Anzac and Its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity
by Mervyn F. Bendle
Quadrant Books, 2015, 343 pages, $44.95
For most Australians, the Anzac legend born in the First World War represents precisely those values which Australians cherish—courage, initiative, egalitarianism, mateship, loyalty and sacrifice. While this is at the heart of Australia’s national identity, with its celebration centred on Anzac Day, it is detested by a powerful group who loathe Australia. In Anzac and Its Enemies Mervyn Bendle explains the origins of the Anzac tradition and exposes the long campaign against it.
The ultimate wish of the campaigners, first the Communist Party and its allies and then the intellectual elites, is not only to destroy the legend. It is to replace it with a national self-loathing about almost everything in our history which most Australians hold dear.
The campaigners have long relished their considerable victory in neutralising the Bicentennial of the British settlement of Australia in 1788. They persuaded the Hawke government to undermine what most people had expected to be at the very heart of the Bicentennial celebrations, a re-enactment of the First Fleet. This was thwarted by the hard work of the organisers and by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who agreed to farewell the Fleet from Portsmouth.
It appeared the opponents of the re-enactment would achieve their aim when the Fleet was left stranded in Rio de Janeiro. But the project was salvaged when Australians responded generously to a 2GB radio campaign to fund the journey to Sydney. The government’s last-ditch effort against the re-enactment was an attempt to obscure the entry of the Fleet by filling Sydney Harbour with tall ships from around the world. When Labor saw that ordinary Australians were not having any of that, the politicians then jumped on the bandwagon.
Anzac and Its Enemies.
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But the celebration was marred by a major propaganda campaign designed to put a feeling of guilt into the hearts of Australians. This campaign promoted the notion that the Bicentennial was no more than a commemoration of a crime against indigenous Australians. They tried to turn the day of celebration into a year of mourning by having protesters march from Redfern to Circular Quay under “Invasion Day” banners. The media was filled with references to “white guilt” and “national shame”.
In Bendle’s assessment, the Left succeeded in reducing the occasion to farce. They had left the vast bulk of the Australian population with the ashes of what was meant to be a celebration of national achievement and pride. He recalls that the Sydney Morning Herald was able to “revel” in the “ideological vacuum” that the debacle revealed at the core of Australia’s national identity. The “veteran Marxist agitator” Humphrey McQueen confirmed this when he applauded the “wounds that indigenous Australians and their supporters had inflicted … when we rained on the 1988 Bicentennial parade”.
Bendle laments that the Bicentennial debacle left the Australian people with little sense of pride. This was the intended result, achieved to a great extent through the support of a pusillanimous government. As Manning Clark observed, “we are now all citizens in the Kingdom of Nothingness”.
The next and more difficult target for destruction was the Anzac legend. Bendle gives a telling example of the chasm between ordinary people and the elites. In an academic journal article, historians Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward describe an encounter in Istanbul with a group of young Australians returning from Gallipoli. They tell the historians that Gallipoli is “bloody amazing, to think about what those blokes went through, you know … it was really moving”. Little do the youths realise, Bendle says, the contempt in which they are held by the academics. In their article McKenna and Ward are dismissive, believing that such responses are “false and contrived”, the result of the youths being subjected to the constant propaganda inculcated in them by the nationalist and militaristic policies of the Howard government. As Bendle observes: “It is a scandalous reflection of the pathetic quality of Australian academia under the iron fist of the Left that this piece of opinionated elitist propaganda can get published in a peer-reviewed journal.”
The Anzac tradition was born in the First World War and has much to do with the fact that the Australian armed forces were both voluntary and large, with 420,000 Australians serving, 332,000 of them overseas. Over 61,000 were killed and about 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner, a casualty rate of almost 65 per cent, one of the highest among the nations involved in the war.
The Anzac tradition is essentially about the character of those who served. This was to become the core of the emerging national identity as the former colonies evolved into one nation, adapting and making Australian the institutions, values, traditions and language they had inherited from Britain.
