This essay was originally published in Quadrant, July-August 2009
In a previous article (Quadrant, June 2009) I discussed the revisionist attack on the history of Gallipoli and the role it has played as the central component of the Anzac tradition in Australia. I pointed out that this campaign is explicitly being undertaken by the intelligentsia and the Left as we approach the twin centennials commemorating the outbreak of the Great War in 2014 and the Gallipoli landing in 2015. In this article I undertake a broader exploration into the attack on the Anzac legend, focusing on revisionist attempts to degrade and demean the tradition; I describe the basic revisionist approach and review many examples of it by prominent and influential academics and others; I provide an historical context in which this antagonism can be best understood; and finally I emphasise how gratuitous, grotesque and ahistorical these attacks are, especially when viewed against the background of the real threat that Australia and our allies faced during the Great War, when so many young men fought gallantly, sacrificed themselves, and gave birth to the Anzac legend.
The basic model of the revisionist version of the Anzac legend has two main components. (1) Some perfunctory recognition is initially given to the bravery of Australian troops who fought in the Great War and other wars and to the qualities traditionally associated with the legend. Revisionists apparently feel they cannot (yet) dispense with this token acknowledgment. (2) The revisionist emphasis however is on the second component of the model, which is always critical, debunking and even denunciatory of the legend, applying a form of methodological nihilism to allege that at the core of the Anzac legend there is nothing—only meaninglessness, futility, error, “a nightmare happening in a void” as George Orwell remarked of Great War literature. Alternatively, if there is something at the core of the legend, it is shown by the revisionist to be unworthy, wicked and iniquitous—militarism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, masculinism—and therefore can and must be condemned and ridiculed.
A description of the revisionist approach has recently been provided in the new edition of The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (2008), and it follows this pattern. While it initially concedes that the Anzacs were brave, they are nevertheless represented as pawns who were dragged into someone else’s war and betrayed by the incompetence of the “British military establishment who, contemptuous of the lives of mere colonials, sacrificed them in the futile Gallipoli campaign and as shock troops on the Western Front. The war achieved nothing, and far from proving Australian nationhood, actually demonstrated Australian subservience.” As the entry remarks, this revisionist version is closely associated with the Left, and appeals to those “who came of age during or after the Vietnam era”, and share a “suspicion of overseas military entanglements”, associated especially with the United States, and exemplified recently by the war in Iraq. While the entry also notes that this version “has been criticised as grotesque, even ahistorical”, this has not stopped it from being increasingly influential, especially when it is augmented with the other elements of leftist ideology that already dominate intellectual culture.
The approach of the prominent historian and former communist Russel Ward exemplifies this bipartite model and illustrates how deeply embedded in the history of the Left in Australia the revisionist attitude is. In A Nation for a Continent (1977), he first acknowledges the positive aspects of the legend (which derive, of course from the same characteristics that he had identified in The Australian Legend), and then he condemns its faults, alleging that the Anzac spirit is blighted by its “contempt for coloured people and foreigners generally, for minority views, for art, literature, culture and learning; and something not far from contempt … for ‘good’ women and brutal disdain for ‘bad’ ones”. For Ward, the Anzac ethos had an outer shell of “levelling values, rough manners and philistine tastes”; and an inner core of “conformity, conservatism and unquestioning Anglo-Australian patriotism”.
Another example has been provided in Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend (1994) by Alistair Thomson, who returned to Australia in 2007 after more than two decades in England to become Professor of History at Monash University, where he is also Director of the Institute for Public History. In his discussion of the Vietnam War, Thomson shows how the methodological nihilism of the revisionist model can be applied with destructive effect. He begins with apparent sympathy, acknowledging that “Vietnam veterans felt rejected or disregarded by Australian society”, and that “their internalised trauma was a source of terrible psychological and social wounds”. He suggests there was a belated “renaissance of sympathetic public recognition” in the 1980s, that veterans were finally able “to articulate their Vietnam experiences in positive terms emphasising comradeship, masculine self-worth and national identity”, and that, like the original Anzacs, “they found recognition and affirmation in the Anzac legend … and thus composed positive Anzac memories and identities”, based on the view that they had proven themselves “decent mates who were effective jungle fighters in a bloody but necessary war.
