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Stephens, David: Lest We Forget#3: Five years since The Honest History Book put Anzac in its proper place in Australian history

David Stephens*

‘Lest We Forget#3: Five years since The Honest History Book put Anzac in its proper place in Australian history’, Honest History, 18 April 2022

Five years ago this month, NewSouth Books published The Honest History Book, edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski, and with contributions from many distinguished Australian authors. Since then, the book has sold more than 3000 copies and is still readily available from booksellers like Booktopia.

More about the book, including some reviews. By all means, buy it and read it – from the book royalties we make donations to the Australian Historical Association to assist young historians – but, meanwhile, here’s an extract (pages 7-11) which sums up the themes and content of the book. Julianne Schultz wrote the foreword.

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This book downsizes Anzac by giving it context. It makes Anzac relatively less important by deflating it and by making other strands of our history more important. Honest History’s mantra, ‘Not only Anzac but also’, leads us to criticise the Anzac-centric received view of Australian history – particularly when it spills over into Anzackery [the extreme, jingoistic, narcissistic version of Anzac] – while leaving room for a quieter, more useful version of Anzac. The book explores some non-khaki strands of Australian history – the influences that have helped produce modern Australia – as well as some influences that have not been as prominent as they should have been.

Chapters 2 to 9 form Part I of the book, under the heading ‘Putting Anzac in its place’. Chapters 2 and 3 show in different ways how parochial and Australia-centric has been our appreciation of war, with World War I as an example. Chapter 2 by Douglas Newton puts Australia’s Great War into perspective, using evidence of the war’s global dimensions and effects. It also looks at the secret deals struck during the war by the Allied Powers – deals that prolonged the war.

Chapter 3 from Vicken Babkenian and Judith Crispin tells the story of the Armenians, a people caught up in the Great War, the evidence of whose fate was known at the time by some Australians – who gave humanitarian assistance to displaced Armenians – but has been largely ignored since.

The next six chapters deal in different ways with the myths and misperceptions surrounding Anzac. Carolyn Holbrook’s chapter 4 shows how the place of the Anzac legend in Australian identity has not been constant – as many of today’s Australians assume – but has waxed and waned over a century. The legend’s future depends on the capacity of our children for critical thinking.

The Honest History Book - David StephensChapter 5 from Michael Piggott looks at a founder of the Anzac legend, Charles Bean, and his continuing influence on how Anzac is presented, particularly by the Australian War Memorial. Piggott finds that the ‘received Bean’ distorts the man’s views and glosses over the roles played by others.

Another Anzac-related myth is that soldiers who went to Vietnam were widely ostracised by the Returned and Services League when they came home, and were ill-served by governments. Chapter 6 by Mark Dapin shows the picture is more complicated than this and considers what the Anzac legend meant for these men.

Chapter 7 from David Stephens and Burçin Çakır is about a myth Australia shares with Turkey. The history of the supposed Atatürk words of 1934 (‘Those heroes that shed their blood …’) shows how myth becomes mistaken for history. There is no firm evidence that Atatürk ever said or wrote the words. Bipartisanship about Anzac has helped preserve the myth.

Frank Bongiorno’s chapter 8 discusses how and why politicians have become so fond of the Anzac legend, whether they can escape its influence, and the political benefits and costs of Anzac.

David Stephens’ chapter 9 looks at Anzackery, the extreme version of Anzac, one often promoted by politicians. The chapter compares Anzackery with a quieter, more contemplative Anzac ideal, and
asks whether a useful Anzac can and should survive.

Putting Anzac in its place also requires telling evidence-based stories about other parts of our history. Downsizing Anzac requires upsizing non-Anzac. Rather than overemphasise single factors, we need to look for a larger, often messier set of influences on our history, a mix that reflects the complexity of Australia today.

Chapters 10 to 19 come under the heading ‘Australian stories and silences’. These chapters are about the non-war influences on Australian history, some more discrepancies between myth and reality, and the stories of which we do not hear enough.

In chapter 10, Rebecca Jones looks at climate, the environment and natural disasters. She shows how natural events are not just backdrops but players, shaping us as we shape them.

Then, in chapter 11, Gwenda Tavan discusses how understating immigration in our national story has reinforced the dominance of a narrow, Anglo-nativist view of Australia in which the so-called ‘Anzac legend’ is central. This has perpetuated a tension between Australian nationalist ideals and our multicultural, settler-state reality.

In chapter 12, Stuart Macintyre reminds us of the influence of bust and boom – depression and prosperity – on Australia. The boom of the last quarter-century has made us wary of economic reform, even though the benefits of the boom have not been spread equitably. (These issues have been among
those highlighted during 2016 by the return of Pauline Hanson, the Brexit vote and related movements in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.)

Carmen Lawrence’s chapter 13 and Peter Stanley’s chapter 14 then consider the divergence between Australia’s egalitarian ideal and recent reality. Lawrence finds that Australian attitudes to equality are pretty much the same as the rest of the world’s, and that, like the rest of the world, we are actually becoming less and less equal on key measures.

Stanley compares the longstanding Australian military version of equality, built around ‘mateship’, with our more recent lionising of recipients of the Victoria Cross and of celebrity general Sir John Monash.

Chapters 15 to 17 are about two ‘silences’ in Australian history: the less than proportionate role of women in leadership, and the failure to confront the dispossession of the First Australians and its continuing effects. Chapter 15 from Joy Damousi tells of Cecilia John and Jessie Webb, two leaders during and after the Great War, whose work has tended to be overshadowed by the focus on military matters. Damousi concludes: ‘Understanding and valuing the leadership contributions of women is something Australia has not done well and should do better’.

Chapter 16 from Larissa Behrendt considers the colonisation of Indigenous Australia from 1788 to the present day. The story the nation tells itself has still not dealt with the invasion moment and its consequences.

Paul Daley’s chapter 17 then asks why frontier conflict between Indigenous Australians and settlers has been glossed over in our primarily Anglo-Celtic presentation of history. What does this say about mainstream Australian attitudes and our willingness to confront unpleasant realities?

The next two chapters are about changes that have not occurred. Mark McKenna’s chapter 18 considers the connection between the Anzac legend and Australia’s loyalty to the British monarchy. Does Anzac, with its inbuilt monarchical element – ‘King and Country’ – threaten our capacity to ever be a republic?

This failure to become at last independent of the British monarchy is related to our historic lack of independence in foreign and defence policy. Will the advent of Trump force us to change? Alison Broinowski’s chapter 19 looks at how Australia has entered overseas wars in the past, and how we could better assess the necessity and legality of future conflicts.

Chapter 20 [Broinowski and Stephens] concludes the book, bringing together some key themes. It also includes a modest list of policy options that would help shift the balance – in terms of Honest History’s mantra – from ‘Anzac’ back towards ‘also’ or non-Anzac.

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Lest We Forget, as the book says, Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been.