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H O N E S T H I S T O R Y
E-newsletter No. 1, May 2013
ISSN: 2202-5561 © Honest History Inc. 2013
- An e-newsletter introducing a website
- Why Honest History?: A preoccupation with military history leads to an unbalanced view of our nation
- The history of Honest History: How we got here and who supports us
- The Anzac centenary: What DVA and others have in store for 2014-18
- The many themes of Australian history: Not only Anzac but also plenty of other stories, as well
- What the website could look like
- Military history is not war history: We owe it to future generations not to airbrush out the non-heroic parts
- What happens next: From now to 2014
- Researchers needed
- The Honest History interim committee
- Distribution policy
Attachment: Peter Stanley reviews Robert Bollard’s In the shadow of Gallipoli (Canberra Times, 20 April 2013)
Why are you getting this newsletter? See ‘Distribution policy’ at the end of the newsletter.
An e-newsletter introducing a website
This newsletter introduces a website, Honest History, which we plan to launch early in 2014 or perhaps even earlier. Meanwhile, our e-newsletters will keep readers up to date with the development of the website and give a taste of the sort of material we hope to include on it.
The future of Honest History will depend on the strength of our network and the work (voluntary!) that supporters (historians and others) are prepared to put in. Ways you can help are in bold and underlined below.
Why Honest History?
A preoccupation with military history leads to an unbalanced view of our nation
There is much more to Australian history than the Anzac tradition; there is much more to our war history than nostalgia and tales of heroism. Honest History is being set up to get those two messages across.
History should be contestable. Facts may be disputed and they can be selected and interpreted in many ways. But when one interpretation drives out others, regardless of the weight of evidence, history becomes unbalanced.
Honest History seeks balanced history, where contesting, evidence-based interpretations are available to students, teachers, universities, journalists and the public, and history is not misused to serve political or other agendas. Even if one would prefer that the whole of our history could be told as, say, ‘the march of progress’ or ‘the triumph of the Anzac spirit’, honesty demands a consideration of what is and what has been, based on the evidence, as well as what should be.
While Australia’s military history is just one strand among many in our history, for some Australians in recent years it has become a preoccupation and an industry, even as the direct participants in the two World Wars have mostly died. Many commentators have expressed concern at this trend. Here are some recent examples from supporters of Honest History, Paul Daley and Clare Wright, Marilyn Lake, Mark McKenna and David Stephens.
Our military history will take an even higher profile as we approach the centenary of World War I. In the next several years, there will be a special need for both balance and honesty in the way we deal with this strand of our history.
Honest History will consolidate in one place material which presents key themes of Australia’s past (including perceptive treatments of the Anzac tradition), helps explain why Australia is as it is today, and assists readers to come to their own conclusions about what should be the building blocks of our future.
Comments and criticisms?
If you have any comments on this e-newsletter or on the Honest History concept and direction, please email Interim Convenor, Honest History, at email@example.com
The history of Honest History
How we got here and who supports us
The idea for Honest History began in 2012 when a small group met in Canberra to consider a submission which would have led to a television program questioning the role of the Anzac tradition in our history. The submission was unsuccessful but some members of the group looked for other opportunities. The impending centenary of World War I, particularly the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli, was an obvious trigger.
In 2012 also some members of the group were campaigning against the building in Canberra of new memorials to the dead of the two world wars, memorials which would have detracted from the Australian War Memorial. (That battle is still not quite won.)
We got under way properly only in March this year and we have been bolstered by support from Frank Bongiorno, Paul Daley, Joy Damousi, Marilyn Lake, Stuart Macintyre, Mark McKenna, Peter Stanley, Christina Twomey, Ben Wellings, Clare Wright and many others. Our network continues to grow steadily in the history community and beyond. This initial e-newsletter is going to 86 addresses.
To continue this growth, please feel free to forward the newsletter to others who are likely to be interested.
History, it has been said, is what the present chooses to remember about the past.
(Eric Foner, American historian)
The Anzac centenary
What DVA and others have in store for 2014-18
The Anzac centenary website is here. It contains a program of proposed events 2014-18, the report of the Fraser-Hawke Commission that made recommendations to government (including a list of more than 250 dates 1898-2008 which might be occasions for commemoration in the centenary years) and the government’s response.
The website also sets out arrangements for community grants to mount commemorative events and other activities. Some of this money will go towards building new World War I memorials to add to the thousands already found in our towns and cities. The 2013-14 Budget takes the total funding for the Anzac centenary to over $140 million.
