Anzacery, or, Who Is Not Invited To The Great War Centenary?

I watched the commemorations last weekend broadcast from Albany in Western Australia marking the centenary of the departure of the first convoy of ships taking Australian and New Zealand troops to the war. The streets were filled with thousands of cheering onlookers as returned and serving army, navy and air force personnel paraded with banners flying and bands playing. The sun was shining, the old town was all dressed-up, the waters of Prince Royal Harbour and King George Sound were sparkling in a truly inspiring setting. It was all very rousing.

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But it all left me with an odd feeling. Something was missing, but what? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t the sunlit scene, the delight of the crowds or the pride of the marchers. It was something else, something about the way the images were being framed for the television audience, something about the story being told. I wondered if the townsfolk and the marchers knew how their participation was being presented?

Then flicking through the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald two stories caught my attention. The first, a commentary on page 11 upon the Albany commemorations, noted that Banjo Paterson had been in the convoy as a ‘special commissioner’ reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. Banjo was apparently an enthusiastic war correspondent for the paper, and wrote a typically evocative piece describing the departure from Albany. However, it was the final two paragraphs that caught my eye. Paterson’s reporting was ignored, his descendants had not been invited to the commemorations, and there were no official plans to honour or mark his connection to the anniversary. Good enough for a ten-dollar note portrait, but not for Anzac commemorations?

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Then on page 18 there was a report on a rarely-noticed event, the attack on a Broken Hill picnic train on new year’s day 1915 by two ‘Afghan’ cameleers that killed four people and wounded another ten. Local people wanted to commemorate the attack, but their requests for support from the official commemorative authorities in Canberra had been ignored. The local police, back in 1915, killed the cameleers, and the attack was reported in the press as a ‘Turk atrocity’. The local people’s retaliation including torching the German Club in Broken Hill, and preventing the fire brigades from extinguishing the fire.

Thinking back to the commemorations in Albany I began to pick at my unease. The dais from which the official speakers spoke was blazoned with the official “100 Years of Anzac” logo. I have been uneasy about this for some time, as it seems to cast the whole five years of war as a single event, almost predetermined, whose only real significance lay in its causing the creation of the Anzac story and, by implication, the birth of ‘the’ Australian ‘nation’. It follows, of course, that anything not connected to Anzac (especially this version) would not get a place in the “100 years of Anzac” story, and I began to see what was making me uneasy, and I began to see who was not in Albany.

The first, and most obvious missing historical actor, was any sense of British involvement. Australian Prime Minister Abbott once mentioned the British Empire in his speech, and New Zealand Prime Minister Key once referred to the Australian Imperial Force, but otherwise any sense that the convoy of a century ago was participating in a British imperial war, or that the departing soldiery had any sense of Britishness or being British subjects was completely erased from the event. When the laying of wreaths took place, there was eventually a call for the “British Ambassador” to take his turn. The whitewashing of Britishness from the commemorations was, to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of early 20th century Australian or New Zealand history (or current intra-Commonwealth diplomatic terminology), utterly bizarre and ahistorical.

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“100 Years of Anzac”, as well as being Britannically-amnesiac, also appears to have no interest in reconciliation with former enemies, except for a certain type of Turk. ‘Johnny Turk’, fighting from the trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, has been reified as the noble adversary (perhaps has had to be) in order to explain the Anzac’s “loss” in that deadly battle. And, in the roll call of wreath layers was a Turkish diplomat. But, no one was called to represent those erstwhile enemies, the Germans (or the Austrians, Hungarians or Bulgarians). Ironically, that is who the soldiers in the convoy thought they were sailing off the fight. How the Ottoman armies later encountered by the Anzacs in Palestine and Mesopotamia will be represented is yet to be seen, but the historical inconvenience of the ‘Turk atrocity’ near Broken Hill doesn’t augur well.

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The other missing actor from Albany was royalty. The Australian Crown was well represented by the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove KC and the Governor of Western Australia the Honourable Kerry Sanderson AO, but in 1914 there was no Australian Crown, only a single unitary British Crown. The divisibility of the crown was an outcome of the war, but it was unheard off in 1914. Members of the royal family have been evident at war commemorations in Britain and Canada, but apparently have been subject to some sort of silent fatwah in Australia.

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The unease I felt watching the Albany commemorations picked up a similar unease I had felt watching two recent television series, Anzac Girls and The War That Changed Us, both shown on ABC. Both displayed very good production values and told entertaining stories, but at their heart they both conformed to the standard, orthodox, nationalist interpretation of the Great War that has prevailed since the 1960s.

