It couldn't happen here - or did it?
As if their reputation as the nation's premier sheep shaggers were not enough, Lincoln University students recently decided to descend on a fancy dress party dressed as Nazis and as concentration camp inmates, and to play all sorts of jolly drunken games with batons and gags. As images of the weird sadomasochistic prank flash around the world and prompt apologies from Lincoln's vice chancellor, New Zealand Jewish Council president Stephen Goodman is suggesting that Kiwis need to be better informed about the Holocaust, so that they no longer feel able to trivialise the event.
The murder of six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps is something which humanity should never be allowed to forget. Fortunately, the Holocaust has not been forgotten: hundreds of books, movies, and television programmes attest to a continued preoccupation with the subject. Even treatments of the Holocaust and Nazism which leave much to be desired, like Stephen Speilberg's excessively stylised Schindler's List or Ian Kershaw's massive but insufficiently contextualised biography of Hitler, play their part in keeping the subjects in our consciousness. The story of the Holocaust is taught in many New Zealand schools, and is remembered by a museum in Wellington and a permanent display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
I am not sure, then, whether we can attribute the Lincoln students' appalling error of judgement to simple historical ignorance. The students obviously knew enough about Hitler and the Holocaust to stage their dismal joke. It is not ignorance of the Holocaust so much as a feeling of distance from the Holocaust which seems to have been behind the students' insouciance. For them, the Holocaust seems to have happened far away, in a very different world, like the obscure atrocities that Genghis Khan or Tamburlaine committed many centuries ago in vanished Asian empires.
It is possible that the Lincoln students' attitude is related to a tendency common to white settler societies like New Zealand. Whether it is American, Canadian, Australian, Caldoche, or Kiwi, the white majority in these societies has always resisted the importation of the concept of genocide from the Old to the New World. In his important book Telling The Truth About Aboriginal History, Bain Attwood argues that the descendants of colonists 'are happy to talk to talk about genocide in Europe', but that they erect 'temporal and geographical boundaries' to keep the concept out of their own societies. Genocide happens 'over there, not here'.
Yet Europeans have never been in doubt about how to characterise the bloodier parts of New World history. In the 1920s Hitler praised the way that the United States had dealt with its 'Indian problem', and promised to use similar methods to dispose of the degenerate peoples of Europe. When he created the first definition of genocide in the 1940s, the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin cited the Tasmanian Aborigines as early victims of the policy.
Australia offers an appalling number of choices for would-be scholars of colonial genocide. Although John Howard and a coterie of second-rate historians have mounted a rearguard action against what they call the 'black armband view' of their country's past, the facts are hard to deny: of the roughly seven hundred Aboriginal nations which existed in 1788, when the colony of Australia was founded, less than two hundred existed a century later. Michael Mansell, a modern leader of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, has noted that, in statistical terms, the indigenous peoples of Australia suffered even greater losses during the nineteenth century than the Jews of Europe did during Hitler's reign. Hundreds of punitive expeditions, many of them prompted by incidents as minor as the theft of stock, claimed thousands of lives. Mayors and newspaper editorials spoke openly of the necessity of 'exterminating the black race'. In the twentieth century the massacres slowly tapered off, as more bureaucratic measures like forced sterilisation and the removal of children from their parents were employed in the quest to 'whiten' Australia.
Other parts of the Pacific have also seen genocide, or something approaching it. On Kanaky, the Caldoche responded to repeated rebellions by driving the indigenous people into isolated mountain cantonments where they were allowed to starve in huge numbers. Many small Pacific islands which never experienced full-scale colonisation were nevertheless devastated by the raids of blackbirders, who dragged the healthiest young men off to work as virtual slaves on plantations in South America and Australia.
White New Zealanders are not fond of discussing events like these. In some cases, we have constructed narratives of Holocaust denial to account for the side-effects of imperialism in the Pacific. Instead of acknowledging the decimation of the population of Easter Island/Rapa Nui by blackbirders and pirates in the nineteenth century, for instance, we have embraced Thor Heyerdahl's absurd and racially-motivated theory that the island was reduced to near-ruin by its prehistoric inhabitants' contempt for their natural environment. Jared Diamond's fatuous bestseller Collapse has given this theory renewed public credibility, so that Green Party co-leader Russel Norman thinks nothing of citing the supposed irresponsibility of the people of Rapa Nui as a warning to the world in his speeches.
Pakeha reserve their keenest resistance for attempts to use the concept of genocide to understand aspects of their own country's history. In 2000, when she was still a Labour Minister, Tariana Turia spoke of Maori suffering genocidal policies during the nineteenth century; talkback radio phonelines rang hot for weeks, letters flooded in to newspapers, and fellow Ministers felt compelled to distance themselves from her. Turia's statement was a broad one, and it certainly did not describe the experience of every iwi in the nineteenth century, but it could have marked the beginning of a mature discussion about New Zealand history, rather than the beginning of the Pakeha equivalent of Ingsoc's Hate Week.
If Maori generally maintained more of their land and independence than the Australian Aboriginals, then this had much to do with their performance in the wars that punctuated nineteenth century New Zealand history, and little to do with the morality of the Pakeha. At least one of the invasions of Maori-controlled areas of New Zealand - Colonel Whitmore's incursion into the Ureweras in 1869, which saw villages being torched and crops being pulled up in a successful attempt to create mass starvation - resembled a larger-scale version of the punitive expeditions which were used to 'teach the natives a lesson' across the Tasman. Others military adventures, like Chute's brutal march around Mt Taranaki and Cameron's descent on the Waikato, involved unsystematic but persistent attacks on civilians and civilian property.
Government policy towards Maori was governed by the same toxic mixture of Social Darwinism and Christian civilising zeal found across the Tasman, and by the last decades of the nineteenth century the Pakeha colonist was as certain as his Aussie cousin that the indigenous peoples of Australasia were quickly dying out. The obelisk on Auckland's One Tree Hill, with its elegy for the doomed Maori, is evidence of the curious mixture of guilt and pleasure that the colonist felt at the prospect of inheriting Aotearoa from its vanishing natives.
The one alleged case of genocide which Pakeha do like to discuss relates to the conquest of the Chatham Islands by two Taranaki iwi in 1835. It has become fashionable for Pakeha opponents of Maori nationalism to argue that the enslavement of the indigenous Moriori people of the Chathams by Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama is an illustration of the genocidal nature of traditional Maori society.
While the Moriori certainly suffered genocide at the hands of the Taranaki tribes, who slaughtered and ate hundreds of their distant relations and worked hundreds of others to death, this genocide owed more to the social and economic system that settlers had brought to the Pacific than it did to any features of pre-contact Maori society. Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama had arrived on the Chathams after losing their own homelands to invaders armed with European weaponry, and they used their Moriori slaves to grow huge amounts of potatoes for the settler cities of Wellington, Sydney, and San Francisco. Although slavery was a feature of pre-contact Maori society, it did not normally occur on a large scale. Only the arrival of a cash economy in the Pacific made a permanent army of slave labourers economically desirable.
We should not remember the past in order to feel guilty about it, but in order to understand it. As Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, we only understand a past event or idea by relating it to something we already know - something that is closer to our own experience. The students at Lincoln University have not understood the genocide of Europe's Jews because this event seems to have nothing in common with the society in which they live. The Holocaust is something that happened 'over there', something that is unimaginable 'down here'. It is not part of their history. If we want to make the Lincoln students and others like them understand the genocide of the Jews of Europe, then we should talk about the bloodier parts of the history of our own part of the world.