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The meaning of genocide

By Dirk Moses - posted Friday, 18 April 2008

The debate about genocide and Australian history is back. Since the publication of Ben Kiernan’s monumental book Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur and Paul Bartrop’s entry on Australia in the new The Dictionary of Genocide, commentators and bloggers are asking whether this country’s history can be associated with the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, or even whether “were we really worse than Hitler?”, as one commentator put it, as if in a state of panic. Does using the genocide concept entail such disturbing equations?

Apparently it does, according to Gerard Henderson who thinks genocide is epitomised by the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry and not by any events in Australian history. Consequently, he defines genocide as “the conscious attempt of one nation or one movement to murder the citizens of another race”, a definition he admits diverges from international law but conforms to what he calls the “general parlance” or “the person on the street”.

He regards the United Nations definition used by Kiernan and Bartrop as vague because it includes “acts of discrimination against a race or people that do not result in intended or even unintended death”. Henderson’s concerns are widespread, but are they based on an accurate understanding of international law and Australian history?


In fact, the UN definition of 1948 excludes acts of discrimination. While the UN never limited genocide to mass killing, it was aware that destroying a human group could entail a number of policies. It defines genocide thus:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The UN settled on this list of genocidal policies not only in light of the Nazis’ occupation techniques in Europe only a few years before, but also by drawing on their own national histories. There were many ways of destroying a national minority or ethnic group, they agreed.

In each case, the ability of a group to physically reproduce itself is affected. The definition is very precise and focuses on the “biological” fate of groups. “Cultural genocide” was considered by the UN but omitted from the final definition, much to the regret of the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term in 1944, because he thought forcibly denationalising or assimilating a minority effectively destroyed it. To suggest that the UN definition is illegitimately extensive is plainly false. It is, in fact, a narrowing of Lemkin’s original concept.

Other aspects of Lemkin’s approach, which he developed in the 1930s and 1940s, were retained by the UN, namely the notion that genocide was a “generic notion” with “common elements” (see Lemkin’s words here), meaning that many kinds of otherwise different policies could be classified as genocidal where they shared some, key elements. In other words, to determine that a particular policy was genocidal does not entail the conclusion that “we were like the Nazis”. It means that the policy intended to destroy a group in one of the ways listed by the UN definition. It does not mean that the perpetrators were like the Nazis in any other respect, as commentators, in unnecessarily alarmist tones, fear.

The UN definition is not some arcane matter of academic debate. It is the law. It has been adopted by the International Criminal Court (PDF 217KB) and the International Criminal Tribunals that are trying suspects from the Rwandan genocide (PDF 399KB) and civil war in the former Yugoslavia (277KB). It can’t be wished away because it does not accord with one’s own, private definition.


Can this law be symbolically and retrospectively applied to Australia? For reasons of space, let us focus on the Stolen Generations rather than frontier violence. It is important to know something about history to answer this question. In my book, Genocide and Settler Society, Robert Manne showed how the policies of some Australian states in the 1930s were motivated by eugenicist fantasies of “absorbing” mixed-descent Indigenous children so that, over time, Indigenous people would disappear (“full blood” Aborigines were thought to be “dying out”). Indeed, these policies were motivated by what he calls “genocidal thoughts”, even if their application was hindered by chronic under-funding and interrupted by World War II. After the war, the assimilation era cast the removal policy in different terms that many scholars, like Manne and Russell McGregor, doubt are genocidal.

It is true that the Bringing them Home Report tended to collapse these two phases of policy in its genocide determination, but Henderson does not mention the 1930s policies in his attack on Manne and Rai Gaita for supposedly back tracking on their views, although even Keith Windschuttle acknowledges that the senior administrator in Western Australia and the Northern Territory “publicly endorsed a program to ‘breed out the colour’ with the ultimate aim of biologically absorbing the Aboriginal people into the white population”, a policy he calls “obnoxious”.

The language of “breeding” and biological absorption was ubiquitous throughout the world during the interwar period, and it would have been remarkable if Australian policies were not affected by it in some way. To highlight the genocidal rhetoric of “breading out the colour” until no more Aborigines lived in Australia is not to “pick on” our near ancestors and suggest “they were like the Nazis”. It is to accurately reconstruct and name what occurred there and then.

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About the Author

A Dirk Moses is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney. He is the author of German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past, the senior editor of the Journal of Genocide Research, and co-editor of The Holocaust in Greece.

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