11th Greek Australian Legal and Medical Conference
Crete, Greece 2007

Why history matters?

Les Carlyon

About seven weeks ago in Melbourne, Neil Mitchell, the morning presenter on Radio 3AW, opened his programme by saying he was in favour of restoring history as a separate subject in Australian schools.

He didn’t think he was doing anything controversial, but almost immediately he had a cranky listener on the phone. History didn’t deserve a separate subject, the caller said, a quaver in his voice. His anger was barely under control.

Why did he feel so strongly? Mitchell asked.

Well, the man said, when he was at school they’d taught him about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He seemed obsessed by the phrase. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, for God’s sake, and he a plumber. He kept saying the words over and over. The Austro-Hungarian Empire. The phrase and the idea offended him. The irrelevance of it all. He lived in the era of reality television and mobile phones – and they had tried to teach him about an arcane kingdom in Eastern Europe.

Mitchell eventually cut him off. There was nothing else to do. The poor man was close to a nervous breakdown.

Well, the idea of Franz Josef’s Austria-Hungary might seem arcane now, but it’s not without its lessons for today. The Great War was the crucial event of the twentieth century. Nazism, Italian fascism, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, Russian communism, present-day tensions in the Middle East – all these things lead from the Great War in a straight line. The Great War started in Austro-Hungary.

And Franz Josef’s lost empire rather proves that a political entity that had to issue orders in more than forty languages and dialects, when it went to war in 1914, probably wasn’t a political entity at all, but a case of multiculturalism and multi-nationalism gone mad. What happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire was also evidence -- along with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and Nicholas II’s Russia -- that the divine right of kings was not going to play well in the twentieth century, and indeed it didn’t.

So it is useful to know what happened in Vienna before 1918. As an historian once said in a slightly different context, knowing about it will not make us clever but it might make us wiser. That’s one of the reasons history matters.

Those of you who have been to Istanbul will be aware of a church there called Aya Sophia. It was completed in 537 AD and it is a thing of wonder. The main dome, as someone said, seems to be held up by nothing. But to me, there is more to it than its shape and structure. There is the matter of the power, the suggestiveness, of its architecture. When you stand beneath that dome, and if -- like me -- you are sceptical about religion, you feel impelled to concede the possibility that there might be a God.

But mostly you marvel at the architecture, its beauty and the less elevated matter of how it actually fits together, and all of this done without the aid of steel girders or even steam-driven cranes. And you ask yourself whether, when it comes to the single question of aesthetics, we have come that far in 1500 years? In the case of Aya Sophia, you only obtain this perspective if you stand and stare at what some people may think is a pile of old stones.

Some of you may remember the mining boom that came to the Australian stock exchanges in the late nineteen-sixties. It was a moment of madness. Share prices trebled and quadrupled in a day. Everyone, from taxi drivers to priests, had caught the fever. Everyone had a tip. Shares in one company, a nickel explorer called Poseidon, rose from a few cents to more than $200.

People said this had not happened before. They said we were watching more than a mining boom. The millennium had arrived. This was the dawn of a bright new chapter in Australia’s economic development and all the old rules no longer applied.

Now at this time I was finance editor of The Age. I should not have had the job: I was far too young, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was puzzled. How could the shares in these companies rise so spectacularly when they had not actually found anything in the ground? You felt that the whole thing was based on hopes rather than facts, that it was psychological rather than economic, and that it was about a form of mass hysteria.

Then, one weekend, I read Geoffrey Blainey’s book The Rush That Never Ended. And I realised that what we were watching was not new at all. It was a re-run of the eighteen-eighties silver boom, when BHP shares hit $800, fake treasure maps abounded, and we colonials teased British investors with beguiling lies. Thereafter, whenever someone asked what was happening on the stock exchange in 1969, I said: “Read Blainey.”

I knew something else from reading Blainey: sooner or later the boom was going to end with a fearful crash, because that was the way of history. Hysteria, whether in the share market or elsewhere, carries events to their extremes. Eventually it produces a violent swing the other way.

In passing, I should acknowledge another debt to Blainey. I was fortunate enough to have him as a lecturer in economic history at Melbourne University. He made history live. He could connect economics to the rest of life. He could put flesh on dry bones. And he understood, and still understands, one of the truths about writing history: that if you want to influence people, you must first learn to hold their attention.

The authors of the King James Bible of 1611 knew this. Don’t worry that you might only believe some, or even none, of what they wrote. The rhythms of those sentences are as right as anything ever written in English. The only time you have to read a sentence twice is for pleasure -- when you are so struck by its balance, or by the way simple and everyday words can be arranged to produce little explosions in the mind of the reader. The point I am trying to make here is that when we talk about good writing the King James provides an historical reference point that is four hundred years old. But of course there are much older ones.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is twelve years older than the King James Bible. That bloke who so objected to being taught about Austria-Hungary would doubtless also have objected to being made to read Julius Caesar at school. He would have been bemused by this rarefied Roman world in which everyone spoke in aphorisms but no-one sent a text message. Yet it doesn’t matter when the play was written. Julius Caesar is the story of just about every political or corporate coup ever staged.

