The former PM displayed his ignorance of history in sketching the causes of the Great War. Then again, the truth would have hobbled his effort to remake Australia’s national identity in accordance with his eccentric view of both our history and our future
The determination of the Council of the Australian War Memorial to enshrine Paul Keating as the spokesman for Australia’s commemoration of the Great War is a grave mistake. The scheme threatens to completely derail the upcoming Gallipoli centenary and other notable centenaries of the war. Its first stage involved a highly controversial decision taken in camera by the Council with no public consultation or discussion. This required the removal of long-standing inscriptions on the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier (including an assurance that the unidentified dead are “Known unto God”), and their replacement with words from a speech given by Keating in 1993 at the height of the History Wars, when he was trying to remake Australia’s national identity by marginalising Gallipoli and the Great War.
He was also trying to marginalise God. The original words were those of Rudyard Kipling, whose son John had died aged just eighteen in the First World War, and they appear on the headstones of most of the 211,996 Commonwealth soldiers who died in anonymity. They offer a vital assurance for those who lost loved ones in the war. As Miranda Devine has observed, they were inscribed at the War Memorial at the suggestion of Geoffrey Blainey when he joined the Council. Blainey, a vital voice for reason and tradition in the History Wars, was alert to the fact that the remains interred at the Memorial in 1993 belonged to a soldier who had previously been buried in hallowed ground at Villers-Bretonneux under a headstone that bore the inscription: “An Australian soldier of the Great War, known unto God”. Despite this, his remains had been moved to Canberra and made the centrepiece of what was intended to be a deliberately secularist display, and even after the traditional words were re-inscribed on this soldier’s grave they were routinely covered up by wreaths, a practice that only stopped after Blainey had a formal motion carried by the Council prohibiting it.
But the issue was still not resolved. As Devine observes, “Who would think that three little words could cause so much trouble?” but of course they represented a traditional form of remembrance and a sense of the transcendent that is anathema to the secular Left. Consequently, in a provocative resumption of the History Wars, the opportunity was taken as part of the 2013 Remembrance Day ceremony to fully secularise the memorial by obliterating the words altogether, using the occasion of Keating’s speech as a pretext. It was only when news of this intention leaked out that a “compromise” was arranged that ensures that the reference to God is retained (for now!) but that Keating’s impenetrable assertion that “He is one of them, and he is all of us” is now inscribed to bemuse visitors for eternity.
The second stage in this scheme to elevate Keating to the status of elder statesman of the Great War commemorations was the invitation for him to deliver the keynote address at the 2013 Remembrance Day ceremony. Once again this was a misstep. The speech revealed that his understanding of the war and his view of the Anzac tradition are extremely superficial, partisan, and largely regurgitated the nihilist view that the conflict was pointless and futile, which has long been the default ideological position of the Left. His dismissal of the war as the lamentable product of European tribalism, ethnic atavism, nationalism and racism in which Australia had no stake is particularly inane, given that it arose from deeply-rooted and irreconcilable conflicts between the greatest economic and military powers in the world, with profound implications for Australia. Contrary to Keating’s facile, unhistorical ramblings, the Anzacs who sacrificed their lives or their health in battle did so for a great cause. To pretend otherwise is to betray their memory.
Keating’s speech is an impressionistic pastiche of clichés, generalisations and historical inaccuracies derived from the nihilist interpretation, held together by a faux moral indignation, and driven by a hatred of the British, the British Empire, and Europe. He begins with the routine nihilist condemnation of the political and military leadership in Europe for ineptitude and lack of foresight about the implications of industrial warfare. He then makes some opaque observations about the origins of trench warfare on the Western Front, before getting onto his main point: the betrayal of the new nation of Australia by the “Old Country”, and, more generally, the mass betrayal of young men by older men in authority.
