Historians are not cheerleaders

06 Nov

While not disagreeing that respect should be paid to those who have served in the Australian Defence Forces, especially those who died, and while not applauding the cheerleaders of the extreme Left either, I do worry about some of the points made today by Gerard Henderson in Due respect at last – from most.

…As Remembrance Day approaches, it is appropriate to recall that the fallen have not always been so honoured. For years, many academics and commentators have maintained that Australians fought in other people’s wars – which covered every commitment from World War I [1914-18] to the first Gulf war (1990-91), with the exception of the Pacific war against Japan in the early 1940s.

This fashionable leftist view – which reached its zenith with the release of the film Gallipoli (director: Peter Weir; screenplay: David Williamson; historical adviser: Bill Gammage) in 1981 – essentially maintained that Australia’s fallen had died in vain…

My uncle, Driver Alan Dargavel, died 90 years ago tomorrow on the Western Front during the final stages of the Third Battle of Ypres. This was not a stunning military success, although, as Australia’s official war historian C.E.W. Bean pointed out, it did have a deleterious effect on the German army.

Uncle Alan’s death had a devastating impact on my mother’s family and I learnt of him at an early age. I still think often about Alan Dargavel and I visited his grave at Dickiebusch in Belgium during my first visit to Europe.

My family did not want to be told by tenured academics that he died in vain. Yet this was the view that emanated from universities around the 1960s until relatively recent times. In The Anzacs (Viking, 2007) Dr Peter Pedersen, who has served in the Australian Defence Force, makes a compelling case that “Germany’s defeat was vital for Australia’s future” and that the members of the Australian Imperial Force “were fully aware of that”. As were their family members and loved ones on the home front.

The myth that “they died in vain” prevailed in relation to World War I. It was soon dropped as a description of the early years of World War II because it was not in the left’s interest to remind others that it had opposed the war effort when Britain and the Commonwealth nations stood alone against Nazism.

In his A Concise History of Australia (CUP, 1999), Stuart Macintyre makes no mention of the Hitler-Stalin pact or its domestic impact.

Likewise Macintyre makes no specific reference to the early wartime alliance between Nazism and communism in the introduction of his bibliography Communism in Australia, written with Andrew Wells. But he does mention that the Communist Party joined the “anti-fascist struggle” after “the Soviet Union entered World War II as an ally of Britain and Australia”. By then the extreme left had dropped its claim that Australian military personnel were murderers. This was not repeated. However, some members of the left continued to barrack for communist forces that were engaging Australians in battle…

My family did not want to be told by tenured academics that he died in vain. Think about the implications of that. Is it the task of the historian to tell us what we want to hear, to devote themselves to making us feel good? I would not have thought so. As for Gallipoli, which is after all a movie not a work of history, I would have though that in the end it has done more than academic historians of either the right or the left — or neither — to keep alive the Anzac legend. But it is no more strictly true than The Man from Snowy River is.

There has been a tendency in Australia to put a somewhat Nordic spin on those who fall in battle, however; I can recall Cam Williamson, himself a veteran, Presbyterian minister in Sutherland in the 1950s and early 60s, saying that one thing that worried him about Anzac services is that some seemed to believe in Valhalla. I know what he meant. Somewhere between cynicism and apotheosis a proper attitude of respect may be found.

See also Late Anzac Day thoughts.

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8 responses to “Historians are not cheerleaders

  1. David Smith

    November 7, 2007 at 4:42 am

    I agree with Niall Ferguson on World War I. Britain should never have got involved (then Australia never would have got involved). It shouldn’t have. Germany didn’t have the resources to impose a full-blown empire across Europe, and so Germany’s victories over Belgium and France would have resulted in a German dominated European Customs Union that wouldn’t have looked too different from the EU today. Then think about what might have happened . . .
    1. No Treaty of Versailles (which was both too harsh and not harsh enough, enough to breed substantial German resentment but not enough to prevent German rearmament) thus no constituency for the Nazi Party, no holocaust and no World War II.
    2. No Russian revolution (which found support among workers and soldiers only because of the atrocious effects of the war on Russia, which probably would not have got involved if Britain hadn’t). Thus Russia’s liberalisation might have been completed and its cultural output uninterrupted, there would have been no Soviet communism, no gulags, no Stalin, and in all likelihood no Chinese or Cambodian revolutions and attendant mass murders.

    Of course, there could also be negative repercussions, since the world wars also triggered some important unintended consequences, like the decolonisation process and almost unthinkably huge leaps in technology.

    But the point is (in full agreement with the post) that it is absurd to maintain that insisting on the military importance and usefulness of a certain campaign is a necessary condition for honouring the dead from that campaign, or those who served in it. While it is comforting to be able to say that servicemen and women died for our freedom, in the vast majority of history’s wars that just isn’t true, and the important process of Remembrance would die out if we had to rely on it being true.

  2. ninglun

    November 7, 2007 at 7:52 am

    Indeed, David, we are still suffering the results of World War I.

  3. Davo

    November 7, 2007 at 8:20 am

    “If” .. heh. Be nice if we could just reformat the hard drive and begin again .. perhaps change to a different OS .. Linux, perhaps, OS10Leopard ?? Rewrite history to suit ourselves. Unfortunately some “facts” and universal analogue time refuses to operate like that.

    My father (RAAF) died in 1945, but strangely enough I have to see it as a “workplace accident”. Have only three letters from him, but in each one he says “.. off on another job tomorrow” or ” .. have just come back from another job” . On the last “job” he found himself in a terminally descending tube of aluminium.

    Did he, as an individual, change “history”? Probably not.

    Should I “honour” him, and the “job” that he was doing at the time?

    I think so.

  4. ninglun

    November 7, 2007 at 8:52 am

    I agree entirely with your remarks about your father, Davo; my own father was never quite the same after the War, though he survived. He certainly (as RAAF ground crew) saw his share of “workplace accidents”. He told me once of seeing a Hudson bomber crashing in flames, for example.

    Objectively speaking, though, there are families across the world which have been devastated by war, and they and their loved ones are not all that different from us and our loved ones.

    David Smith’s point is that the whole “in vain” issue really is a tough one; he is quite right about the sheer folly of World War I, but as you say we can’t rewind. On the other hand it isn’t “rewriting history” to make such a point; in fact it is writing history in the true sense: impartially. Historians — be they Aussie, Japanese, German, Russian, American or whatever — should not be cheerleaders.

  5. Daniel

    November 7, 2007 at 10:19 am

    The study of history should be banned! No one ever learns anything from it so why bother. Cheers.

  6. ninglun

    November 7, 2007 at 10:27 am

    I guess, Daniel, that is why the careful study of history is important. We do need to know more than the last five minutes in order to understand anything of this world. What we may or may not learn from it is not really up to historians.

  7. Daniel

    November 7, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Are you claiming to be able to make sense of this world, Neil, to understand even part of it?

    I can’t make any sense of it at all! Much ado about nothing I reckon. Cheers.

  8. ninglun

    November 7, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    I’m not claiming any extraordinary insight, Daniel.

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