However, according to Thomson, all this is wrong and such sympathy is misplaced. Such memories, self-conceptions and positive identities are illegitimate, as Thomson seeks to demonstrate when he moves abruptly into the second, debunking, stage of his argument. There he alleges that
little is heard about the negative aspects of Australian relations with the Vietnamese, and not much information is presented from the perspective of the opponents of the Australian Task Force in Vietnam and back home
—implying absurdly that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army and the anti-war movement have been unfairly untreated by historians to the advantage of Vietnam veterans. Thomson believes that this “imbalance” needs to be set right and that it is “both necessary and possible to create a critical popular memory of Australian participation in the Vietnam War” that portrays the culpability of Australia and its military, and he suggests that this historical deposition be based on experiences such as that of a particular veteran who has described his “pain at the loss of the hope that the war had served some purpose”.
In a paradigmatic statement of the nihilistic premise, Thomson invokes Orwell’s vision of “a nightmare happening in a void” to claim that a dark emptiness lies at the core of the Anzac legend. He cites this despairing ex-soldier’s claim that “I had clung to the false hope for over twenty years that [his comrades in the war] had not died for nothing. Now I could squarely face the fact that they had.” In other words, according to Thomson, the Vietnam veterans’ original sense of rejection has been revealed by history to be deserved, “their internalised trauma [and] terrible psychological and social wounds” must now be recognised as appropriate because the war was indeed unnecessary, and the military activity they had been engaged in was wrong. In the eyes of the history that Thomson believes should prevail, Australian soldiers did suffer and die for nothing, and this is a fact the veterans just have to accept because, he claims, this would be “empowering”, and “enable all Australians to explore the lines of fracture and conflict in our past”.
Another example shows how this nihilism can also be applied more generally to debunk and demean the widespread popular enthusiasm of civilians for the Anzac tradition. It is provided by two historians, Mark McKenna of the University of Sydney, and Stuart Ward of University College, Dublin, who describe a group of young Australians they have accosted in Istanbul. The group reveal they’ve “just got back from Gallipoli”, and had found the experience, “bloody amazing, to think of what those blokes went through, you know”. “It was really moving, mate.” (McKenna and Ward, “‘It was really moving, mate’: The Gallipoli Pilgrimage and Sentimental Nationalism in Australia”, Australian Historical Studies, April 2007)
Despite the sincerity of these young people, McKenna and Ward are dismissive:
It wasn’t the first time we’d heard this summary of the Gallipoli pilgrimage from Australians in Turkey. It seems to have become the standard reflection … Like pilgrims to Jerusalem or Lourdes, the Australians are ‘moved’ to tears at the sight of holy ground, the place where the sacred stories of Anzac began. They believe that their emotional response is immediate [and fail to appreciate that] their profound emotional investment in the Anzac legend is [largely] brought with them from Australia.
They had been “subjected to the saccharine reverence of Anzac Day TV ‘specials’ unashamedly milking the emotions of viewers, with their montage of mournful soundtrack, waving flags and quietly weeping diggers on parade”; and to “the newspaper supplements lauding the stoicism of the diggers [and] the editorials marking the death of each surviving digger from World War I as a national moment”. Not being intellectuals like McKenna and Ward, these young Australians are ignorant of the way in which their attachment to the Anzac legend was allegedly inculcated into them by the militaristic and nationalistic policies of the Howard government, which speaks “increasingly of the Anzacs as the Greeks once spoke of their Gods”.