Consequently, in accordance with this idée fixe, Keating bemoans how “the generals fell back on … the policy of exhaustion and [how] into this deadly crevice they fed their heroic, young obedient populations”. According to Keating, the Anzacs were naifs, “cannon fodder [and] young innocents who had no choice”, but who were “dragooned en masse into military enterprises”. This last assertion reflects Keating’s false belief that the armies were based on “mass conscription”, when in fact neither Australia nor South Africa introduced conscription and Britain only resorted to it in January 1916. Indeed, Australia was able to rely on volunteers and over 420,000 served in the military in the Great War with more than 330,000 serving overseas.
Nevertheless, Keating is driven by his own prejudices to portray this vast force of volunteers as nothing more than naive victims of the nefarious British, who took these young Australians, full of “independence, mateship … ingenuity [and] latent nobility”, and stuffed them into the “deadly crevice”. There, he insists, their lives were wasted in “military campaigns [that] were shockingly flawed and incompetently executed”. These two points create a fatal tension in Keating’s argument because, on the one hand, he feels obliged to commend the Anzacs for their admirable qualities, while on the other hand, he has nothing but contempt for the war in which they volunteered to fight and in which so many sacrificed their lives.
Keating’s language is quite histrionic. He regards the war as a “cauldron of destruction”, an “Armageddon”, and a “holocaust” committed in a wilful fashion by the ruling classes of Europe driven by base and primitive motives. Their continent was “a mire”, “a quagmire”, rampant with “notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism”, “racial hatred and contempt”, “ethnic stigmatisation and social stratification”, and “the virulent … disease of cultural nationalism and ethnic atavism”. It is apparently these contemptible maladies that Keating believes caused the war; he makes no mention of the massive political, economic, demographic and ideological forces that were operating at the time and that historians have long considered the real root causes of the war. Rather, he views the causes of the war solely in terms of the social processes of prejudice, marginalisation and exclusion, and it is against these that his intense indignation is directed, with a obsessiveness that appears to betray a deeply rooted personal resentment.
The nihilist interpretation of the war underlying Keating’s view has long been dominant on the Left, and has its roots in V.I. Lenin’s communist polemic Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917). According to this, the conflict was a civil war between capitalist nations struggling to protect or extend their imperialist holdings, and it had no relevance to the working classes, who should have stayed out of it. This view was promoted by the Comintern and Cominform, which sought to manipulate the powerful pacifist movements in the West during the inter-war years and the Cold War. According to this propaganda, liberal democracy and capitalism are inherently fascist and warlike, while communism alone was dedicated to peace. Consequently, the Great War has come to be portrayed as the inevitable product of an imperialist, racist and patriarchal civilisation, which should have been avoided, ultimately achieved nothing, and ensured that further wars would occur among the capitalist powers. In Keating’s words, it was “a war devoid of any virtue [that merely] led to a second conflagration”.
The nihilist view has penetrated deeply into popular culture, from where Keating possibly assimilated it—adding his own particularly intense anti-British attitude. It is now often dismissed by historians as the “Blackadder” version of the war, named after the famous television series. According to this satirical view, the war was fought, as the doomed Captain Edmund Blackadder put it, so that General Haig could “move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin”. Such black humour has its roots in the anti-war propaganda of the 1960s, and especially in Joan Littlewood’s highly successful play and film Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), which tells the tale of the war in an absurdist fashion, as a music hall performance, the film ending with an aerial shot of an immense field containing 16,000 white crosses. The “historical adviser” to Littlewood, Raymond Fletcher, later conceded that Oh! What a Lovely War was “one part me, one part [the military historian] Liddell Hart, the rest Lenin”, a claim that was literally true, as Fletcher (a Labour MP from 1964 to 1983) was later revealed to have been a long-term Soviet agent, as Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin point out in The Mitrokhin Archive (2000). The approach subsequently influenced such Australian films and television series as The Lighthorsemen, Gallipoli and ANZACs. It gained further traction with Pat Barker’s enormously successful Regeneration trilogy of novels (1991–95), which culminates with the futile death of its noble protagonists only days before the end of the war, along with an entire ward of wounded soldiers screaming out in pain, “It’s not worth it, it’s not worth it”.
