleus) they are translating -- odd, no ? In fact, "casques bleus" is the same term as in the (truly) original Dutch, where it surely was "blauwhelmen". In English, it would (and should) be "blue helmets". Yes, the peacekeeping troops are known as both (though, for example, the official history published by the UN is a book titled The Blue Helmets: A Review of United Nations Peace-keeping Forces), but De Witte clearly means the Blue Helmets, rather than the Blue Berets. (Generally, the Blue Helmets refer to the armed military part of a peacekeeping force, while the Blue Berets refer to the civilian components.) In fact, De Witte wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books (20 December 2001, in response to Brian Urquhart's review) and in it he speaks of the "Blue Helmets" that the UN dispatched to the Congo.
       What is a poor reader to think ?

       The first impression this book (the English translation of De moord op Lumumba) makes is not a good one. But it isn't a book that is easily ignored. It is one of those "important" books, said to be the definitive account of a mystery-shrouded event of geopolitical importance, its ramifications still being felt in numerous ways today.
       The book focusses very narrowly on the murder of Lumumba. It is, it seems, a sequel of sorts to De Witte's earlier Crisis in Kongo (1996, not translated into English), which takes a somewhat broader look at the events of those times.
       De Witte sets out to demonstrate the degree of Belgian and UN complicity in the events surrounding Lumumba's assassination. He condemns the United Nations for their inaction, insisting there were many opportunities when they should have been compelled to intervene. And he shows, quite convincingly, that the Belgians bear a great deal of responsibility for how events unfolded, facilitating the murder of the inconvenient Lumumba.
       American readers might be surprised at how completely De Witte absolves the United States and the CIA. Sure, Eisenhower ordered Lumumba's assassination, and CIA front man Larry Devlin was instructed to carry it out, but things didn't work out. In the final analysis, De Witte finds:
Whatever. claims are made to the contrary, the US and the CIA played no role in either the preparations to transfer Lumumba, the transfer itself, or the events in Katanga of 17 January and the following days.
       (They probably already have had that sentence embossed on a nice bronze plaque, to be prominently displayed on the walls at Langley.)
       De Witte has it in for the Belgians -- and the UN -- and so the focus is on these two. The American role is not considered in depth -- and perhaps not adequately. The sentence quoted above sends readers to an endnote that reads, in part: "CIA chiefs L.Devlin and B.Tweedy confirm the CIA was not implicated." Not that we want to doubt Larry and his cohort's sincerity, but are these the people one should be relying on for confirmation ? (The endnote offers references to other supporting evidence; still, it is clear De Witte did not pursue the American angle with the same vigour as he did the Belgian one.)
       De Witte provides a large amount of material -- dates, people, meetings, documents. But the presentation is not the neatest, and it seems designed, in part, to obfuscate as much as to clarify. (Note that this may, in part, be due to editing of the English version.) Regarding most of the material we have to take his word for it -- and that can be problematic. Consider, for example, this statement:
The attitude of the White House and its Congolese friends is aptly conveyed in Madeleine Kalb's account of President Kennedy's first cabinet meetings at the end of January (by which time Lumumba was already in Tshombe's hands)
       (De Witte then offers a quote from Kalb's book The Congo Cables -- unaccountably (and unacceptably) not offering a page citation or reference.) Lumumba was, in fact, killed on 17 January -- a few days before Kennedy's inauguration as president. So Lumumba was not in "Tshombe's hands"; he was already dead. Admittedly, the world (and, apparently, even the US government) were unaware that Lumumba was already dead by the time of President Kennedy's first cabinet meeting -- but to say that "Lumumba was already in Tshombe's hands" at that time, without further explanation, is unacceptable.
       This sort of murky statement might catch the eye of an American reader, but most of De Witte's claims and quotes deal with completely foreign material. So one has to wonder: if De Witte is putting a spin on such a basic event (Kennedy's cabinet meeting), what might he be doing with the rest of the material ?

