What are the ‘History Wars’?

Few cultural struggles are as enduring, bitter, and yet little known as the ‘History Wars’  
Author: Casey Abel
Image Title: Artwork of the Native Police in battle, 1885. Photo Credit: The State Library of Queensland
The Second World War and particularly the Civil Rights Movement prompted a new generation of historians to reconsider the national narrative.

The Australian ‘History Wars’ is a cultural struggle of national identity, often understood as an intense public debate, regarding the revision of Australia’s national narrative. It is generally conceptualised through a political frame of reference, as conservatives versus progressives. Those who argue primarily that the founding of Australia was a peaceful settlement, against those who argue it to have been a violent invasion (Macintyre & Clark, 2004).

The national narrative of Australia came under scrutiny during the 1960’s. The Second World War and particularly the Civil Rights Movement prompted a new generation of historians to reconsider the national narrative. Until then the story of Australia focused on heroic pioneers who, from a peaceful settlement, had carved an economy from an untouched wilderness. The narrative tied social values and national identity to brave and just Anzac warriors. To its end it portrayed the nation as being overwhelmingly White, masculine, and thoroughly British.

An incoming generation of young historians rejected this old orthodoxy. Australia was not solely White. They argued that there had been peoples living in Australia since before the British invaded. They were subject to many cruelties by the British before, during and after the destruction of their societies. The wilderness from which the nation was carved was not untouched, but had been owned and systematically managed. The pioneers who did the carving were not exclusively white, but were joined by Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian peoples, among others (Macintyre & Clark, 2004; Clark, 2006).

What many considered as the nation maturing, others perceived as the destruction of national identity.

The revising of the national narrative was initially well received. It was not until the 1980’s when particularly influential works, such as Henry Reynolds The Other Side of the Frontier or Noel Butlin’s Our Original Aggression, were published that an overly conservative media landscape reacted thus sparking the History Wars. The reactionaries included some historians, however they were predominantly politicians, journalists, and social commentators. The discourse they ignited did not focus on the methodologies of the historical discipline. Instead they engaged, through a disingenuous process of politicisation, in the character assassination of the academics involved.

The History Wars evolved into their current recognisable form during the 1990’s with the rise of the conservative Howard Government. The preceding Labor Whitlam and Keating Governments had embraced the progressing historiography and had both striven for reconciliation with Australasia’s First Nations (Macintyre & Clark, 2004). What many considered as the nation maturing, others perceived as the destruction of national identity. This was the feeling of conservative Prime Minister John Howard (Johnson, 2007). When Howard was elected in 1996, he claimed that Australia’s national narrative was being systematically rewritten ‘in the service of a partisan political cause’ (Australian Government, 1996). The discourse at this juncture was was irrevocably politicised.

The History Wars is an enduring phenomenon and it would be to the benefit of the average citizen to be aware of it. Despite continued conservative backlash, Australian historiography has continued to discover and document new aspects of Australasian history. Significant works in recent years include Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia published in 2012, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu published in 2014. The latter historian being the victim of gross character assassination for his efforts. The History Wars have been waged in many battlefields outside of academia and politics, most notably in Education. The gross interference in Australia’s history education is covered by historian and educator Anna Clark in her 2006 work Teaching the Nation: Politics and Pedagogy in Australian History . Historian and Educator Stuart Macintyre covers the Australian History Wars in his 2004 work The History Wars, which is recommended for further reading.

Reference List

  • Clark, A. (2006). Teaching the Nation: Politics and Pedagogy in Australian History. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
  • Australian Government. (1996, July 5). Sir Thomas Playford Memorial Lecture, Adelaide Town Hall.
    Retrieved from: PM Transcripts: Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia: https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-10041
  • Johnson, C. (2007). John Howard’s ‘values’ and Australian identity. Australian Journal of Political Science, 42(2), 195-209. doi:10.1080/10361140701319986
  • Macintyre, S., & Clark, A. (2004). The History Wars (Updated Edition ed.). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

One Reply to “What are the ‘History Wars’?”

  1. Great points Casey. We teach such a limited section of Australian history. We only cover Caption Cook and ANZAC Day and even then it’s a small section. There is so much more to our history and culture. If we have any chance in reconciliation we need to acknowledge our past.

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