Viewed historically, the Australian Left has always had problems with the Anzac tradition. For example, on Anzac Day 1919 the crowd heard speaker after speaker wrestling with the meaning of the spirit that they had come to commemorate: extolling “sublime heroism”, “a solemn memory”, “a name and glory that will never die”, “a great brotherhood of sacrifice”, and “the spirit of unselfishness”, while the poet David McKee Wright described Anzac as a “march through the hearts of men”, and a call to a more noble life. On the other hand, “labour did not share this vision. For them the class war was the central fact of life” and only weeks before, in March 1919, the ALP national conference had resolved to eliminate from all school teaching materials “all articles relating to or extolling wars, battles or heroes of past wars” (Manning Clark, The History of Australia, Vol. VI).
Initially, this antagonism towards Anzac arose principally because the Gallipoli campaign preceded by less than two years the Russian Revolution. This coincidence had two important effects. First, it meant that the ideal of the Anzac was emerging as a powerful ideological force in Australia at the same time that the Soviet-directed Communist International was promoting its own competing ideological ideal, that of Socialist Man, as it sought to establish global hegemony over the labour movement. Second, the Comintern was seeking to promote world revolution based on an internationalist doctrine of class struggle that promoted violent conflict and social antagonisms and explicitly rejected nationalism; while the ideal of the Anzac gave expression to an entirely different vision of a specifically Australian society—nationalist, independent and harmonious—for which it was believed the Anzacs had fought and died.
This inherent opposition between two antithetical heroic ideals, and two antithetical visions of Australia’s future, was quickly recognised and resented by the radical Left and the intelligentsia in Australia with their commitment to the state, collectivism, abstract internationalism, authoritarianism, and belief in their own intellectual and moral leadership. Above all, they abhorred the fact that the Anzac spirit had emerged organically as a deeply held ideal from amongst the Australian people and had not been a creation of the intelligentsia imposed on society. Such resentments shaped the antagonism of the Left towards the Anzac tradition throughout the past century and reappear continually in their discussions of it.
The Anzac legend was therefore denounced from the outset as backward-looking, conservative and reactionary. As the Marxist historian Frank Farrell explains in his history of International Socialism and Australian Labour (1981), “the Anzac myth and the touchy digger were powerful right-wing influences in politics” from the Great War on. In Brisbane in March 1919 such “touchy diggers” even had the temerity to confront a procession of communists who were demanding the right
to display publicly the red flag, symbol of solidarity with the new Bolshevik regime in Russia … Mobs of angry ex-soldiers repeatedly attempted to storm the premises of the émigré Russian Workers’ Association [while] crowds estimated in the tens of thousands called for the immediate deportation of local Russian radicals and the suppression of their Australian sympathisers.
Not only were these émigrés resented for fomenting Bolshevik revolution and taking diggers’ jobs in the railways and government workshops, as Russians they represented an erstwhile ally that had badly “let the side down” during the war by capitulating on the Eastern Front and allowing the full force of the German Army to be thrown against the Anzacs and the rest of the allied forces in France, causing massive casualties and very nearly bringing about the allies’ defeat.
Inevitably, the Anzac spirit and anti-Bolshevik emotions exploded on a massive scale in May 1921 when 150,000 people filled the Sydney Domain to protest at the burning of the Union Jack by communists at May Day demonstrations. Amidst
a veritable sea of red, white and blue … angry returned servicemen overturned socialist rostrums and set upon their speakers … They mounted a lorry occupied by members of the ALP and … set alight to a red flag. All the while [being] urged on by crowds subsumed by the patriotic fervour of the day and obeisance to the Union Jack.
As the Daily Telegraph summed up the day’s events: “The citizens of Sydney in a wonderfully impressive and emphatic manner, made it clear that disloyalists, revolutionaries, and enemies of the flag generally have no place in our sun.”
