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Hitler, genocide and evolution

Tony BartaTony Barta

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast, I would be your host Matt Smith. I’m here today with Tony Barta to talk about the less fortunate aspects of Darwin’s theories. Thank you for joining me today, Tony.

Tony Barta:

It’s a pleasure.

Matt Smith:

How did you first learn about Darwin? What drew you to his theories to start with?

Tony Barta:

I’ve worked for a long time on genocide and especially genocide in Australia. Genocide in Australia is a very contentious question that won’t escape anybody. And while I was working on this, I think I came across Darwin’s journal of researches, that is Voyage of the Beagle. And I thought, “Let’s hear what Darwin says because he was known as a great observer.” And sure enough Darwin did visit Australia in the Beagle and he had some sad things to say already then in the 1830s about what was happening to the aborigines.

And then I discovered that he had also visited South America before he came here and he had indeed made observations about the disappearance of indigenous peoples wherever Europeans had settled. And I looked at quotations from his journal, which shows how he’s puzzling over this question.

Besides this several evident causes of destruction, there appears to be some mysterious agency generally at work. Wherever the European has throbbed, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look at the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cave of Good Hope and Australia, and we shall find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone that thus acts to destroy it. The Polynesian of Malaya extraction has in parts driven before him the dark-coloured native.

The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals. The stronger always extirpating the weaker. And that, of course, which then became built in to this whole theory and the propaganda about survival of the fittest. It is also at the core of Darwin’s great book that we’re celebrating this year on the origin of the species.

Matt Smith:

It’s got a subtitle that relates directly to that, doesn’t it?

Tony Barta:

Well, it does. It’s called on Origin of Species. He let it drop the “on” by means of natural selection. And then underneath that is written the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

Matt Smith:

Now, it’s going to come down to what’s the definition of a favoured race.

Tony Barta:

Well, exactly. Now, race is here and those visible divisions of the human species we think of. Races for Darwin could be races of plants, you know, different bulbs, or insects; different beetles. He loves beetles.

But a very important point is this: That the later use of this theory to apply to people, to humans, isn’t just an addition. What I would want to argue, and now by no means the only one, is that this kind of human encounter we’ve been talking about was right there at the beginning of Darwin’s observations and his thinking.

So the human struggle, the struggle between humans, the stronger subjugating and then the killing off of the weak, that is something he learned first, I think, from humans. Now, the word colonization appears quite often in Darwin and he uses it for plants. I can’t remember whether he refers to gorse, for instance, but I grew up in New Zealand where had colonized the love of the landscape where it used to be native vegetation.

Gorse from Darwin’s England and, of course, rabbits as an Australia had displaced a lot of the native wildlife. This displacement in nature, Darwin learned about at the same time as you know just what Europeans are doing. So he was born into this great colonizing empire.

What Darwin himself regarded as a more civilized kind of human, those from Europe, and the most powerful civilizing and colonizing nation was, of course, Britain. And that’s evident pretty much throughout his work and its tone and its examples.

Matt Smith:

So he started off firsthand that, sort of, interaction not just for the nature but between humans.

Tony Barta:

Yes, he did. He saw in South America the way a man called General Rosas who in fact later retired to England not that far from Darwin, but he was going round doing the killing which would make sure that European settlers could take over the land. Darwin said “Well, it’s a bit duffle in this case who is the more civilized?” The god shows who would take over the lands or the Indians they displaced.

But on the whole, he believed that the more primitive peoples would have no chance against the most civilized and that was borne out again. When he came to Australia, he saw what was happening around in Sydney. But when he came to Tasmania, he could see that all the aborigines have in fact been hoarded into one corner and he said, “It’s very sad the necessity of this.” So he didn’t say this is terrible and we can’t let it happen. He saw it as a kind of necessity.

And Darwin was very pleased with what he saw. He says, “It’s great civilization rising in Australia.” But it was then open to turn us all into a kind of natural process, so too bad for aborigines. I mean, what could anyone expect?

Matt Smith:

How does Darwin’s theory extended to something like that because it’s not something what I’d think of being a natural process for something like that to happen, for displacement to happen?

Tony Barta:

Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it is a natural process. But I think because of the way Darwin had built human affairs into the very body of his science, and it fits in so comfortably with Darwin’s ideas about the disappearance of some as new varieties, new species take over. The natural selection just takes place over thousands at least or millions of years.

But here, we’re talking about a hundred of years. If you look overtime in nature, the reason that some species have developed and survived, and others have disappeared is similar - not exactly the same - but similar to the way people have been doing it in recent times.

