It’s often said that those who fail to learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. There is perhaps a greater potential for repeating mistakes if the record of history is inaccurate. And while the first draft of history may very well be written by the victors, it doesn’t often remain so. Time passes, questions are asked and historians seeking a more complete understanding of past events will search for those records that will help open up the past and shed light on all of it—not simply those parts we prefer, or are allowed, to see.
There is, though, a massive difference between trying to create as complete a picture of the past as possible and redrawing it entirely, starting with building a new canvas. And this is what has been happening with respect to Australian history.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Anzacs role in Gallipoli. The debate in recent decades on the Anzacs, the First World War, and Australia’s role within it form part of the larger discussion on history itself—on what is taught, how it is taught, and even to some extent who should write about it. It is a question of identity and whether celebrating the good things in our history is perhaps now ‘too Australian’ for some.
What we teach of our history highlights what we value of our past. It also emphasises what lessons we deem valuable to future generations. The important part of this exercise is that judgement isn’t necessary. There isn’t any need to condemn past generations for not meeting our modern-day standards and expectations—nor does it require that we engage in endless selfrecriminations. Nothing exemplifies this better than slavery.
Slavery did not end with the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. The battle to end slavery began in eighteenth century England with William Wilberforce who spent his entire political career bringing about the abolishment of this practice. So much have we come to abhor the idea of slavery, so ingrained is our objection to this practice that it is easy to wonder how it could have ever been condoned. But this entirely misses the point.
The miracle is that it only took twenty years to legally abolish the British slave trade and a further twenty years to abolish slavery in most of the British Empire at a time when slavery was so common a practice it existed in nearly all cultures world-wide.
This edition of the IPA Review explores history in greater detail over three articles, two of which comprise our feature. The book review of Mervyn F. Bendle’s Anzac and its Enemies details the centurylong attempt to discredit the Anzac tradition. And in ‘The End of History’ Chris Berg discusses what history is being taught at Australian universities and how it is being taught.
These pieces highlight the problems with reducing history subjects into a specialisation—for example environmental history— rather than presenting a bigger picture of history. That isn’t to say that specialisation in and of itself is a problem. Some subjects require it.
But there is a problem with overly filtering the events of the past without providing the bigger picture which allows for perspective and context, both of which are necessary for studying history. As Chris Berg points out in ‘The End of History’, all of Australia’s institutions were imported from Britain, yet our universities offer few opportunities to study British history. This may not seem overly worrisome except that, as Chris explains, ‘origins matter’.
Events like the Eureka Stockade are part of our Australian history, but are also part of the continuing struggle for property rights, a concept which can be traced back to Medieval England.
Likewise, free speech began its long journey from ancient Athens, and despite the many gains made since then, it is still under threat today and even in Western countries is still misunderstood. Indeed, Chris Berg explores free speech in his excellent article on Flemming Rose’s decision, ten years ago, to publish cartoons which depicted Muhammad, and the politics behind the protests against this publication.
No nation has a perfect history. No nation or culture has gotten ‘it’ right every step of the way—no more than any individual can claim a faultless past. We are defined as much by our mistakes as by our successes. And the modern practice of judging the past by the standards of the present is not an effective way to understand or teach the past.