For leftist historians like Farrell, such gigantic anti-communist counter-demonstrations only revealed the extent to which Bolshevism profoundly threatened “the Australia that most ex-diggers and right-wing nationalists aspired to”. This may be true, although Farrell thinks this condemns the Anzacs as reactionaries. He ignores the fact that the Anzac ethos equally threatened the Bolsheviks and the vision of Australia to which they and their local sympathisers aspired, one based on the increasingly murderous and dysfunctional collectivist Leninist state being set up in the new Soviet Union—a grotesquely alien vision with extremely limited local support.
Farrell’s discussion illustrates another common nostrum of the Left that it has always applied to the Anzac tradition. This is the conviction that massive demonstrations against communism and for the Anzac tradition don’t express any genuine support for any ideals central to that tradition, or any real understanding by Australians of the threat to their society represented by Bolshevism or other extremist militant ideologies, but were only the results of false-consciousness, mass hysteria, and government and right-wing propaganda promoting a fear of the “Bolshevik bogy”, “the Red bogy”, and the “Red peril”. This is the view put by another Marxist historian, Andrew Moore, in his book The Secret Army and the Premier (1989), although, as John Hirst points out in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History (2005), such a view of communism would have been entirely rational and realistic, given the considerable progress that the Communist Party of Australia, operating under the close supervision of the Comintern, was able to make in infiltrating the Labor Party and the union movement at the time.
Like all historians on the Left, Moore sees the Anzac legend as a propaganda tool of manipulation, and describes how “enthusiastic imperialists, the members of the ruling class launched an ideological offensive, quickly latched on to the ethos of Anzac”, and turned Australia into a police state. It is revealing of the mind-set of these writers that when Moore writes of a police state, and of “ruthless, systematic, and effective repression”, it is not the Soviet Union of which he speaks, but Australia (“A Nordenfelt at Every Woolshed”, in Burgmann and Lee, eds., Staining the Wattle, 1988).
A similarly blighted view of the Anzac tradition as a tool of the ruling class has been developed to an extreme level of abstraction by Associate Professor Anthony Burke of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Burke’s book Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety (2008) is dominated by the postmodern and postcolonial theories of Michel Foucault and Edward Said, according to which the entire world has to be viewed simplistically in terms of a Manichean dualism dominated by the Subject (the oppressor) and the Other (the oppressed), where the Other is “constructed” by the representations of the Subject, and scholarship consists of “interrogating” texts to reveal items that can be construed as evidence of the racism, sexism, colonialism, militarism, and similar ideologies that allegedly hide there.
Consequently, Burke claims that the Great War saw the “manufacturing [of] a monolithic Australian subject: the ‘Anzac tradition’”, which “linked security, sovereignty and identity into a potent subjective and historical unity”. This was accomplished through “the dark dreams” of sacrifice, freedom and virility expressed by the official war historian, Charles Bean, whose advocacy of “the principle of protecting their homes and their freedom by sustaining a system of law and order between nations [produced] a potent emotional appeal” to Australians, for whom “the blackmail was overwhelming”. Crucial to the role of Anzac as a “monolithic Australian subject” was the country’s “anxious cultural and strategic imagination marked by the overwhelming presence of the Other”, and consequently,
from the colony’s very beginnings, as Aborigines were fought, dispossessed and murdered, to the fears of black and Asian immigration … to the demonisation of Germany and Japan through the Great War, a backward and threatening Other was essential.
This reference to Japan seems odd; surely Burke knows that Japan was an ally, not an enemy, during the Great War.
Burke’s account of the Anzac legend is noticeable for the way in which he resurrects the crude vision of class struggle that appeared in the years after the Great War. In particular, he claims that the drive of the Anzac, as the “monolithic Australian subject”, to exterminate the Other was not restricted to external enemies like the Germans, but was directed also at internal opposition like the proletariat, as part of the class war. Consequently, “conservatives and liberals, rhetorics of race and strategies of industrial management” conspired through the Anzac myth “to contain, co-opt and weaken the labour movement” by achieving “the deaths of tens of thousands of unionists on the battlefields of Europe”.
