With Intent to Destroy
Reviewed by Ron Nachmann
Sunday, October 5 2003, 5:20 PM
What subject evokes as much pain and resignation as genocide? As a crime against both individual and group potential, it represents unparalleled abstract evil, and as a cyclically occurring event, it randomly tears at the tender flesh of the question of whether "we can all get along." As plainly necessary as the study of genocide may be on the surface, the very idea of a methodology to it seems macabre to us--we picture comparative casualty counts and gory details, the forensics that surround a subject best left far from cocktail parties and vacations.
In his wide-ranging book, With Intent to Destroy, Colin Tatz takes such discomfiture out of genocidal studies by simply confronting the issues. As a member of both oppressed and oppressor groups, Tatz--an Australian Jew born and educated in pre-'60s South Africa--uses his unique position to objectively show how genocide starts, what distinguishes it from other forms of oppression, and how we deal with its effects. By focusing chapters on three historical case studies--Germany and its Jews, Australia and its Aborigines, and South Africa and its blacks--Tatz convincingly offers his model of "the anatomy of genocide." In doing so he mitigates what Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel has called "a mystery that passes our comprehension and represents our defeat."
Tatz opens by personalizing his journey towards studying genocide: childhood memories of newsreels from Europe's death camps; anti-Semitism and educational struggles in Nationalist-ruled South Africa; and his eventual establishment of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Australia's University of New South Wales. It's an ideal way to enter into such bloody abstracts. Since the definition of genocide hangs over so much of the field, Tatz uses as his base the United Nation's 1948 Convention on the subject, which outlines various methods used with intent to partially or fully destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. This allows Tatz to start his unblinking approach from the historical, philosophical and religious reasons for the Holocaust. His chapter on Germany posits the Holocaust not as an inevitability, but as an "engine"--built out of populist and academic anti-Semitism, scientific racism, emphatic ethnic nationalism and an attraction to fascism--ready to be switched on.
Conversely, although South Africa killed, exploited, and abused its black population, Tatz excludes the country from the genocide category because the apartheid regime didn't actually intend to destroy the group. Tatz crucially saves up his critical scrutiny for his home country, and for good reason. Between the arrival of the British in 1788 and the government's extension of protection to its native population in 1911, Australian settlers disposed of between 200,000 and 700,000 Aborigines with the tacit approval of the government. Thousands more were forcibly assimilated in the 20th century, mostly by removal of Aboriginal children from their parents into white foster homes. Tatz maintains that these methods, among others outlined in the UN Convention, were aimed at finishing off the population.
It's truly harrowing reading. So is Tatz's subsequent chapter, "Reflecting on Genocide." In it, he evokes aspects of the German and Australian genocides--alongside Turkey's early-20th century genocide of its Armenian population and Rwanda's more recent episode--to examine issues of denialism, memory, apology and restitution. Tatz's ability to pull this off while neither skimming over the subject's inherent profundities nor engaging in the kind of comparisons that trivialize the meaning of genocide speaks to a truth-seeking sensitivity that epitomizes With Intent to Destroy.
With Intent to Destroy is available from Verso