Bendle stresses that only two years separate Gallipoli from the Bolshevik coup d’état which installed a communist dictatorship in Russia for over seven decades. Their Australian followers tried first to take over the Anzac legend and use it for their purposes. When this failed they turned against it. As Hal Colebatch reveals in Australia’s Secret War (2013), the communists and their allies conducted, with impunity, a campaign of sabotage against the nation’s effort in the Second World War, continuing even after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and even after the Japanese attacked the Australian mainland. The anti-Anzac campaign by the Left reached its apogee during the Vietnam War, when returned soldiers were abused, spat on, and even had red paint thrown on them. As the Lindt Cafe terrorist Man Haron Monis later did, the Left even harassed and insulted veterans’ families.
The Left were able to have this effect because in the last half-century they have been able to speak from a position of considerable power. This reflects their long march through academia and other vital institutions, entrenching, as Bendle concludes, their “bleak ideological hegemony” over the nation’s political, cultural and social life.
Bendle argues that the Left have only one simplistic, nihilistic view. Sourced from Lenin’s assessment of the First World War, this is that Australia was dragged by Britain into an imperialist war in which our nation had no stake whatsoever. Consequently, they say, the Anzac legend is a “bogus and reactionary ideology”, designed to justify and obscure class, gender and racial oppression. Bendle perceptively concludes that they refuse to validate the massive sacrifices of the Anzacs as one aspect of the struggles of the Western democracies against various authoritarian and totalitarian regimes over the last century, whose actions have resulted in the deaths of over 200 million people.
The anti-Anzacs insist instead say that the Anzacs’ sacrifice was in vain and that they wasted their lives. In neo-Marxist terms, the conflict and the costs flowing from it were pointless, meaningless, tragic, nationalist, imperialist, capitalist, racist and sexist. Chief among the anti-Anzac vigilantes is the former Prime Minister Paul Keating. He has thus lent this view the considerable authority of the office he once held.
Bendle’s book is particularly well-ordered. There is a logical progression in the way in which he discusses each of the principal issues.
Following an excellent introduction which summarises his principal theme, he opens with a chapter on Charles Bean and the origins of the Anzac legend. Bean’s achievements, he believes, easily surpass the efforts of any other war correspondent or military historian of the First World War. Bean played the key role in bringing an understanding of the Anzac legend to the broader community, particularly through the founding of the Australian War Memorial.
In Chapter 2 Bendle answers the question the elites ask and answer negatively, whether the Anzacs died in vain. The anti-Anzacs argue that even if the Dardanelles operation had been successful, it would not have shortened the war by a single day. Bendle points out that had the Dardanelles been taken, Russia would have been relieved, all the Balkan states brought into the war on the side of the Entente, and the Armenian genocide might never have occurred. The Germans would have had to move troops from the Western front to support the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians, increasing the chances of an Allied victory in the West. The war would most probably have ended sooner and Hitler and Stalin might never have come to power.
In the third chapter Bendle brings out the two aspects of the attack on the Anzac legend. On the one hand the anti-Anzacs make a token acknowledgment of the bravery of troops. The emphasis, however, is on the second component. This is always “critical, debunking and usually denunciatory”. It claims there is nothing at the core of the Anzac legend. In the fourth chapter he exposes the vacuity of the argument that the Anzac legend is being used for the militarisation of Australia, something which does not exist—at least in comparison with societies which are or were militarist.
Then he presents an overview of the work of a generation of anti-Anzac senior historians who in the 1960s had already begun their long march through the institutions to positions of power in Australia’s elite organisations. His conclusion is that many of these historians live in an elitist parallel universe where they believe they alone possess the truth about the past.
There is one extremely disturbing aspect of their entry into and their domination of the nation’s humanities faculties. This is the adoption of the attitude that scholarly objectivity must be subordinated to a radical political agenda. Bendle finds Stuart Macintyre insisting in The History Wars (2004) that questions of historical accuracy “must be subservient to compassion for alleged victim groups”.