The Anzac Centenary Board ‘is determined to ensure that the Anzac Centenary is marked in a way that captures the spirit and reverence it so deserves and that the baton of remembrance is passed on to this and future generations’. The word ‘reverence’ is particularly interesting given the suggestion, first made by the historian Ken Inglis, that Anzac has become for Australians a ‘secular religion’.
Honest History will seek to complement and, where necessary, criticise the output of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), the Anzac Centenary Board, state Anzac centenary bodies and the Australian War Memorial. As noted above, history should be contestable.
The many themes of Australian history
Not only Anzac but also plenty of other stories, as well
An honest view of our history will reveal many themes. It will provide a ‘not only… but also’ view – ‘not only egalitarianism but also racism’, ‘not only Anzac but also Eureka’ – rather than an ‘either … or’ perspective.
Balanced and honest history avoids disproportionate emphasis on particular themes, while giving due weight to the good and the bad. If there is a risk of over-hyping military history we need to emphasise the other, equally important themes of our national story.
Different historians will have different perspectives. Some will focus on white settlement and its impact on the First Australians, others on social justice, political change, economic development, gender, and so on. Readers, too, will seek out a variety of themes and arguments.
The strands of our history wind back a long way. The convict beginnings of white society, immigration over more than two hundred years, and thousands of years of history before that have all left marks. There was a robust Australian nation in the South Pacific well before Gallipoli. Thomas Keneally lists the conflicting themes that characterised Australia in the years 1860 to 1914 and goes on:
Suffusing it all was the idea that, although provincial, we were an especial people; that although distant, in our social experiments and reforms, we were a society the world had much to learn from; that we were better than those who thought us crass and that, unleashed, we would show them a thing or two. The thunderclap of a world-wide war reinforced the mythology of Australian uniqueness even while helping create a world that widened class schisms and bespoke unresolved and coming peril. (Australians: Eureka to the Diggers, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012, p. xiv)
The clear but contesting themes that Keneally distinguished in the years before the Great War – egalitarianism and class conflict (and racism), independence and subservience, clinging to cities while exploiting the land, plus many other themes as well – continue to characterise Australia today. We do ourselves a disservice if the respect we rightly reserve for Anzac Day leads us to put all our eggs in one memory basket labelled ‘Anzac’.
What the website could look like
The objectives of the website are to bring together or link to resources which:
- emphasise the need for balance and honesty in Australian history and the distinctions between myth and history;
- present a range of themes in our history and recognise the complexity of that history and the many factors that have produced the Australia of today; and
- place Australia’s military history in a broader context, with particular emphasis on the physical and mental impact on soldiers, women and families, the home front and the aftermath of war.
Within these broad objectives we will present a range of views. We will regularly add content, including original material. We will try to link historical content to contemporary issues. On the site you will find:
- contributed articles;
- reprints and extracts, reproduced by permission;
- links to other related sites; and
- advice of forthcoming events.
Military history is not war history
We owe it to future generations not to airbrush out the non-heroic parts
A temporary emphasis on our military past may be inevitable during the Anzac centenary years, but this should not be an occasion to airbrush out the less praiseworthy parts of our role in 1914-18 or in later conflicts. Recent Anzac Day speeches by the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, and the Governor of Tasmania, Peter Underwood, take rather different approaches.
Peter Stanley has made the important distinction between military history, about ‘men in khaki in battle’ (the overwhelming emphasis of the proposed World War I centenary commemoration) and war history (which takes account of events at home, including the effects on families). (Professor Stanley’s review of Robert Bollard’s book In the Shadow of Gallipoli is not available on line but it is an Attachment to this newsletter.)
Historical interpretation is important. How we see our history helps shape our future. Whenever we mythologise past events we influence the way we and our children see our country, what our country expects of our children and what our children believe their country expects of them. Gilding a military past increases the chances of a militarised future.
Past generations of Australians willingly went to war for the causes of their day but that should not be a guide to appropriate national behaviour today and tomorrow. Martial propensities should fade away, not be idealised.
Building a future without war requires us to honestly review our warlike past. No matter how much we say that a hatred of war lies beneath commemorative events, relentless and ubiquitous commemoration embeds attitudes in our national psyche. Normalising war is more insidious than glorifying it but ultimately just as damaging.
Adults may not intend to glorify war but, for their children and grandchildren, this intention may be overshadowed by the appeal of military displays and commemorative occasions. Children enjoying fireworks, camouflage face-painting or a pretend drive of an Iroquois chopper, with authentic Vietnam War soundtrack, are likely to see these activities as fun, like other forms of play, and not plumb the layers of meaning that older generations comprehend.
