Anzac Day and ‘nationalism’

By May 1, 2019Other

Some 37,000 people attended the dawn service at the Australian War Memorial on Anzac Day. That’s a bit less than ten per cent of Canberra’s population. We were not part of that crowd, but our nursing home put on an Anzac Day service that was sensitive and well thought-out. We did go to that one, and as usual, I kept thinking about what ‘Anzac’ means now, and what the young people think about it. Last year 17,000 Australians and New Zealanders went to the service at Gallipoli; this year, given the recent strife in the Middle East, and the warnings from our own Government, the number was around one thousand.

What does it all mean? When I was an Air Cadet (1951 and 1952, I think) we paraded as a part of the Anzac service, but we did not march. The marchers included a lot of Great War veterans, and of course a comparable number from World War II. As the years passed, so did the Great War veterans. The last to die was John Campbell Ross, who died in 2009, aged 110! He was a wireless operator who never left Australia or saw active service. Now it is the WWII veterans who are ageing and dying, and the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan returned service-people who are in the majority.

Anzac Day as a remembrance started very early, with ceremonies within a few months of the actual landing in 1915, and it grew in popularity. The second great war boosted its significance even further, but the divisions within Australia over our role in the Vietnam war politicized the event, with protesters using the occasion for their own ends. It was felt that Anzac Day might soon pass, especially as the original Anzacs were themselves largely gone. From the 1990s on, however, the Anzac Day dawn services and official remembrance have grown in attendance, and there seems little likelihood of a slump in popularity any time soon. The younger generations have embraced it, and there can be few families of Australian-born fathers and grandfathers that have not been touched by their families’ participation in military conflict.

What follows is sustained speculation. I have no real evidence for any of it. Our younger generations are involved in a search for the meaning of ‘us’. It was no problem for my generation. Australia had supported the British Empire in the Great War because we were loyal to the King, and Australia was a key part of the Empire, determined to show that we were as good as the rest, or even better. Before films started at the local cinema, the King’s image was projected on to the screen and the audience stood up in respect. I simply assumed that this was the way things were. I had no special love for the King, or for Britain, but I did feel that we had come from there, so there was a bond, or link, that was important. Some of that sentiment is still present in my sense of self.

The ‘usness’ of 1950 was based on the great preponderance of Australians whose ethnic roots lay in Great Britain and Ireland. Yes, there was a division between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant rest, but that was subordinate to a strong sense that all of us were Australians, and that meant something important. What exactly it meant I don’t think any of us could articulate well, but it was really important in sport, and of course it had been most important in war. We didn’t celebrate Anzac Day as a glorification of war, or of sport, for that matter, but as a sign that our nation, one that grew in size and strength and self confidence throughout the 20thcentury, amounted to something, and would be even more important in the years ahead, which has proved to be largely true, I think. Anzac Day symbolized the formation of the nation, and gave it a founding myth that has some romance to it. 

All nations need founding myths. Indigenous ‘dreamings’, the fable of Romulus and Remus, the descent of the gods in Ancient Greece, Genesis for the Jewish people — sooner or later there develops a story of how ‘we’ came to be who we are; the myth is a source of pride, and of belonging. It enables us to take our neighbours seriously as good people, those who we can trust. We recognise other Australians in foreign countries, and feel good about that, for the most part. I have argued before that the nation-state is the most important entity in the modern world, and the nation-states that are best at the business of delivering a good life to the great majority seem to have a good sense of themselves, and a good sense of who they are, relative to other nations. 

That is one of the problems with the present European Union, which is an attempt to subdue the nation-state, and thereby the distinctiveness of the nation-states within the Union, in the interest of a peaceful co-existence that would rule out wars in Europe. It may be a noble aspiration, but it cuts across that sense of ‘us’ that makes the nation-state work well. It diminishes local histories, cultures, languages and myths. Increasingly, it seem, parts of the EU are having to deal with dissident populations who don’t want to be ruled from Brussels. The Brexit referendum showed how powerful that sentiment could be in the usually unexcitable United Kingdom.

