Daily Bulletin


Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Bart Ziino, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Historians have long been engaged in a fractious, sometimes spiteful, debate about the legacies of the first world war. This is especially so because the politics of the war continue to resonate in our own discussions of national identity and purpose.

We debate the extent to which the Anzac tradition reflects our understanding of what makes a good Australian, and how important our cultural affinities are with Britain. Did the war curtail a progressive spirit, and entrench political conservatism, or did it encourage a new confidence in ourselves?

These evaluations were already present the moment the war ended in November 1918. Australians had endured a terrible trauma. Sixty thousand of them were dead from a population of not quite 5 million. Another 150,000 returned sick or wounded, physically and mentally.

Read more: World politics explainer: The Great War (WWI)

Those at home were quick to draw attention to their own sufferings, too. They had known the war not only in its military dimensions, but as an ordeal of waiting and worrying, of constantly fearing the worst. The Victorian parliamentarian John Percy Jones simply declared the war

has kept me in a condition of mental agony. I am hardly able to realise even yet that the fearful times through which we have been passing are now over.

What, then, should we make of that sacrifice? Some called the nation to unity around the experience of the war, and in doing so elevated the Anzacs to the peak of Australian virtue.

In the federal parliament, Senator Edward Millen declared:

this war, amongst other things, has made Australia a nation in a sense that it was not before. It has given us a new conception of national life.

A divided nation

But it was also clear the war had driven apart Australians in the demands it made on the people. Calls to unity faltered, as intense debates over recruiting for the army crystallised in two failed attempts to endorse compulsory military service by plebiscite.

Why Australia is still grappling with the legacy of the first world war Armistice celebrations in 1918. Conscription campaigns polarised Australian politics and society. National Library of Australia

The conscription campaigns divided Australians bitterly. Those who voted against the principle found their loyalty to nation and empire questioned. Those in favour faced accusations they betrayed Australia’s future by sending its young men to die.

Australians voted against conscription in October 1916 and again in December 1917, but the effect was still to polarise Australian politics and society. The Labor Party split over the issue. Prime Minister Billy Hughes walked out and formed government with his erstwhile opponents.

The party’s now unequivocal anti-conscription sentiments found it tarred with the brush of disloyalty and ensured a conservative ascendancy in federal politics until 1929.

Even in private life, those political divisions were deep and abiding. One woman wrote to her soldier husband at the front that she had broken off friendships over the issue:

they don’t come here now since conscription I told them what I thought of them.

Returned soldiers as ‘most deserving’

It is small wonder that those on the political left – many historians included – should feel uncomfortable about the effects of the first world war on Australian society and culture.

Why Australia is still grappling with the legacy of the first world war Dugout at Gallipoli. 60,000 Australians were killed in the First World War. State Library of Victoria, CC BY

The tendency of the war had been to draw Australia more closely into the British Empire’s embrace. The German threat provoked deep expressions of cultural unity with Britain from Australians, and further encouraged them to see their future security in terms of even closer defence and economic ties with the empire.

The Anzac tradition itself embodied those difficult politics, as it promoted the Empire-loyal “digger” as the embodiment of the Australian national character.

Read more: 100 years since the WW1 Armistice, Remembrance Day remains a powerful reminder of the cost of war

In Anzac’s rhetoric, Australian soldiers had proved themselves the exemplars of a series of desirable qualities such as courage, initiative, and loyalty to mates. But they had not so much achieved independence for Australia as raised Australia to equality within a British brotherhood.

For those on the political left, the veneration of the digger displaced all other potential contributions to the making of Australian nationhood, including the contributions of women, pacifists and political radicals.

Why Australia is still grappling with the legacy of the first world war Australian soldiers became the embodiment of national character, and they assumed the position of the most deserving in citizenship hierarchies. State Library of Queensland

It reorganised hierarchies of citizenship, so returned soldiers assumed the position of the most deserving, whether in terms of government largesse or in cultural terms as the embodiment of national character.

But conservative historians have naturally been much more comfortable with that interpretation of the war’s effects than their counterparts.

It speaks to a sense that Australians held close to their British descent and traditions, while also recognising the economic and security value of continued close ties. And it gave Australians a figure whose characteristics were not only to be admired, but emulated in civic life and subsequent conflicts.

Read more: How the Great War shaped the foundations of Australia's future

A century on from the national trauma of 1914-18, the politics of that event remain present. The kind of Australia we prefer to see depends on whether we regret or embrace the effects of the first world war on Australian politics and culture.

As we gather again on the anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars”, we might observe that the conclusion of the war only started the long and continuing effort to come to terms with its meaning.

Authors: Bart Ziino, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Read more http://theconversation.com/why-australia-is-still-grappling-with-the-legacy-of-the-first-world-war-126517

Writers Wanted

Phytonutrients can boost your health. Here are 4 and where to find them (including in your next cup of coffee)

arrow_forward

Healthcare, minerals, energy, food: how adopting new tech could drive Australia's economic recovery

arrow_forward

Review: new biography shows Vida Goldstein's political campaigns were courageous, her losses prophetic

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Prime Minister National Cabinet Statement

The National Cabinet met today to discuss Australia’s COVID-19 response, the Victoria outbreak, easing restrictions, helping Australians prepare to go back to work in a COVID-safe environment an...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

How To Remove Rubbish More Effectively

It can be a big task to remove household rubbish. The hardest part is finding the best way to get rid of your junk. It can be very overwhelming to know exactly where to start with so many option...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Tips To Pass Skills Certifications Tests

Developing the right set of skills is valuable not only to your career, but for life in general. You can get certified in these skills through obtaining a license. Without a certified license, y...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Secure Home-Based Entrepreneurs from Cyber Threats

Small businesses are becoming a trend nowadays. The people with entrepreneurial skills and minds are adopting home-based businesses because of their advantage and ease of working from home. But...

News Company - avatar News Company



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion