David Stephens.  Anzackery in the time of Anzac

Anniversaries sharpen sensations and heighten moods. Christmas brings on good feelings, New Year provokes resolutions, siblings’ faults are set aside on their birthdays. Centenaries accentuate this quite normal process. The centenary of Anzac has brought on a welter of commemoration, slopping over into celebration, with a good lashing of commercialisation as well. Honest History revived the term ‘Anzackery’ to apply to what was happening.

The word ‘Anzackery’ seems to have been coined by the historian Geoffrey Serle in 1967 to describe Anzac Day addresses from his primary school days in the 1930s, when ‘fire-breathing’ officers from the Great War described how Australia had been ‘born’ at Gallipoli. Professor Stuart Macintyre used the word to the present author in March 2013 and attributed it to Serle. Some years earlier James Curran had wrongly taken ‘Anzackery’ to be Serle’s synonym for Australian nationalism in general.

As minted by Serle, in fact, the word had a flavour of irritable, pompous jingoism and that is how Honest History has used it. There are doubtless examples in speeches by RSL representatives. More recently, the current Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Nelson, has developed a standard speech which is medium strength sentimental Anzackery; it brings audiences – and sometimes Dr Nelson – to tears. He also refers to a set of ‘Anzac values’ (mateship, courage, resilience, and so on) which are really universal values.

Recently, a group of military historians and retired soldiers took up the challenge to define ‘Anzackery’ in an etymologically defensible way. Work is proceeding but the outline of the definition is clear. First, Anzackery distorts Australia’s military history to make the Australian contribution more important than it was in reality. Gallipoli, for example, becomes ‘Australia versus the Turks’ and the efforts of British, French, Indians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders and Germans fade into the background. Similarly, in 1918 in France, General Monash becomes the military genius who turns the fate of the war.

As well as the inflation of Australian contributions to wars, Anzackery encompasses the Australian lack of interest in the impacts of war on non-Australians. This comes up every year in February, for example, when Australians commemorate the deaths of a few hundred civilians in the bombings of Darwin and other towns in February 1942 but mostly ignore the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Australian deaths in wars in the twentieth century amount to around 0.04 per cent of all deaths in wars and conflicts around the world in that century but there are surely not war deaths anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of Civil War deaths in the United States) that are commemorated so relentlessly and repetitively.

The inflated version of Australia’s military role in the Dardanelles and elsewhere is used to promote patriotism and encourage support for current wars. Emotive rhetoric prevails; emotion, sentiment and nationalism are at the heart of Anzackery but it is rarely peddled without purpose. Prime Minister Hawke’s memoirs show that he consciously linked Australian efforts at Gallipoli and the first Gulf War. Howard made similar connections, as did Gillard. A lyrical version of Anzac (sometimes rendered as ‘the Anzac tradition of arms’ when soldiers are in the audience) has become a staple of prime ministerial speeches. Here is Prime Minister Rudd in 2010:

For Australia, our identity has been etched deeply by what we call ANZAC. For nearly a century … ANZAC has occupied a sacred place not far from the nation’s soul. It shapes deeply our nation’s memory. It shapes deeply how we see the world. A hundred years later, it shapes too what we do in the world. Neither religious nor secular, whatever our beliefs are, ANZAC is profoundly spiritual – inspiring pilgrimages still to that far-off place where our modern-day pilgrims drink deep from the well of national memory … I believe each generation of Australians has a duty to pass this torch to the next.

Honest History’s favourite exhibit, though, is ‘The Spirit of Anzac’, composed by the long-time chairman of the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland, Colonel Arthur Burke OAM (Ret’d). It has been extant for many years, it was written to inspire children, and it has been quoted regularly in entries by Year 9 and 10 students in the Simpson Prize essay competition.

The Spirit of ANZAC is invincible [according to Burke]. It is the flame that burns forevermore in the heart of every true Australian and New Zealander. Today we stand safe and free, clothed with all the privileges and rights of citizens in these great free countries. And all these things – liberty, security, opportunity, the privileges of citizenship – we owe to those men who fought, endured, suffered, and died for us and for their country. Their deeds and their sacrifices gave us the invincible, the intangible, the Spirit of ANZAC.

