David Stephens and Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book,

NewSouth Publishing, 2017, pp1-344, ISBN 9781742235264 (paperback)

‘Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been.’[1]

The Honest History Book, recently published by NewSouth, is a compelling, at times confronting and yet convincing collection of essays by some of Australia’s leading writers and historians.

The book makes a lucid, highly plausible case that Anzac is certainly part of our history. But only a part. Drawing on the theme of  “not only Anzac, but also” the essays seek to explore, dissect and ultimately downplay the nationalist ‘birth of a nation’ at Gallipoli myth, and suggest instead the broader, ‘honest’ historical reality of a much more expansive Australian history. The book therefore includes alternative and yet equally significant histories that have been swamped under and stifled (and occasionally silenced) by the khaki wash of Anzac. As the editors suggest, ‘…honest Australian history means both downsizing Anzac and upsizing non-Anzac.’[2] Anzac is thus reduced to a more proportionate place whilst other, often neglected aspects of our history are brought into a more prominent light. One brief example; in her chapter on women’s actions during the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917 and their involvement in post war humanitarian organisations, Joy Damousi moves the focus away from Anzac and onto women. As she convincingly argues, ‘Anzac has been a mostly male story; a nation that claims a mostly male story as its founding myth devalues women and their contribution to our history.’[3]

The book is divided into two parts. Part one ‘Putting Anzac in its place’ suggests the need for ‘a quieter, more useful version of Anzac.’[4] Here, Gallipoli is placed into the wider context of World War One; light is shed on the forgotten role of Australian humanitarian assistance given to survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the importance of the Anzac Legend to our (supposed) sense of national identity is analysed in terms of ebbs and flows rather than as a static constant over the last century. There is also a re-evaluation of the words, deeds and intentions of both Charles Bean (founder of the Legend) and Ataturk (purported later propagandist of the Anzac) and a revision of the treatment of returned Vietnamese veterans. The ways in which Anzac has been used by various Australian politicians and Prime Ministers is also carefully considered, together with the politics and indeed economics of remembrance, museum funding and the teaching of history in the classroom. Looking at Anzac through these different lenses switches the focus somewhat and offers instead a quieter, softer version of Anzac history.

David Stephens’ final chapter in part one confronts the notion of ‘Anzackery’ and the problem of the Anzac Legend. He thoughtfully suggests that Anzac and remembrance of our war dead should be mostly private, quiet and contemplative, as opposed to Anzackery which is brash and public with its marches, flags, speeches and tired, over used, sentimental sound bites. It is also drunk Anzac Cove tourism, the tacky memorabilia and knick-knacks, the wearing of the flag and a warping of nationalism and patriotism into bogan jingoism. It both simplifies our history by whitewashing the horrendousness of war, and by its prominence, contributes to other forms of forgetting too.

Indeed, what other nation celebrates its ‘national day’ by commemorating the ‘heroic’ landing of troops, which ended in a truly disastrous military expedition on foreign shores? As this important book shows, ‘lest we forget’ the hapless Anzacs ‘who gave birth to the nation’ on that fateful day in April 1915 actually enables Australia to do a lot more forgetting besides; forgetting that 1788 was the start of an illegal and genocidal invasion by the British, forgetting that Aboriginal Australians have their war hero’s too, forgetting that World War One actually bitterly divided the nation, forgetting that many returned diggers were damaged, deranged, disabled, disfigured or even excluded from post war society.

Part two, ‘Australian stories and silences’ seeks to upsize the ‘non-Anzac’ themes of Australian history and explores ideas of nationalism, identity and belonging above and beyond Anzac.  It is a rich and fascinating collection of chapters addressing indigenous history, frontier conflict, immigration and multiculturalism, egalitarianism, economics and our relationship with the environment. There are also chapters examining the long and curiously enduring relationship with the monarchy and the relatively weak hold of Republicanism and Australia’s diplomatic and military role as ‘deputy sheriff’ of the United States in the southern hemisphere since World War Two. Republicanism may be a dormant issue in 2017 but it will probably surface again at some point; the Australian/US relationship in Asia is, as I write this review, currently being played out over North Korea.