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This interpretation could be called the ‘futilist’ view, and consists of five main points. One, the war was futile and had no actual purpose; two, the main protagonists were Australia (young, free, bronzed, Anzacs) and Britain (decayed, class ridden, pasty, Colonel Blimps) while the Germans and others were a bit of a side-show as ‘our boys’ valiantly fought the incompetent gin-sodden pommie generals; three, everyone on the home front was a pacifist trying to stop the war, either overtly or covertly; four, men only joined up for a ‘boy’s own’ adventure, they had no other meaningful reasons for doing so; and fifth, the few people who actually supported the war in Australia were hysterical imperialists who, by definition, were obviously not real Australians. It is a script straight out of British revisionist historian Alan Clark’s 1961 book, The Donkeys, with an Australian nationalist overlay.

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This futilist approach leaves no space for any counter-narratives. It cannot account for, or even acknowledge, the shameful treatment of German Australians during the war. This national disgrace has never been faced, never accounted for, and still, I believe, forms a large but ignored historical scar. The centenary of the Great War could be a time to open our eyes to seeing this scar, to at least beginning a reconciliation and acknowledgement of our German Australian heritage. It could be a time to face the denigration and repression of German Australia that continued well into the 1920s. It could be a time of healing. It could be time when we might learn of any ‘honourable Germans’, like the Gallipoli Turks. It could be a time to question the war-time attribution of an innate Germanness to the royal family. However, the “100 Years of Anzac[ery]” seems it will be at best ambivalent about any questioning of the German-hating propaganda and rhetoric of a century ago. As the official slogan proclaims, “the spirit lives”.

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The Anzacery of the “100 Years of Anzac”, it seems, is simply unable to cope with histories beyond the futilist view. It just can’t encompass Britishness, reconciliation with old enemies, royalty, a Turkishness beyond Gallipoli, even the descendants of Banjo Paterson. And this is the official commemorative body set up, funded and endorsed by the federal government in Australia. This is the official narrative of commemoration. What is unfolding before our eyes, it seems, and not unexpectedly, is a very limited and nationalistic version of history that, if not endorsed by the “100 Years of Anzac”, then it’s just not the true, real, actual history of the Great War (or rather, of the Anzacs).

It will be fascinating to see just who gets included and who gets excluded from this new official history, and even more fascinating to see the underground commemorations or anti-commemorations that arise among communities who don’t, can’t or won’t conform to the “100 Years of Anzac” official narrative. They might instead choose to mark the centenary of the Great War by trying to understand its consequences that we still live with today.

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References

Neil McMahon, ‘Poet sailed in to Anzac history’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 11

Damien Murphy, ‘First terror attack recalled’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 18

Damien Murphy, ‘Silver City Showdown’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 1-2 November 2014, page 28

‘Centenary of ANZAC: Albany Commemoration’, News, ABC1, 12:00-3:00pm, 1 November 2014, and blog

‘Anzac Girls’, Drama, ABC1, 10 October to 14 September 2014 (six episodes)

‘The War That Changed Us’, Documentary, ABC1, 19 August to 9 September 2014 (four episodes)

100 Years of Anzac: the spirit lives 2014-2018, official website

Alan Clark, The Donkeys: A history of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, Hutchinson & Co., London 1961

The Royal Family attending Commonwealth Great War commemorative services in Glasgow and in Liege

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More than Anzac: Remembering Australia’s German Place Names

The approaching centenary of The Great War or World War One seems to be focused on the ‘front line’, military figures, battlefield memorials and so on.  The official designation is the Centenary of Anzac (see http://www.anzaccentenary.gov.au).  It’s as though the war was fought by our innocent, fun-loving, adventurous Australian lads against blood-thirsty, incompetent, blimpish British generals.  I fear wave upon wave of nationalist jingoism is about to be heaped upon us for the next four or five years.

However there are as many pasts as there are futures, and we can choose to explore different paths to the official history. Prior to the outbreak of the War there were a great many place names used in Australia that were of German origin, and reflected the patterns of settlement by German-speaking colonists.  By 1914, German-born Australians formed 5% of the overseas-born population and 1% of the total population. With their locally-born descendants the community was larger than this figure suggests.

The significance of Australia’s German heritage today can be seen in the 2011 Census. People of German ancestry form 4.5% of the total population, with 83% born in Australia, 10% born in Germany and 7% elsewhere. German is the sixth-largest ancestry group, and second-largest ‘non-British’ ancestry, among Australians.  German is the 8th most-spoken language in Australia.  Despite this strong historical and contemporary presence, Australia’s German heritage is not well known or appreciated in the general community.  This is a silent but lingering legacy of two world wars.

During the war, and especially in and after 1917, at least 96 German place names were replaced with place names that were considered more suitable or patriotic.  Only about 18 of the German names were reinstated in later years.

