The policy of forcible removal of children from Indigenous Australians to other groups for the purpose of raising them separately from and ignorant of their culture and people could properly be labelled ‘genocidal’ in breach of binding international law.
— Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home, 1997, co-authors Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson
MOST Australians would be taken aback to find that whenever academics in the field of genocide studies discuss history’s worst examples, their own country is soon mentioned. The March 2001 edition of the London-based Journal of Genocide Research indicated the company Australia now keeps. That edition carried six articles, in the following order:
‘The German Police and Genocide in Belorussia 1941–1944. Part 1: Police Deployment and Nazi Genocidal Directives’, by Eric Haberer
‘Comparative Policy and Differential Practice in the Treatment of Minorities in Wartime: The United States Archival Evidence on the Armenians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire’, by Rouben Paul Adalian
‘Final Solutions, Crimes Against Mankind: On the Genesis and Criticism of the Concept of Genocide’, by Uwe Makino
‘The Holocaust, the Aborigines, and the Bureaucracy of Destruction: An Australian Dimension of Genocide’, by Paul R. Bartrop
‘Did Ben-Gurion Reverse his Position on Bombing Auschwitz?’, by Richard H. Levy
‘Kalmykia, Victim of Stalinist Genocide: From Oblivion to Reassertion’, by François Grin
According to Paul Bartrop of Deakin University, Australia deserves this place in the academic literature because our past policies towards Aboriginal children were comparable to those of Nazi Germany. ‘It did not involve killing,’ he admitted, ‘but its ultimate objective was the same as Hitler’s was for the Jews; namely, that at the end of the process the target group would have disappeared from the face of the earth.’ Hence he declared with confidence: ‘It is impossible to conclude otherwise than that Australia in the 1930s was possessed of an administrative culture that in reality practised genocide.’ In its first ten years from 1999 to 2009, the quarterly Journal of Genocide Research published twelve major articles of this kind about Australia. This was more than three times as many as the journal carried in the same period on the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. In Volume 10, Issue 4, 2008, no fewer than three of the seven articles were on Australia: one on the Stolen Generations and two on colonial history. Indicting Australia for genocide has become an academic obsession.
Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission made this charge notorious when in April 1997 it published Bringing Them Home, the report of its National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. The report accused Australia of breaching the United Nations convention on genocide. For its historical analysis, the Commission relied heavily upon the work of a small number of university-based historians. Since then, the number of academics and academic programs in this field has grown exponentially to cash in on the demand created. Today, very few countries, and certainly none others of our size, devote the quantity of university resources that we now do to genocide studies. The field is concerned not only with the Stolen Generations but the so-called invasion of Australia and the genocide allegedly inherent in establishing British settlement here. The underlying agenda of this academic pursuit is not simply the study of genocide, let alone its analysis or prevention. Its aim is political, to argue that our own society and those like it, that is, Britain and the United States, are every bit as bad as Nazi Germany. In the 2001 edition of the academic journal Aboriginal History, editors Ann Curthoys and John Docker of the Australian National University wrote:
Settler-colonies like ‘Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, the United States, and Canada’ led the way in setting out to achieve what the Nazis also set out to achieve, the displacement of indigenous populations and their replacement by incoming peoples held to be racially superior.
International academic book publishers know there is a market for such material. For their anthology Genocide and the Modern Age, editors Isidor Wallimann and Michael Dobkowski commissioned a chapter exclusively on Australia. The only other countries singled out to this extent were Turkey, which got a chapter for its 1915–17 massacres of the Armenians, and, of course, Germany, which generated several chapters on the Holocaust. In the ten-volume series, Studies on War and Genocide, edited by Omer Bartov of Brown University, seven of the books commissioned were on Nazi Germany, two were general volumes about genocide in various places, but Australia was the only other country given a volume of its own, Genocide and Settler Society, published in 2004 and edited by Dirk Moses of the University of Sydney. Observing this publishing trend, University of New England historian Alan Atkinson commented:
It is disturbing for an Australian to discover that debates about genocide often do not move very far beyond the classic area of study — Europe under the Nazis — before someone mentions the antipodes. Genocide is a crime, in other words, for which Australia is listed among the usual suspects.
More recently, the focus on Australia has only intensified. In Blood and Soil, a world history of genocide published in 2007, the Australian expatriate historian Ben Kiernan of Yale University devoted more attention to the alleged genocidal activities of Australia than any other nation or region. His book had 61 pages about Australia, compared to the Armenian massacres (21 pages), the Nazi Holocaust (39 pages), the Japanese atrocities in East Asia (31 pages), the Soviet Terror (26 pages), China under Mao (27 pages), and the genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda (32 pages). Four of Kiernan’s maps depicted scenes in Australia, the same number as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China put together. In 2008, Paul Bartrop repeated his earlier accusation. As co-author of two-volume work, The Dictionary of Genocide, he wrote the entry ‘Australia, Genocide in’. He again applied the term genocide to the Stolen Generations, saying its use in that context ‘could be sustained relatively easily’.
In March 2009, one of Australia’s best-known historians and essayists, Inga Clendinnen, reviewed the book Guilt About the Past, a collection of lectures by German novelist Bernhard Schlink. The lectures discussed how the modern German nation, now two generations distant from the Second World War, should approach the question of guilt for the Holocaust. Clendinnen was disappointed with the book, and wrote, almost as an aside: ‘I had hoped the lecture titled Forgiveness and Reconciliation would speak to our situation in this country.’ In other words, literary reviews and intellectual discussion in this country now toss off the comparison between Australia and Nazi Germany as if it were so familiar one can now speak about it in shorthand — ‘our situation in this country’ — as though any possible debate is over.