April 2008

Arts & Letters


By David Day
Ben Kiernan’s ‘Blood and Soil’

When Kevin Rudd delivered the federal parliament's apology to the Stolen Generations, in February, there was no explicit reference to genocide. He would have realised that the use of such an inflammatory term, even though historically accurate, would cause many non-Indigenous Australians to reject the apology. In 1997, when the Bringing Them Home report had described the forcible taking of part-Aboriginal children from their parents as genocide, it provided an emotive means for right-wing columnists and shock-jocks to reject the existence of stolen children and to suggest that it was all an invention of ‘black-armband' historians, thereby diminishing the report's value.

Yet genocide is what supplanting societies do. People moving onto lands that are already occupied seek to make the original inhabitants disappear. They seek to replace the indigenous people with people of their own kind, so they can enjoy a strong sense of ownership over the conquered lands. And they do it in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the destruction of the indigenous inhabitants occurs without direct and deliberate killing. It can be the inadvertent consequence of an invasion, such as when deaths are caused by the unintentional introduction of new diseases - as occurred following the European invasion of the Americas, when diseases killed up to 90% of the indigenous people in some areas. Mostly, though, the disappearance of people is intentional, and genocidal in purpose.

Disappearances are not always caused by the sort of massacres usually associated with genocide. Aside from direct killing, the incoming society may drive the original inhabitants off the land by policies of forcible expulsion. They may confine them in reserves, where policies of deliberate neglect may be used to reduce their numbers. They may take indigenous children to absorb within their own midst, on the assumption that the parents, and eventually the people as a whole, will die out. Somewhat more benignly, the supplanting society may rely on policies of assimilation to detach the original people from their culture, language and religion, and often their names. They may also remove them from their particular region, so that they might be absorbed over generations into the new society. It may be done forcefully or voluntarily, but the underlying aim and final effect will be the same: to remove from view those people who could claim to have a longer, and therefore stronger, claim on the land.

At different times in its history, Australia employed all these methods towards Aboriginal people, for which a more comprehensive apology, decent reparations and perhaps some acknowledgement of Aboriginal sovereignty will one day be proffered by a federal government. The demand for it will come as Australians absorb the enormity of what has been done to Aboriginal people over the past two centuries. And they will accept the need for it as they realise that Australians are not alone as supplanters, or as perpetrators of genocide.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of any society in the world, including the different Aboriginal societies of Australia, which has not, at some stage in its history, moved onto the land of a pre-existing people and proceeded to make it their own. In the process, societies have engaged in genocidal policies and actions that were intended to strengthen their hold on that land. Yet people persist in regarding genocide as being relatively unusual and typified by sudden, extraordinary events. Ben Kiernan's massive study of genocide down the ages, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Melbourne University Press, 722pp; $55), should dispel that illusion through its detailed accounts of both familiar and unfamiliar outbreaks of genocidal violence on every continent.

In the popular imagination, the template for genocide was designed with chilling precision by the Nazis in their concentration camps, so it is not surprising that people elsewhere would shrink from the idea that their own society could have been involved in acts of genocide. But as Kiernan, a Yale professor educated in Australia, makes clear in his formidable survey, the word has a much wider application. When Raphael Lemkin, a distinguished Polish lawyer, coined the term in 1944, he had a lot more than the direct killing of his fellow Jews in mind. From his Swedish sanctuary, and later from the US, he wanted to alert the world to the range of legislative and extrajudicial measures that the Nazis were using against non-Germans to secure a hold on their conquered lands. The Nazis wanted also to secure a hold on their own German heartland by removing those who could be defined as non-German.

In exposing this obscenity in the heart of civilised Europe, Lemkin aimed to create a new crime, genocide, that would be punishable under international law. Although Lemkin's campaign had begun prior to World War II and was first motivated by Turkey's massacre of its Armenian minority, it was the genocide against European Jews that finally forced the world to act and the newly established UN to adopt a convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide. The convention outlawed both violent and non-violent means of making people disappear, but it did not extend to the destruction of a people's culture, nor did it include the destruction of a people on political grounds.

Despite the relatively wide ambit of the convention, ‘genocide' remains popularly understood as meaning acts of violent extermination. The problem is that it conjures up images of killing, in the manner of ‘homicide' and ‘infanticide'. It is therefore not surprising that it is rarely used - in general discussion, at least - in the broad sense that Lemkin intended. Kiernan's book will not help in this regard. While he acknowledges the wider meaning of the term, he restricts his study to genocidal violence and extermination. As a historian of Cambodia who has written widely on the massacres of the Pol Pot regime, this is understandable. But it does limit the useful conclusions that can be drawn from the work, which seeks to draw out and define common wellsprings of genocidal violence.

