Talking about genocide

Andrew Markus, Monash University

Dan Stone (ed) The Historiography of Genocide, UK, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 (400 pp). ISBN 9-7814039-9219-2 (hard cover) RRP $163.00; 2010 (656 pp). ISBN 9-78023027-955-1 (paperback) RRP $46.00.

In the contemporary world, characterised by the failure of political systems and endemic national, ethnic and religious conflicts, it is salutary to recall the vision that gave life to the United Nations. The noble words of its Charter, echoing the Preamble of the United States Constitution, declared:


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

In December 1946 the General Assembly proclaimed that ‘genocide is a crime under international law … condemned by the civilized world’ and in 1948, after much discussion, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was passed, its scope limited by political compromise. Its preamble spoke of the recognition ‘that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity’ and the conviction that ‘in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international co-operation is required’.

More than half a century later the dream of freeing humanity from ‘such an odious scourge’ seems no closer to realisation. Genocides continue, recognised in the mass killings that took place in Cambodia and Rwanda, more recently in Darfur.

The ‘peoples of the United Nations’ have in large measure failed to realise their vision. But while conflict is ever present, has there been a gain in knowledge which points to a better future? Have there been important advances in understanding the causes of genocide, of the warning signs that may serve to mobilise concerted international action?

The opportunity to consider such questions is provided by Dan Stone’s collection, The Historiography of Genocide, which has brought together a significant group of experts to consider the current status of what is described as the rapidly growing field of genocide studies. His book of 640 pages, first published in 2008 and reissued in 2010, is divided into two sections: one of nine chapters, to consider conceptual and comparative perspectives; and the second of thirteen chapters, devoted to national case studies.


A note of caution is unintentionally raised by the book’s cover, which features a photograph of a small group (eleven individuals in total, including three children) passively gazing through a makeshift barrier at we know not what. There looks to be no understanding, just curiosity.

A note of caution is unintentionally raised by the book’s cover.

In the book’s second chapter Anton Weiss-Wendt, a young scholar whose doctoral research dealt with the Holocaust in Estonia, devotes his considerable energies to demolition. According to Weiss-Wendt, the field ‘is in crisis; … I often think of genocide studies as a building constructed on an unstable ground. Despite the visible cracks in the foundation, the builders keep piling one floor upon another’ (p. 65).

The publisher’s blurb tells us that genocide studies:

is one of the fastest-growing fields in the social sciences, attracting students from a wide range of disciplines (including history, sociology, political science, philosophy, law anthropology, and cultural studies) … Tracing the emergence of genocide studies, analysing its central concepts, methods and research themes, and providing detailed guides to the rich and varied historiographies of many cases of genocide, this book is an invaluable guide to the literature.

As if by deliberate retort, Weiss-Wendt observes that ‘if we are talking numbers, comparative genocide studies are indeed a great success’ (p. 42). But if we proceed beyond enumeration, we find scholarship ‘ridden with contradictions’ and lack of consensus on definitions, methodology and timeframe. Researchers ‘keep pulling in different directions, unable to reach a consensus on virtually any aspect of genocide’ (p. 65).

Weiss-Wendt notes that one study found no less than 21 different definitions of genocide. In addition to engaging in the ‘futile’ exercise in definition, scholars are proliferating new terms and concepts: politicide, democide, gendercide, ethnocide, gynocide, geracide, eltocide, liguicide, planetocide, omnicide and exighophobia. Weiss-Wendt sees little gain, other than the cementing of barriers between the academy and those working to combat mass killing.

Is this a reasonable assessment? In his introduction, Dan Stone concedes that it is fair, but contestable. Stone writes that ‘genocide … is not a stable concept’ (p. 4). He agrees with Weiss-Wendt that the ‘discipline cannot even agree on the meaning of its basic terms’ and conferences witness ‘a merry-go-round of definitional debates’ (p. 2). He also notes that when supposed cases of genocide are compared it may well be concluded that ‘in each case circumstances differ so widely that it is impossible to make general statements about, for example, what kind of person takes part in genocide or what political or economic circumstances are most conducive to its occurrence’ (p. 2).

