An Australian History Lesson

In this post I want to talk about what prompted our interest in this research on monuments and collective history. What motivated us to think about national identity and how it might be shaped by public memorials? Why are we interested in presentations of national history? Why is it compelling to think about what Australians and Germans are being urged to remember, and in turn, forget?

As I write from Berlin, a city decidedly engaged with its own history and where memorials and remembrances are keenly debated and contested, it is particularly interesting to reflect on Australia’s approach to shaping and commemorating history. As Catherine and I research Berlin’s history and monuments, it is tempting to reach the conclusion that, generally speaking, Australians tend to have a superficial and uncritical relationship to their own past.

Take for example the strange resurgence of interest in Anzac Day.

For those readers who aren’t familiar with it, Anzac Day is an Australian national day of remembrance that occurs every year on April 25. Its original purpose was to honour the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers that fought in the Battle of Gallipoli, in what was the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War. Today, however, it’s a day when we commemorate any Australian who has served and died in a military operation.

To understand the significance of Anzac Day, it’s important to consider the special status that the Battle of Gallipoli has to the Australian national identity, and how the Anzac legend became Australia’s national founding myth. At the outbreak of World War I, Australia had been a Federal Commonwealth (the process by which the six separate British self-governing colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia formed one nation) for just 13 years. As La Trobe University Professor of Politics Robert Manne writes in the article “The war myth that made us” for The Age:

Despite the creation of vibrant democracies in all the British colonies of Australia, despite the magnificent but sober political achievement of federation, in 1915 the key to the Australian political psychology remained a gnawing sense of colonial inferiority.

The Battle of Gallipoli was the first major military action fought by Australian forces during the First World War, and occurred at a time when the new nation was keen to prove itself on the international arena. Despite the fact that the campaign at Gallipoli proved to be a brutal and bloody defeat for the Allies, the battle has come to be thought of as marking the birth of an Australian national consciousness because it is where key aspects of the Australian character were displayed. Manne writes:

Australians came to believe that during the terrible eight months on Gallipoli, fixed features of the national character had been revealed. Australians were innocent and fit; stoical and laconic; irreverent in the face of hidebound authority; naturally egalitarian and disdainful of British class differences. Above all, in times of trouble, they stood by their mates.

Thus Anzac Day is not simply a day of remembrance where ageing veterans lay wreaths for their mates who died in war. For some Australians, Anzac Day is seen to be “Australia’s most important national occasion” that marks a defining moment in our nation’s history. Significantly, in recent years the day has been gaining popularity, particularly among a younger generation of Australians. To find an example of the extraordinary resurgence in interest you need only look at statistics that show that the number of visitors to the Anzac Day memorial services at the Gallipoli site in Turkey grew from 4500 in 1994 to 18,000 in 2004.

Interestingly, in “Memory and The Anti-Politics of ANZAC”, left-wing writer Jeff Sparrow points out that the Anzac Day ceremony was almost extinct in the 1980s, as a result of anti-war sentiments arising from the Vietnam War and the anti-nuclear movement. The renewed interest in the Anzac legend has been linked to a new form of Australian nationalism that was promoted by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who was in power from 1996 to 2007. It was further fuelled by a trend toward militarisation following 9/11, when Howard’s Coalition government was rallying support for the war in Iraq. Political writer Mark McKenna observes in “Patriot Act“, an article written for The Australian in 2007:

One of the defining features of John Howard’s decade in power has been his ability to encourage a greater feeling of national pride in the Australian community. During the past 10 years, a new form of Australian nationalism has emerged: unreflective, earnest and often sentimental. Patriotic display has become a civic virtue. Journalists and academics have commented on the new national mood – the flaunting of the flag, the commercialisation of feel-good patriotism – most dating its emergence from the mid-1990s, about the same time that Anzac Day began its resurgence.

Although McKenna’s article was written five years ago, and John Howard’s Coalition government has been replaced by a Labor government, his observation still rings true:

Instead of being the one day of the year that reminds us of the horror of war, Anzac Day has become a day for celebrating national values forged in the crucible of battle, a day that obscures the politics of war and discourages political dissent. Although these changes have occurred on Howard’s watch, both the Coalition and the Labor Party have become fond of wrapping themselves in the flag, particularly on April 25.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the renewed embrace of the Anzac legend by Australians is that it has been stripped of any historical context. Sparrow notes that despite the funding and resources that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has poured into promoting Anzac Day, few Australians can tell you what the war was actually about. In Sparrow’s analysis, Anzac Day “celebrates forgetting”, insofar as current Anzac Day celebrations sentimentally venerate sacrifice in combat in a distinctly anti-political and ahistorical fashion. Sparrow writes:

The Gallipoli pilgrimage provides the obvious example. The attendees at the dawn service do not ask themselves why Australians died invading a country thousands of miles away. No, that particular issue’s rendered inherently irrelevant, since the backpackers go there not to think about history but to marvel at the height of the cliffs and the sharpness of the rocks, and to feel an awe at people their own age experiencing horrors that they couldn’t imagine. The question arising from the pilgrimage is thus not ‘why did it happen?’ (a query that leads not only into history but into politics) but rather ‘what did it feel like?’, an aestheticisation of the past that’s explicitly anti-political.