(Incidentally, note that young Australian children feature in five of the six illustrations in the Australian War Memorial website’s ‘Discovery Zone’ pages, covering ‘Introduction’, ‘First World War’, ‘Second World War’, ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Cold War’. The only picture not including Australian youngsters is the ‘Peacekeeping’ one.)
Similarly, flag-draped backpackers at Gallipoli on Anzac Day may treat the occasion more as a form of celebratory bonding – The Big Day Out in Turkey – than as a time for commemoration and reflection. While the men of Anzac may have gone ‘with songs to the battle’ their descendants travel with I-pods as military tourists. On the other hand, young post-graduate students from Monash University are helping to gather material presenting a multi-faceted view of the Great War and its impacts on men and their families.
The new interest in Anzac Day among younger Australians indicates a desire to connect with the generations that preceded them. That offers an opportunity to revive interest in Australia’s wider history, too; and we should remember that the greatest duty the living owe the dead is to speak the truth. (Editorial, The Age [Melbourne], 25 April 2012)
At the controls of an Iroquois helicopter (source: Australian War Memorial website)
From now to 2014
The plan is have an Honest History website ready for private testing well before the end of this year and to launch the site formally around April 2014, if not before. Obviously, two of the keys to a successful site are content and accessibility. Much of our effort over the next few months will be devoted to getting our heads around WordPress as a site builder and then importing existing content onto the site. We also hope to present future e-newsletters in a more ‘small-screen friendly’ format.
We already own the domain names www.honesthistory.net and www.honesthistory.net.au and the business name ‘Honest History’. We will shortly be setting ourselves up as an incorporated association. We will also be refining our editorial and moderation policies.
The third key to a successful site is gaining and sustaining a market – people who use the site and come to rely on it as a source of information – and that is the most difficult part. We are working on outreach and ways of getting the Honest History message around, not just to schools, teachers, universities and journalists but to members of the general public who have a concern, often unspoken, about how our history is taught, used and sometimes misused. The website may be the catalyst for other activities.
Any ideas on ‘marketing’ or groups to whom we should ‘pitch’ will be gratefully received.
[A]s long as the past is principally used as a model for imitation, it is always in danger of being a little altered and touched up and brought nearer to fiction.
(Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher)
Good content comes from good researchers. Our biggest need is for people who can use Google (or even Bing!) fulfilling research tasks and producing lists of links (with one sentence explanations) which can then be followed up by our editorial group.
If this is of interest to you, please let us know (contact details at the end of this newsletter).
Subjects for commissioned research tasks might be:
- examples of academic articles and books which present a multi-themed view of Australian history;
- mainstream media material critically discussing the Anzac tradition, around Anzac Days over the last five years;
- overseas debate surrounding the World War I centenary; and
- attitudes of historians and the general public in New Zealand to the Anzac centenary.
Supporters and researchers will, of course, come up with their own leads and this will be welcomed. As for supporters who already have relevant publications, academic or otherwise, we will be doing our best to track these works down but we will be asking for your assistance as well, to make sure we pick up everything relevant.
The Honest History interim committee
Professor Joy Damousi teaches history at the University of Melbourne and is a co-author of What’s wrong with Anzac? Her many other publications include The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia and Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia.
Marilyn Lake is Professor in History at the University of Melbourne, where she holds an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship to research the topic of ‘The international history of Australian democracy’. Her books include What’s Wrong with Anzac? and The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria 1915-38.
Professor Peter Stanley of the University of New South Wales, Canberra, a former Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial, is one of Australia’s most active military-social historians. His book, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Murder, Mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force, jointly won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2011.
David Stephens is a former Commonwealth public servant, consultant and lobbyist. He has post-graduate qualifications in political science and was involved in the Canberra campaign against the rival war memorials.
Richard Thwaites has worked in book publishing, as a foreign correspondent and manager with ABC current affairs, in the Commonwealth public service, and now contributes book reviews to the Canberra Times.
Dr Sue Wareham OAM is a Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War and has spoken and written widely on peace and disarmament matters. She is a Canberra general practitioner.