       We are in no position to judge the Belgian details De Witte goes into. There seems no doubt that the Belgians were displeased with Lumumba and his (justified) attitude towards them. The Belgians' history in the Congo is a tragic chapter with few bright moments. After the Congo became independent Belgium wanted to defend its interests, and one way they thought they could accomplish that was by getting rid of Lumumba. Certainly, there were Belgians who were closely involved in all aspects of Lumumba's final days (and the cover-up afterwards), and De Witte has certainly performed a service in detailing much of this.
       De Witte's treatment of the United Nations is more problematic. De Witte insists the UN could have and should have acted at numerous points. This ignores the UN mandate and misrepresents what the UN was authorized to do in the Congo (see Brian Urquhart's defense of the UN's role, in his review of De Witte's book in The New York Review of Books).
       De Witte doesn't improve his position with his petty attacks on the UN. He first introduces Ralph Bunche as "a UN official living in Léopoldville", as if Bunche merely happened to live there, and he merely happened to be employed by the UN. A few pages later De Witte grants that Bunche was (Secretary General) Dag Hammarskjöld's "assistant"; in fact, Bunche was an Undersecretary-General (which, despite the sound of the title, is a bit more than an "assistant") -- and, for a time, head of the UN mission. De Witte's descriptions of Bunche are not really misrepresentations -- but they are damned close. And they again cast a shadow over his argument.
       The UN certainly did not have its finest hour in the Congo, but De Witte's wholesale condemnation doesn't convince either. For De Witte it is all simple enough:
It is easy to understand UN passivity in January 1961. On the one hand, in August 1960, the UN wanted to overthrow Lumumba. On the other hand, at the beginning of 1961, in the eyes of the UN the Katanga regime was playing an indispensable role in the reconstruction of a neo-colonial Congo.
       Certainly, the UN was used by the various factions (including the US, Belgium, France, and the Soviet Union) to pursue a variety of agendas. But De Witte ascribes far too much to it. "The UN wanted to overthrow Lumumba" ? That is just too broad and easy (and inaccurate) a statement. And De Witte makes of "the UN" a monolith which it isn't (and never was).
       The UN had a very limited (and quite clearly circumscribed) mandate in the Congo: essentially its hands were largely tied (which worked in the favour of the unsettling forces, especially in Katanga). The UN did not achieve the desired ends (a democratic, unified, free Congo) -- but it was never permitted the means to facilitate such an outcome.
       Lumumba was under UN protection after Mobuto (who had removed him from office) surrounded his house with troops on 10 October 1960. UN troops formed a second cordon -- and guaranteed his safety. De Witte argues that Lumumba was thus effectively silenced and made inconsequential. Possibly, but it was Lumumba that snuck out of the house -- despite warnings by the UN that they could not guarantee his safety if he fled. Perhaps Lumumba felt he had no choice -- but he also put the UN in a nearly impossible position (though De Witte has little difficulty in condemning them).
       De Witte also almost completely dismisses the Cold War angle, finding Soviet actions and interference inconsequential and exaggerated. His attitude is entirely too cavalier, with little factual documentation in support of his assertions:
Since Stalin de facto replaced internationalism with peaceful coexistence with the West, Moscow no longer questioned capitalist supremacy in (semi-)colonial countries. Moscow used the crisis for propaganda purposes. (...) Moscow did not really oppose UN intervention: it adopted the views of Afro-Asian countries which pinned all their hopes on the UN's ability to solve the Congo crisis.
       Well, it's a theory.
       "The direct support that the Soviet Union gave nationalist Stanleyville remained negligible" is pretty much all De Witte wants to say about direct Soviet involvement around Lumumba. Another case of De Witte not bothering to tell the whole story (presumably because it detracts from his central point: the Belgians and the UN got Lumumba killed).
       (In his review, Brian Urquhart notes, for example: "For his part Lumumba threatened that in eight days' time Soviet troops would come to the Congo, as the English translation puts it, '...in order to brutally expel the UN from our Republic.... If it is necessary to call on the devil to save the country, I will do it without hesitation, confident that with the total support of the Soviets, I will, in spite of everything, emerge victorious.' " Sure sounds to us like a statement that has to be considered more closely. But apparently not to De Witte. He doesn't even bother glossing over all of Lumumba's rash pronouncements, he just ignores them.)