Despite the book's subtitle, and some references to Sparta and ancient Rome, most of the detailed case studies are from the modern era. They range from the Spanish in South America to Mao in China, and end with Al Qaeda. Because of his historical background, Kiernan also provides some interesting examples from the early modern history of South-East Asia and the sixteenth-century invasion of Korea by Japan, as well as including the French in Algeria and the Germans in South-West Africa. Through it all, there are numbing descriptions of countless killings, sometimes regardless of whether they have any relevance to genocide. Thus, the various battles for supremacy between Japanese warlords prior to the unification of Japan are listed in gory detail before Kiernan examines the Japanese wars with Korea, beginning in 1592, when tens of thousands of noses were cut from the faces of vanquished Korean and Chinese foes and sent back to Japan for ceremonial burial.

Kiernan argues that the Japanese war in Korea was genocidal in intent, but apart from an instruction to the Japanese commander to "Kill Koreans one by one, and empty the country," it is not clear from their actions that the Japanese tried to make all Koreans, rather than just the Korean soldiers, disappear from the landscape. Such an outcome would have conflicted with the purpose of the invasion, for the Japanese needed the Koreans to work the fields and make the land worth the cost of its conquest. Curiously, the text makes no mention of Hokkaido and its native Ainu people, who were being conquered at about the same time, as the Japanese spread northward to complete their occupation of what is now modern Japan.

When the killing abates in one region, Kiernan's attention shifts elsewhere. When the English killing of the Irish subsides in the early 1600s, for example, his gaze moves to Virginia, to a new conquest and a new litany of killing, with some of the same perpetrators. This is one of the weaknesses of the book. Had Kiernan kept an eye on Ireland, he would have been able to trace the ways in which the attempted genocide of the Irish went on by other means, as the English continued their battle for another few centuries to make the island theirs.

Apart from its organisation, there are also weaknesses in the central argument of Blood and Soil. Kiernan follows several major themes which he claims are common to episodes of genocidal violence and provide advance warning of them. Genocidal violence, he argues, is usually preceded by the offending society embracing "cults of antiquity", displaying "a fetish for agriculture", exhibiting signs of "ethnic enmity" and pursuing territorial expansion. These last two seem self-evident: people intent on killing their enemies invariably denigrate them as savages, while the conquest of new lands gives rise to killing as the newcomers assert their claim. As for supplanting societies extolling their superior cultivation practices: this is a common feature of agricultural societies and merely provides another means of justifying the taking of land. In the case of Australia, though, Kiernan struggles to explain how it was the rapidity of pastoral expansion, rather than the slow spread of agriculture, that spurred the most intense outbreaks of killing.

Similarly, he argues that the frequency of genocidal violence in the US increased with the spread of agrarianism. He provides numerous citations to show how leading American statesmen, from Jefferson to Lincoln, justified the dispossession of indigenous Americans by comparing their own agricultural practices with the supposed dependence of the original inhabitants upon hunting. Yet actual attempts at extermination usually had more elementary and immediate reasons. From Tasmania to Tennessee, the killing of one side by another came after recognition that both were engaged in a life-or-death struggle for exclusive possession of a particular territory. The adoption of agricultural practices by the indigenous people, whether the Cherokee of Georgia or the Aborigines of Australia, provided no protection against being killed for land; resistance only provided the trigger for the worst outrages. As General Sherman declared, "as long as resistance is made, death must be meted out."

Libraries contain shelves of books about genocide, most of them concentrating upon extreme acts of violence. As a result, readers are often left none the wiser about the meaning of genocide, about its purpose and the motivations of its perpetrators. Blood and Soil might have addressed this deficiency, but ends up disappointing. While the remorseless compilation of killing from across the world makes for compelling reading, the four precursors to genocidal violence that Ben Kiernan proposes are simply not convincing, particularly when he introduces examples - such as Stalin's killing of his political opponents in Russia - that do not accord with his schema. Ultimately, Kiernan has been defeated by the detail, and mistaken some of the symptoms of genocidal violence for the cause.

David Day
David Day is a prize-winning historian and an Honorary Associate in the History Program at La Trobe University. His books include Antarctica: A Biography, Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia and Menzies & Churchill at War.

Cover: April 2008

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