The Honest History Book

The Honest History Book


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In Australia’s rush to commemorate all things Anzac, have we lost our ability to look beyond war as the central pillar of Australia’s history and identity? The passionate historians of the Honest History group argue that while war has been important to Australia – mostly for its impact on our citizens and our ideas of nationhood – we must question the stories we tell ourselves about our history. We must separate myth from reality – and to do that we need to reassess the historical evidence surrounding military myths.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742235264
Publisher: UNSW Press
Publication date: 07/01/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dr Alison Broinowski is an academic, journalist, writer and former diplomat, formerly posted to Japan, the Philippines, Korea and the Australian Mission to the UN in New York. Her books include Howard’s War (2003) and Allied and Addicted (2007). Dr David Stephens is editor of Honest History. A political scientist with qualifications in public law, he is a former public servant and government consultant, and has published widely in journals and the wider media.

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The Honest History Book

By David Stephens, Alison Broinowski

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2017 David Stephens and Alison Broinowski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-278-1




'History means interpretation', said EH Carr, and he was right. The discipline of history is a contest between interpretations. Honest history – the concept – is interpretation robustly supported by evidence. History is distinguished from myth by the strength of the evidence supporting the interpretation. Dishonest history is characterised by tendentious interpretation or inadequate evidence. All historians select evidence. It is how they select it that matters, not the fact that they do.

The study of history involves choosing not just evidence but also subject matter. Recently in Australia there has been a sharp focus on military history, specifically the centenary of the Gallipoli landing – the invasion of the Ottoman Empire – in 1915 and of World War I as a whole. The Anzac centenary has been expensive: the commemoration industry has become shy about publicising figures but an overall amount of $A600 million seems about right. Yet many Australians and some people overseas have been puzzled by our fixation on military exploits. The novelist and historian Thomas Keneally said in 2014 that 'there needs to be a certain amount of de-mythologising' about Gallipoli and associated events. One way of doing this would be to attack the 'Anzac legend' head on. There are, however, more intelligent and inclusive options. The Honest History coalition has always recognised that war is important in our history – not so much because of what Australians have done in war but because of what war has done to Australia, to Australians and to others – but so are many other events and influences. Our mantra has been 'Not only Anzac but also' – the 'also' being shorthand for all the non-Anzac influences.

Some people believe the Australian nation was born on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915. But focusing on that single foundation moment oversimplifies Australia's history and constrains its identity. Honest History – the coalition – has argued instead for a rebalanced view of Australian history, where Anzac is reduced to a proportionate place and other influences are recognised. Downsizing Anzac need not mean doing away with Anzac altogether (as we shall see inchapter 9 of this book), but does mean winding back its excesses. Geoffrey Serle, historian and biographer of Sir John Monash, coined the term 'Anzackery' in 1967 to apply to the sentimental, jingoistic commemoration of Anzac. When Serle wrote, Anzackery seemed to be fading away, but it has come back, stronger, more sentimental and just as jingoistic, in the last 25 years. Finally, in 2016 the word 'Anzackery' appeared in a dictionary: the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary defines it as '[t]he promotion of the Anzac legend in ways that are perceived to be excessive or misguided'. The definition is significant because it marks an analytical rather than a sacralised take on the Anzac legend.

Despite the recognition of Anzackery – the extreme version of the legend – there has still been considerable wariness about criticising Anzac itself. The Honest History coalition has responded by pointing to the words on the King's Penny (or Dead Man's Penny) a grateful King George V sent to bereaved families after World War I: 'He Died for Freedom and Honour'. Honest History has always felt this included the freedom to have dissenting views about Anzac, and that exercising this freedom was not unpatriotic. Still, as historian Peter Cochrane wrote in 2015, 'never has the Anzac tradition been more popular and yet never have its defenders been more chauvinistic, bellicose and intolerant of other viewpoints'.

Some people blame governments for imposing a particular view of Anzac. Yet this top-down version of how historical myth takes hold is too simple. Asked in 2013 why the Australian government was putting so much effort into military commemoration, a senior official responded, 'It's what the bogans want'. Governments were simply responding to public demand, triggered by nostalgia or pseudo-spiritual longing or simply a desire for entertainment. One could add to this two-way explanation a version of Parkinson's law: interpretations of history, some of them dishonest because they lack or misuse evidence – they are really just myths – expand to fill the space available, particularly if there is no contest from alternative interpretations.

