Carolyn Holbrook

Lessons from History is a big, ambitious book. Its twenty-two essays – amounting to some 400 pages of research, reflection, and references – seek to pin down, in accessible form, the combined expertise of thirty-three practitioners of history and related fields. Together they address a mélange of pressing issues facing Australia today, testament to the diversity of contemporary Australian history and its interdisciplinary reach. Political, social, economic, business, environmental, and oral historians are all represented, alongside authors whose institutional base is in strategic studies, economics, politics, or administration, but whose work is informed by a keen interest in the past and its lessons.

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The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration edited by Carolyn Holbrook and Keir Reeves

by
April 2020, no. 420

The centenary of World War I offered a significant opportunity to reflect on the experience and legacy of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts. In Australia such reflection was, on the whole, disappointingly one-dimensional: a four-year nationalistic and sanitised ‘memory orgy’ (to use Joan Beaumont’s wonderful phrase). It did, however, galvanise historians to produce important new studies of the war and to tackle long-standing questions about Australians’ attachment to Anzac. Many of those historians, established and early career, feature in The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration.

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The director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, recently announced plans for a $500 million underground expansion of the memorial. In justifying the expenditure, Nelson claimed that commemoration ‘is an extremely important part of the therapeutic milieu’ for returning soldiers; ‘I’ve particularly learned from the ...

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The resurgence of the Anzac legend in the last quarter of the twentieth century took many Australians by surprise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it seemed that the rituals of Anzac Day would wither and fade away as the generations who fought the two world wars died. It proved not to be so. ‘Anzac’, to use the common shorthand, now dominates the national memory of war as strongly as it ever did, although it is not the same legend as it was 100 years ago. Many commentators see this ‘return’ of Anzac as a spontaneous upwelling of national sentiment, a natural and appropriate honouring of those who have died in Australia’s defence. Critics, however, discern a more deliberate orchestration of public sentiment by successive governments, which, for a variety of political purposes, have ‘militarised’ Australian history and sidelined other competing narratives of Australia’s development.

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Reading about the ‘khaki election’ of 1914 in Douglas Newton’s Hell-Bent evokes a sense of déjà vu in 2014, as Australia embarks on another war in the Middle East. During the campaign of 1914, Prime Minister Joseph Cook and Labor leader Andrew Fisher jostled to prove their loyalty to Britain and their enthusiasm for the impending war. Fisher’s efforts to match and outdo the conservative leader for patriotism bring to mind Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s willingness to support the government’s military engagement in Syria and Iraq, and its amendments to national security laws. Plus ça change

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