In fact, this nihilist view of the war is quite unhistorical, and however horrific the war may have been, it was worth it. It was waged over issues of primal importance that couldn’t be ignored, even by a new nation in the antipodes. Indeed, it was fought to defend the emerging liberal democracies from a massive onslaught of autocratic and authoritarian power that would have fundamentally redirected the trajectory of modern history if Germany had been victorious. In was in deadly combat with this titanic threat that the Anzacs fought and so many sacrificed their lives and health. It is Keating’s ultimate betrayal of their memory that he failed to comprehend and commemorate the true nature and stature of this world-historical struggle but chose instead, in accordance with the nihilist perspective, to portray the Anzacs as noble dupes and innocents, sacrificed as “cannon fodder” by the British ruling class in a futile and unnecessary war.
As Keating should know, the debate about the origins of the Great War is embedded within a broader discourse about the course of German history over the past two centuries. This is focused on what is called the Sonderweg (“special path”) thesis about German exceptionalism, a situation that led inevitably, so the thesis maintains, to conflict between Germany and the other great powers. In the decades leading up to the war the Sonderweg notion was very influential and encouraged the belief that Germany had a special destiny, finding a “Third Way” to progress into the modern age that would avoid the pitfalls of liberal democracy in Britain and France, and reactionary autocracy in Russia. After the Second World War a negative version emerged, which argued that Germany’s exceptionalism had proven toxic and had failed to provide a viable path forward, but had instead come to fruition with the rise of Nazism.
There are two issues arising from this pivotal historiographical debate that are relevant to any discussion about the origins and nature of the Great War. First, the German nation was created through a Prussian-led military revolution from above that was completed in 1871, and this largely marginalised liberalism and stifled a viable middle class that otherwise would have contested political power, as it had done in Britain, France and America. This meant that while the modernising processes of industrialisation and capitalism proceeded at an accelerated pace throughout a newly unified Germany, the political system and many of the social and cultural structures remained largely in a pre-modern condition, entrenching long-standing feudal, aristocratic and anti-democratic values and institutions. As the German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler explained in The American Historical Review (February 1983), this produced a pre-war regime characterised by
a penchant for authoritarian politics; a hostility toward democracy in the educational and party system; the influence of pre-industrial leadership groups, values and ideas; the tenacity of German state ideology; the myth of the bureaucracy; the superimposition of caste tendencies and class distinctions; and the manipulation of political anti-Semitism.
In this fashion, Germany developed as a nation that was simultaneously unexcelled in industrial productivity while also being committed to authoritarianism, militarism and imperialistic posturing on a grand scale. A massive continental-scale conflict was inevitable. Wehler is, unsurprisingly, a prominent proponent of the view that the outbreak of the Great War was the sole responsibility of the Kaiser and his regime.
The peculiar role of the state in modern German history is the second relevant issue. As the great German scholar Ernst Troeltsch pointed out in his famous essay “Natural Law and Humanity in World History” (1922), there was an essential “difference between the German system of ideas in politics, history and ethics, and that of Western Europe and America”. At the heart of this difference was a fundamental conflict over the nature of the state and the individual, and the relationship that should exist between them. In essence, liberalism had been defeated in the Second Reich and consequently Germany entered the twentieth century with a spiritualised view of the state as the highest good, embodied in an authoritarian leader who was owed unquestioning obedience, and an ingrained expectation that the individual existed only to serve the glorification of the state and its leader.
Kaiser Wilhelm II and the ruling elite were only too happy to be the vehicle for the apotheosis of the German state through a program of imperialistic expansion, within Europe and overseas. This long-developing threat crystallised in the events of July and August 1914 and had to be confronted, with Australia having no choice but to enter the war once Great Britain was committed to military intervention after Germany invaded neutral Belgium. The need to see the task through became obvious as the unrestrained and brutal nature of the German style of warfare immediately became clear with such acts as the wanton destruction of Louvain and the deliberate terror inflicted on the civilian Belgian population.