Yet Stone sees value in the ongoing conceptual discussion that is represented in the first section of his collection. He has a positive reading of the failure to reach agreement on fundamentals, which he argues points to ‘fluidity, genuine intellectual engagement with a profoundly moving and difficult topic, and critical debate. The lack of clarity in the field can also therefore be an indication of great potential’ (p. 2). One might well make a similar observation concerning numerous failed endeavours.


As is well known, Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) developed the concept of genocide and undertook pioneering research; he also played an important role in lobbying for the passage and ratification of the United Nations Genocide Convention. Lemkin died without completing his planned History of Genocide, but his publications, chapter drafts, notes and speeches have commanded increasing attention, with results evident in Stone’s collection. Still, in 2005 the editors of the Journal of Genocide Research could observe that ‘historical scholarship on the biography and work of Raphael Lemkin is still in its infancy’ (Schaller & Zimmerer 2005, p. 447).

For Reynolds, the question of intention remains of central.

A key conceptual insight of Lemkin’s was that genocide, understood as a function of ‘a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group’, can involve mass killing but does not necessarily do so. It can be achieved through ‘cultural, political, social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, economic, biological, physiological, religious, and moral’ means; by action that involved considerations of ‘health, food, and nourishment; of family life and care of children; and of birth as well as death’ (Curthoys & Docker, in Stone, p. 11). This broad conceptualisation was in part reflected in the Genocide Convention, which included within its five category definition ‘forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’.

Ann Curthoys and John Docker provide an important summation of controversies over definitional issues. In their contribution to the Stone collection, they specify the issues in the following terms:

[1] Are there forms of genocide which do not involve mass killing? [2] What are the criteria for assessing intention in genocidal events and processes? [3] Do genocides necessarily involve state action or leadership? [4] Should mass killing based on political categories be called genocide? [5] What is meant by cultural genocide? [6] And finally, to what extent must our definition of genocide for the purposes of historical scholarship conform to the definition used in international law? (p. 9, numbering added).

All but the fourth of these questions are well represented in Australian debates. Australian scholars have been prominent in the field of genocide studies. They include Dirk Moses, Tony Barta, Ann Curthoys, John Docker, Robert van Krieken (all with chapters in Stone’s collection), Colin Tatz, and Paul Batrop. Their contribution rests primarily on conceptual writings rather than sustained historical research.

Of the major Australian historians, Henry Reynolds has the strongest record of engagement with the genocide concept, notably in his 2001 book An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History. For Reynolds, the question of intention remains of central importance. In his understanding, while colonial history is marked by ‘genocidal moments’, the process of dispossession cannot be simply labelled as genocide. He observes (2001, p. 27):

The question of intent is never far away in discussions of genocide. Was the killing of indigenous people done with the specific intention of destroying particular groups, or did it happen as a consequence of action that had other motives, such as the taking of land, the imposing of a new order or the pacification of a violent frontier?

Can governments be labelled as genocidal, even when acts of killing often occurred ‘far from the centres of law and administration?’ (Reynolds 2001, p. 27).

In considering the removal of children, for Reynolds it is a relevant consideration that actions were ‘thought – often erroneously – to be in the best interest of the child’ (2001, p. 174). His reading of Lemkin points to complexity, not a simple binary understanding. Lemkin, Reynolds finds, was thinking of actions which aimed at the ‘rapid and complete disappearance of the cultural, moral and religious life of a group’ (2001, p. 175).

For Barta, a narrow focus on intent leads to a false reading of colonialism.

In contrast, for those whose understanding is formed by the broad sociological meaning of genocide, evident in Lemkin’s early formulations concerning ‘annihilating the way of life, social networks, institutions and values of the attacked community’ (Shaw 2007, pp. 33–34), Reynolds’ concerns largely miss the central issue.

Tony Barta has developed the argument that a narrow focus on intent leads to a false reading of colonialism, which is to be understood not simply by consideration of ‘words’, but more importantly by ‘actions’. His position, restated in the Stone collection, is that genocide was ‘structured into the very nature of the encounter’ (p. 305), that ‘structural realities, policy understandings and intentional actions of the nineteenth century settlers could be explicated as a history of genocide’ (p. 307). This position finds endorsement in the work of Dirk Moses, who also explicates the colonial relationship in terms of ‘implicit’ intent and ‘relations of genocide’. In this understanding, the explanatory power of structure takes precedence over considerations of individual motivation and stated goals of policy. This structural approach has been extended in the main focus of recent work on ‘genocide’ in Australia, which deals with the ‘stolen generations’.