He points to one cause of resentment among the anti-Anzac academic establishment, despite their tenured and comfortable lives. This is the popular success of war histories by non-academic historians such as Les Carlyon, Paul Ham, Patrick Lindsay, Bob Wurth, Peter Thompson, Peter FitzSimons and Ross Coulthart. The anti-Anzacs regard these books as inferior, but the public buys and reads them.
Bendle’s sixth chapter is devoted to examining and rebutting the conclusions in a key book in the anti-Anzac campaign, Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography (2014) by Carolyn Holbrook, a research fellow in history at Monash University. Bendle makes an important point which explains much. This is that Holbrook and other anti-Anzacs have one particular regret about the aftermath of the First World War: there was no revolution in Australia. To their considerable annoyance, our liberal democratic institutions withstood the pressure of war and its aftermath and kept the Commonwealth of Australia on “constitutional pathways”.
The anti-Anzacs’ aim has been to stress the unworthiness of Australia from the very beginning, an allegation which repeated over and over has had some effect. As Macintyre gloated in The History Wars, “Australia, on the eve of its bicentenary, was revealed as a gulag.” This, by a leading historian, is completely wrong factually. The rule of law existed in New South Wales as soon as Arthur Phillip stepped ashore. The first civil case in New South Wales was brought by a convict, and was successful. That does not happen in a gulag.
At this stage Bendle turns his attention to Paul Keating, whose interest in the anti-Anzac campaign was probably kindled in 1990 when the Hawke government finally agreed to sponsor the return of veterans to Gallipoli for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the landing. This was designed to fill the vacuum left by the government’s attempted despoliation of the Bicentennial, and now to appropriate the Anzac legend for the ALP.
Bob Hawke called on each new generation to breathe “new life into the old story and to realise its relevance to the nation”. Keating, who was moving against Hawke at the time, decided to put a stop to that. As soon as he became Prime Minister he tried to overthrow the Anzac legend. His principal speechwriter was Don Watson, an ex-student and devotee of Manning Clark, the unashamed propagandist of the Left. Keating wanted to reconstruct Australian history as a struggle between a progressive Labor Party and a reactionary Coalition which Keating claimed was subservient to Britain. This subservience, he and Clark thought, represented all that was wrong with Australia.
Mark McKenna reveals that Labor was embarrassed that in the twentieth century it had been among the most vigorous champions of the White Australia policy and loyalty to empire. “The push for a republic,” he says, “based on a rejection of the ‘dead’ British past, à la Clark, could be read as a useful means of transferring responsibility for the evils of colonisation from Australia to Britain.” Keating thought he could load Menzies with “sole responsibility for excessive imperial loyalty and the White Australia policy”, and obscure Labor’s historical strong association with them.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1992 Keating was to accuse Britain of deserting Australia then. This is a product of his imagination. Keating tried to replace Kokoda is the place of the sacred site of Australian nationalism. But this was reversed by John Howard, who restored the place of Gallipoli.
Bendle develops Keating’s role in the seventh chapter, “How Paul Keating Betrayed the Anzacs”. He tells the extraordinary story of how the Australian War Memorial chose Keating, in retirement, to give the Remembrance Day Address in 2013. The speech was essentially Leninist in its conception of the war as an imperialist struggle. In fact the war was fought to defend emerging liberal democracies from a massive onslaught of autocratic and authoritarian power that would have fundamentally rejected the trajectory of modern history if Germany had been victorious. Bendle is correct to conclude that Keating should have informed himself better. After all, as a former Prime Minister, he is provided with generous support including staff and an office and travel.
In a very important part of the book Bendle explains why Australia had to join the fight against the German Second Reich. This was a struggle by the liberal democracies Britain and France against an authoritarian, militaristic and imperialistic state which planned to dominate the world. Foreshadowing what would happen under the Third Reich, the Second Reich embodied in itself the image of an authoritarian leader. We had no choice but to enter the war.