Burke’s piece is a good example of how Anzackery targets children. The commercial aspect of Anzackery is almost as egregious, though this element could be seen as the inevitable response from business to demand from politicians, commemorative institutions and the public. As examples of this strain of Anzackery, Carolyn Holbrook, author of Anzac: the Unauthorised Biography, has catalogued the Anzac Run, Camp Gallipoli, various Anzac Centenary Cruises, a ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ CD, Gallipoli ear-rings, oven mitts and pot holders, the ‘Anzac Day Thank You Baby Blanket’, the ‘Anzac Descendant’ t-shirt and another item, the ‘Anzac Pin-up Girl’ t-shirt, which is no more than soft core pornography. Anzackery is a cash-cow.

Phenomena like Anzackery spread when they are not contested. There is growing anecdotal evidence that many Australians, while respectful of our war dead, are uncomfortable at extreme forms of commemoration-celebration. (Some people feel intimidated by the noise coming from the Anzackers or are afraid of being seen as disrespectful.) Hyperbole ultimately devalues its object. Sentiment prevents us asking important questions about why we fight wars. The Anzac centenary should be marked by vigorous debate. Anzackery is a bubble that needs to be pricked.

David Stephens is secretary of Honest History (honesthistory.net.au) a coalition of historians and others supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history during the centenary of World War I. The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History.



David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and co-editor of The Honest History Book (2017). He has contributed many articles to Honest History and Pearls and Irritations. He was previously an Australian public servant and a government relations consultant. He is editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) and co-editor of The
Honest History Book (2017). He was an Australian public servant for nearly twenty years, then a consultant.

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7 Responses to David Stephens.  Anzackery in the time of Anzac

  1. Response to Bruce below. Suggest a good read of our website which shows both range of my views (attempting to balance sentiment and reason, look for the piece about war cemeteries) and of our contributors. I’ve never had an issue about dignified commemoration and have done a good deal of it myself. By the way, need to get the spelling correct of my surname – Stephens. David Stevens is a naval historian, whose book about the navy in WWI is just about to be reviewed on the HH website (by Alan Stephens, no relation). Sounds like balance to me.

  2. Avatar tasi timor says:

    ANZAC values mateship etc just practical, needed for military morale as we’re no longer a nation of collective religious faith nor Brit empire.

    Funniest anzackery comes from WA where just 15 years after WW1 most returned men voted to secede, the biggest act of subversion in our history. So much for nationbuilding. All the old families know how grandad voted, just don’t expect anyone to mention it when there’s free travel and goodies to be had.

  3. Avatar Bruce Cameron says:

    There are extremes in the opposing views on any subject. David Stevens points this out when he refers to: irritable, pompous jingoism; hyperbole; and emotive rhetoric as being the hallmarks of the commemoration of those Australians who have died in defence of us and our country. He is, of course, equally guilty of both extremism and distortion of the debate surrounding how our Nation should most appropriately commemorate our war dead.

    He argues that “Sentiment prevents us asking important questions about why we fight wars”. If we take a rationale approach to this, we must acknowledge that wars are fought to protect our national interests, and, as a democratic country, we elect representatives to decide on our behalf what our national interest are. If we are not prepared to debate the advantages and disadvantages of ‘democracy’, then we must avoid extremism and adopt an ‘understanding’ philosophy in expressing our viewpoint.

  4. Avatar Doc says:

    Off load “NZ” & we have “AAC” – aacery.
    The whole thing is such a beat up.
    Slessor’s “Beach Burial” is the “truth”.

  5. Love ‘war paint’ Michael and will appropriate on occasion if I may.

  6. Avatar Michael D.Breen says:

    Significant piece thank you, David. Though freedom of speech is supposed to be one of the things Australians fought for this freedom does not seem to extend to serious discussion of ANZAC. Questioning some of the mythology and the uses of the myths by unscrupulous politicians has in my experience led to accusations of “attacks on soldiers who cannot defend themselves” or “My uncle died there how dare you!” Frankly I am nauseated by the current swelter of celebratory forms and rewriting of Australia’s being gulled into going to that field of war, its breaking of the Australian Constitution to train an expeditionary force in 1911 in a secret deal signed with the British Home Office and the inflation of our contribution as mentioned above. It is strange how the errors and stupidities of the fight in Dardanelles are rewritten as if they make sense and a sense to be revered. Our two days of national celebration Australia Day and Anzac Day ought be days of national shame, only creative writing and culpable ignorance could promote them as spiritual icons. I had not heard of Anzackery, but thanks for it. I had coined “war paint” as repainting, reframing war for dubious purposes.

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