Well, I think that was a good ploy. I think that did help people understand what it was on about. But it was a great difference to say kinds of foliage in Australia adapting themselves to drought over many years, and the European settlers arriving and have great difficulty drawing the foliage and the trees and the animals when they first arrived. But they just transformed everything, you could say artificially, by their presence, not at all in this long natural process which Darwin wanted people to understand.

So I want people to take very seriously the way colonizing created not just the life of new peoples. He emphasize at the same time that there would be death of those that were not up to the task that would not survive. And Australia, I think, is one of the saddest examples of that and perhaps the most horrifying example of where it lead is in the policies that were pursued in Germany largely following the personal, what he would say, scientific beliefs of Adolf Hitler.

Matt Smith:

That seems quite a leap to make from Australia to Hitler.

Tony Barta:

Well, it is a big leap. Just as Darwin learned from his colonizing time, Hitler did too. Hitler looked particularly at those intervening years when the British Empire was established, the colonization of Africa, colonies the Germans had to give up in the First World War. But he also looked back and Genghis Khan was a favourite.

So this idea of the displacement of peoples wasn’t something that Hitler dreamt up out of thin air. And there would be two elements of Hitler’s policy that I want to emphasize. The first is the colonizing displacement and the second is the purposeful breeding and indeed breeding out of kinds of human beings. And that comes back to this strange world. I don’t know. Have you heard very much about Eugenics?

Matt Smith:

I don’t know. That’s the process of breeding a better human, breeding a more stronger…

Tony Barta:

That’s right.

Matt Smith:

That it would come back to Hitler’s Aryan race, wouldn’t it?

Tony Barta:

That’s right. The idea comes from England again and in fact from Darwin’s cousin, a man called Francis Galton. And he wrote a great deal about this; about heredity, about supporting stronger lines of human beings, and not saying very much about getting rid of the lesser ones but rather always getting the better to dominate and breeding better populations. I’m sorry to say that this also had a very strong influence in Australia. Have you seen the film Rabbit-Proof Fence?

Matt Smith:

I haven’t but I know the storyline and know about it.

Tony Barta:

There’s a character in there called Mr. Neville, and if people want to take it further, there’s in fact a rather good biography called Mr. Neville, and the chief protector in Western Australia for many years, really all through the first half of the 20th century who came from England and decided that the proper thing to do was to separate out those who were already of mixed race and try to make them part of the dominant race. One of the early protectors chide with this. I know that mothers will make gray fast but they soon forget their offspring.

Matt Smith:

Yeah.

Tony Barta:

This is the kind of awful thing that people are now more aware of. And Neville in fact told a Commonwealth Conference in 1937 of all years at the time of the Nuremberg Laws that people could either think of their being a million aborigines in the future or if the breeding at work, they could forget that there were ever any aborigines in Australia.

They believed they were following - I know this seems a rather a long way round - but in some ways this Darwinian principle, this double Darwinian principle of displacing the people and improving the breed. Hitler also preceded on a double path. We know something, I think most people know something about euthanasia, about the attempts of the SS to breed better people, really using the SS, they say this in Germany as kind of stallions to improve a better race inside Germany.

But more importantly was Hitler’s knowledge which I don’t think he picked up directly from Darwin. And as Hitler’s, what he would see great historic experiment, he told soldiers in 1944, this was one of his last addresses of this kind, that there was an unalterable law for the whole of life. Nature, you see, nature is always teaching us that she is governed by the principle of selection, that victory is to the strong, and the weak must go to the war.

The people that cannot assert itself must disappear and another must take its place. All creation is subject to this law. No one can avoid it. But as the war close in on him, then Hitler could even turn on his own people, the Germans, and he says this in his last testament that in a sense history hasn’t after all selected them.

They did prove to be inferior. And this wasn’t just some colossal dummies bid or that he is completely losing his marbles by this stage. It was consistent with this philosophy. And for all its travesty, all its perversions, I’m afraid it’s a travesty which can be traced back to Darwin. Darwin said that he was not a philosopher and that he certainly wasn’t a historian. He didn’t really understand all these things. This wasn’t his field.

But he always defended key principles of evolution and he always defended incorporation into human history; that they had a path-planned human affairs. And it’s right at the end of his life in 1881 that he wrote, “Lastly I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risks the nation of Europe ran not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks and how ridiculous that idea now is.”

And I think what we have to hope for is we commemorate a genuinely civilized man. And you have to read them to see his fascination with the tendrils growing or how he looks at the gum leaves in Australia. And when he goes to the zoo and says, “The elephant is blaring here like a thousand trumpets.” And his deep involvement with his own children, his own family, and people around him.

He is really a model of what the life of science and intellect and humility and bravery and following through ideas. He was not himself the kind of man who would follow these ideas through to their pitiless end.

Matt Smith:

Tony Barta, thank you for your time.

Tony Barta:

Thank you.

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