The National Inquiry into the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) sparked widespread controversy in 1995 when it determined that from 1910 to 1970, between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed under laws which were racially discriminatory and ‘genocidal in intent’. Removal of children was genocidal in terms of the Genocide Convention because it aimed ‘to destroy the ‘cultural unit’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Reynolds 2001, p. 30).

Sir Ronald Wilson, the president of HREOC and co-author of its report, subsequently reflected that it ‘was a mistake to use the word genocide … Once you latch onto the term “genocide”, you’re arguing about the intent and we should never have used it’ (quoted by van Krieken in Stone, p. 130).

Yet in the view of many Aboriginal people there is no going back, the Commission got it right. Professor Larissa Behrendt has commented on ‘the feeling Indigenous people have that this is the word that adequately described our experience as colonized peoples’ (quoted by van Krieken in Stone, p. 131). In 1998 four Members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy charged in a submission to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory that ‘the Commonwealth of Australia is responsible for past, present and continuing genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide …’ (Reynolds 2001, p. 8).

Some years earlier, J.H. Wootten, one of the commissioners on the 1989 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, noted that ‘the attempt to “solve the Aboriginal problem” by the deliberate destruction of families and communities … is seen by many Aborigines as falling squarely within the modern definition of genocide’ (quoted by van Krieken in Stone, p. 134).


The attempts to apply the genocide concept to Australian history have certainly generated heated controversy. But has there been gain in furthering justice and historical understanding?

The genocide concept has failed
to generate understanding at depth.

At the political and legal level there is not much on the positive side of the ledger. The government rejected the HREOC recommendation for compensation and other forms of reparation to Aboriginal families. Test cases failed in the courts. The narrow, ‘common-sense’ or ‘old’ definition, which concerns itself with genocide as mass killing, remains dominant in public discourse. There is little readiness outside the academy to engage with a reading of history that presents the Australian nation as having been built on the conscious destruction of an Indigenous civilisation. The dominant centre-right discourse has in large measure dismissed this perspective with vehemence and ridicule, well captured in Geoffrey Blainey’s label the ‘black armband’ view of history.

Nor can it be said that the genocide concept has significantly enriched research. There are indeed important points to be made concerning the exercise of power in the context of grossly unequal power relations in which human groups come to be seen, to use Nazi idiom, as ‘life unworthy of life’. But beyond the addition of a significant chapter to the sociology of group relations, the genocide concept has failed to generate understanding at depth.

Far from fostering a wide-ranging reappraisal of Australian history, the attempted application of the genocide concept has produced two separate conversations, two divergent discourses with little indication of mutual engagement. Reynolds refers to a contest between ‘genocide promoters’ and ‘genocide deniers.’ (Reynolds 2001, p. 3). This is a development far from unique to Australia, illustrated by consideration of Holocaust research.


In his contribution to Stone’s collection, Barta asserts that ‘elucidating the causes and consequences of imposing European civilisation on Indigenous peoples, and a continuing context of racism and imperialism, have changed our understanding of the National Socialist project and the Holocaust’ (p. 298). It is Stone’s view that the field of genocide research is beginning to foster recognition of the nature of links between colonial genocide and the Holocaust. He notes divergent developments: the ‘theory of genocide’ approach is just becoming acceptable among some Holocaust scholars, but this is occurring alongside a rejection of theory in much recent historical literature (p. 390). This is hardly surprising—for those whose work consists of seeking to document and comprehend that which is beyond human understanding, who confront the void that challenges their own sense of humanity, the direction is toward further historical research, not toward the contours of sociology.

