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  • Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History
  • Patrick Wolfe
Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History. Edited by A. Dirk Moses. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004. $75.00 (cloth; 400 pp.); $25.00 (paper; 325 pp.; 2005).

Over the past few years, genocide studies has begun to take on the distinctive characteristics of a discipline in its own right. Genocide study centers have sprung up, together with dedicated chairs, specialist journals, college courses, Web sites, and a regular schedule of international conferences. In the process, genocide studies has begun to evince a canonical structure. The Nazi Holocaust predominates, to the extent that a significant proportion of scholarly output in the field is concerned with problematizing its centrality. Is the Holocaust the paradigm case, an exemplar par excellence, or is it the unique extreme, in comparison to which other examples are necessarily diminished? Salient examples whose diminution can occasion dismay include the German genocide of the Herero in southwestern Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, seen by some as a colonial precursor to the Holocaust; the Young Turks' genocide of the Armenians under the cover of World War I, a crime against humanity that successive Turkish governments have continued to distort and deny; the Khmer Rouge outrages in Pol Pot's Cambodia; and the Hutus' genocidal mass-slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda. Slightly less well-recognized atrocities include the Stalinist mass liquidation of Russian kulaks, the Japanese "rape" of Nanking, the staggering Chinese death rate under Mao, two cases in which Indonesian governments were the perpetrators (the 1960s genocide of alleged communists in the wake of Suharto's accession to power and the more recent genocide in East Timor), the appallingly ironic mass murder of Hutus by Tutsis in Burundi, the infamous "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia, and the Guatemalan government's systematic U.S.-backed killings of Mayans in the 1980s.

Dealing in such dreadful subject matter, genocide studies could be excused for dissolving into morbidity. Yet this is not the case. On the contrary, the subdiscipline displays an activist determination that is strikingly positive, in the strict sense: it aims to improve the world by providing understandings that can lead to the prediction and prevention of genocide. To this extent, genocide studies displays a curiously nineteenth-century optimism. Historical understanding is bound up with progress. In part, this reflects a definitional clarity that is lacking in the more skeptical, critically oriented reaches of the humanities academy. For genocide is not a theoretical concept but a crime at international law—the crime of crimes, with a definition that the fledgling [End Page 502] United Nations brokered in 1948. This definition bears the humane imprint of Raphaël Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the term "genocide" and labored tirelessly for an international convention to combat the crime. The UN definition clearly applies to the Holocaust but embraces a range of crimes intended to lead to the destruction of designated human groups in whole or in part. For categorical purposes, therefore, the prominence of the Holocaust need not diminish the suffering—nor, crucially, the rights to redress—of victims of other genocides. Old habits die hard, however. A number of historians—presumably unused to the responsibility that goes with the territory—have, with varying degrees of blitheness, preferred definitions of their own dispensation to the internationally agreed one.1 These idiosyncratic definitions tend to be narrower than that agreed to at the United Nations, providing comfort to perpetrators and potentially disqualifying some victims from compensation.

An area in which definitions of genocide have become particularly controversial is that of settler societies' attrition of indigenous peoples. There are two principal reasons for controversy. On the one hand, history belongs to the victors. Some of the nation-states concerned arewhite-settler societies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) who aggressively assert their virtuous credentials on the world stage and have no intention of acquiescing in the suggestion that they may share moral ground with regimes that have been guilty of mass murder. On the other hand, with the possible exception of frontier violence, indigenous...


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