Stephens, David: February was a good history month: recent reads across the Wide Brown Land

David Stephens*

‘February was a good history month: recent reads across the Wide Brown Land’, Honest History, 10 March 2021

HH confesses to slippage in keeping up with reading matter. We blame February holidays. Here are some short notes on recent items, some of them brought to our attention by readers, for which much thanks.

First, in a month where we Australians are always enjoined to remember the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 (250 dead), Peter Stanley, UNSW Canberra, reminded us in Pearls & Irritations that the Japanese landed in East Timor and the consequences of that:

Over the next two years, over 40,000 people – all civilians – died in East Timor alone. To put that figure in context, 40,000 Australians died in the entire Second World War, all but a hundred or so of them uniformed personnel – the civilians included the dead of Darwin and merchant sailors torpedoed off Australia’s coast.

This is the sort of view that is often lacking in Australian commemoration. War Memorial historian, Lachlan Grant, also helped broaden the perspective by talking to Susan Hill on ABC Nightlife about the Allied bombing of Dresden which, like the Timor story, makes our Darwin episode, while tragic for those killed, look small-time indeed. Four raids in February 1945 saw around 25 000 Germans killed in Dresden.

Meanwhile, Henry Reynolds has written another book, Truth-telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, and Tim Rowse reviewed it in Inside Story, along with Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru, about a killing there in the 1930s and what it says about settler-Indigenous relations.

The signatories of the Uluru Statement from the Heart [Rowse says] seek a “fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia” and a process of “truth-telling about our history.” Historians are well placed to answer that call and the publishers [of Reynolds and McKenna] have made sure, in their choices of endorsers, that each of these books is presented to the buyer as a response to Indigenous solicitation.

Rowse’s long review goes on to show that both books are much more than this, however. Notably, Rowse touches on the effects of the loss of Indigenous sovereignty, the deadly role of the Queensland Native Police, the need to re-examine the work of (‘distinguished’, white, male) ‘nation-builders’, the symbolism of Uluru, national sin and redemption, and other matters raised in the two books. Listen also: Henry Reynolds’ podcast on his book with Amy Mullins for 3RRR; Mark McKenna on ABC Conversations.

Perhaps both Reynolds and McKenna are well-placed to answer the question posed by James Robins in New Republic: ‘Can historians be traumatized by history?

The phenomenon of the historian traumatized by history remains unstudied and is not widely known. Yet anyone who has documented depravity knows the symptoms. After writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, a process that took me five years, I found it impossible to slip comfortably into sleep. All kinds of catastrophes visited me—still visit me—in that space before dreams: ugly visions, jarring scenes from my research. And I am not alone.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website.

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