Commercialised and politicised aspects of Gallipoli centenary commemorations have left people wary and resulted in a distorted view of the Anzac campaign, one historian says.
“I think people are feeling like it’s been turned into a kind of circus sideshow that we’re all being sold tickets to,” historian Clare Wright told The World Today.
“More than that, that if we don’t buy those tickets to front up to the extravaganza that in some way we are being less than patriotic,” she said.
The so-called “Anzac-ery” surrounding commemorations has moved Anzac from fact to legend, then myth, she added.
“We’re totally going hell for leather on this one version of remembrance, there’s a lot of other things, other parts of the war, other elements of Australia’s engagement in World War I that are being entirely forgotten in this year of remembrance,” she said.
But there has been no shortage of Gallipoli centenary coverage.
Disappointing ratings for World War I-related television documentaries and dramas have prompted some observers to suggest that the Australian public has begun to suffer.
“I think we are seeing a sense that people see another ad for yet another documentary focussing on Gallipoli or another advertising campaign that’s focusing in some way on the diggers and there’s a kind of collective groan that people are letting out,” Professor Wright said.
“I think that’s where we’re seeing a sense of ennui, almost a kind of nausea in a way where everybody is just over it. I don’t think it’s that there is a sense that they want to show disrespect towards the soldiers or the memory of the Anzacs but the way that that is being exploited presently.”
Australians interested in a sense of historical authenticity
But people are now searching for a deeper understanding, according to Professor Wright.
“I think people really are more interested in a sense of historical authenticity.
“People aren’t stupid and when they feel like they’re being played for mugs I think that there is a way in which what we’re seeing this year is that people are wanting to have a more complex, a more nuanced version of the Anzac story,” she said.
“Certainly a more subtle form of remembrance, a lot more like what the veterans who came home from those wars wanted … the early years of Anzac commemoration was certainly much more about the solemnity of the occasion, the respectfulness of the occasion,” she said.
A “commemoration fatigue” would seem to be at odds with the growing numbers of Australians who have turned out for Anzac Day ceremonies in recent years.
In the late 1970s, many believed Anzac commemorations would die out.
“There were very few people turning up at all [and] it was seen that…Anzac Day had become a lightly rod for protest movements; for feminism, for multiculturalism, for republicanism, for the anti-war movement in general.
“[But] the resurgence in Anzac commemoration has been massive… and I think what we really have to ask ourselves is why that has happened,” Professor Wright said.
“On one hand you can say that it’s because there’s been millions of dollars spent by recent governments, certainly the Government at the moment is spending over $300 million on Anzac commemorations.”
Australia is spending more money on its World War I commemoration than any other country in the world, according to Professor Wright.
“You can’t discount that as a factor,” she said.
“But I think also it shows that there is a hunger for something that Anzac now represents, something about it being a unifying force.”
She said there was a psychological need in our nation to draw back to a particular “birthing story”, to have a sense of our roots, and a sense of belonging that’s grounded in the Anzac story.
Clare Wright is an associate professor with La Trobe University and has recently published an essay titled Forgetting to Remember in the Griffith Review.