Robert Gellately muses that ‘the mentality of the [Nazi] conquerors and the intellectuals who supported them reminds one of late nineteenth-century imperialists in Africa’; thus the Nazi genocide may be seen as the successor to German colonial genocide (quoted by Stone, p. 388). Jurgen Zimmerer sees a ‘structural similarity between colonialism and National Socialism … the Nazi policy of expansion and annihilation stood firmly in the tradition of European colonialism’ (quoted by Stone, p. 389). For Wendy Lower, the Holocaust shows us that ‘the worst aspects of colonialism … could be combined and carried out on an enormous scale, in a matter of a few years, and in the heart of “civilized” Europe’ (quoted by Stone, p. 388).

But awareness of broad patterns and precedent bring little to the understanding of the Holocaust. In this field important new knowledge results from meticulous archival research, utilising a wealth of newly released documents, collection of oral testimony, and reflection on the work produced by a critical mass of scholarship.

Awareness of broad patterns and precedent bring little to the understanding of the Holocaust.

It is informative to consider Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, published in 2010 and described by reviewers as ‘path-breaking’, ‘a book that will force its readers to rethink history’, the work of ‘one of the most remarkable and original historians’. The book is comparative, but only in a narrow sense: it considers parallel developments within a narrowly limited historical period and in geographically contiguous areas, the ‘zone of death’ located between Berlin and Moscow, where between 1930 and 1945 some fourteen million people were killed as a result of direct state policies unrelated to combat. There is no indication that Snyder’s understanding has been informed by knowledge of colonial genocides. The book’s index includes no reference to Australia, Canada or South Africa, to ‘colonialism’ or to ‘genocide’. There is one reference to Armenia, in a sentence of ten words.

Rather than knowledge of other genocides enriching Holocaust studies, it is Holocaust research that alerts historians studying other episodes of mass killing to issues to be explored in their own research. These include the significance of racial thought, processes of ‘cumulative radicalisation’, and the role of collaborators and marginal groups who can at different times be both victims and perpetrators. It is here that the real strength of genocide studies becomes evident—by furthering understanding of potential trajectories.


Without an agreed definition of genocide, individuals define the field to suit their own purposes. The problem of such an approach was well described by Henry Reynolds: ‘One of the constant criticisms of contemporary historians is that they apply their own ethical standards and political views to people and events in the past, making inappropriate and retrospective moral judgments’ (Reynolds 2001, p. 3).

In the quest to understand German policy towards Jews, in his contribution to the Stone collection, Dirk Moses argues that it is necessary to pay heed to commonalities in conflict across Europe, for example the reality that ‘many Europeans turned on their Jewish and Roma neighbours, betraying them to the Nazis and callously stealing their property’. He also notes other vicious national conflicts. It is his understanding that ‘the fighting in Palestine in 1948 was no less barbaric, as was the partition of India at the same time. After the war, the so-called liberal powers of France and Great Britain tortured and killed tens of thousands of Arabs, Africans and Asians to maintain the profitable empires’ (p. 184).

Martin Shaw has argued that 1948, the year in which the United Nations voted on the Genocide Convention, was a ‘bumper year for genocide’. He sees a pattern evident in the actions of the USSR, together with their Polish and Czech allies, in expelling 12 million Germans, the Indian and Pakistani conflict in the context of partition, and Israeli action which ‘destroyed most of Arab society in Palestine’, all with the involvement of the United States and Britain and the United Nations itself (Shaw 2009).

Such statements direct attention to a cast of mind, differentiated from the specificity that attracts the documentary researcher. It brings to attention the easy lumping together of differentiated conflicts which is evident in some genocide scholarship, a tidying up which is impatient with detail and serves to remove ‘messiness’ and complexity from the historical endeavour.


Schaller, D.J. & Zimmerer, J. 2005, ‘Raphael Lemkin: The “founder of the United Nation’s Genocide Convention” as a historian of mass violence’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 447–452.

Reynolds, H. 2001, An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History, The Viking Press, Ringwood.

Shaw, M. 2007, What Is Genocide?, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Shaw, M. 2009, ‘Review of Stone, ed., The Historiography of Genocide and Bloxham, Genocide’, Martin Shaw, Scholarship and commentary on global politics, war and genocide, 12 December [Online] Available: [2010, Oct 10].

Snyder, Timothy 2010, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Basic Books, New York.