Some of these chapters read more like terrific opinion pieces than historical essays. That is certainly not a criticism, rather an observation. All are intelligent, nuanced, thought provoking and excellently executed. Others are moving and indeed, at times, point to some ‘inconvenient truths’ about our history. Larissa Behrendt’s chapter ‘Settlement or invasion? The coloniser’s quandary’ investigates why the word ‘invasion’ remains extremely contentious for some Australians today. We have still not dealt with the ‘invasion moment’ and its consequences and Behrendt suggests that unless we ‘bury the myth that Australia was ‘settled’ we can never become a country where all Australians see Indigenous history and culture as a key part of the nation’s history and culture.’[5] Until we do, the chasm between indigenous and non-indigenous will remain wide open. Likewise, Paul Daley’s chapter ‘Our most important war; the legacy of frontier conflict’ is a haunting essay on massacre, memory and forgetting with the reluctance of many Australians to accept the violence of the Frontier. The Australian War Memorial refuses to acknowledge the thousands of lives lost in the wars fought on Australian soil. To be sure, Aboriginal diggers who served overseas are commemorated at the AWM. Perhaps less acknowledged in our histories however are the ‘black Diggers’ who returned from World War One to find no glory in the Anzac Legend; there were no wages, no pensions, no promised settler blocks and many were not even permitted to enter returned servicemen’s clubs.

Other chapters explore further themes that are purportedly part of the Australian nation and character and those that have been wilfully forgotten – or at least ignored.  In her essay, Carmen Lawrence debunks the idea of the ‘fair go nation’ suggesting that egalitarianism as an Australian ‘value’ and a defining central strand of our national Australian story is merely a ‘comforting myth’ and unrepresentative of the reality of many people’s lives. Rather, it is politically confected to blind us to the growing inequalities of Australian society and the need to do anything about it. Gwenda Tavan’s chapter on immigration and multiculturalism is equally confronting in its examination of Australia as an immigrant nation, which refuses to accept that it is. But lets face it and if we are being honest, ‘Indigenous Australians excepted, all of us came here from somewhere else.’[6] This ‘migration amnesia’ has undermined the centrality and indeed importance of immigration and multiculturalism to our national story. For our history to be ‘honest’ and therefore representative of who we are today, Tavan suggests we need to re-imagine the Australian community because this re-imagining acknowledges ‘the inherent worth and interdependence of all our inhabitants, celebrates all our achievements and fully realises the potential of our multicultural society.’[7]

This book cohesively argues that Australia is ‘more than Anzac – and always has been’ with great aplomb.  Indeed, Australia and her national ‘values’ and identity have long been imagined, debated, contested, politically fashioned and re-invented. The convict colony became a gold mine, a working man’s paradise, the bushman’s arcadia, a ‘White Australia’ (actually Australia was never white, but hey), the nation was born on the shores of Gallipoli in it’s ‘Baptism of Fire’, a place to later ‘populate or perish’, the ten pound pom, the ‘New Australian’, assimilation, multiculturalism, Vietnamese boat people, stop the boats, Australian values today. Gah! Who we are has always been complex, multifaceted, contradictory, colourful and very messy. So much more messy than the Anzac Legend.

This is certainly a timely addition to the national conversation given the visa/immigration/Australian ‘values’ political debacle of last week and the nearness of Anzac Day 2017. It is a challenging, engaging, at times fist pumpingly “you have nailed what is so wrong with Australian politics and history” sort of book. It also has moments when political spines will tingle and moral goose bumps will bump. Some chapters might begin to make you feel uncomfortable about being Australian, whatever that may mean. For anyone wishing to know what ‘Australian values’ once were, are not now, are maybe now, and might be in the future, I would suggest they should read this meticulously researched and brilliantly argued book. The authors and the publisher should be applauded for bringing this book to life and enriching our national conversations further, above and beyond tired sound bites from an Empire-centric yesteryear. Suggested readership? Everyone. To not read this book would quite simply be ‘Un-Australian’.

Dr Catie Gilchrist

April 2017

[1] David Stephens & Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book, NewSouth Publishing, 2017, p 293
[2] David Stephens & Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book, NewSouth Publishing, 2017, p 288
[3] Joy Damousi, ‘Hidden by the myth: Women’s leadership in war and peace’ in David Stephens & Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book, NewSouth Publishing, 2017, p 213
[4] David Stephens & Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book, NewSouth Publishing, 2017, 8
[5] Larissa Behrendt, ‘Settlement or invasion? The coloniser’s quandary’ in David Stephens & Alison Broinowski (eds) The Honest History Book, NewSouth Publishing, 2017, pp 238-9
[6] Gwenda Tavan, ‘From those who’ve come across the seas; Immigration and multiculturalism’ in ibid, p 152
[7] Tavan, ibid, pp 152-53

 

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