Rabbit-Proof Fence - now going out on general release - is a film that, according to the press, exposes "Australia's shameful secret". But it also exposes the most shameful secret of British intellectual life between the wars: the love affair with eugenics.
The film stars Kenneth Branagh as A O Neville, the English administrator who served from 1915 to 1940 as "Chief Protector of Aborigines" in Western Australia. Under the Aborigines Act of 1905 (originally passed by the UK parliament in response to 19th-century atrocities), the chief protector had almost absolute power over the destinies of indigenous peoples. Neville's aim was "to merge the blacks into our white community" so that "we could eventually forget that there ever were any Aborigines in Australia". To this end, girls were forcibly removed from their indigenous families, and trained to work as domestics for white families. Neville hoped that they would mate with whites and produce whiter children, who would be unaware of their part-Aboriginal identity.
The film tells the story of three such girls, taken, in 1931, from their mothers in the north and transported 1,500 miles south to Neville's joyless training camp at Moore River, near Perth. The girls escaped and eventually reached the world's longest fence - built from top to bottom of the continent to protect western pastures from eastern rabbits - and followed it, despite Neville's determined pursuit, to find their way home to their mothers.
Neville was not, in ordinary terms, a racist: he genuinely cared for his charges, some of whom did need protection from tribal abuse and hostility. Indeed, his encouragement of miscegenation ("mixed marriages") outraged local racists. But the most significant thing about his "absorption" policy was that it applied the warped biological principles of the English eugenics movement, which had the enthusiastic backing of some of the most distinguished intellectuals, writers, doctors and civil servants in the UK. In 1934, for example, a Department of Health report, from a committee chaired by Sir Lawrence Brock, praised Nazi legislation and recommended adoption in the UK of compulsory sterilisation of the "feeble-minded", a class comprising "a quarter of a million mental defectives and a far larger number of the mentally subnormal".
The US Supreme Court, in 1927, had already upheld eugenics-based forcible sterilisation of "degenerates" (ie, of the poor, and especially of poor blacks). The liberal jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the court challenge with the comment that "three generations of imbeciles are enough". In the same year, after lobbying from the Eugenics Society, the British government had updated the UK's Mental Deficiency Act, which provided for the detention of the "feeble-minded", including "moral imbeciles" such as single mothers on benefits.
Most shocking of all was the extent of support for eugenics from British socialists and literary giants. George Bernard Shaw argued for humane extermination of "the sort of people who do not fit in". Aldous Huxley wanted to "prevent the sub-normal from having any families at all". Marie Stopes publicly pleaded for the sterilisation of "the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased". Both Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence privately urged that the state should exterminate "imbeciles".
Oxford's Professor Desmond King has, in a recent book, concluded that their "desire to improve the lower orders was invariably well-intentioned". This is over-kind: these arrogant intellectuals were perfectly capable of imagining the inhumanity that their policies entailed. Their main objective - compulsory sterilisation of the unfit - did not happen in Britain because of opposition from the Catholics (thank God, in this respect, for G K Chesterton) and from Labour MPs (who rightly feared that the working class would be the real victims of the Fabian intelligentsia). But in Australia, Neville's "absorption" policy, with its explicit eugenicist basis, was formally adopted by Commonwealth and state officials in 1937.
It was a form of genocide. The crime of genocide did not crystallise as an offence against the law of nations until the judgement at Nuremberg after the Second World War. The Genocide Convention, which came into force in 1951, covers acts committed "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical or racial group as such". Those acts are defined to include "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group". The author of the concept, Raphael Lemkin, regarded genocide as typically involving "the destruction of the cultural and social life" of the group.
By 1952, Neville's successor had renounced his policy: "We have helped to destroy [in half-caste Aborigines] a pride of origin which should have been our Christian duty to protect and preserve." Yet as a royal commission noted in 1997, "the Australian practice of indigenous child removal continued to be practised as official policy long after being clearly prohibited by treaties to which Australia had subscribed" - until as late as 1970, in fact.
"Being cruel to be kind" is no longer an option. Today, Australia imprisons all asylum-seekers, including hundreds of children. Perhaps the child of an Iraqi refugee behind barbed wire in the 100-degree heat of Woomera detention centre will in years to come make a film. Perhaps it will be as moving as Rabbit-Proof Fence, and perhaps it will depict Australia's present policy makers, like A O Neville, as the well-intentioned architects of evil.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is the author of Crimes Against Humanity (Penguin)