The name changing took place in a highly charged atmosphere of anti-German feeling.  People of German heritage were being excluded from jobs, business activities, land dealings and other economic and social activities, incarcerated in detention centres (called concentration camps at the time), and labeled enemy aliens.

Recruitment poster showing Australia being re-named under German occupation, 1916

Recruitment poster showing Australia being re-named under German occupation, 1916

About 73% of place name changes occurred in South Australia, but the name changing occurred in all states.  The earliest was in 1915 (Bismark to Collinsvale, Tasmania) and the last in 1920 (Reinholtz’s PO to Reynold’s PO, Victoria). There may also be, at more local and personal levels, instances of the changing of German names for streets, parks, buildings and businesses, or suppressing the use of German language in schools or the press.

There was also a degree of replacing German place-names in German New Guinea after Australia occupied the German colony in 1914 (e.g. Berlinhafen to Aitape, but no change to Bismarck Sea), but it does not seem to have been as extensive as in mainland Australia.

A few instances of name changing occurred in Canada (e.g. Berlin to Kitchener, Ontario 1916), but none in New Zealand.  A bill was introduced in the US Congress in 1918 to change all US towns named Berlin or Germany to Liberty or Victory, but it was never enacted.  Changing German place names seems to have been predominantly an Australian phenomenon in the English-language world during the Great War.

The other major name-changing event during the war was the change of the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha (or Wettin) to Windsor.  By a royal proclamation of 17th July 1917, King George V changed the name of the royal house to Windsor.  He also abandoned all titles held under the German Crown, stripped his German relations of their British titles and encouraged the anglicisation of all German sounding family names (e.g. Battenberg to Mountbatten).  The same happened in Belgium where the royal house name was changed in 1917 from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to van België (Dutch)/de Belgique (French).   The royal house names, whether in their German form or as Windsor or van België/de Belgique, were also place names.  The change of the name of the royal house was widely reported across Australia, it symbolizes the intensity of anti-German feelings throughout the community, it directly relates to the idea of war-inspired name changing, it illustrates the ways that war divided every family, and it provides a transnational element that connects the world-wide character of the war to events within local communities and families.

George V sweeps away his German relatives, and symbolically the German connections of all his subjects: Punch (London), 27 June 1917

George V sweeps away his German relatives, and symbolically the German connections of all his subjects: Punch (London), 27 June 1917

Another significant factor in the replacement of German place names in Australia is its occurrence at around the same time as the conscription referenda in October 1916 and December 1917.  Both resulted in victories for the ‘no’ vote, and exposed many social, cultural and political divisions about the war within local communities and families and between friends and colleagues.

The changing of place names and the changing of the royal house name are book-ended by the conscription referenda.  All occur around the same period during the war, and collectively illustrate a powerful and disturbing mix of anti-German feelings, anti and pro conscription passions, suspicion, gossip, allegations, innuendo and spying within every community.  The brutalization of war reached into every street and home.

The German Arms, Hahndorf, South Australia: a part of Australia's German heritage.  Photo http://www.australia.com/explore/cities/adelaide/sa-hahndorf.aspx

The German Arms, Hahndorf, South Australia: a part of Australia’s German heritage. Photo http://www.australia.com/explore/cities/adelaide/sa-hahndorf.aspx

Not every German place name was changed in Australia.  Notable examples include Adelaide (SA), Coburg and Brunswick (Victoria), Pyrmont and Leichhardt (NSW) and Hermannsburg (NT).  Why were some places different?  What local factors were at work that saved these German place names?

Recovering our heritage of lost or suppressed German place names will provide an opportunity for reflection within local communities about the ways that war on the grandest of scales distorts and damages life in even the smallest suburbs and country towns, within families and between friends. There would be an opportunity to connect with families who changed their German names, or denied their German ancestry, or adopted other tactics to survive anti-German feelings of the period.

Such remembering may also uncover the ‘flip side’ of anti-German feelings, such as the German-Australians who served in the military forces and were accepted by their comrades in arms, as well as the non-German defenders of local Germans and German cultural forms (such as place names and music).

The suppression of German place names is a symbol for the angst and suffering that occurred far from the front lines for communities and families as familiar places and people were deemed alien and cast out as enemies.  The war was fought around every kitchen table and living room, on every verandah and in every meeting room and pub as much as it was fought in the trenches.

Recovering, remembering, perhaps even reinstating our German place names would provide a counter-point to the official narrative, and show the deeply pervasive nature of war far from the scenes of battle.  It would allow all Australians to rediscover and newly-appreciate our shared German heritage, and help some old divisions and hurts to be addressed and reconciled.