Londey, Peter: Managed memories

Peter Londey

Managed memories‘, H-net Book Review (27 May 2005); originally published H-war, January 2005

The book reviewed is Liz Reed, Bigger than Gallipoli: War, History and Memory in Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 2004. The reviewer worked in the Military History Section, Australian War Memorial. Reed’s book analyses the significance of Australia Remembers, the 1995 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. (The Australia Remembers model has been adopted for the Anzac centenary, with equal amounts of money going to each federal electorate.) On Australia Remembers, see also Beaumont.

Londey says Reed shows how the Australia Remembers initiative did not simply remember, as in recalling events or reminding people of them, but actually created and massaged memories. As Reed says, ‘the past was being remembered for them’.

While Londey has some criticisms of Reed’s work, he uses the review to make some general remarks about commemoration, saying that

in Australia military commemoration has become something of a sacred cow; indeed, at times it seems in danger of becoming a new civic religion. The country thinks it needs some sort of “identity” (Reed comments on this self-conscious need of “new” nations on p. 121), and the traditional story of European settlement/colonization/invasion is now too contested to serve as any basis for shared celebration. As a result, the ritual invocation of Gallipoli and Kokoda tends to pass without comment, all surviving soldiers from the World Wars are elevated to “heroes,” and practically nobody stood on the sidelines in 1995 and criticized “Australia Remembers.”

While there are some excellent historians working on military history

there are also a public, a media, and a political class who simply want to use this history as a cleansing national myth, evoking childishly simple “memories” of a golden past when we knew who the enemies were and all stood and suffered together as we fought.

Some historians are surprised at ‘the quite bad ways the stories they tell are twisted in other people’s hands’. Thus Australia Remembers pandered to Japanese sensitivities, airbrushed out more unpleasant parts of the war experience and overemphasised Australia’s role.

There was a deliberate effort to avoid highlighting what Con Sciacca called “the bad parts of what happened.” Suggestions by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Gareth Evans that Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be remembered appear to have been rejected. As Reed comments, “Australia seemed divorced from the task of engaging with the moral concerns arising from the war” (p. 165). To a large extent, the program reduced the universal cataclysm of World War II to an event which only affected Australians (a photo of prisoners at Changi was carefully cropped for a poster to cut out any non-Europeans). Australians do, of course, know something of the war history of allies such as Britain, America, New Zealand, and (to a lesser extent) countries of Europe. But, despite Prime Minister Paul Keating’s eagerness to reorient Australia towards Asia, “Australia Remembers” was never used as a platform to begin educating a largely ignorant public about East and South-East Asian experience of the war.

In other ways, the “Australia Remembers” distortion of history was more insidious. Overall, the program had less to do with history than with nostalgia: nostalgia for some imagined golden, sun-tanned past, which people could re-live by dressing up and listening to wartime music.

It was, says Reed, ‘memory with the pain removed’. Another review, however, criticises Reed for getting too close to Minister Sciacca. (On 1940s nostalgia in Britain today, see here.)

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