I think our younger generations are having something of the same struggle to determine what it means, in our case, to be ‘Australian’. And the Anzac myth provides an opportunity for many to fasten onto something that has some quasi-religious tone to it, and brings us together on one day in the year. Some others of the young have abandoned Australianism in favour of global interest and action, notably in climate change. Those involved here want to be part of something virtuous and meaningful, and they can see our present society as too materialistic and almost meaningless. The meaning they want comes from the brotherhood of man (it’s too hard to make that phrase gender-neutral) not from the nation-state. That they plainly do not understand the problems with ‘climate change’ is of little importance. They want to be part of something global and noble. A lot of the young have involved themselves in community work of one kind and another, to make Australia a better place, and in doing so they do bring the society together.

We had a very British ‘Australia’ when I was young. When I was in my forties Australia had emerged into the global world as a serious competitor, not just in sport or war, but in music, literature, art, drama and other cultural pursuits. We were wealthy enough to make that happen, and determined not to have a cultural cringe any longer. Now, in my eighties, I see a less confident Australia whose citizens are not sure what they want their country to be, and even less sure how they could achieve such an end. We want leaders, but we haven’t much time for the present crop. We want the goodies the nation-state can provide, but are not especially interested in how the wealth comes to be generated, or how it should be divided up, so long as our special interest is properly served. We have to fasten onto something that provides a modicum of meaning, and Anzac Day is the best we have. That it immortalizes a military defeat is not important. It is where ‘mateship’ and sacrifice and service were demonstrated, and we hope that these attributes still distinguish us from the rest of the world.

At least, I think so.

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • david purcell says:

    Thanks Don. An interesting Post.

    You say that the younger generation do not understand the problems with climate change and this is of little importance. Perhaps you are right. However I think they seem to have little knowledge of our history and democracy, and if they did their apparent enthusiasm for socialism may waver a bit. So many of them have turned to environmental and political activism with little knowledge of the consequences.

  • Hasbeen says:

    My father served the country in the RAAF during WW11. 13 years later I joined the navy, & served my country. 40 years later my son joined the navy, & served the country.

    15 years later son & I were recently discussing what the country is becoming. We regretfully agreed that neither would bother to serve what was once our country is now becoming.

    • Chris Warren says:

      If you really want to serve your country – there are plenty of charities and community services that could use your support.

      Serving Australia is not restricted to wars.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “If you really want to serve your country – there are plenty of charities and community services that could use your support.”

    When you assist Getup you are not serving your country, blith.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks Don for your very good summary of what we were, are now and where we are heading.

    It seems the more well-off we become, the bigger the potential problems we face.

    Our parents who suffered 2 world wars and a cruel depression and literally longed for what they have given us, were possibly better off by living in a more black and white age.

    They knew what had to be done so they just gritted their teeth and got on with it. They had help from half a world of crazy socialists demonstrating the stupidity of their philosophy in no uncertain terms.

    The war experience as demonstrated by Anzac Day at least has the effect of focussing our view.

  • Peter E says:

