Alexander Gillespie: The meaning of holocaust

What does the word 'holocaust' really mean today? Photo / File
What does the word 'holocaust' really mean today? Photo / File

The essence of the article "Holocaust or not, indigenous have suffered" by Rawiri Taonui was that the term 'holocaust' could be loosely translated to mean destruction and/or catastrophe.

As such, what befell the Jewish people could also be used to describe practices such as 'African slavery' and 'indigenous colonial histories'. It was added that 'colonial genocide' might describe the experience of many indigenous peoples - but western countries, like New Zealand, 'with colonial baggage' steadfastly refused to entertain such contentions.

These assertions are problematic. The first problem is one of definition. The word 'holocaust' comes from the Greek word holos - meaning 'whole'. Caustos means 'burnt' (as in caustic). Originally, it meant a sacrifice consumed by fire - a burnt offering. It came to mean 'a sacrifice on a large scale' and, by the end of the 17th century, 'the complete destruction of a large number of persons'.

The Jewish people, having faced violent acts of anti-Semitism for over a thousand years were well familiar with such hatred. The holocaust, as a subset of the unrestrained evil followed this sequence, except the size and scale of this act was different to the past.

From this definition and context, the roots of the problem should begin to become apparent. The Holocaust was more than a catastrophe. It was bigger. For the Jewish people, it was the size of approximately 6 million civilians, who were liquidated because of their ethnic identity.

The term genocide built on similar foundations to the word holocaust, with the use of the Greek word for race geno and the Latin word for killing - cide (as in, homicide). By internationally agreed definition, genocide involves the killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births, or forcibly transferring children from one to another. In all instances, the crimes have to relate to the group (in whole or in part) and the crimes must have been intended.

The emphasis on 'intent' is the second problem. Genocide cannot be committed by recklessness, negligence or good intentions that lead to the road to hell. In most legal systems, this tipping point about intention makes fundamental differences in both criminal and civil law. When the Turkish minister for the Interior instructed his armed forces to 'destroy completely' and 'terminate the existence' of the Armenians who lived in Turkey, there was no mistaking what he wanted done. Similarly, when Hitler had killing centres established to complement his concentration camps - where inmates were murdered directly upon arrival rather than being worked to death - there was no ambiguity in his objectives. These genocidal regimes were aware of history.

The world's first concentration camps, whereby people were held because of their ethnicity and died in their thousands due to the malicious, reckless or negligent methods of the local commanders was well established. Such camps first opened in Tasmania in 1824. Further camps followed around the turn of the 20th century, with the conflicts in Cuba, South Africa and South West Africa. The difference was the scale of the deaths due to incarceration now ran into the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The above two problems link into the difficulty that many instances of colonial policy do not fit the criteria for condemnation, as often the targets of colonial policies were the culture - not the bodies - of the people. In addition, the question of intent was often far from clear. This was the pattern in New Zealand. Outright racial discrimination against Maori was not enshrined in the law, unlike the Chinese who were the targets of racist legislation.

Nevertheless, Maori were the target of legislation which had the effect of disrupting, damaging or destroying large parts of their culture and which almost led to the loss of their language, traditional healers and parts of traditional family structure. It is debatable if any of these acts were done with an overall evil intent. In contrast are those laws which facilitated the outright theft of the resources that were guaranteed protection under the Treaty of Waitangi. The foremost example of this was the Settlements Act of 1863, through which more than 1,200,000 hectares of land were confiscated from Maori tribes.

Subsequent actions at both the national and local levels often continued this trend of taking land, whilst other resources, such as the foreshore, have been kept from the hands of the original owners.

Although some of these resources have been returned over subsequent generations, especially post the advent of the Waitangi Tribunal, the lasting social and economic impacts that that these confiscations had on many Maori cannot be underestimated. Similarly, the damage to the integrity to the other partners to the Treaty, for failing to honour what they committed to defend, cannot be understated.

If these acts and crimes were not a holocaust or a genocide, the question is whether they amount to a cultural genocide?

The answer is they do not as the term genocide is a tightly reasoned legal term, designed for specific crimes. Aside from the difficulty of trying to apply standards to earlier times when no such standards existed, once the prefix of 'cultural' is applied, the idea becomes meaningless.

The history of humanity is about the evolution of different cultural systems. Unravelling questions of intent, complicity and bias over hundreds, if not thousands of years of history is very difficult.

It is certainly wider than condemning 'African' slavery and 'colonial histories'. Slavery was wrong when committed by any culture, as were (and are) crimes against humanity - no matter who committed them. What is different to the past is that many countries have now evolved to the point where the rule of law, equality, freedom and democracy actually mean something. The Third Reich was never going to support a multicultural society, apologise for its past mistakes and compensate the people who it stole from and intentionally liquidated in the Holocaust.

* Alexander Gillespie is Professor of Law at the University of Waikato. His latest work is the three-volume History of the Laws of War published by Oxford.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 26 Oct 2014 11:36:16 Processing Time: 478ms