It is the story of the man who says he really doesn’t want the top job. He simply needs to toss out the incumbent for the greater good. But, yes, now that you mention it, he could be persuaded to take over the job himself – if that’s what people want.

When he says these things he may even be telling the truth, or at least what he perceives to be the truth. Julius Caesar, like the silver boom of the eighteen-eighties, gives us a reference point. It reminds us that what is happening has happened before, that human nature – as distinct from human progress – has not changed as much as we might like to think it has.

Now I’ve begun with these random anecdotes and observations because, as you all know, there has been debate in Australia about the teaching of history. Some have questioned its relevance to modern life. Others have questioned whether it should be taught as a narrative. They would prefer it as a series of themes that often go to political agendas.

Now I should also say – I should have said so earlier – that I am not an historian. I am simply someone who has written a couple of books that explore pieces of Australian history. I didn’t write them because I thought they would make good history. I wrote them simply because I thought they were good stories that deserved a re-telling. I am, however, a reader of history, and always have been, and that is my dubious credential for giving this talk today.

And, to me, one of the attractions of history is the idea I’ve just been labouring: the idea of a reference point. And this is a pretty good place to be talking about such things.

A Bronze Age culture had developed here three thousand years BC. The Minoans had flushing toilets more than fifteen hundred years before Christ – there’s a reference point for you. The country town in northern Victoria in which I grew up didn’t have flushing toilets in 1952. Crete was afterwards conquered by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantine empire, the Arabs, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks, before finally becoming part of Greece.

Legal people in the audience may wonder how native title claims are filed in this part of the world. As with Poland, the question of who took what from whom, and when, and who was able to pass on a good title, is a little blurry.

But back to those reference points. So often we should ask ourselves: is this or that really happening for the first time? Much of the common law, if you think about it, is based on precedents that were accepted long long ago.

When I was researching The Great War I came on a letter written by a famous Australian soldier from World War I, a general called Pompey Elliott. Elliott was a solicitor who as a student had won the Supreme Court Prize for final-year law at Melbourne University.

In the letter I refer to, written in the nineteen-twenties, Elliott talked about John Monash, who, as we know, made his name by glimpsing before others the nature of war in the industrial age.

Monash was an innovator, an engineer and a scientist, although he also had a degree in law, and Elliott, in this letter, compares himself unfavourably with Monash. Elliott said his training in law meant that “I am everlastingly looking to the past for a precedent.” Monash, he implied, was embracing the new and coming up with smoke barrages and tank attacks.

I thought this was an interesting way of looking at the law, although I think Elliott was being too hard on himself and the law itself. I think those precedents, some of which probably trace back to Cicero’s Rome, are part of the charm of the law. Better than that, they are part of the logic of the law. They have been well tested, and if they stand up, they are probably right enough. It’s good to have ideas that have been tested down the centuries.

I think Elliott over-simplified things. Yes, you must see the new – you’re doomed if you don’t, stuck in a Dark Ages of your own making. But you still need the past as a measuring stick, to decide whether the new really is the new.

War provides some good examples here. One of the great truths about wars down through the ages is that they hardly ever turn out the way we think they will. The Australians who left our shores in 1914, like their cousins in England and Canada and New Zealand, thought they were off to a scrap that would be over quickly. They saw a war of movement with lots of horses. We cannot condemn them for failing to see four years of fighting and thirty-seven million battle casualties. We cannot reproach the volunteers of 1914 for failing to envision the changes to warfare that would come with railways and quick-firing artillery, with machine guns and huge conscripted armies.

Now move forward to the American invasion of Iraq. Who knows what was going on in the minds of those who planned it, but it clearly hasn’t worked out the way it was supposed to. Yes, the military victory was inevitable. It had to be because of the American superiority in weaponry, and it was made easier because the Iraqi army apparently never stood and fought. But once the military conquest was complete and guerrilla warfare began the odds changed. We went back in time to ways of war that pre-date smart bombs. Computerised weaponry isn’t much of an advantage when weddings and marketplaces become the battlegrounds for suicide bombers.

We are told about the terrible American battle casualties in Iraq – more than 3500 dead so far. The figure is tragic enough but to find a reference point for this, I remind you of a battle in France in 1916 in which more than two thousand Australians died, not over four years but in about fourteen hours. It’s really quite strange: Fromelles was probably the most tragic night in Australia’s history, but who remembers it? If we had remembered it, we would have a rough measuring stick for the American casualties in Iraq. Memory is important, for nations as well as families.

As part of the Iraq debate, there was also the question of how well Iraq would embrace democracy once Saddam Hussein had been toppled. The Iraqis had no previous experience of democracy, and history tells us a little here.