When a single thread of our nation's story is teased out to excess, it strangles the other threads. Australian history is social and cultural, political and economic, religious and anthropological, archaeological and scientific, as well as military. It is made by women, men, individuals, families, artists, philosophers, scientists, businesspeople, public servants, soldiers and politicians. We carry the imprint of the First Australians; the builders of the CSIRO, the Sydney Opera House and the Snowy scheme; the pioneers of the bush frontier in the 19th century and the urban frontier in the 1950s and 1960s; and 'boat people', whether convicts, post-war 'ten pound Poms' and 'New Australians' or asylum seekers. Australian history is to the credit – and discredit – of all of us, not just our Diggers.

We established the Honest History coalition and website ( in 2013 because we were concerned that the forthcoming Anzac centenary would unbalance Australians' appreciation of their history, emphasising the military parts at the expense of the rest. It was just as important to us in the coalition to highlight other strands of Australian history as it was to critique the received view of Anzac. The 'Themes' list on our website makes this clear. There is 'Anzac analysed' and 'Australia's war history', but there are also in our database hundreds of collected and commissioned items tagged 'The land we live in' (environmental history), 'People like us' (social history), 'Ruling ourselves' (political history), 'The sweat of our brows' (economic history), 'Learning and improving' (education, science and technology), 'Expressing ourselves' (cultural history) and 'Getting on with the world' (defence and international relations), as well as material on 'Using and abusing history' and 'Teaching history'. Honest History believes the best way of coming to terms with Anzac – and of countering its extreme version, Anzackery – is to display the richness of our broad national tapestry, of which khaki is but one strand.

Inevitably, this book (and our website) analyses the work of the commemoration industry located in such institutions as the Australian War Memorial, the Commonwealth Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) and their state equivalents. We do not personally attack the people who work in these places. They are often very good at what they do. Yet with some exceptions, such as the Love and Sorrow exhibition at the Melbourne Museum and the new work on the World War I repatriation files, commemoration in 2016–17 focuses on much the same stories as it has for the last century. Politicians and senior officials do this, too. It is surely a sign of arrested development in a nation that its prime minister – talking of 'the glorious dead' – and the head of its premier commemorative institution – saying all our soldiers have fought for 'righteousness and liberty' – can still spout the same glib commemoration- speak that was common for warmongering politicians and bloodthirsty clergymen a century ago.

The Honest History coalition and the politics of history

The Honest History coalition has flourished as commemoration of the Anzac centenary has peaked and faded since 2014. We have gathered distinguished supporters including leading historians, Twitter followers, Facebook 'likes', newsletter recipients and thousands of visitors to our website. (Of course, our supporters do not agree on every point, nor do the authors of this book. All our supporters and all our authors are responsible for their own views.) We have spoken to many groups and schools, and made media appearances. Honest History's Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial has been downloaded more than 1700 times. Those who hold alternative views of history – like 'Not only Anzac but also' – need to speak up if they are to have an impact. There is a politics of history as well as a history of politics. People who differ from the Anzac-weighted received view have sometimes let themselves be shouted down. 'We agree with what you're saying', we have been told occasionally, 'but we've been afraid of being thought disloyal or unpatriotic'. So Honest History has been an advocacy group – for contestability in history, for balance and for honesty, and against cant, humbug and spin. As author Don Watson wrote in 2016, 'That's the thing about spin – or what goes under the banner today of "communications" – you begin to believe your own bullshit. Spin is the stuff that myths are made of'. Bullshit flows relentlessly to fill the space available. Myths build Anzac into Anzackery, overshadowing the many other parts of our history that deserve examination and, sometimes, celebration.

Do we still have in 2016–17 the degree of bellicosity, chauvinism and intolerance Peter Cochrane detected in 2015? There is some evidence of the passing of 'Peak Anzac' in the falling numbers at 'marquee' events such as the Anzac services in Canberra and at Anzac Cove, the half-hearted efforts of the commemoration industry to promote variations such as 'the century of [defence force] service', dwindling audiences for much- hyped television shows, the low-key centenary of the horror of Fromelles-Pozières, and the rather shambolic events in August 2016 marking Australia's Vietnam involvement. DVA has told travel agents about official arrangements for overseas commemoration in 2017–18 but there are far fewer ceremonies planned than appeared likely in the centenary scoping studies back in 2010–12.

This tailing-off indicates that nothing else quite measures up to the centenary of Australians and New Zealanders splashing ashore on 25 April 1915. It also provides an opening for the more balanced version of Australian history that Honest History advocates, one that gives appropriate weight to our war history but also to the other influences that make Australia what it is. 'Commemoration fatigue' about the Great War need not mean ditching Australian history altogether until the next big military history show, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Rather, it gives Australians some breathing space to get military things in perspective, to appreciate not just Anzac but also lots of other strands of our history, khaki and all the colours of the rainbow. We might even be able to inoculate ourselves and our children against making 2020 too big an extravaganza. War commemoration, like war itself, has lessons for those who are prepared to learn them. One of the contributors to this book, journalist and author Paul Daley, has predicted that 'with the end of the centenary celebrations of the first world war in 2018 ... Anzac could assume a more low-key, contextual place in popular Australian consciousness'. We hope Daley's prediction comes to pass and we hope this book helps that happen.