Keating’s insistence in his speech that “foresight and statecraft” should have resolved such issues is laughable, given the absolutely unacceptable demands that Germany was making on the other European nations, the furious momentum of its industrial and military development, and its unbridled lust for empire. The Kaiser’s regime governed the largest industrial economy on earth, and they had set out to create the most powerful army and the second most powerful navy in the world. By 1914 they had succeeded. There was never the slightest suggestion that these forces were not to be used by the regime to achieve its aims. Above all, they were committed to using these forces to implement their Weltpolitik, a comprehensive policy designed to liberate Germany from the constraints of its central European homeland by creating a German empire that would eventually dominate the world.
The breathtaking extent of the territorial ambitions of the Second Reich did not become clear until the 1960s, when it was revealed by the exhaustive archival research and analysis initiated by the German historian Fritz Fischer and pursued by many other scholars since. In 1961 Fischer published Griff nach der Weltmacht (“Grab for World Power”, an explicit title that was blandly translated as Germany’s Aims in the First World War, 1967). This book was a bombshell. As historians noted at the time, Fischer’s work rendered obsolete all previous views about the origins and course of the war. And as the Australian historian and expert on Fischer’s work, John Moses, put it in The Politics of Illusion (1975), “No serious German historian today can venture to pit himself against the evidence compiled by the Fischer school”, a view echoed by Philip Bobbitt in The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (2002), where he confirmed that after Fischer it became “impossible to maintain” the nihilist position that the Great War had been a “ghastly mistake” rather than the consequence of German policy.
If he was going to deliver a competent speech on Remembrance Day, Keating should have known about all this. It is, after all, one of the most famous historiographical revolutions of modern times—indeed Fischer is regarded by many as one of the most important historians of the twentieth century. The results of his work should be known to anyone who, like Keating, is privileged to be provided with a public platform from which to propound their views about the Great War. Even if it is to be rejected (and Fischer has his critics), his work revealed fundamental facts about that epochal conflict that must be addressed. Regrettably, there is no indication that Keating is even aware of Fischer’s discoveries; much less that he comprehends their meaning or their implications for Australia.
One of the key documents uncovered by Fischer is the now infamous “September Program”, which contains a list of war aims compiled by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in September 1914. Read together with other documents from the period, a clear picture emerges of the future that the Second Reich intended to impose upon the world once a German victory had been achieved. At the core of this vision for a post-war Teutonic world was Mitteleuropa, a massively expanded Reich, five times the size of present-day Germany and encompassing all of Central and Eastern Europe.
Indeed, the whole world was to be remade to accommodate the new Reich. In the east, Poland was to be annexed, Russia was to be pushed back to borders that had last applied in the seventeenth century, while Austria-Hungary was to be given Romania, Bessarabia and the Ukraine, with the ultimate goal being a Reich-controlled land-bridge stretching across Russia and the Ukraine to the Caucasus with its rich oil fields (an objective to which Germany returned under Hitler). To the north, Belgium and the Netherlands were to be reduced to powerless satellite status hosting German military and naval bases in a strategically dominant position just across the English Channel, while it was expected that the Scandinavian nations would eagerly attach themselves to this new Reich. In the west, France was to be eliminated as a major power, permanently crippled by colossal indemnity payments, and deprived of vital regions including the major steel-producing area of Longwy-Briey, the border areas between Belfort and Verdun, including their massive fortresses, and a coastal strip between Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer, which would provide further harbour facilities for the German Imperial Navy as it policed the sea lanes of the world on behalf of the new super-Reich.