       Lumumba himself is largely beyond criticism to De Witte. De Witte gets almost elegiac in describing the man -- and the leader. He is awed by Lumumba's powerful speech at the independence ceremony -- where, for example, Lumumba promises to "review all previous laws, and make new ones which will be just and noble". Not wanting to be cynical, but the proof of the proverbial pudding is in action, not words. Lumumba never really had much of a chance, but he also bears some responsibility for his failure. His words weren't enough -- and he did not act in a way that would have allowed him to implement policies that would have bettered his country and the life of its people. Indeed, he left no legacy of constructive accomplishment. Yes, he might have gone on to become a great leader, but his legacy is almost entirely one of words. He appears to have been fickle (not a great leadership-quality), and the impression he left on others was of a very charismatic man but one whose motives and ambitions weren't clear (like Africa hasn't had enough people like that running its countries).
       Rhetoric is mere rhetoric, but actions are what counts, and Lumumba's actions (and his often unclear stand) won him a lot of enemies. Certainly, the Belgians were essentially all corrupt, merely wanting to maintain the status quo. Lumumba's head-on attack against them may have sounded good to his audience (and may have even been just and right), but it was also unrealistic. With essentially no educated class to assume the necessary positions in government, the military and police, industry, and the educational system, the Congo was ill-suited to cut off all ties with the previous power-holders, regardless of how unfairly they had been treated by them.
       De Witte also makes much of Lumumba as a unifying, nationalist figure. Why this is a good thing remains unexplained: the Congo (and then Zaïre, then the Congo again) hasn't made for a very impressive example of a cohesive state. Secessionists popped up immediately. The grand prize was always the incredibly wealthy province of Katanga, and Lumumba naturally was against the independence movement there, but other areas pulled away from central control as well (though these were also more readily reigned in).
       In her book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (see our review), Michela Wrong in fact says that Mobuto's only success as ruler over the country was in finally forging a national identity. Lumumba also may have been working towards this, but he was much less successful. And note that, ultimately, Mobuto also failed: the centre would not hold. And why should it ? The Congo is an artificial construct, even by African standards, and while it can perhaps be vaguely held together by nationalism ... well, that's some really nasty glue.
       Lumumba wanted power. Maybe in order to do good. But he needed power to do anything. The anti-colonial and (artificial) nationalist card was the one to play to get power (the only alternative being to cozy up to the Belgians). Lumumba played badly, and paid the price.
       Lumumba stands on the high moral ground. The anti-colonial card was certainly the morally correct choice. And he was murdered by the agents of a brutally repressive pseudo-regime and by the old colonial masters. Lumumba was fighting the just fight, mostly. His enemies were pure evil, and pure evil won. The Congo has been paying for it ever since. But Lumumba's survival would not necessarily have insured prosperity and happiness in the Congo. Practically no one else in Africa managed that trick, and there's no reason to believe that Lumumba could have pulled it off.
       De Witte prints a letter Lumumba wrote in prison (to either his third or his fourth wife -- it isn't clear). De Witte says it can be seen as his political testament. They are nice words, but ugly reality contradicts (once again) all his beliefs and aspiration. Lumumba writes:
We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and the free and liberated peoples in every corner of the globe will ever remain at the side of the millions of Congolese who will not abandon the struggle until the day when there will be no more colonizers and no more of their mercenaries in our country. (...)
I know my country, now suffering so much, will be able to defend its independence and its freedom.
       Instead no one much cares about it. People have continued to use first the Congo crisis and then the continued suffering of the people of that vast country for their own purposes and ends. It's a sad chapter in modern history. De Witte's book puts some focus on it; too bad he doesn't present his material better.

       In his introduction De Witte writes about the assassination of Lumumba:
This dark episode was suppressed for almost forty years, hidden from the history books. (...) (O)nce Lumumba's government was ousted, an attempt was made to deprive the Africans of the true story of his overthrow: not only had Lumumba been physically eliminated, his life and work were not to become a source of inspiration for the people of Africa either.
       Hidden from the history books ? Surely Lumumba's murder has, for all these decades, been one of the galvanizing forces of the African independence movement. He has been romanticized all out of proportion to his extremely limited accomplishments. Surely, also, for the past forty years, he has been the one leader most likely to be named if the topic of murdered African statesmen comes up. Surely Western powers and the UN have long been blamed for their role (or at least for playing some sort of role) in his death. And the Soviets even named their Moscow university for foreign students after him, to serve as a constant reminder and, no doubt, inspiration.
       As to African perception, we can't speak for all those people, over all that time, but we note for example that in Ogali Ogali's bestselling 1961 play, Patrice Lumumba (see our review), Lumumba is depicted as having been killed by a Belgian officer -- and his dying words are: "Africa ! Africa ! The United Nations has killed us ! Africa ! Africa ! Africa !" Sounds to us exactly like what De Witte is saying.

       De moord op Lumumba (and its English incarnation, The Assassination of Lumumba) is an important book. There is significant material here, and the outrages that were perpetrated in the Congo are well worth remembering. Nevertheless, the presentation (especially of the English version) means it has to be handled and read with extreme care. Too bad De Witte couldn't be truly objective. And too bad this is the version that English-speaking readers are presented with.

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The Assassination of Lumumba: Reviews: Patrice Lumumba: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ludo De Witte is a sociologist and author.

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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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