It is an indication of the Left’s long-term adherence to its anti-Anzac obsession that such views expressed in 2008 so closely resemble the arguments of the Communist Party of Australia eighty years earlier. The Left’s version of history originally became dominated by Lenin’s argument espoused in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), that the conflict was a war between imperialist powers over the global control of markets, resources and labour, in which the workers should have had no part.
At that time a bitter struggle was under way over proposed amendments to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act to protect moderates as they tried to counter communist intimidation in the transport and other key unions. Faced with this restriction on their operations, the CPA’s Workers’ Weekly declared in early 1928 that such proposals were all about the crisis of capitalism and the conservative attempt to establish a reserve army to hold down wages in a period of class struggle in which the Anzac legend played a key ideological role as the ruling class attempted to limit communist power. Consequently, “the communists appealed to the workers not to fall for [the government’s] ‘dope’ about Anzac Day because that was ‘designed to idealise the last blood-bath’,” which had consumed tens of thousands of workers in an imperialist war, and instead must engage in a “mass challenge to capitalism” (Clark, History of Australia, Vol. VI).
A similar condemnation of the Anzac legend has been provided by Adam Jamrozik in his book The Chains of Colonial Inheritance: Searching for Identity in a Subservient Nation (2004). Born in Poland, Jamrozik is presently Adjunct Associate Professor for the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of South Australia and has been very influential for many years in the social policy area. Once again the revisionist model is followed, with Jamrozik briefly conceding that “Australians who participated in [the Gallipoli] campaign were heroes”, before plunging into a wide-ranging set of criticisms of the Anzac legend and Australia. For him, Gallipoli was a “war of aggression that Australia conducted against a distant nation which certainly did not threaten Australian interests in any way”; it was “one of the greatest botched battles … in the Great War in which soldiers were treated simply as cannon fodder”; and “the celebration of Gallipoli [is] a myth that serves to conceal the recklessness and incompetence of the leaders—politicians and generals who were not averse to sacrificing human lives for their own glory”.
Jamrozik alleges that, “seen in its true perspective [Gallipoli discloses] ‘the other side’ or ‘the unauthorised version’ of … Australian history”. This reveals that Australia is “a belligerent nation”, “a subservient colony or the vassal of an imperial power”, that fights “wars of aggression”, and “distant wars … for imperialist interests”, usually “against non-European and non-white nations”. Contemporary interest in Anzac Day is only “maintained by extensive publicity”, and “despite the claims to the contrary, the celebration of the Gallipoli venture is a celebration of war”. Moreover, this “glorification of war is part of the Australian tradition, dating from colonial times”, and therefore “Australia has probably more war commemoration monuments than any other nation in the world”, a clear indication of Australia’s inherent militarism that is exemplified, according to Jamrozik, by the enthusiasm with which Australian children play on the old cannons that frequently accompany these memorials.
The early period in the history of the Anzac legend has been discussed in some detail from the literary perspective by Adrian Caesar, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He makes his methodological nihilism explicit at the start of his discussion of “National Myths and Manhood: Anzacs and Others” in The Oxford Literary History of Australia (1998), where he declares that the Anzac legend is a myth, which he defines as “an agglomeration [that is, a ‘jumbled mass or collection’] of words and images which through being often repeated and carrying meanings significant but not necessarily inherent, may come to have the appearance of truth”—the Anzac legend has no ultimate truth, and achieves its affect through the mere repetition of a jumble of words and images.