Across the Channel, it was planned that Britain would forfeit its navy and also be crippled by massive indemnities. Above all, it would lose its empire, with India being accommodated within the Reich via railway networks stretching from Europe through the Middle East and Iran. In Africa, Britain’s colonies, along with those of the other defeated powers, were to be absorbed into Mittelafrika, a colossal new empire dominating sub-Saharan Africa. This involved the seizure of Angola, northern Mozambique, the Belgian Congo, Dahomey, large parts of the Sudan, Nigeria, and ultimately South Africa. Perhaps Keating might have familiarised himself with the potentially horrendous implications of this plan by consulting works like Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler by Shelley Baranowski (2010), which detail the depredations of German colonists and the military in south-western Africa before the Great War.
As for Australia, our fledgling nation may well have been forfeited to the Reich’s sphere of influence as part of this new global imperium. From the German perspective we were seen as a strategic outpost of the white race, ripe for colonisation by a new Teutonic ruling class. After all, as we are reminded by the work of Jürgen Tampke in “Ruthless Warfare”: German Military Planning and Surveillance in the Australia-New Zealand Region before the Great War (1998), several German warships visited Australian ports just before the war to carry out military and cultural reconnaissance, producing detailed reports on the activities of the German community, which was at the time the largest non-British ethnic group in Australia. Approving notice was taken of the significant presence of the German “spirit”, German imperial sentiment, and patriotism directed towards the Kaiser.
Even if Australia had avoided such a fate, we would have been forced into negotiations with the Reich as a defeated, devastated and demoralised foe that could have expected no mercy from a newly victorious and hyper-aggressive superpower. Left gutted by wartime manpower losses, military expenditures and reparations, we would have been an excellent destination for demobbed German troops looking for a new life as colonists and possessing vital access to German capital. The appropriation by German interests of both our agricultural and manufacturing industries would have left us economically subservient, while we would have been crippled as a trading nation by the loss of our most important markets and traditional sources of capital. The Reich would have controlled all the sea lanes upon which our access to the outside world depended. It would also have extended its control over German New Guinea to encompass the rest of New Guinea, and the Dutch and British colonial possessions in present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Germany would have dominated every aspect of our lives.
Perhaps, in this bleak alternative future, the Anzac spirit might have found expression through guerrilla warfare against our new imperial overlords, although the German method of dealing with such insurgencies—demonstrated in their African colonies and in both world wars—would have produced a bloodbath amongst the civilian population.
Such would have been the immediate outcomes of a German victory, according to Germany’s own war aims and the ambitions of its ruling elite. And if anyone has any doubts about the seriousness of Germany’s intentions, they need only consider what happened to Russia after its war effort collapsed in 1917. This led to the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Russia lost most of its European and Baltic territories, a third of its population, half of its industry, and 90 per cent of its coal mines to German control. They could also consider the explicit designs of Hitler and the Nazis to set up a massive German dominated slave-state in Eastern Europe, involving ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale and the extermination of some 50 million people. These facts are on the historical record, but Keating chose to pay no attention to them, embracing instead the simplistic nihilist perspective that the war was futile and had no relevance to Australia.
And what of the longer-term future of the post-war world under the victorious Second Reich? What would the history of the twentieth century have been like in a world dominated by the German state led by an unstable, megalomaniacal Kaiser under the domination of a military elite led by Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff and Grand Admiral von Tirpitz? Fresh from the victory of autocracy over democracy, flush with the conviction that authoritarian statism and militarism had proven their superiority, they would have been supported and driven forward by a triumphalist coterie of fawning acolytes, an exultant officer caste and aristocracy, an all-encompassing imperial bureaucracy, Prussian Junkers, ultra-nationalist fanatics and pan-German imperialists. Surrounding them would have been the rabid anti-Semites, Slavophobes and the other racist groups that infested Central Europe, along with millions of demobilised, war-hardened veterans determined to enjoy the spoils of victory by establishing themselves as the ruling class in the new colonies and conquered nations, including Africa and Australia.
