The genocide effect: new perspectives on modern cultures of destruction

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‘The Genocide Effect’ (University of Sydney, 4-5 July, 2001) assembled twenty-five scholars from Australia and one visiting scholar from Germany to discuss genocide as it relates to the historical causation and contemporary meanings of atrocity, violence and dispossession.

‘The Genocide Effect’ (University of Sydney, 4-5 July, 2001) assembled twenty-five scholars from Australia and one visiting scholar from Germany to discuss genocide as it relates to the historical causation and contemporary meanings of atrocity, violence and dispossession. Scholars from history, political science, law, philosophy, anthropology, and education were asked to consider how genocide affects the speakability of trauma, the political denial/ admission of past injustice, public cultures of apology, juridical contexts of prosecuting perpetrators and establishing criminality and guilt, and the post-genocide integration of a shared history of shame and pride in the constitution of political community and morally responsible citizenship.

The initiative for the workshop stemmed from the convenors’ desire to revisit what was explicit in the recent ‘genocide debate’ emanating principally, though not exclusively, from the publication of Bringing Them Home in May 1997 – that is, the indebtedness of the debate to the Holocaust as the meta-vision for discussions of genocide. The history of unspeakability anchored to the Holocaust was evident in the repeated invocation of it in public and scholarly debate as the ultimate frame for interpreting acts and processes of dispossession in the settlement of Australia and the practice of forcible removals as intentionally or potentially genocidal. This discussion invoked the well-worn vocabulary of the Holocaust’s uniqueness with largely unquestioning assumption: its silence, sublimity, ineffability, unspeakability, and incomprehensibility. The interlocutors attributed an aura of unprecedented destruction to the Holocaust, not just in the scope of the loss (the death of six million European Jews), but also to the Nazis’ relentless pursuit to eliminate European Jewry from the face of the earth. It is this image of the Holocaust – total physical extermination of the Jews as an ethnic, religious and racial group – which has, according to many, isolated and distanced it from other acts of genocide.

We identify the central interpretive problematic from this debate as relating to the practical and symbolic weight, and the juridical power, of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In relation to Australia, some commentators have denied genocidal possibilities due to a semantic deficiency: because there was not a name (conferring a legal and social identity of criminality) for acts that constituted the intentions and terms of the convention – the conspiracy to commit, direct and public incitement, attempt to commit, and complicity in genocide – then Australia’s history of the expropriation of Aboriginality through territory, biology and cultural identity, does not exhibit eliminationist thought, intent and practice before 1948.

Another interpretive issue relates to society’s visual conditioning to genocide. Subsequent to World War II, discussions of possible genocidal activity have been schooled in the meta-image of Holocaust atrocity: the massacre pits of Babi Yar, the industrial ‘processing’ and crematoria at Auschwitz, and the skeletal and emaciated corpses of liberation at camps in Germany, Austria and Poland. Because the visual collective memory of the Holocaust constructs the contemporary consciousness of genocide so indelibly, the possibility for thinking through criminal acts divorced from atrocity tropes synonymous with it undoes the work of the Convention as the template in which to read other possibly genocidal practices. The effect is inhibiting as it is unsatisfying and relates to strategies of assimilating the Holocaust into scholarly interpretation and historical and cultural consciousness as a sign of approximation – on the one hand invoked as the universal template of genocide, yet on the other exalted in its uniqueness because of the emphasis on intentional physical murder. We would argue that the parameters of the genocide convention operate on a spectrum from possibility to totality, a concept ignored by numerous commentators who are intent on relying on the Holocaust’s horrifically extreme tropes to provide an historical norm of genocide.

‘The Genocide Effect’ aimed to engage these issues, and was in many ways a ‘testing ground’ that aspired to stimulate further discussion and clarify points of contention among scholars in relation to intent, legal questions of criminality, cultural effects, and testimonial voices of genocide in first and second-generation trauma narratives.

In ‘The limitations of the Genocide Convention’, Tim McCormack addressed how the international criminal court would aim to prosecute genocide with respect to territorial or jurisdictional issues. Robert van Krieken introduced the theme of cultural genocide, and Jennifer Balint suggested a typology of genocide that problematised the notion of intent in thought and practice. This isolation of intent would be ‘coloured’ for the intensity of its genocidal expression. The ensuing debate exposed the disciplinary differences at the workshop: the need to retain the present convention in its definition and criteria for the prosecution of genocide, or the question of whether the convention would ever be revised to accommodate its alleged inadequacies (exclusion of political, sexual, disabled groups). McCormack suggested that in relation to the stolen generations, sufficient evidence existed for a charge of crimes against humanity, but other scholars were moved to debate the more functional outcomes of invoking genocide to accommodate the act of forcible removals.

