KIERAN TAPSELL. Anzac Day and apologies for the sins of the past.

Apologies for the sins of the past have always created controversy.  If it is accepted that nations are entitled to glory in the great achievements of their individual members, then it is also appropriate that they regret what other members have done.

The Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has demanded that the Spanish King should apologise for the way the Spanish treated the indigenous peoples of Latin America during the Conquest. The demand has raised indignant hot air from conservative writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian Nobel Prize laureate, who now lives in Spain and who accepted a hereditary title of “Marquis” from the Spanish King.  Accepting a hereditary title says everything about the change in Vargas Llosa’s views that have drifted into extreme conservatism from his younger days when he keenly supported Fidel Castro.

Other more moderate writers, such as Colombia’s Héctor Abad Faciolince, have said that while historical memory is important, such an apology would be pointless because the Spanish have always been less inhibited about intermarrying with the indigenous peoples in their colonies than the English. There could be just as many mestizos in Spain itself as in Latin America.

Javier Marías, a notable Spanish writer, has written an opinion column in Spain’s El Pais, decrying this “modern” tendency of apologising for the sins of one’s ancestors:

“‘Spain’, ‘France’, ‘Mexico’ and ‘Russia’ are not immutable abstractions. Neither are ‘the Church’,  ‘the Crown’ and ‘the Republic’. What we mean by ‘France’ has a thousand faces: the Sun King and Louis XVI (guillotined), the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon and the Commune, those who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them, Algeria of the past, and the present.

“‘Russia’ was ruled by the Czars for centuries, then by the Bolshevists, by Stalin with his massacres, by the tyrannical Soviet, by Gorbachev and Comrade Putin. Should the latter apologize for the excesses of the Czars? Should Macron apologise for the despotism of the French Kings or for the lunatic beheadings? It is not because they should not, but because they can not.

“To ask for forgiveness in the name of others is a case of closet arrogance, however much we are their ‘heirs’. What someone did, good or bad, only belongs to him. The good of the past is not to be attributed to us, and nor should we have to make amends nor be punished for the bad.

“And those who ask for forgiveness (be it the Church, Germany, France or Spain) demonstrate their own arrogance. As arrogant as if the current Spanish state were credited with the greatness of Cervantes and Velázquez or the Italian that of Leonardo and Dante. Each one does what he does, and no one else must claim for himself merit or demerit, prowess or outrage. They are not ours.”

Marías has a point, but it is simplistic, reflecting Margaret Thatcher’s view that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, and that nations and institutions do not really exist, but only the people who control them. Despite what Marías says about Cervantes, Velázquez, Dante and Leonardo, Spain and Italy do bask in the glory of these geniuses.

In 1991, Pope John Paul II apologised for the burning of Giordano Bruno. He was not accepting personal responsibility for it, nor was he asking for forgiveness from any of Bruno’s descendants or relatives if they still exist. He was recognising that the Church had committed a serious injustice. Likewise, when Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal people on behalf of the Australian nation for the stolen generation, he was not accepting any personal or collective responsibility of those living today, but was recognising that a grave injustice had been done in the past.

If Marías’ view is correct, then the German people should never have tried to make reparation for the Holocaust. Nations do gloat in the glory of their heroes who achieved great things in the past, whether as statesmen, painters, composers, writers or architects. If nations and groups of peoples are allowed to gloat over the glories of their individual members, then it is also appropriate that they should regret what other members have done.

Recently the annual Appin Massacre memorial ceremony took place at the Cataract Dam. A descendant of Captain James Wallace, in charge of Governor Macquarie’s soldiers who carried out the massacre in 1816, attended and laid a wreath. She was not accepting any personal responsibility for what her ancestor had done, but her gesture was warmly welcomed by the local Aboriginal people and everyone else present. She told us privately that most of her family have adopted the “Best We Forget” official attitude to the massacre, starkly represented by the absence of any mention of the Frontier Wars at the national War Memorial in Canberra. It seems that those in charge have adopted the Windshuttle line that Aboriginal attacks on British settlers were like “modern-day junkies raiding service stations for money”.  Australia would be a better and more honest place if this woman’s much appreciated gesture were copied in Canberra.