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23 May 2013
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Honest History owns the domain names www.honesthistory.net and www.honesthistory.net.au and the business name ‘Honest History’
Neither rosy glow nor black armband … just honest
Peter Stanley reviews Robert Bollard’s In the Shadow of Gallipoli (Canberra Times, 20 April 2013)
Robert Bollard, In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The Hidden History of Australia in World War I, NewSouth, 224 pp. $32.95
Reviewed by Peter Stanley
My erstwhile institution, the National Museum of Australia, has just opened an exhibition, Glorious Days, which explores the Australia of 1913. It shows how on the eve of what became the Great War Australia was an optimistic and progressive democracy, a ‘paradise’ for working people, as long as they were white, of course. Do yourself a favour and see it. The exhibition’s final image shows AIF volunteers leaving on a troopship, with civilians seeing them off. In developing the exhibition, we agreed that we hardly needed to do more than suggest with this image the catastrophe that Australians faced the following year. The people in the photograph are those who fell under the ‘shadow of Gallipoli’, the evocative title of Robert Bollard’s challenging book.
In Australia we tend to read, study and promote military history rather than war history. What’s the difference? Military history is about Gallipoli and Passchendaele – it tells of men in khaki in battle – the stock in trade of the annual Anzac fest. War history takes a broader focus, looking at home front as well as battle front. Both are necessary but war history gives a deeper, truer picture, and in Australia we are not very good at it.
A self-described Marxist historian of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent, Bollard urges us to revise the accepted ‘distorted, or at least unbalanced’ view of the Great War. He looks at aspects of the war you won’t read in the next doorstop book from a celebratory “‘storian” journalist or in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial. He describes the strikes and the bitter campaigns over conscription, asking how invading a beach in Turkey made ‘us’ a nation and how dying at Fromelles protected ‘our’ freedom. Far from the familiar epic of sacrifice, comradeship and national redemption, Bollard writes of a war as unpopular as Vietnam would become. ‘The harder one digs beneath the veneer of ritual and commemoration’, he writes, ‘the harder it is to recognize the war we think we know’.
In the Shadow of Gallipoli offers a rallying point for those who welcomed Marilyn Lake asking What’s Wrong with Anzac? a couple of years ago. It provides thoughtful material for those questioning the celebratory tone that is already shaping up as the dominant mood of the forthcoming centenary of the Great War, encouraging those questioning whether Australians can produce an honest history of the war we think we know.
Bollard is hardly original in decrying an undue concentration on a traditional military history. In Digger Smith and Australia’s Great War I told the stories of strikers as well as soldiers, of the battle over conscription, the surveillance dissidents and the internment of ‘Germans’. What Bollard offers, though, is a strong case for how the narrow focus on battles omits and distorts. He deals with the strains of patriotism, with strikes in defence of working and living conditions, with conscription and the crisis of Bolshevism and reaction after 1917.
Bollard’s stridency might put you off. He is as much a product of his ideology as anyone. His heroes are Daniel Mannix rather than John Monash, Vida Goldstein rather than Vera Deakin and Donald Grant, the trade unionist sentenced to ‘fifteen years [hard labour] for fifteen words’ of alleged sedition. (A war still celebrated as supposedly fought for ‘our freedom’ indeed involved breathtaking breaches of traditional liberties.) The only VC he mentions is Hugo Throssell, who turned to socialism and killed himself, a victim of the war’s trauma.
Nor is Bollard averse to some myth-making of his own. He diminishes the ‘loyalty’ of Irish-Australians (who enlisted in almost identical proportions to English- or Scots-Australians). The miners and railwaymen of 1917 are his heroes, understandably. He extols the Communist-led Unemployed Workers’ Movement for leading the fight against evictions in the Depression, really more a bit of theatre both at the time and in left-wing hagiography. But Bollard is surely correct to argue that an undue concentration on traditional military history effectively endorses and perpetuates a conservative view of Australian history. Without the story Bollard tells we would not understand how the war ended the ‘glorious days’ of pre-1914 Australia.
In his conclusion, Bollard suggests that Gallipoli’s shadow obscures not just our understanding of the past, but is also ‘a mechanism for … deliberately obscuring the present’. Deliberately? By whom? How? That deserves debate, though Bollard leaves it hanging, with vague references to economic crises and Australia today splitting along ‘the faultlines of class’.
In the Shadow of Gallipoli is not war history as Australians traditionally tell it, but it is healthy for us to be reminded that ‘the Anzacs were troubled men returning to a troubled country’. They could not ignore the trauma of that war, its psychic and physical wounds, sectarian or industrial scars, and neither should we.
Prof. Peter Stanley writes history at UNSW Canberra. His Black Saturday at Steels Creek appears in May.