History and Ancestry: On the collective imagination of our past

David Marr, Killing for Country: A Family Story, Black Inc. (2023)

Family histories about the involvement of one’s grandparents in the Holocaust and the fascism of twentieth-century European history have become a minor literary trend. Two recent examples of the genre have emerged out of the United States—Linda Kinstler’s Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends (2022) and Burkard Bilger’s Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets (2023)—and I myself have contributed to it with my book Opi—The Two Lives of My Grandfather published earlier this year.

Examining genocidal history through the lens of ancestry research is, however, less common in Australia. Killing for Country (subtitled A Family Story) by renowned journalist and broadcaster David Marr, published this spring, is one of the very few publications in this vein.

Marr’s initially personal research into the life of his great-grandmother revealed that two of his great-great-uncles had been officers in the Native Police—small paramilitary units made up of Indigenous troopers deployed far away from their ancestral lands under the command of white officers. Tasked with protecting settlers from the ‘natives’, they in effect became mobile killing squads engaged in numerous massacres to clear the land for white squatters. Taking his family history as a starting point, Marr’s book is an extensive account of colonial dispossession and violent displacement of First Nations people from their traditional lands, and in its accumulative detail a litany of landgrabs and massacres.

Kinstler, an American journalist of Latvian descent, also began with research into her family tree before her story broadened into a larger account of the history of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Latvia and the role locals played in it. While the figure of her grandfather Boris remained mysterious, another main character emerged from her research: Herbert Cukurs, a popular aviator and adventurer dubbed by the local press the ‘Latvian Lindberg’, who during the Nazi occupation joined a local killing squad, the Arājs Kommando, infamous for its role in the Rumbula and other massacres. After the war Cukurs escaped to Uruguay, where he was killed by Israeli Mossad agents in a botched operation in 1965.

Despite the vast differences in setting and historical context of nineteenth-century Australia and twentieth-century Latvia, there are eerie parallels between the two stories, most notably in how Kinstler and Marr explore the relationships between historical and legal truths and between our collective understanding of history, what we know to have happened, and what can be proven in a court of law.

Legally, both the Arājs Kommando and the Native Police operated in a grey area. Associated with but not part of the regular police force or the army, their extra-judicial killings were, strictly speaking, illegal, yet at the very least tolerated and frequently aided and abetted by the authorities. Immunity from prosecution was built into the design for the killings; in fact, the law was deliberately set up to make prosecutions virtually impossible.

Armenian-born philosopher Marc Nichanian identifies as one of the core characteristics of genocide that it ‘destroys the evidence of its crimes as it is committing them’. The aims of its perpetrators are twofold: eliminating an ethnicity and its culture, and rendering that elimination an unwitnessed crime that cannot be verified in legal terms.

In the Australian case, official documents are scarce, and if they do exist, references to killings are oblique. For example, Marr demonstrates how the verb ‘disperse’ was routinely used in both the media and official correspondence as a synonym for ‘massacre’. The colonial administration regularly promoted officers from the Native Police to the role of Magistrate, and in court proceedings the main witnesses, First Nations people, were prevented from giving evidence because as non-Christians they could not swear oaths on the Bible.

More fundamentally, though, the legalistic argument against the notion that white colonialists conducted a genocidal campaign against First Nations people in Australia rests to a large extent on the fact that they were considered ‘subjects of the Crown’, and as such, in theory, were owed protection. Land-lease agreements between squatters and the Crown had provisions for land use by Indigenous Australians, albeit deeply hidden in the fine print. Therefore, the logic goes, the killings that undoubtedly occurred did not constitute either a Frontier War or a state-sanctioned attempt at genocide.

Similarly, a hundred years later in Latvia, Cukurs was, surprisingly, exonerated posthumously in court, with the judge ignoring historical records and numerous written depositions by witnesses that placed him at the sites of massacres. The justification for this ruling was that these witnesses had since passed away and could not be cross-examined, and that despite Cukurs’s presence there was no firsthand eyewitness account of him actually carrying out any shootings. Curkurs’s rehabilitation to his prewar status of aviator hero can also be seen in the context of a country emerging from decades of Soviet occupation and hungry for home-made heroes to affirm a history of national accomplishment.

Despite these parallels, in Europe, with its brutal twentieth-century history so deeply ingrained in the public imagination, these attempts at legal revisionism rarely succeed. Concentration camp guards who get off lightly in court because of the legal burden of proof are not considered innocent by the general public outside of the neo-fascist fringe. The failure of the legal system to mirror what we know to be historically true is widely derided as a weakness—an unfortunate side-effect of the rule of law.

In Australia, our collective imagination rarely extends to our own bloodlands. Despite the overwhelming academic evidence and the plethora of popular films, books and articles, this part of our history remains contested in the public mind, as was most depressingly evident in the campaign against the Voice to Parliament and its subsequent rejection by an overwhelming majority of non-Indigenous voters. Not unlike in newly independent Latvia, it seems that here too a legal fiction is required to prop up what amounts to a fragile nationalism. Genocide constitutes an unacceptable stain on the foundation myth of Australia and our brittle sense of national identity. Submitting to the reality of this dark chapter in our past is considered damaging to the grand project of nation-building, and if spoken about at all, it must be hidden behind vague and bland euphemisms such as ‘the burden of history’ or ‘the injustices of the past’.

Genealogical research is popular among many, but Marr’s and Kinstler’s books are a far cry from poking around on ancestry.com or watching celebrities find out about minor family scandals on SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are? Yet what connects their work to the public imagination is, as Fintan O’Toole points out in a recent article for the New York Review of Books, ‘the core idea that one is, in some crucial sense, defined by one’s ancestry’.

It is this public fascination with ancestry research that makes a book like Killing for Country influential beyond its immediate story. Harnessing the widely held belief that identity is connected to ancestry might well have the potential to break the spell of the triumphalist version of our history, and so hopefully other such books will follow in its wake. Marr’s project of truth-telling is an important one. It contributes to a change in the collective imagination of Australia, from the cliched shorthand of Cook—convicts—sheep—settlers—gold—Gallipoli to the fact that, in his words, ‘we are a conquered country’. As such, it presents a way forward after the failed referendum on constitutional recognition.

About the author

Andreas Pohl

Andreas Pohl is an educator and writer living on Wurundjeri land. He emigrated to Australia from Germany in the late 1980s. His memoir Opi—The Two Lives of My Grandfather was published earlier this year by Arcadia, the general interest imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing.

More articles by Andreas Pohl

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