Kieran Tapsell is an author and translator.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Consider contributing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to KIERAN TAPSELL. Anzac Day and apologies for the sins of the past.

  1. Kieran
    Being a celebrant and conscious of the fact that ceremonies express, reinforce and transmit values, a ceremonial apology, like Rudd’s, communicates and reinforces what we believe, and try to practice now, and into the future. It there fore has great value in that sense.
    Australia’s two biggest crimes are the treatment of the indigenous and the imprisoning of innocent people on Manus and Nauru. They both make me ashamed to be an Australian – and perpetrated by politicians who claim to be Christian. Too much for Messenger.

  2. Kieran Tapsell says:

    “(a) wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations.”
    Those words only exclude the Frontier Wars if it is accepted that neither the Aborigines nor the earlier English settlers were “Australians”. I couldn’t imagine any court accepting that.

    • J. Donegan says:

      Kieran I think that we may be at cross purposes here, such that while you may be correct about what a Court could decide – and I do not discount that possibility, the trouble is however, for as long as the definition of Military History in the relevant legislation remains unchanged, the situation will not advance.

      I am suggesting only that without Parliamentary intervention, nothing of consequence will happen, and any possible resolution via the Courts may be very difficult to achieve; in fact I suspect any Judge would greatly prefer to avoid the can of worms that waits in this complex and fraught area – the definitional headaches would not stop.

      As far as I can see Kieran, one of the difficulties –both for the Parliament, and certainly for any potential Judge is that in order to include the words “Frontier War or Frontier Wars” into the definition of Military History, the adjacent term: “active service” would now have to include reference to (armed) service within the Commonwealth for starters (in order to pre-date the First World War definition), and then (armed) service within Australia itself – with such service deemed to have taken place at or shortly after Settlement and for an indefinite period thereafter. Nowhere near satisfactory but perhaps a start!

      In addition, those who were engaged upon such service would need to be defined, either as soldiers, civilian soldiers or some other like term, but the real point is that unless they were now somehow regarded as Australians, they would still be (and remain) British subjects. And what of the Indigenous inhabitants against whom such wars or war-like operations were conducted? What would be their status consequent upon these changes? Would they likewise be (and remain) British subjects or now be regarded as Australians? Either way the constitutional ramifications would be truly explosive – to say nothing of the political fallout.

      While I can’t see anyone presently wanting to embark upon such a perilous adventure, it remains my contention that the Australian Parliament is the best chance, and perhaps the only chance for any possibility of the Frontier Wars becoming part of the remit of the Australian War Memorial.

  3. J. Donegan says:

    Thank you Kieran, I think the point you make is of universal application and a great pity that it can’t be applied more often. Maybe the moral here is not to wait for officialdom to act – there is much we can do as individuals – whether on the quiet or not.

    I note your reference to the Australian War Memorial and the absence of any mention of the Frontier Wars. Like yourself and a growing number of others, I do regard this as a singular lack in the Memorial’s (reference) collection.

    This situation could be rectified in either of two ways:
    (1) If the Government of the day was willing to amend the relevant legislation which governs the activities of the Memorial and in particular the collection and dissemination of historical material, which by definition, is limited to Australian Military History.

    Quite simply, the Frontier Wars (so called) don’t form part of Australian Military History, given that such history is interpreted as meaning: “…the history of:
    (a) wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and
    (b) the Defence Force.”.

    (2) The governing Council of the Memorial can obtain whatever material it wants to, provided always that material is “historical material”. That’s the problem, and I don’t blame the Council for not wanting to act without authority.

    However if the Council (or any member) sought to step outside the present limitations of the legislation and obtain and/or present “other” material, it’s a fair bet there would be an uproar – not least from a certain media company. In that event, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who has the responsibility for the administration of the legislation could theoretically sack the Council. And there unfortunately, the matter rests.

Comments are closed.