Keating’s insistence in his speech that the war could have been avoided by “foresight and statecraft” is in Bendle’s assessment “laughable”. This is no exaggeration. The proposition is ridiculous. Germany was making unacceptable demands on the other nations, and there was a “furious momentum” in its industrial ability and its unbridled lust for empire.
What Bendle describes as the “breathtaking extent” of the territorial ambitions of the Second Reich only became clear in the 1960s with the groundbreaking work of the German historian Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht (“Grab for World Power”, published in English in 1967 as Germany’s Aims in the First World War). Bendle says this bombshell rendered obsolete all previous views. In The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (2002) Philip Bobbitt writes 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. There is no indication that Keating was even aware of Fischer’s discoveries.
At the core of Germany’s vision was Mitteleuropa, a massively expanded Reich occupying Central and Eastern Europe, with Poland annexed and Russia pushed back so that the Reich controlled the rich oil fields of the Caucasus. Austria-Hungary would get Romania and Bessarabia, Belgium and the Netherlands would be reduced to satellites, and the Nordic countries would be expected to join the Reich. France was to have been eliminated as a major power, having been forced to make further territorial transfers to Germany on top of the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in 1870. A strip of territory facing Britain would become German, with Britain forfeiting the Royal Navy, until then the world’s most powerful maritime force. Britain would have been crippled by massive indemnities and would lose its vast empire to Germany. This would have had a major impact on Australia, integrated as its trade, finance and defence were in the empire. In addition Australia would be surrounded by a ring of German colonies and at the mercy of a powerful navy. Africa would be dominated by a German zone, Mittelafrika. India would be linked to Berlin by railway networks through a revived Ottoman empire already rewarded with Russian territory, and most of south Asia would be under direct or indirect German control.
Bendle asks why Keating did not familiarise himself with the horrendous implications of all this by consulting the several works on the depredations by German agents and the military in southern Africa. Keating also seemed unaware of the visits to Australia undertaken by several German warships just before the war. They had carried out military and cultural reconnaissance, producing detailed reports on the activities of the German community, which at the time was the largest non-British ethnic group in the country.
An Allied defeat would have left Australia not only gutted by wartime manpower losses and military expenditures, but having to pay costly reparations. Anyone doubting the seriousness of Germany’s intentions and the harshness with which they would treat the defeated powers need only consider how Russia was dissected under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, notwithstanding that Russia was now governed by Lenin, the client the Germans had arranged to be delivered to Petrograd in a sealed train.
Our friend and protector, Britain, would have been neutralised and impoverished, with the Reich controlling all our sea lanes from its territories in the Pacific and Asia. Australia, by this time a German dominion if not colony, would have been seen as an excellent destination for demobbed German troops. How long would English have remained the national language?
The proposition that Australia could have remained neutral in 1914 is entirely fanciful, and in any event it was certainly not the wish of the population, nor of an intensely loyalist Labor Party. This was before the Balfour Declaration and the Statute of Westminster: accordingly it was for the King-Emperor to declare war, acting on the advice of his British ministers. The Australian government could have effectively ignored this by offering little support for the war effort. But Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, with bipartisan support, pledged that Australia would “stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling”.
Bendle says that Keating’s speech had nothing to offer the commemoration of the Anzac tradition but contempt. If Keating were no more than a bitter and poorly informed former politician, it would no longer matter. The problem is that, as Paul Kelly observes in The March of Patriots (2009): “Much of Australia’s educated class could not decide whether Keating was a madman or a genius; yet he captured, substantially, Australia’s intellectual class.”
In the later chapters, Bendle examines German ideology, and the false Leninist assertion that the First World War was no more than a dispute between distant imperialists, of little concern to Australia. His final chapter is a timely warning that the anti-Anzacs are still waging the same ideological campaign that they, their teachers and their intellectual mentors began fifty years ago.
This book provides both the detail and the information which can defeat that campaign. It is a superb and definitive contribution to the defence of our Anzac legend.
David Flint’s most recent book, Give Us Back Our Country (Connor Court), written with Jai Martinkovits, is now in its second edition.