At the end of each year I write a column devoted to the exaggerations and false prophecies of the previous 12 months. There is no problem finding material. At times, in delusional mode, I like to imagine that people are competing for a citation.
Australia is a democratic society noticeable for its relative lack of political violence and relatively low level of ethnically motivated crime. Yet the language in political discourse is at a different level altogether, at times replete with hyperbole and ready comparisons to the most violent dictatorships.
Take the past couple of days. On Insiders on Sunday the Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt said democracies sometimes make errors and this was the case with those Germans who voted for the Nazi party in 1933. His point was that Australians who vote Greens today also err. The NSW Greens MP Jamie Parker then upped the ante by maintaining Bolt had said that the Greens were like the initiators of Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ 1938 pogrom against the Jews.
Last week, in the Federal Court, Bolt was accused by Ron Merkel, QC, of making comments on Aboriginal identity that were akin to anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws introduced by the Nazis in 1935. Merkel declared: “The Holocaust started with words and ended with violence.” It is difficult to imagine a more serious allegation. However, like virtually all attempts to link modern democracies with totalitarian regimes – whether by the extreme right or the extreme left – the comparison fails.
As Richard J. Evans documents in The Coming of the Third Reich, the Nazi Party was a violent revolutionary force even before the 1933 election. Germany was not a democracy like Australia in 1933. And the Nazi reign of terror did not start with words. It started with violence. Merkel should know this.
The debate about racial vilification in Australia should focus on Australia. This is not a new discussion. In 2007 Julie-Anne Davies reported in The Bulletin that Mal Brough, the minister for Aboriginal affairs in the Howard government, has a sister who identifies as an Aboriginal woman, even though he does not. Some years ago the Tasmanian indigenous leader Michael Mansell queried the Aboriginality of some Tasmanians who identified as indigenous.
Like Bolt or loathe him, it is both ridiculous and ahistorical to link him – directly or by implication – with the Holocaust. In January 1996 Amanda Vanstone drew some comparisons between Paul Keating and the Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels. Last month, the Gillard government parliamentary secretary Mark Dreyfus accused Tony Abbott of engaging in “Goebbellian cynicism” in his anti-carbon tax campaign.
Goebbels was more than a mere propagandist. He was into street violence as early as the 1920s and was one of the chief advocates of what was called the “final solution” for the Jews and Gypsies of Europe. Before he died by his own hand, Goebbels murdered his children by poisoning them.
Yesterday, in a letter to The Australian, the Melbourne academic Robert Manne linked the journalist Greg Sheridan with “Julius Streicher’s notorious anti-Semitic Nazi periodical Der Stuermer”. Manne was responding to a considered piece by Sheridan on why he had changed his mind and become a critic of multiculturalism.
Manne is entitled to criticise Sheridan. But his comparison is over the top. In Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, the historian Robert S. Wistrich described Hitler’s friend Streicher as “corrupt, dishonest, sadistic, obscene and brutal in manner”. Convicted of murder, Streicher was hanged in Nuremberg in 1946.
Then there are the comparisons with that other mass murderer Josef Stalin and the communist dictatorship which he controlled in the Soviet Union. The Canberra academic Norman Abjorensen recently opined that the experience of the NSW Labor Party today “is eerily reminiscent of the decaying communism of the Soviet Union as described by Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas in his book The New Class”.
Nonsense. Djilas wrote The New Class in 1957, when the Soviet Union had three decades to run. He was imprisoned for his opposition to Moscow. Incarceration in a Belgrade prison is a long way from political snakes and ladders in Sussex Street. And then there is the continuing leftist John Pilger, who told a WikiLeaks forum at the Sydney Town Hall last month that Julia Gillard’s speech in Washington reminded him of “a grovelling Stalinist party boss in eastern Europe summoned to Moscow during the Cold War”. Just crazy.
In modern Australia there are no Hitlers and no Stalins. These days the only real political violence is found in the abuse of language. This is best treated by a reading of history.