This lack of attention to history is also observed by McKenna:

Whether it is the Coalition or the Labor Party in power in Canberra, the uncritical embrace of the Anzac legend is likely to continue, a scenario that suggests some disturbing consequences for Australia’s future. The more all-consuming the Anzac myth becomes, the less public space exists for understanding the non-military aspects of Australia’s history, be it our democratic history, our indigenous history or our intellectual and cultural history. The new love of Anzac is not about Australians paying more attention to their history, as is often claimed; rather, it is about the making of historical myth as a source of national pride and independence, the foundation stone of a new sentimental nationalism.

I read these critiques of Anzac Day in April this year, and the notion that Australians have an uncritical approach to collective memory and history resonated with me. This is not to say that all Australians are indoctrinated by the Anzac myth, but it bothers me that this is the central event with which we are asked to identify the origins of our culture. It was the irksomeness of this idea, that Australians have only a superficial engagement with history, that provided an early impetus to undertake our research into monuments and collective history.

From my perspective here in Berlin, it seems particularly distasteful that Australians are asked to locate their national pride in nostalgic ideas of the heroism and glory of war. Like McKenna, I would like to see the Australian public have a deeper engagement with other aspects of Australia’s history, such as indigenous history, the story of federation, or successive anti-war movements. I wonder what our future would look like if Australians were provoked to have more self-reflective and analytical understanding of their history?

Catherine tells me that during her German Studies at university, a lecturer claimed that during Germany’s reunification, the common purpose that brought the previously-separated East and West back together were efforts to deal with Germany’s difficult past – specifically, the Holocaust and the Nazi time. Acknowledging and commemorating its troubled history became Germany’s national founding myth, so to speak. This is a compelling idea that we are exploring in our research.

It is easy, and perhaps overly simplistic, to make unfavourable comparisons between Australia’s approach to history and that of Germany. For our research, however, it is interesting to note the differences between the two countries’ respective approaches to national commemoration. For example, in Australia we still annually celebrate our official national day, Australia Day, on January 26. This date is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet to Sydney Cove in 1788, which led to the subsequent British settlement of Australia. To many who are conscious of the dispossession of Indigenous Australian land, holding our national day on this date is a cause of embarrassment and shame. It has become known in some circles as Invasion Day. However, there has not been enough popular public interest to find an alternative day.

In contrast, Germany’s national day, German Unity Day, is held on October 3. Although the obvious choice would have been to commemorate Germany’s reunification on November 9, which is the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the first large-scale Nazi-led pogroms against Jews in 1938. For this reason the day was considered inappropriate as a national holiday and 3 October, the day of formal reunification in 1990, was chosen instead.

It is intriguing to consider: what if, instead of valorising war, Australians were asked to locate their sense of identity in acknowledging and addressing our difficult past? After the horrors of the 20th century, should we really be celebrating national values that were forged in war today? Surely there are more appropriate historical moments to locate the birth of our nation? As Catherine and I explore these ideas, we wonder what new monuments or memorials are possible, that might make Australians reconsider and review who they are.

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One response to “An Australian History Lesson

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, Amy – very well written and considered. I am intrigued to hear that in stark contrast to Aust., when Germany decided to commerate it’s Unity Day, they had sensitivity enough to take into account the crimes against the Jewish people and not schedule the day on the anniversary of Kristallnacht despite it probably being the ‘feel-good’ choice because it was the day history remembers ‘justly’ as the day the Wall came down. I too wish we as a people and our politicians could show the same sense of maturity and searing self-reflection when examining the significance of us commemorating holidays such as Australia (Invasion) Day and Anzac Day.
    Our history against the Indigenous peoples in Aust. reminds me so much of the story of child abuse. Our past is a secret shame and one that we are still on the whole not ready to acknowledge (how else could we continue to celebrate Australia Day with such disregard for another’s feelings, in this case the first Australians?) Just as in the case of child abuse – which, contrary to popular opinion about the Catholic Church, most often occurs within families. Here, it is common for the victim to be ostracised by his/her family rather than the adult perpetrator, because acknowledging the adult’s crimes means the entire power-structure of the family and its understanding of itself as a coherent loving family unit would have to be scrutinised. Few families are willing to put themselves through this sort of self-examination. Consequently, the victim who is struggling to cope emotionally is ostracised for being “difficult”….kinda like the ‘abos’, right?
    Why is Germany so different to us in this regard? Is it because they LOST the war, their crimes became public, and were they were made to acknowledge these horrors to the world? Would they be this honest if they, like the white people in Australia, were the victors?
    Anyway, these are the questions your post raised for me, so well done!
    Oh, I read somewhere (I think on fb) that you were compiling a PhD application. Where did you apply and how did you go?
    Warmest wishes & hope to see you and your fabulous art back in Australia some time soon.. xx
    Inez de Vega

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