Honest History: this book

This book downsizes Anzac by giving it context. It makes Anzac relatively less important by deflating it and by making other strands of our history more important. Honest History's mantra, 'Not only Anzac but also', leads us to criticise the Anzac-centric received view of Australian history – particularly when it spills over into Anzackery – while leaving room for a quieter, more useful version of Anzac. The book explores some non-khaki strands of Australian history – the influences that have helped produce modern Australia – as well as some influences that have not been as prominent as they should have been.

Chapters 2 to 9 form Part 1 of the book, under the heading 'Putting Anzac in its place'. Chapters 2 and 3 show in different ways how parochial and Australia-centric has been our appreciation of war, with World War I as an example. Chapter 2 by Douglas Newton puts Australia's Great War into perspective, using evidence of the war's global dimensions and effects. It also looks at the secret deals struck during the war by the Allied Powers – deals that prolonged the war. Chapter 3 from Vicken Babkenian and Judith Crispin tells the story of the Armenians, a people caught up in the Great War, the evidence of whose fate was known at the time by some Australians – who gave humanitarian assistance to displaced Armenians – but has been largely ignored since.

The next six chapters deal in different ways with the myths and misperceptions surrounding Anzac. Carolyn Holbrook's chapter 4 shows how the place of the Anzac legend in Australian identity has not been constant – as many of today's Australians assume – but has waxed and waned over a century. The legend's future depends on the capacity of our children for critical thinking. Chapter 5 from Michael Piggott looks at a founder of the Anzac legend, Charles Bean, and his continuing influence on how Anzac is presented, particularly by the Australian War Memorial. Piggott finds that the 'received Bean' distorts the man's views and glosses over the roles played by others.

Another Anzac-related myth is that soldiers who went to Vietnam were widely ostracised by the Returned and Services League when they came home, and were ill-served by governments. Chapter 6 by Mark Dapin shows the picture is more complicated than this and considers what the Anzac legend meant for these men. Chapter 7 from David Stephens and Burçin Çakir is about a myth Australia shares with Turkey. The history of the supposed Atatürk words of 1934 ('Those heroes that shed their blood ...') shows how myth becomes mistaken for history. There is no firm evidence that Atatürk ever said or wrote the words.

Bipartisanship about Anzac has helped preserve the myth. Frank Bongiorno'schapter 8 discusses how and why politicians have become so fond of the Anzac legend, whether they can escape its influence, and the political benefits and costs of Anzac. David Stephens' chapter 9 looks at Anzackery, the extreme version of Anzac, one often promoted by politicians. The chapter compares Anzackery with a quieter, more contemplative Anzac ideal, and asks whether a useful Anzac can and should survive.

Putting Anzac in its place also requires telling evidence-based stories about other parts of our history. Downsizing Anzac requires upsizing non-Anzac. Rather than overemphasise single factors, we need to look for a larger, often messier set of influences on our history, a mix that reflects the complexity of Australia today. Chapters 10 to 19 come under the heading 'Australian stories and silences'. These chapters are about the non-war influences on Australian history, some more discrepancies between myth and reality, and the stories of which we do not hear enough.

In chapter 10, Rebecca Jones looks at climate, the environment and natural disasters. She shows how natural events are not just backdrops but players, shaping us as we shape them. Then, in chapter 11, Gwenda Tavan discusses how understating immigration in our national story has reinforced the dominance of a narrow, Anglo-nativist view of Australia in which the so-called 'Anzac legend' is central. This has perpetuated a tension between Australian nationalist ideals and our multicultural, settler-state reality. In chapter 12, Stuart Macintyre reminds us of the influence of bust and boom – depression and prosperity – on Australia. The boom of the last quarter-century has made us wary of economic reform, even though the benefits of the boom have not been spread equitably. (These issues have been among those highlighted during 2016 by the return of Pauline Hanson, the Brexit vote and related movements in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.)

Carmen Lawrence's chapter 13 and Peter Stanley's chapter 14 then consider the divergence between Australia's egalitarian ideal and recent reality. Lawrence finds that Australian attitudes to equality are pretty much the same as the rest of the world's, and that, like the rest of the world, we are actually becoming less and less equal on key measures. Stanley compares the longstanding Australian military version of equality, built around 'mateship', with our more recent lionising of recipients of the Victoria Cross and of celebrity general Sir John Monash.


Excerpted from The Honest History Book by David Stephens, Alison Broinowski. Copyright © 2017 David Stephens and Alison Broinowski. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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