Davison, Graeme: Habit of commemoration

Graeme Davison

‘The habit of commemoration and the revival of Anzac Day’, Australian Cultural History, 22, 2003, pp. 73-82

A recent survey on ‘Australians and the Past’ questioned the assumption that ‘public celebrations are a clue to private sentiments’. (p. 74) Whereas in the 1950s Anzac Day and similar ceremonies were presided over by ex-servicemen, ‘living memorials to the events they commemorated… Whatever now happens on Anzac Day seems to me to have a looser fit with that didactic form of nationalism.’ (p. 75)

The survey had Anzac Day mentioned three times as often as Australia Day and other national days. ‘The continued vitality of Anzac Day is a sharp rebuke to anyone who makes rash assumptions about the future of historical commemoration.’ (p. 78) The author speculates that part of the reason for this vitality might be the need felt by young people to fill a vacuum in their lives but he goes on: ‘The trouble with the vacuum hypothesis is that there are as many moral vacuums waiting to be filled as there are nostalgic historians ready to suggest them.’ (p.80)

The vacuum hypothesis also does not explain why Anzac Day has come to the fore rather than other candidates and it treats young people as ‘suckers’. ‘The key to understanding the power of myths, national or otherwise, lies in the intelligible connection they establish between personal experience [birth, childhood, marriage, hardship, holidays, travel] and public events.’ (p. 80) Thus a youth’s Gallipoli pilgrimage possibly plays to both patriotism and wanderlust and interest in war history may be associated with the often close link between grandchildren and grandparents.

Now we know what we should perhaps have realised from the beginning – that the myth might flourish even more luxuriantly when it was freed from the limitation of historical fact and the human frailties of its surviving representatives. Feeling connected to the past, after all, is not at all the same as being connected with history… [People can keep] the habit of commemoration, while losing touch with the historic event that brought it into being. (p. 81)


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