Dr Caesar was born in Britain and regrettably his discussion of the legend is marked by a level of condescension towards “the colonials” that perhaps echoes the attitude that drove the original Anzacs to their legendary insubordination towards their British officers in the first place. It is full of capitalised archetypes like “Every Australian Man”, and pointedly qualified terms, like “Australian”, “Australian-ness”, the “Australian character”, “freedom”, the “digger”, “soldier hero”, “real man”, “crusaders”, “self-sacrifice”, and even “Anzac” itself—indicating that such concepts cannot be relied upon and are neither truthful nor realistic (in postmodernist fashion, even “truthfulness” and “realistic” are qualified in Caesar’s article). For him, the Anzac legend assumed its mythic form between 1914 and 1939 under the influence of imperialism and the Australian male’s alleged preoccupation with his gender identity. According to Caesar, no matter what the Anzac myth appears to be about, it is principally an expression of the crises of colonial masculinity under the sway of imperialism, and the political implications of Australia’s pathetic need to “big-note” itself, and “to generate and believe in a myth of soldierly prowess”.
Caesar finds evidence of this crisis of masculinity throughout the literature he reviews, and continually cites references to the Anzac as a “tall, lean, bronzed”, and “long-limbed fellow”, “a very good fighter”, and to Anzacs as “a magnificent body of men”, a “race of athletes”, who “went in with cold steel”, and so on. What is striking is that Caesar focuses the reader’s attention on such hyperbolic examples of the myth, with their alleged “potential tensions and contradictions”, but never himself appears to escape from the spell of these images and therefore overlooks much that is important or even central to the literature he discusses.
For example, Caesar’s discussion of Leonard Mann’s tragic novel Flesh in Armour (1932) is quite superficial. This flawed but important novel has at its centre Frank Jeffreys, who is a schoolteacher, aesthete, teetotaller, and something of a socialist, but who epitomises introversion, self-doubt, inadequacy and cowardice, and who is so overwhelmed by a situation compounded of murderous military action and deeply humiliating personal and sexual failures that he ultimately kills himself on the battlefield in the most macabre manner—literally gutting himself by exploding a grenade against his chest—leaving his mates to deal with his mangled corpse.
Jeffreys is clearly an anti-hero, and indeed the anti-Anzac, whose story and fate reveal much about how the war was experienced by survivors like Mann (who was badly injured in an explosion at Passchendaele in 1917), whilst also revealing a great deal about the Anzac ideal at the time of its emergence by showing how the alternative was perceived. Caesar unfortunately has nothing to say about any of this, but remarks instead that Jeffreys’s death was simply the result of “the fatal error of loving a woman more than his fellow soldiers”—this being, according to Caesar,
a rare occurrence in Australian war writing which … more typically legitimates the direct expression of love and tenderness between men, as well as promoting effusions about the splendour of the male physique.
The reader is left wondering what is really being said in such commentary, and whether it reflects some genuine dimension of the Anzac legend or merely some preoccupation that the commentator has brought to the discussion.
Similar preoccupations characterize Martin Crotty’s book Making the Australian Male (2001), particularly his chapter on “Manliness and the ‘Boy Problem’”. Subsequently, in a lecture at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne in April 2005, on “Anzac—The Cynics and the Sacred”, Dr Crotty, who was born in New Zealand and is presently an historian at the University of Queensland, offered to the public a summation of
how many aspects of a legend that is sacred to so many Australians are called into question by Australian historians, and how attention to the facts of Australia’s war history impact on how we understand Anzac at an emotional and spiritual level, [alleging] that healthy cynicism can reinforce, rather than undermine, the Anzac tradition.
Crotty employs this debunking approach in his book and well illustrates again the bipartite structure of the revisionist version of the Anzac legend. First, he offers the obligatory recognition that “the ideal of a physically fit young man prepared to lay down his life for a good cause” appears noble, and has been “immortalised in Australia by the Anzac legend”. But then he declares that “the militarist and nationalist ideals of manliness … had much to condemn … them”, and that the Anzac ideal was an expression of “the hegemonic masculinities” that reigned supreme in the early twentieth century, especially in the schools, where brutal teachers imposed a “schoolboy militarism”. Consequently,
when war broke out in 1914 Australian soldiers were placed on a pedestal [and] boys were taught to look up to the figure of the Australian soldier as an appropriate hero, a model to be emulated … The “Digger” emerged as a national hero … and represented Australian manhood and showed that the nation’s sons, and by extension, the nation itself, were worthy and unaffected by the convict stain.
