Stephens, David: Should we softpedal on Gallipoli?

David Stephens

‘Should we softpedal on Gallipoli?’ Honest History, 4 February 2014

Andrew Nikolic is the Liberal member for Bass, Tasmania, and a former Brigadier. He commented on his website on remarks by our President, Professor Peter Stanley, about the Anzac tradition and the impending commemoration of World War I.

Peter Stanley’s remarks dated back to November last year but have been rerun a number of times since on ABC News 24. Ean Higgins quoted Mr Nikolic for an article in The Australian on 28 January this year.

Neither Mr Nikolic nor Mr Higgins sought comment from Honest History so this piece is our say. In line with our philosophy, it tries to be balanced and honest.

As we have said many times since we launched this project: ‘It is not a question of “either Anzac or (some alternative single myth)” but “not only Anzac but all of the other important threads of our history”‘.

Mr Nikolic’s website

Here is Mr Nikolic’s post in full:

How inappropriate that as our nation embarks on commemorating the Centenary of ANZAC, our national broadcaster gives prominence to those claiming that the story of Gallipoli is a “myth blown out of all proportion.”

A lengthy story aired on the ABC today (27 January 2014), contains extensive commentary from those claiming we should focus on the misogyny, racism, discrimination and exploitation at Gallipoli. Even an “excoriating anthem” by songwriter Eric Bogle is harnessed to question Gallipoli’s place in our history.

Instead of honouring more than a century of service and sacrifice by Australian men and women in uniform, the ABC honours the opinions of those who trawl through the history of 1915 Cairo brothels.

The ABC’s airing of this story is misguided, out of touch with the vast majority of Australians, and demonstrates a lack of situational awareness.

The wearing of black armbands started in Ancient Egypt, but there are clearly those in the ABC still wearing them, who are intent in nudging the historical pendulum from pride to guilt. Shame on them for diminishing the proud achievements of our troops over more than 100 years and for being so out of touch with mainstream public opinion.

We have a couple of comments. First, the piece that ran on ABC News 24 on 27 January was already ten weeks old. It was identical (we checked this with the original producer) to a piece that ran on 8 November 2013 on ABC 7.30 Canberra and had run on News 24 at least one other time since its original airing. This is the piece.

As to content, the story seems pretty balanced to us. It includes an interview with Ken Doolan, National President of the RSL, as well as with Peter Stanley. There is footage of a Dawn Service at Gallipoli and of the original Gallipoli landing. Author Paul Daley is also interviewed, stressing the importance of Federation in our history. The Cairo brothel riot, self-mutilation and the Surafend massacre are mentioned as is today’s booming Anzac souvenir industry. The historical incidents depicted are all well-documented in histories of the war and they are as much part of the story as is the heroism of soldiers.

The story in The Australian

This piece by Ean Higgins ran under the heading ‘Not the time to attack Gallipoli: MP’. It said that Mr Nikolic claimed the ABC story gave a ‘black armband’ view of Anzac and ‘honours the opinions of those who trawl through the history of 1915 Cairo brothels’.

The story went on to quote Mr Nikolic about the inappropriate timing of the story and noted the support for the story by an Islamic activist group seeking a boycott of Anzac Day by Muslims. The group’s spokesman said the story ‘supported the group’s view that the Gallipoli campaign, far from being a heroic effort, was a squalid exercise to help Britain seize part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire’.

Mr Higgins then quoted Peter Stanley from a speech last August, where he said Honest History was worried ‘that over the period 2014-19, Australians will be exposed to bellicose claptrap, to history that is essentially dishonest’. Mr Higgins also referred to ‘various historical claims of dubious behaviour by Anzac troops’.

Our comments on this are:

  • again, the footage has been around for nearly three months and the ‘timing’ (on all three occasions of broadcast) is a matter for the ABC;
  • the claims by the spokesman for the Islamic group about the nature of the Gallipoli campaign and the balance between myth and history in relation to it are his opinions but are quite supportable on the basis of evidence, as are other views;
  • Peter Stanley’s book Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, which takes a warts and all view of Diggers during World War I, jointly won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian history in 2011, awarded by a committee chaired by eminent historian, Professor Stuart Macintyre.

Our offer to Mr Nikolic

Honest History has sent this email to Mr Nikolic:

Andrew Nikolic MP

Noted your remarks reported in The Australian about Honest History and Gallipoli. Left a comment elsewhere on the site. Would love to start a dialogue with you about some of the issues raised in your remarks. We could put something on the website from you.

A good idea of the range of our views can be obtained from (under my name but workshopped); (delivered to an audience of senior military officers and others); (we respect serving men and women while often being sceptical of the causes for which they fought and the politicians who put them in harm’s way).

We are a broad church with a wide range of views, distinguished supporters and a growing following of historians and others.

We are keen to ensure that Australian history remains a many stranded, vigorously contested field and is not overwhelmed by Anzackery* in the next four years.


David Stephens
Honest History

* Anzackery: term originally coined by Geoffrey Serle, biographer of John Monash, which we define as disproportionate hyperinflation of the Anzac tradition; a good example is Colonel Arthur Burke’s spiel The Spirit of Anzac.

We twice repeated on Mr Nikolic’s Facebook page the offer to give him space on our website but our posts were removed on 3 February and we were blocked from making any further posts. We repeated this offer to Mr Nikolic’s office, suggesting he should put his views in a forum where those he criticised in his 27 January statement had an opportunity to respond. We have not heard from Mr Nikolic. Meanwhile, Mark Day in The Australian mentioned the incident.

Honest History also sent an email to Ean Higgins offering to provide him with further information about our project and drawing his attention to the range of views among our supporters and on our website. We have heard nothing from Mr Higgins.

David Stephens

(updated 4 February 2014)

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