In the panel ‘Locating genocidal visions in the colonial encounter’, Henry Reynolds examined Tasmanian history in the 1820s and 1830s as a period of annihilation, extermination and extirpation. Reynolds complicated the application of the word genocide to the colonial encounter by suggesting that only specific tribal groups were targeted, rather than Aborigines as a national group. This austere interpretation of the Genocide Convention was qualified by the argument that punishable crimes included the attempt to kill certain tribal groups. Reynolds denied the general application of genocide to Australian history, but ventured that there were, in the phrase of Dirk Moses, ‘genocidal moments’ that can be isolated. In contrast, Jan Kociumbas argued that the introduction of small pox into the colony was genocidal. British colonists had experimented with biological warfare in Boston before its adoption as a genocidal method in Australia. Discussion raised much disagreement as to whether smallpox could be classed as genocide.

In the panel ‘Stealing the children’, Robert Manne discussed the intimate associations of the Holocaust for thinking about forcible removals, and concentrated on biological absorption, using Hannah Arendt’s definition of genocide in Eichmann in Jerusalem as the attempt to wipe away a people from the earth, as the departure point. Russell McGregor strongly rejected the argument of genocidal intent in the state-sponsored project of forcible removals, and insisted that although the colonisation of Australia revealed sporadic or feverish genocidal impulses, one must take account of the structural processes intrinsic in settler/indigenous contact. McGregor argued that the forcible removal of children in the post-World War II period was a project of governance of the liberal-democratic polity, and that the objectives of assimilation were the physical survival of the population and nation building. McGregor appears to agree with Manne in the necessity to isolate differences in the intentions of interwar as opposed to postwar child removals. Anna Haebich focused on case studies from Western Australia, while Anthony McKnight questioned the cultural and political investments in the speakability of the topic for non-Indigenous Australians.

In a discursive panel ‘Genocide in its different contexts’, Andrew Markus attempted to consolidate and interpret the strands in competing interpretations of genocide in the workshop’s discussions. Tony Barta focused on Britain and Germany as comparative colonial empires that used territorial displacement and enslavement of populations to achieve their economic and racial visions, while Paul Bartrop considered Australia as a genocidal democracy through concentrating on the stolen generations.

Speakers in the panel, ‘The guilt of nations: the postwar conscience and historical injustice’, produced a highly animated discussion about competing visions of historical responsibility. Gillian Triggs argued for the retention of the genocide convention in its original form and re-emphasised the practical uses of genocide legislation. Konrad Kwiet questioned the utility of war crimes trials as a source of education about history. Finally, Ghassan Hage examined the ‘gift’ of citizenship associated with migration and entry into a country with polluted memories of a colonial past. The discussion focused on the anti-colonial project and the transactions of shame and pride invested in the paradigm of inclusion and exclusion in the political and moral project of reconciliation constructed on the basis of ethnicity and multiculturalism.

In ‘Telling stories’, Esther Faye discussed, with much poignancy, second-generation witnessing to parents’ Holocaust trauma. Suzanne Rutland provided an overview of Holocaust consciousness in Australia through the microcosm of survivor communities in Melbourne and Sydney and their emerging visibility in response to domestic and international events. Deirdre Heitmeyer, a victim of forcible removals, talked about her own experiences and memories, and the implications of her story for historical and moral responsibility. Discussion focused around imagined and real events and the survivor as a witness in constructing ‘narrative truth’.

In ‘Rethinking the Holocaust’, visiting German scholar Gerhard Hirschfeld appealed for more comparative genocide work, using Armenia as the case point. Raimond Gaita reflected on the moral and explicable dimensions of the Holocaust – the event’s ineffability and explicability as two competing strands of interpretation which exposed moments of national anxiety and confusion. John Milfull examined Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, and his attribution to the Holocaust as a perversion of bourgeois culture. Discussion focused on the problematic of reading post-World War II events independently from the atrocity landscapes of the Holocaust.

‘Confronting genocidal pasts’ provided the concluding forum to assimilate the discussion of the two days. Winton Higgins considered the normative and particular aspects of the Holocaust while Colin Tatz provided a summary of the issues at stake in denying and admitting genocidal histories in Australia.

The vision of the convenors was exceeded in reality. Academy workshop funding stipulated restricted participation to exclusively scholarly exchange, which fostered a greater sense of intellectual possibility and dialogue on the sensitive topic. This environment produced lively, tense and generous exchanges that unexpectedly challenged the positions and assumptions of many scholars who may have been resistant to the practical utility of genocide as a legal, rather than cultural or political crime. The realisation of the convenors’ vision was dependent on the rigorous, committed intellectual sharing of the speakers who rose to the task of probing why the contemporary semantics of genocide, whether in Australia or Europe, remains as unsettled and disarming now as it did from the moment of its entry into law and consciousness fifty-three years ago.

Workshop Publication Outcomes: Visiting German scholar and speaker at the workshop, Professor Gerhard Hirschfeld was interviewed by Maria Zijlstra on 9 July 2001 for ‘The Europeans’ on ABC Radio National. Selected papers from the workshop will appear in a forthcoming publication, Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and the ‘Civilising Process’ in Australia, edited by A Dirk Moses, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Dr Simone Gigliotti is from the Department of History, University of Melbourne.

Dr Dirk Moses is from the Department of History, University of Sydney.

A copy of this report appeared in Dialogue Vol. 20, No. 3, 2001.

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