Most people, if they were asked to suggest the bloodiest events of the 20th century, would undoubtedly identify two world wars and the Holocaust as the primary horrors. Sadly, the century’s sanguinary highlights reel runs much deeper.
We are famously condemned to repeat history if we do not learn from it, and no lessons can be learned from events that are forgotten. There were many terrible acts of genocide in the 20th century that were barely noticed. This popular forgetting allows us the illusion that genocide is rare, an anomaly. Instead, it is merely the extreme extension of a common human propensity. Humans kill, always have done. The ubiquity of a proscription against killing in legal codes suggests a human enthusiasm that’s hard to curb. Examples of this enthusiasm becoming genocide litter history. L Frank Baum, creator of the much loved Land of Oz, early supporter of women’s su ffrage, penned editorials in 1890 espousing genocide of native Americans (a group for whom he perversely seemed to have great sympathy). If the father of the Munchkins could pursue a genocidal logic, what’s to restrain the Chemical Alis? The 20th century added a terrible technological enabling, an industrial capacity to our darkest inclinations. Truly horri fic outcomes followed.
Skulls from a mass grave of Khmer Rouge victims in Choeung Ek aka the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
When I speak of genocide I refer both to acts committed with the speci fic intention of destroying or eliminating a particular group and those of less clearly articulated motivation but which have a clear genocidal result. That is because they both rise from the same intellectual root stock — the classification by a state or authority of a group as others, outsiders, lesser people, not entitled to the protection of the state or authority’s laws and not worthy of the consideration the authority a ffords its own people. The establishment of difference, of otherness, is the essential first step in genocidal thinking. And the more di fferent the victims the less they are remembered. Ask people what they know of genocide in the 20th century and the answer will almost always first be the Holocaust. After that might come Stalin’s murderous campaigns against the ‘Kulaks’ or the Armenian Genocide. Pol Pot’s genocide of his own people occurred more recently and entered the ‘killing fields’ in our deadly lexicon. The Balkans gave us the vile euphemism ‘ethnic cleansing’, used also for some modern African acts of genocide.
Atrocities committed by Joseph Stalin’s regime are alternately abhorred and excused in present times.
This is not the full list. This bloodiest of blood sports rarely has an off season. Without question, among the most forgotten and unlamented of genocides were those committed by predominately European authorities in Africa in the early decades of the century. Though rarely thought of, they were truly terrible. It is understandable that the Holocaust has seared itself into our shared consciousness. Modern Europeans systematically and industrially murdered by a modern European state. The faces that stare out of the grainy photographs of the time, the people shown in stuttering film being quick-marched to their mass grave, are heartrendingly, incomprehensibly like us, that is, the dominant, white us. The Nazis could only achieve the genocidally essential classi fication of di fferent by dint of a monstrous, unscientific paranoid racial theory. It should never be forgotten that this state-imposed ideology of di fference had its first manifestation as di fferential legal treatment of Jews. That was the first step on the path that led through pogrom and Kristallnacht to the final solution. It is not to seek to diminish the horror we should all feel at the Holocaust to compare how unremembered are the genocides of Africa. Indeed the horrendously murderous forced labour system of the Belgian Congo is rarely rated as genocide at all.
80 per cent of the Herero people were wiped out by colonial powers.
Principally controlled by Leopold of Belgium, whose name should sit not far behind Hitler’s in the dishonour roll of odium, the Congo basin ran on murder, maiming and brutality. There is not space here to list the atrocities. A Belgian Commission set up to investigate the forced labour system estimated half the population died during the period, perhaps 10 million people. Mostly forgotten has been the sad fate of the Herero people of what is now Namibia. Driven by countless brutalities the Herero rebelled against their German masters in 1903. The outgunned Herero were defeated in battle by a force led by Lieutenant General Luther von Trotha in 1904. Not content with routing the Herero fighters, the good general ordered that the entire Herero people should be pursued and shepherded into the desert with the explicit intention that they all die there of thirst. Eighty per cent of them did. Why are these enormities not remembered? Perhaps the Africans were just too di fferent. They had no Anne Frank or Victor Klemperer to write diaries to move us to empathetic tears. Too di fferent. Too bad. We are immensely fortunate in Australia. While we are not perfect we live in a nation governed by the rule of law with equality before the law. In our good fortune we shouldn’t forget some appalling treatment of the continent’s original inhabitants whom we only started counting as citizens in the 60s. We should not be intimidated by those who stridently vilify anyone who refers to white settlement as an invasion while they themselves maintain a fantasy that the country wasn’t being used by anyone when we got here. The intolerance of both the White Australia Policy and the criminalisation of homosexuality are only just behind us.
Discussion of the colonisation of Australia and dispossession of its indigenous people remains fraught today.
Genocidal acts continue unabated. Islamic State seems classically genocidal in its ideology. Humanity should stand resolutely against it. But the response of some right wing mouthpieces to Islamic State violence should cause us concern for our own fundamental principles. Some conservative politicians argue that we need an honest debate about how di fferent Islam is from our own religion, by which they mean Christianity, which as a bonus insult to those of us unencumbered by religious views, is said to be the basis of our culture and morality. Yes, Islam is di fferent. So what? It’s not as di fferent as Hinduism for whatever that’s worth. They say the Koran espouses violence against nonbelievers and provide selective examples. Of course this part of the ‘honest’ debate requires an assiduously cultivated amnesia in regard to some energetically intolerant parts of the Old Testament. What they are really weasel wording their way towards is that Islamic people are di fferent. Di fferent meaning dangerous. This is toxic thinking. One hyperactive right wing commentator whose views are as drearily predictable as they are endlessly syndicated has taken the next step and argued that we must stop Islamic people migrating to Australia. They do not need to have done anything wrong or hold any particular views. They are already wrong in themselves, di fferent, dangerous. They must be treated di fferently. This is the dreadful, dreadful first step.
Presumptive Republican Party candidate for the President of the USA, Donald Trump advocates a ban on muslim immigration.
What next? What about the half-a-million Australians who worship Islam? Do we make our own Nuremberg laws for them? I don’t believe for a moment that Australia is on the brink of fascism, but we shouldn’t be complacent about the temper of the times. Consider that the person advocating banning Islamic migrants is syndicated by Australia’s largest print media organisation and has his own television programme. Consider that Donald Trump, who holds the same view and some other pretty horrible ones to boot is the nominee of the Republican Party, the party of the great emancipator. Consider that there was a time when no one would have believed that the country of Goethe and Hegel would become the country of Hitler and the Holocaust. The thing we must remember is that the progress of civilisation is not linear or inevitable. The circle of light is not guaranteed to grow, sometimes it bloodily contracts. Humanity has to be constantly worked at. Reverting to hostility towards the di fferent requires, as history shows, no e ffort at all. Patrick Conlon is the former Minister for Transport and Infrastructure.