Regrettably, according to Crotty, such “glorification of the Anzac” demeaned the contribution of women and led to the misconception that men rather than women had given birth to Australia. Consequently,
the Australian nation was thus a masculine construct both in terms of its values and in terms of who ‘created’ it. Idolisation of pioneers and bushmen had originated this process, but it was cemented further by the Anzac legend.
Such capitulations to the nostrums of feminism, gender studies and queer theory recapitulate other attacks on the Anzac legend exemplified earlier by the contributions to Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century (1995). Overall, these present the legend in terms of the allegedly gendered “birth of the nation”, the oppression of women, the crisis of masculinity, imperialist exploitation, and the “warrior status” of anti-war activists, conscientious objectors and draft resisters, who are the real heroes of the modern age—or would be except for the fact that they were male and therefore “confirmed the larger gendered message—that whether as combatants … or as anti-war activists, men were the pre-eminent subjects of history”, and women “lesser civic beings”.
On the other hand, the Anzac ideal is depicted as a fraud, a failure, and a tin god. For example, according to Carmel Shute, who “gave up academia to pursue a life of political activism”, Anzac Day merely serves
the function of encouraging men to offer themselves as cannon-fodder for the imperialist war machine [whilst] also symbolising the ultimate triumph of masculinity over womanhood. The Australian male, idealised in the Anzac, now reigned indisputably supreme and all bowed to pay him homage.
Alternatively, the Anzac is presented not only as a dupe, for which one might have sympathy, but as simply pathetic and inadequate, especially sexually. For example, during the Second World War, we are told, “the greater economic and sexual power displayed by American soldiers in Australia left many Australian men feeling inadequate and resentful”; while in a pretentiously named chapter, “Female Desires: The Meaning of World War II”, Marilyn Lake quotes the diary of a “20-year-old teachers’ college student” from 1942 describing how she
expressed a desire … to silly Jack P. [a hapless Australian male acquaintance] for a Yank boyfriend (Melb. & in fact all Austr. is swarming with them—since Xmas—& I felt I’d missed life, not having met one—[but finally] I can tell my Grandchildren … I too had a little experience.
One wonders whether this lady ever did tell her grandchildren about this life-defining seminal experience. Lake discusses similar sexual transgressions of the Anzac idea in another pointedly titled article, “The Desire for a Yank” (Journal of the History of Sexuality, April 1992).
This theme of the Anzac’s inadequacy is pursued in another chapter, which claims the Vietnam War witnessed a further “crisis … of male sexuality”, as Australian soldiers and veterans were consumed by a castration complex. Apparently they were caught in a pincer movement: on the battlefield they were allegedly humiliated and sidelined by the excessively potent Yanks and overwhelmed by the fear of losing their testicles to a land mine—“how can you tell some randy typist that you’re sorry you can’t screw her because you lost your manhood?”—while back home, “the heroic Anzac mythology served only to emphasise the veteran’s emasculated cultural position”, as he was besieged in the realm of sexual competition by “the charismatic anti-war warriors [with their] hirsute machismo” (Robin Gerster, “A Bit of the Other: Touring Vietnam”, Gender and War).
A chapter by Adrian Howe, an Associate Professor of Social Science at RMIT University, sums up this scolding view of the Anzac legend: it is “a masculinist and British imperialist military tradition”; a “nationalistic, militaristic tradition [that is] class-based, race-based, ethnocentric and male-centred”; while Anzac Day is “a day celebrating Anglo-Australian manhood, militarism and a bloody defeat in an imperialist war [and] should be abolished” (“Anzac Mythology and the Feminist Challenge”, Gender and War).
