History wars Essay

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Photo – David Karonidis


Stuart Macintyre

Janet Albrechtsen

In 2003, Australian historians came under fire – from each other. Keith Windschuttle, addressing The Sydney Institute, spelt out the errors he believed have riddled the works of
Australia’s historians when recounting the clash between white settlers and Indigenous Aborigines. This caused an uproar from those who disagree with him. Professor Stuart Macintyre, Dean of Arts at the University of Melbourne, has since published The
History Wars (MUP 2003) – outlining his own version of the verbal war between Australia’s historians. Janet Albrechtsen, columnist the Australian, has another view. The papers from the discussion at The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 16 September
200, by Stuart Macintyre and Janet Albrechtson, follow.



Stuart Macintyre

What are the History Wars? They take their cue from a controversy in the United States in 1994 over an exhibition at the Smithsonian
Institute to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World
War. The curators prepared an exhibition that included the aeroplane that had dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and in consultation with historians and veterans’ organisations, they presented the
Enola Gay in a way that invited visitors to ponder the moral legitimacy of using this new and terrible weapon. Despite their careful preparation of the display, there was a storm of criticism in newspapers and talkback radio alleging that it insulted the national honour. The exhibition was scrapped and the director of the museum resigned.
More generally, the History Wars are concerned with the obligations of the historian and the demands of patriotism. They arise when historians question the national story and are accused of disloyalty. In countries such as the former Soviet Union and Japan the state requires historians to glorify the nation. In liberal democracies that respect intellectual freedom, the History Wars arise when politicians and talk-back radio hosts and newspaper columnists take offence at historians who suggest that this country’s past reveals virtue and vice, heroism and cowardice, generosity and meanness, like the history of other countries.
Such arguments over the past gain augmented significance in a period of change and uncertainty that weakens tradition and unsettles older loyalties. The History Wars are an international phenomenon – they rage fiercely in Japan and Germany, Spain and Turkey, Canada and the United Kingdom – yet they invariably appeal to national loyalties.
It is always “our history” which is at stake. The History Wars operate on the martial principle of conquest, of us against them, right and wrong, of a single correct view of history, a misunderstanding of the discipline of history and a profound hostility to the history profession.

No war occurs without an earlier escalation of differences and the
Australian History Wars broke out after earlier skirmishes. During the



1980s there was a protracted contest over the two hundredth anniversary of white settlement. Conservatives alleged that the Bicentenary was impugning the nation’s British origins and promoting “a patronising
‘noble savage’ mystique of the Australian Aboriginal which fully caters to white guilt and black vengeance”. As these charges took hold, the government replaced the chief executive and removed all contentious elements from the Bicentennial program.
Earlier still, there was a campaign to dislodge Manning Clark from his pedestal as a national prophet, while Geoffrey Blainey was taken as a martyr of political correctness and the victim of academic thuggery after he gave his Warrnambool speech in 1984.
The historical profession figured in these media controversies either as accomplice or accuser, but as the History Wars proceeded, its protagonists paid it closer attention. After the Coalition’s victory in