Lest You Forget: memory and Australian nationalism in a global era

With the exception of sport, Australians don’t mind losing.

Losing entire wars of course interrupts the flow of the Australian narrative: the gradual evolution of a prosperous, democratic society far from the land of its modern origins now charting its own course through the new global dispositions of the twenty-first century.  Losing battles on the other hand, is acceptable as long as the outcome is assured.

This then is one of the strongest leitmotifs within Australian collective memory: triumph over adversity.  As with most national narratives that bind communities together there is truth in these tales.  The establishment of penal colonies so far from Britain was an impressive technical achievement.  The transformation of theses despotic colonies into democratic polities was an impressive political one.  The consolidation of these societies in the face of environmental hardship was an economic and social one.

But this narrative of the past leads to one of the creative tensions within Australian nationalism: that is that Australians are most comfortable with a view of themselves as ultimately victorious victims.  Thus in recounting tales of Australia’s historical development, victimhood is emphasised, whilst victory is downplayed.  Australian collective memory is most comfortable with itself when Australians are portrayed as victims of an unjust penal system, or victims of a harsh environment, or victims of British military incompetence.

That last source of victimhood dominates the collective memory of the Great War.  Gallipoli is the prime example, but actions at Fromelles, Pozieres and Zonnebeke all fit into the same narrative arc.  Whatever bravery or resignation individuals summoned in the moment of battle, poor planning drastically reduced their chances of survival.  In the collective memory, those individuals are no longer volunteer citizen-soldiers renowned for their fighting qualities, but rather have become victims divorced from the wider strategic contexts that brought about their deaths.

This view of the Great War and the sense of victimhood occasioned by it is not unique to Australia of course.  It was evident early on when collective understandings of the conflict were being established, as in Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The General’:

“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack/ As they marched up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Luddendorf’s notion of the British soldiers as “lions led by donkeys” clearly struck a chord.  Collective criticism of the war grew until it became shorn of its original meaning, ‘the Great War for Civilisation’, until it became first ‘the Great War’ and then, when it could no longer be conceived as ‘the War to end all wars’, merely the first in a series of epoch defining conflicts.  Importantly it became remembered as a tragedy, not in the sense of a disaster that could be foreseen but not prevented, but rather in the sense that it involved a lot of victims.  Without the redeeming triumph over evil that could so easily be read into narratives about the Second World War, the collective memory of the Great War focused on victims rather than victory.

This memory of the Great War served important historical and political purposes.  Firstly it helped create important ideological foundations for later European integration.  One important source of European commonality, ran the narrative, was that Europeans were all victims of war.  And after all the history wars, les guerres de memoires and the vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the memory of the Great War was free from guilt and blame as all participants, especially the dead, were victims of war.  Secondly, successive crises within the European Union have revived the memory of the Great War and caused it to be patched up and sent back to the front line for active service once more in the cause of public diplomacy.  This is where the forthcoming centenary commemorations – coordinated in European capitals – will serve a wider political purpose and once again draw Australia in.

Australia has experienced its own revival in Great War commemoration and has arrived at a similar jumping off point to its European counterparts but for somewhat different reasons.  Reasons for the growth in interest in the Great War and the national values that it allegedly helped forge are manifold.  However, at the political level Anzac has been the form of identity politics that eventually came to dominate potential rivals as Australia transitioned into a global era.  Republicanism was defeated decisively in 1999.  An attempt to generate a narrative of Australian distinctiveness around memory of Federation in 1901 was too bloodless – literally and metaphorically – to provide the requisite sense of drama to inspire popular interest.  Reconciliation – Australia’s own vergangenheitsbewalitgung – was too unsettling to remain in the popular consciousness for long.

Indeed the latter may have helped contribute to the popularity of Anzac.  Reconciliation provided an alterative narrative of Australian history whereby Australians were no longer victims, but perpetrators.  Politically this was unacceptable to the government of the day, and energy and resources were diverted into wartime commemorative services.  Reconciliation continued only in vestigial form after 2001, leaving the field to Anzac.

So Australians’ views of themselves as victims sits very well with the European notion of victimhood as we approach the centenary of the Great War.  Or it does up to a point, for the narrative of victimhood has its limits.  In 2014 the commemorative spotlight is likely to fall upon Belgium with the memory of occupation and atrocities to be negotiated.  In 2015 Australia and New Zealand will take centre stage as victims of war, although how the Armenian genocide might be marked diplomatically remains to be seen.  In 2016 and 2017 all nations can commemorate victimhood.  But 2018, the centenary of ‘the year of victory’ (and defeat), will upset this narrative.

In 1918, the Allied and Associated Powers won too decisively for contemporary Australian tastes.  However much understandings of the Great War and the peace that followed blurred the distinction between victory and defeat, the Treaty of Versailles was clear that Germany not only lost, but also started the war in the first place.  Article 231 has been blamed for many things, including the Second World War.  However, so complete a victory – and so flawed a peace – will be difficult to commemorate.  Australians and their government will avoid this difficult topic and concentrate on the defence of Villers-Bretonneux and its subsequent reconstruction during the centenary year of 2018 in addition to a return to the narrative of Australian fighting skill, also evident in the commemoration of the battles of 1918.

Victims are absolved of responsibility.  This is the risk of commemorating victimhood.  Such commemoration does not provide those interested with ways to understand the world around them in any profound way.  It merely provides a set of cues about exemplary national behavior: how to respond to the long-ago deaths of distant relations or complete strangers when surrounded by hundreds or thousands of co-nationals and to receive approval from those in positions of responsibility.

Given the structures of international relations and the dynamics of political crisis and public diplomacy, it is hard to see any other way in which the Great War can be commemorated. But it can de remembered differently.  Shifting attention from victimhood to the structures and decisions that helped cause the deaths of these individuals, can and should be an important part of the commemorative activities.  Lest we forget.

Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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