In evaluating all this material it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the constant reiteration of terms like “militarist”, “masculinist”, “imperialist”, “nationalistic”, “racist”, and “ruling class”, with reference to the Anzac legend serves mainly to obscure the absence of genuine thought or research by these writers, and masks the fact that a great deal of their work is either highly subjective and anecdotal or simply ideological verbiage. It is especially notable that very few of the intellectuals discussed above situate their assessment of the Anzac legend within any analysis of the origins, course, and real and potential outcomes of the Great War (or the other conflicts in which Australia has been involved), preferring to adhere to their nihilist premises that the war was pointless, wrong or immoral.
For example, the claims are frequently and uncritically made that the Great War was an imperialist conflict. This invokes the simplistic and discredited Marxist position that was propounded by Lenin in 1917 as he struggled to find a theoretical rationale for what became the Bolsheviks’ precipitant withdrawal of Russia from the war and their acceptance of the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk under which Russia ceded a third of its population, half of its industry and 90 per cent of its coal mines to German control. (The Bolsheviks accepted this because they expected world revolution to erupt at any time, and it was the aggressive promotion of this political messianism by the Comintern that brought the Australian far Left into fateful collision with the Anzac ideal, as we noted above.)
This action had two major effects of relevance here. First, it enabled the Germans to move their military forces from the east to the Western Front, where they very nearly achieved victory in 1918, but for heroic resistance and counter-attacks by the allies in which Australian troops played a key role, thus providing further objective grounds for the emergence of the Anzac legend. Second, the punitive terms of the treaty showed the allies what to expect should Germany win, and this explodes the claim that the war was pointless, as exhaustive archival research and intense scholarly debate has revealed, certainly since the explosive revelations about Germany’s “grab for world power” provided by the German historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s.
Such work makes it clear that the political and military leadership of Germany bears primary responsibility for the war and that they had far-reaching war aims, which if fully implemented after a German victory would have involved the creation of Mitteleuropa, a German-dominated empire encompassing the present-day countries of Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. Other aims included the transformation of Belgium and the Netherlands into satellite states hosting German military and naval bases; the imposition of massive indemnity payments on France, and the annexation of strategic French territory including the major steel-producing area of Briey and a coastal strip between Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Outside Europe, the defeated European nations would have lost their colonial empires, and Britain, in particular, would have lost its navy, India, and its African colonies. These would have formed part of Mittelafrika, a German-dominated African colonial empire occupying most of sub-Saharan Africa, ultimately including South Africa. In Australia’s case we would have had to deal with a victorious and hyper-aggressive super-power, whose autocratic ruling caste dominated Europe and controlled all the sea-lanes upon which our existence as a trading nation depended. Moreover, Germany already controlled German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, Nauru, Palau, German Samoa, the Marshall Islands, the Caroline Islands, and the Mariana Islands, and these would have been the bases for further German imperial expansion in the area, involving the rest of New Guinea, and the Dutch and British colonial possessions in present-day Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Such a world would have provided a global stage upon which a triumphant Germany would have been able fully to vent its political authoritarianism and military extremism, with the results that have been carefully studied and analysed by Isabel Hull in her prize-winning book, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2005):
“From 1870 through 1918, in engagements large and small, in Europe and in the colonies, the imperial German military repeatedly resorted to terrific violence and destruction in excess of Germany’s own security requirements or political goals, in contravention of international norms, and even contrary to ultimate military effectiveness [displaying] a dynamic of extremism that [led] to extermination of civilian populations in the colonies and that characterized German practices in occupied Europe during the First World War.”
Against such a narrowly avoided scenario the military contributions of the Anzacs can be recognised as a great and noble sacrifice, while the creation and nurturing of the Anzac legend can be seen as a grand and heroic ideal that both honoured that sacrifice and defined the cultural context within which Australia, as a fledgling nation, embarked on its journey through history.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer in History & Communications, James Cook University. His article “Gallipoli: Second Front in the History Wars” appeared in the June 2009 issue.