Since 1997, the most trenchant denunciations of Australia’s role in the removal of children came from academics and intellectuals. Rather than remaining circumspect or judicious, the academics endorsed the highest estimates of the numbers said to have been removed, and they painted the policy in the most loathsome terms possible. In an article for the Times Literary Supplement, the Melbourne political scientist Judith Brett endorsed Dodson’s figure of 100,000 stolen children, and Colin Tatz did the same in his booklet Genocide in Australia. Academics quickly drew parallels with the Holocaust of World War II. Raimond Gaita wrote:
Many people were irritated by the claim in the Human Rights Commission’s report on the stolen children, Bringing Them Home, that some Australian State administrations had been guilty of genocide against our indigenous peoples. I confess I was … The Holocaust was my paradigm of genocide. I defined other forms of genocide, such as the mass murders in Rwanda and Bosnia, against it. But while reading the stolen children report, I became ashamed of my irritation. Bringing Them Home argues carefully that according to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, some State administrators of Aboriginal affairs were guilty of genocide. The facts it records support that conclusion.
Among academic historians, the same analogy was deployed. Peter Read used the journal Australian Historical Studies to reply to those who questioned the veracity of his thesis. To put the critics in their place, he opened his essay with what he clearly thought the most powerful historical parallel of them all:
The big truth about the Holocaust is that six million Jews perished during World War II at the hands of the Nazi oppressors. In the forty years since the appearance of Leon Uris’ Exodus few historians, David Irving notwithstanding, have seriously challenged the standard account, which I am going to call here ‘the big truth’. The local variations, what we could call ‘smaller truths’, began a decade or more later — of heroism, of betrayals, of Germans who protected Jews, of ethnic, local and regional variations — but the parameters of the larger story have remained almost entirely unchanged … During the 1980s, the parameters of the large truth of the stolen generations — that large numbers of Aboriginal children were removed from their communities partly to desocialize them as Aboriginals — were also established, like the truth about Aboriginal dispossession.
Read was also the principal author of a book based on the submission by the Link-Up organization to the Human Rights Commission inquiry. He compared the tactics used by the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board to those deployed by the Nazis:
The threat of taking children was deliberately used by the Board to control the behaviour of Aboriginal parents and other adults. As Bruno Bettelheim pointed out in his analysis of Nazi tactics during the Holocaust, terror is one of the most effective means of controlling an entire group and it relies upon making an example of only a few people (Bettelheim 1989). The Board deliberately threatened child removal because it was aware of how deeply we value our children, and that we would do much to avoid losing them.
Paul Bartrop of Deakin University directly compared the Stolen Generations to the Jews under Hitler. For good measure, he added that, although Australia accepted an increasing number of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, the fact that we did not take all who applied indicated how racist this country was.
It did not involve killing, 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. For part of the time the Australian case occurred concurrently with that of the Nazis, and there was a measure of overlap between the two as fugitives from the Nazis sought refuge in Australia. Having to work through the same department that determined the fate of Aborigines at the Federal level, refugee Jews from Hitler’s Germany were restricted in their opportunities to enter Australia, and for largely the same reasons as Aboriginal children were being stolen from their families: as objects in the quest for racial and cultural assimilation.
Another academic historian Dirk Moses took umbrage at those who thought this comparison too extreme. He wrote:
I suppose the Nazis argued that they took the children for their own good. It was precisely because of such policies that Raphael Lemkin, Pole and Jew, wanted to include the provision about child removal in international law. I don’t think it is vacuous moralism to point to the discursive and policy parallels between the Australian and German cases.
The allusion here to the Nazis taking children is to one of the most unspeakable acts of World War II when, from 1940 to 1943 during the German occupation of Poland, the SS Lebensborn or ‘Fountain of Life’ organization abducted tens of thousands of blonde-haired, blue-eyed infants. At first they were taken from orphanages but later were simply snatched from the streets. They were taken to ‘racial testing stations’ where they were examined and measured. Those of sufficiently Germanic appearance were sent to one of several Kinderlarger or ‘child camps’, from where they were despatched to adopting families in Germany to ‘improve’ the Aryan racial stock. Those who failed the racial test were initially sent back to the orphanages but later were either killed on the spot or put aboard the trains to the concentration camps.
Some of those who entered this debate were much less concerned with Aboriginal children than with continuing the Marxist critique of liberal-democratic society by other means. For more than a decade, a number of the old Marxists who hold prominent positions in Australian university history departments have tried to argue that, far from being a universalist doctrine that regards all people as equals, liberalism is ‘exclusionist’ when it comes to race. According to the Marxist-feminist historian Ann Curthoys of the Australian National University, liberalism only applies to homogenous ethnic groups within a nation state. This kind of exclusionism arose not in spite of liberal democracy, Curthoys argues, but was integral to it. Those who did not or could not share its values threatened the existence of a liberal regime. The historian of the Communist Party of Australia, Alastair Davidson, took a similar line, claiming John Stuart Mill in support.
Sociologist Robert van Krieken used the Stolen Generations to extend this analysis. He claimed these children constituted yet another example of how close liberal democracy was to totalitarianism. ‘Individualistic liberalism has a strongly normalizing edge to it, which can … have effects very similar to more authoritarian regimes based on quite different political philosophies.’ Van Krieken has argued that the Stolen Generations confirmed the theories of Polish Marxist and postmodernist theorist, Zygmunt Bauman, who claimed the modern liberal state only pretended to be tolerant of difference but, instead, harboured an authoritarian ‘assimilatory project’. Citing Bauman, van Krieken wrote:
It was part and parcel of the process of dismantling older, deeply rooted forms of communal life which provided alternative, sometimes oppositions frameworks of social power … The price to be paid by individuals for entry to liberal citizenship in the modern state, at least in its juridical form, has always been to leave all their previous communal cultural identities behind, apart perhaps from some remnant in the form of quaint customs wheeled out at ceremonial occasions.
Van Krieken’s anti-liberal writings about children and the state are among the works that contributed to the Human Rights Commission’s deliberations in Bringing Them Home.
In Australia, the intellectual debate over the stolen children has continued to generate enmities that are unlikely to end soon. The political commentator Robert Manne has remained one of the principal protagonists. He too has used the Holocaust analogy, arguing: ‘the term “stolen generations” had become for Aboriginal Australians what the term Holocaust was for the Jews — a way of referring, in a kind of moral shorthand, to a common and collective tragedy.’ He also accused those who criticized the Bringing Them Home report, especially the journal Quadrant under editor Paddy McGuinness, of descending to the level of the most notorious Holocaust denier: ‘Quadrant has moved from the promise of “genuine debate” on Aboriginal policy to the reality of atrocity denialism in the David Irving mode.’ In 1998 Manne engaged in a highly publicised and acrimonious stoush with anthropologist Ron Brunton, then the report’s major critic. In 2006, Manne was in another very public and vitriolic tussle, this time with Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt. In both the press and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Bolt repeatedly challenged Manne to provide the names of just ten children who had been forcibly removed for racist reasons. This proved a challenge Manne was unable to meet. The controversy has been so abrasive it has remained very hard for those following it to remain indifferent. But to understand the central issues, it is more revealing to begin with its originator, Peter Read.
Judith Brett, ‘Every Morning as the Sun Came Up: The Enduring Pain of the “Stolen Generation”’, Times Literary Supplement, 3 October 1997, p 4; Colin Tatz, Genocide in Australia, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Research Discussion Paper number 8, Canberra, 1999, p 29