    A most thoughtful essay. I was one of the 37,000 remembering those who put their lives on the line to defend our country. All Australia’s wars have been defensive wars, including the attempt to prevent the aggressive north Vietnamese from taking away everything that those of the south had. It was when the cold war became a hot war and where, as in Korea, the mistaken philosophy of communism was confronted. Although that war was lost, within a few years the Soviet Union had collapsed. Today there is more socialism in Canberra than in Hanoi, I am reliably informed. I agree that the nation-State remains the key building block for peace and prosperity and until all nations are democratic there can be no case for some sort of UN/EU style socialism/globalism. Remember the words of Edmund Barton prior to federation – ‘a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation.’ The world wars saw the defeat of aggressive German and Japanese autocracy and dictatorship. Now, new wars equally vital to win are upon us and those bearing the burden need our support. And, by the way, Gallipoli was but round I in a 15 round fight that ended with Sir Harry Chauvel leading the Desert Column through Jerusalem.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Don, an interesting piece and much to comment on because we don’t share a heritage. I (eldest of 4) was born in Hong Kong in 1938 from Dutch parents. My older sister was born in Batavia in 1940. Family circumstances dictated that the two oldest were educated in Hong Kong and then in Sydney boarding schools, (my parents never lived in Australia) and my 2 post-war siblings were educated in HK and then Holland, which is where they made their lives. So, that’s the background. By the way, I was a cadet (army) at Joeys for 3 years (intermediate to LC, 1954-56) and so participated in 3 Anzac Day marches as a side drummer in the band, going around at least twice each time. I have been to some (not many) dawn services at the War Memorial (and some mid-day services outside Canberra) but I watch the Sydney march every year partly for its military history commentary and partly for current defence force information. What I also see in the faces is resolve, pride, tenacity, and many other good characteristics and it moves me to tears each year, because I get this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. I have grown to love this country, and what I see is others who also loved this country to the extent that they were willing to die for it. I have 5 grown grandchildren in Sydney (and 3 toddlers in Canberra) and as each one has left school they spend a week with me. The first place I take them is the War Memorial, and then Parliament House. The sentiment or feeling that I try to impart is not to take our freedoms for granted. So, I don’t see Anzac Day as a myth (I think that you used that term several times) but as an occasion for bestowing honour and gratitude. I see a myth as a fantasy so perhaps ‘tradition’ might have been a better word. Some other thoughts. I despair at politics and education. We seem to have no leaders. That is one reason why I would not vote for a republic. I have no feelings for British royalty but I see them as serving an important role in our Constitution — a sort of insurance policy. I certainly identify with the concept of nation states. Such are repositories of history, tradition, pride, service, and more. The European Union is fast becoming the Soviet Union of the 60s. To emphasise such sentiments, I’m going to the Dutch Remembrance Day ceremony at Russell on Saturday (4 May, the day Germany marched into Holland). That said, I have only lived in Holland for 18 months of my whole life (December 1946 to August 1948) so maybe that says something about deep-felt allegiances to nation states. Being an Australian whether by birth or fiat is like having won the lottery of life. Thanks Don, and long may you continue to write.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    There was a recent video on yotube showing Londoners being interviewed about what it meant to be British. Long pause, then “passport”. I don’t doubt that the response from most ‘recent’ arrivals would be similar.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      I should add that I was up for a Green Card in America before I decided to come home. I did not want to be an American, but that was where the jobs were, and if I had stayed, I would have remained an Australian. Despite Don’s spin, if you took a photo of the ANZAC services, multicultural Australia would be prominent by its absence.

  • Chris Warren says:

    The real meaning of ANZAC day is being lost and morphing towards arbitary militarism.

    Our family lost 2 killed in France in April 1917 and never attended ANZAC memorials.

    A great grandfather won the Military Cross, and was disabled the rest of his life through being wounded in the neck. That side of the family also did not attend ANZAC memorials.

    There were many, many maiden aunts left who also did not celebrate ANZAC day.

    The true Australian national identity needs a different grounding.

    • margaret says:

      I wish there was a like button for your comment Chris Warren.

    • Boambee John says:


      Have you followed family practice and avoided ANZAC Day ceremonies?

      If you have followed that practice, perhaps you could attend a Dawn Service some time. Not much “arbitrary militarism” at those I have attended.

      • Chris Warren says:

        In the early 1960’s I attended a ANZAC Day event in Condobolin but I did not understand what it was.

        In the early 1970’s I was forced to attend a ANZAC Day event in Wagga Wagga as some bright spark decided they wanted Boy Scouts in uniform to fill out vacant spots.

        I have not gone anywhere near since.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “The real meaning of ANZAC day is being lost and morphing towards arbitary [sic] militarism.”

    I’m surprised that honouring those who died honourably in defeat whilst trying to bring a swift end to the deadliest war in history is frowned upon and criticised as arbitrary militarism even by the foolish.

    Australians have plenty of victories in WW1 to celebrate but we choose a defeat.

    That tells me something somewhat different about us.

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