This is a very timely book of essays from a variety of writers about many aspects of Australian history and current trends, and edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski. Its primary focus is the way in which Anzac and Australia’s war experiences have been amplified and distorted so as to crowd out the much wider stories of Australia’s progress as a nation and culture. As Julianne Schultz says in the Foreword, this book “sets out the complications arising from the many threads of our national history that we need to know about and try to understand – the environment, immigration and multiculturalism, the economy, inequality, the role of women, settler-Indigenous relations, and our lingering ties to the monarchy and to large countries in the northern hemisphere”.
In their Introduction, the editors point out that all historians select evidence, but an honest approach requires interpretation “robustly supported by evidence”. They say that there has been a significant emphasis on military history and that it needs to be balanced by recognition of the other sources of Australian identity. The elevation of Anzac, in particular, has become almost too “sacred” to be subjected to alternative views. As a result, for example, the conciliatory words commonly attributed to the Turkish leader Ataturk – “those heroes that shed their blood…” – have become myth, and there is no evidence they were actually said by him. Similarly, Charles Bean’s vision for a memorial to those who served in World War 1 has come to emphasise the militaristic aspects of our history, and used to justify all kinds of different developments at the Australian War Memorial.
This is a refreshing and stimulating read. The first part of the book goes into considerable detail about the real events that have shaped us as a people. There is a chapter about the Armenian genocide that occurred under the Ottoman Empire around the time of Gallipoli and has been largely ignored in subsequent relations between Turkey and Australia, despite active efforts in Australia at the time to offer relief to the Armenians. Another chapter shows the deliberate injection of government funds into war history and commemoration at a very substantial rate in recent years, so that for many young people war has become the most important part of our national tradition. When students come to Canberra on school visits, the inclusion of the War Memorial in the itinerary enables a subsidy of costs for the visit.
The word “Anzackery” refers to the tendency to exaggerate the importance of 1915. The transfer of remembrance from the private to the public sphere has led to much sentimentality about “heroes” and excessive rhetoric linking Anzac exclusively with Australia’s story. It gives little weight to the horrors of war experience and the awful legacy of trauma that follows for individuals and families. It also discourages asking the question – was it worth it? It thus sets up future generations to be drawn more readily into a military response to crises.
The second part of the book traverses other aspects of Australia’s story – the environment’s impact, the changing face of immigration, the economic challenges from boom and bust cycles, the myth of the “fair go” in relation to the realities for many minorities, the frontier wars, and the hidden place of women’s role in the records of leadership. It identifies the current dilemma of militarism versus independence in our foreign policy.
This book fills in many gaps in knowledge about our past, raises questions about our interpretation of our heritage, and the imagines our future. Authors included in the book are Peter Stanley, Larissa Behrendt, Paul Daley, Joy Damousi, Mark McKenna, Carmen Lawrence, and Stuart Macintyre, among others. It is a comprehensive analysis, and invites reflection and conversation on many aspects of Australian life.
David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting
The Honest History Book edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski, Published by NewSouth Publishing, 2017.
Editor’s note: An extract from the book, with some interesting comments, can be found at https://dailyreview.com.au/anzac-anzackery-australians-normalised-war/59134/