Relevant here is the ethnic cleansing and other depredations carried out by the Freikorps in the Baltic countries and East Prussia in the immediate post-war years. These paramilitary forces, composed of brutalised ex-soldiers, saw themselves as a new ruling caste, terrorised the region, and carried out atrocities against the local inhabitants, involving summary executions and massacres of thousands of people. Many of them went on to play leading roles in the Nazi Party, including Heinrich Himmler, future head of the SS, Ernst Röhm, future head of the SA, and Rudolf Höss, the future commandant of the Auschwitz death camp. Such men would have spearheaded the penetration of the victorious Reich into its new colonies and subjugated countries. Perhaps Keating might have given some thought to this before he summarily dismissed the efforts of the Anzacs as a futile effort in someone else’s war.
To this potent Teutonic brew would have been added the desires of the militaristic ruling elites of Germany’s allies, particularly the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a newly empowered Turkey. Turkey’s extreme nationalism and utter ruthlessness had been demonstrated in the mass atrocities involving the Armenians, in a systematic program of extermination that began, coincidentally, on April 24, 1915, the day before the first Anzac Day, when 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Constantinople, and continued for several years until the death toll reached between 1 million and 1.5 million people.
What would have happened to the world if such seething forces of evil had been unleashed upon it? Obviously the entire history of the globe would have transformed, driven away—perhaps forever—from the liberal democratic path and onto a road defined by statism, autocracy, militarism and authoritarianism. Indeed, it may well have gone past this into full-scale fascism, totalitarianism, systematic enslavement, ethnic cleansing and genocide, as occurred under the Third Reich, in Germany’s second “grab for world power”, according to the Fischer thesis, but this time operating on a global scale. Keating is apparently blissfully ignorant or unconcerned that such real possibilities would have flowed from a German victory that the Anzacs sacrificed so much to prevent. Certainly he felt no need to mention them.
The question now arises as to why Keating propounds this nihilist view. And the answer lies in his determination to remake Australia’s national identity in accordance with his own eccentric view of both our history and our future. This is documented in Paul Kelly’s history, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia (2009), which vividly describes Keating’s blighted view of the nation over which he presided as Prime Minister twenty years ago. He believed that Australians had wasted the first century of their existence as a nation. In Keating’s view, Australia was crippled by its British affiliations, its lack of Asian ties, and its ill-treatment of the Aborigines. Consequently, he aspired to “re-make Australia” and transform Australia’s identity. He wanted to “terminate a century of insularity” and bring the country to “maturity”. He fretted over “the nation’s soul”, “wanted atonement for past sins”, and “to liberate Australians from what Manning Clark called the Kingdom of Nothingness”.
This “black armband” view of history resonated strongly with the intelligentsia, which can never get enough moral self-laceration. As Kelly observes: “Much of Australia’s educated class could not decide whether he was a madman or a genius; yet he captured, substantially, Australia’s intellectual class.” This pampered caste, always eager for authoritarian leadership in the ideological sphere, however twisted it might be, was happy to accept uncritically Keating’s view of history, a fact that may explain why he was chosen by the Australian War Memorial Council to propound his peculiar views on Remembrance Day.
The Council must have known what Keating would say—indeed, parts of his speech clearly echo the views he expressed twenty years ago. As prime minister he was preoccupied with delivering redemption and salving the nation’s soul. Above all, he was going to debunk Gallipoli, elevate Kokoda, and turn Australia away from Europe and towards Asia. This was to be achieved and given a strong moral authority by showing how Australia’s engagement with Asia had begun in “the crucible of war” at Kokoda, as James Curran put it in The Power of Speech (2004).
Keating had made his position very clear at the time and he was intransigent about it. As the ALP operative Rod Cavalier put it: “The only legitimate sense of Australian identity was the one Paul defined”, even though this may have been “away with the fairies or antipathetic to everything a generation of Australians believed”. Unfortunately, “Paul was sounding like [sic] the National Library and the great institutions of public life had become his own property”. In Kelly’s view, Keating had embarked upon a wide-ranging “identity project” and had made himself Australia’s “national therapist”. “His starting point was Australia’s holy grail: he decided to offer a reinterpretation of Gallipoli and the nationalist tradition.”
