by Francesca Beddie…
As we approach the finale of the centenary of WWI, an organisation set up in 2013 to promote a balanced consideration of Australian history celebrated its fifth anniversary. The Honest History symposium attracted some big names: Paul Daley, journalist and writer; Clare Wright, historian Michael Cooney CEO of the Australia Republic Movement; Ann McGrath, historian. However, as Matilda House, the Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder, observed in her welcome to country, the event was dominated by the older generation. A few students and early career researchers came and went during the day; a couple spoke. To change the public discussion about our past this is not enough. As Aunty Matilda said, youth need to hear from the knowledge holders.
Engaging young audiences was one topic that surfaced in the discussions. Speakers reinforced the message that historians must move beyond the written word if they want to reach beyond their rusted-on consumers. Television, film, podcasts must be in the mix. Wright observed that young people are comfortable with complexity, with seeing the world from multiple perspectives. That presents opportunities for more nuanced stories about the past, although a strong theme of the day was encapsulated in the term ‘Anzackery’. Wright referred to ‘the great wall of Anzac’ which prevents other aspects of history becoming visible. Some of those aspects aired at the symposium were women’s peace movements and the frontier wars waged with the Indigenous people since colonisation. This led also to critical comments about the huge amount ($500 million) the government has spent on WWI commemoration and the announcement of $498 million for an extension to the War Memorial (which, by the way, will involve the demolition of the Anzac Hall completed in 2001). Could this money not be better spent, Wright and Daley asked, on a women’s history museum or a national keeping place for Indigenous remains or on monuments to hitherto unrecognised figures from history?
While the symposium did not explicitly ask what might emerge as a new focus for public history now that the centenary has come to an end, the discussions did point to some areas of inquiry. Two speakers, Michael Cooney and Ben Jones, ANU, talked about the republic. Cooney posed a question: how can Australia better shape a ‘good’ patriotic sentiment, one that is modern and rational? The answer lies, in part, in nurturing a better understanding of history; teaching history better; and communicating it more broadly. It also entails undoing myths, like the one that says Australia became an independent country on 1 January 1901 or at Gallipoli or later. Which date to choose is still a matter of debate.
Australia’s place in the world was the subject of Alison Broinowski’s contribution. She spoke of war being in Australia’s genes, arguing that Australia has defined its place in the world in terms of real and perceived threats. Fear has driven it into alliances first with Britain and then the United States. With a flourish of hyperbole, she said Australia did not have its own foreign policy; it simply falls into step with its allies. Exaggeration aside, she has a point. In a changing, multi-polar international order, with new power dynamics, including the rise of populist leaders in the West and the growing strength of our neighbours in Southeast Asia, it is time for Australia to discuss how it best engages with the world. Does it make sense to have such a close alliance with the United States, to still be a member of the ‘Western Europe and others’ group in the United Nations? Should we be exploring new ways to conduct foreign relations, even revisiting ideas of non-alignment? Sue Wareham, a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (the organisation awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize), warned that Australia will find itself on the wrong side of history when it comes to the latest international moves towards nuclear disarmament. (Australia has yet to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.)
We also heard about an important Australian Research Council project that is exploring how to make our national collections more representative of our diverse community. Michael Piggott explained that the project is trying to establish what has not been collected as a preliminary step towards building archives that better represent multicultural, multilingual Australia.
Further on the matter of language, in another ARC project, Ann McGrath and her colleagues are working across the disciplines to see how historians can work with scientists, linguists and others to better explore deep time and to learn from Indigenous ways of interpreting the past.
Older and younger academics discussed their career trajectories, demonstrating that the occasional thrill of archival work and reinterpreting the past can overcome an uncertain job market. Quite a few of the speakers at the symposium were not historians but all recognised the power of history to shed light on the story of Australia.
The PHA was not represented on the podium, which was a shame for it does have things to contribute to the discussion of the public use of history and its practice outside universities and journalism. One hundred years after the war to end all wars is a good moment for us to think about what professional historians can do to shift the conversation away from the valour and sacrifice of the solider to the contribution of others to building the nation and, lest we forget, to fighting for peace.
The RSL sub-branch held a commemoration of hundred years since the armistice on 11 November 1918 in my little town. The crowd was modest, much smaller than the one that gathers next to the soldiers memorial hall on Anzac Day. The main street was closed off; signs warned motorists: ‘ANZAC service ahead’. A school boy proudly delivered a speech about a young Australian soldier and all the suffering he had seen on the battlefield, only to die jumping from a moving train in his eagerness to get home to his family. His words echoed the mythology of the gallant digger. I could not help feeling that, if the occasion arose, he might be wooed to join up, as so many before him, by the words just recited from John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. For all the nationalist sentiment at the memorial, when it came to singing Advance Australia Fair the crowd left it to the choir. The RSL organiser quipped that he’d have to include the second verse in next year’s order of service.
Our local history group organised an additional event for the centenary, the screening of a documentary called Lest We Forget about First World War memorials in Australia. The director Geoffrey Sykes received a grant from the Anzac Centenary (sic) Arts and Culture Fund. It’s a thoughtful film about the lasting painful effects of the war on communities but too subtle to put chinks in the wall of Anzac. Sykes makes passing reference to women in the war and to the frontier wars but not, surprisingly, to Aboriginal servicemen. He also seeks to explain the reason for Australia going to war, not to fight for freedom as the schoolboy said, but for King and empire. In so doing, the soldiers helped protect our trade routes but that doesn’t sound quite so heroic, does it? One of the women who organised the morning tea, showed me a photograph of a man she’d nursed. He’d been in the Light Horse Brigade. What he remembered was the noise and the fear.
At the service there was one prayer for peace; a prayer that’s been around since the sixteenth century.
Image: Mourning Arab, 1935, sculpture by Marjorie Fletcher (student of Rayner Hoff)