Keating set out to convince Australians “that Gallipoli was not the most important battle in their history”, and that this honour belonged to Kokoda because it alone symbolised our defiance of Britain and the “Old World” in our efforts to defend our country, and marked our entrance upon the world stage as an Asian nation. To make sure everyone understood this, Keating chose to go to Kokoda on his first Anzac Day as Prime Minister. There he astonished everyone by suddenly falling to his knees and kissing the ground before the Kokoda memorial, seeking (rather like the Pope) to bestow upon it a sacred quality. Later, his speechwriter, Don Watson, explained (in an utterance of breathtaking conceit) that this was deliberately done to “mark Kokoda in Australia’s collective memory, as perhaps Gettysburg was marked in the American mind by Lincoln”. As Kelly recounts, Keating later confirmed his antipathy for Gallipoli, dismissing it as an “ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign”, conducted by imperial interests, and declaring, “I have never been to Gallipoli and I never will.”
Kelly points out that Keating was accompanied on his trip to Kokoda by David Horner, a military historian who provided “the intellectual foundation for Keating’s comments” in this area. However, Kelly also notes the power of the opposing conventional view that it was not Kokoda but the naval victories over Japan in the Coral Sea and at Midway that were pivotal in halting the Japanese advance. As for Keating’s insistence that he was making “the case about the sacrifice of those that went out in the defence of Australia [as at Kokoda], not in the service of the King or Empire [as at Gallipoli]”, Kelly comments:
This is astonishing nonsense … The claim that one group was fighting for Empire and another for Australia was absurd—a construct unsubstantiated by history, unpersuasive to the Australian people, and a despicable violation of the motives of the troops.
John Moses, writing at the time in Quadrant (July-August 1992) similarly observed, “it is scarcely credible that purportedly educated persons can, in the light of available accurate information, advance such historical distortions”. He condemned Keating’s “ill-informed and incredibly spiteful attacks on Australia’s former connection with Great Britain”, and compared Keating’s fabrication of history to the propaganda practices of totalitarian regimes.
Despite all this, the Council of the War Memorial invited Keating to give the 2013 Remembrance Day speech, embracing the push to present Keating as an “elder statesman” with deep things to say about Australia’s military heritage. Keating’s re-ascension was supported by a widely publicised four-part ABC television series about his life, and blanket media coverage of his speech, including misty-eyed images of him holding a poppy and gazing at the Roll of Honour. Even the absurd conceit that the alleged grandeur of his rhetoric replicates Lincoln is repeated, with the prominent ALP historian Troy Bramston rejoicing that Keating’s words, “echoing the cadences and simplicity of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, are now etched into the wall of the memorial”.
In fact, as has been demonstrated here, Keating has nothing to offer the commemoration of the Anzac tradition, and the desecration of the wall to promote his eccentric views is a sacrilege that will live forever to the discredit of the Council. His speech offered little more than facile rhetoric rooted in the nihilist view of the war, historical ignorance, and his own obsessions about Britain and our national identity.
Keating was given a great honour on Remembrance Day and a great responsibility, and he failed. All he did was misrepresent and dishonour the meaning of the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of Australians who stepped forward to do battle in the first of a century of titanic wars that were fought to preserve our freedoms. Fortunately, it seems that ordinary Australians will properly honour these sacrifices long after would-be statesmen like Keating have left the scene.
Mervyn F. Bendle is the author of several Quadrant articles on this topic, including “Anzac in Ashes” (April 2010), “The Intellectual Assault on Anzac” (July-August 2009) and “Gallipoli: Second Front in the History Wars” (June 2009). Part of this article first appeared in the Australian.