Germany tried to make democracy work between late 1918 and 1933. The Germans had no previous experience of democracy either. They couldn’t make it work; they didn’t seem to understand it; it was attacked from the extreme left and the extreme right. And in 1933 Germany slipped into a dictatorship far more terrible than the relatively benign rule of the deposed Kaiser.

The Romanov dynasty in Russia fell in 1917, a year before Kaiser Wilhelm was banished from Germany. The Romanovs had ruled Russia for three hundred years with medieval firmness. They were followed by Lenin and Stalin, who made medieval firmness seem like fun. Now Russia is trying to come to terms with democracy, and we watch her pain and puzzlement, and perhaps also worry that millions of Russians apparently long for a return to the Stalinist certainties. Russia doesn’t yet understand democracy.

The truth is that democracy is perhaps the most subtle and sophisticated form of government. It rests in part on the proposition that those of us who supported the party that lost the election will tolerate those who won. Democracy is about conversations, not anarchy in the streets. Did anyone in Washington in 2003 look back to the examples of Germany and Russia, and indeed other places, and wonder why the Iraqis might be the exception, why they might make an easy transition to democracy? And here, perhaps, we are reminded of something that Hegel, the German philosopher, once wrote: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Back home, we read in newspapers from time to time that this or that political event is the ‘most divisive’ in our history. Nothing I can think of in Australian history matches the bitterness of Billy Hughes’ conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917. I heard their echoes when I was a kid in the nineteen-fifties. But who knows about them now? Yet when we talk of divisive issues, they should surely be our reference point.

Similarly, when we talk about the threat of Islamic extremism, we need a reference point that allows us to judge what our response should be and what legal rights we might be prepared to forego. We might conclude that, while Islamic terrorism is a serious threat to our world and a throwback to medievalism, the terrorists have not yet overrun Poland, France, Holland and Belgium, while also eyeing off the Balkans, Greece and Russia.

When we reflect on great Australians of modern times we perhaps should try to find a perspective by lining up these people up against the likes of Alfred Deakin, John Monash and Howard Florey. In passing, we might also try to distinguish between celebrities and people who have actually achieved things that might be remembered in ten years time -- or even in three weeks time. And here we say hello to Paris Hilton and Richard Branson. On CNN last night I heard Richard Branson say that some future fuel crisis he had discovered would be worse than World war I and World War II combined. Mr Branson is a man without reference points.

We also need to pause when we hear suggestions that Australia only started to become a ‘progressive’ after 1950 or some other date early in the second half of the last century. Certainly one of the best things that happened to Australia was the mass migration from Europe that began in the 1940s. As a result of this we discovered there was food beyond mutton. Certainly Australia has become a kinder and gentler place in the last half century, and I don’t hanker for the rougher world of my childhood. Indeed I’m glad my grandchildren are growing up in this world rather than mine. But we still need to remember that the young Australia of 1901 until 1914 was arguably the most enlightened democracy in the world.

Tariff protection for industry was linked to the payment of a fair wage. Welfare was accepted as a function of government. Australia was certainly not classless, but it was a lot less class-ridden than the Mother Country, as many an English colonel discovered in the back areas of World War I. Labour unions were accepted and did much to make the eternal battle between labour and capital a fairer contest. The Great War and the sad and dreary years that followed it killed off much of Australia’s eagerness to experiment. But in those thirteen years after Federation we were ahead of our time.

One of the things we have to accept, though, is that history, unlike physics or brain surgery, is a subjective field. So often one is not dealing with facts but probabilities. So often one ends up sifting evidence and trying to strike a fair balance between competing accounts. There are nearly always competing accounts. If, for instance, we go back to the King James Bible, we find that in the four Gospels there is no common account of Jesus’ early life, or of the crucifixion, or of the resurrection.

There is some truth in Napoleon’s remark that “history is the version of past events that people have decided to agree on.” And I guess most have heard Jean Cocteau’s much-quoted line: “History is facts which become legend in the end; legends are lies that become history in the end.”

This is a constant problem, this blurring of the lines between history and mythology. And we have to face up to a truth here: no amount of facts will kill a good myth. Myths nourish us. Myths make us feel good. Myths are hostile to analysis.

It’s no good someone saying that Ned Kelly was, first of all, a horse thief, a bank robber and a murderer. It’s not going to change his place in the mythology. He’s still going to fascinate future generations. The vision of him clanking about in armour in the Glenrowan mists will always be a piece of Australian Gothic. We don’t remember Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Kelly to death. And yet Barry, through his interest in libraries, Aboriginal people and Melbourne University, was a civilising force in the Victorian colony, whereas Ned was a colourful step towards anarchy. But there’s no sense to these things.

Military history abounds with mythology that often gets in the way of the story. Agincourt has a special place in British folklore, thanks mainly to the spellbinding way Shakespeare stitched words together in Henry V. In truth the Englishmen of 1415 didn’t look nearly as handsome as they did in Larry Olivier’s film. It probably would have been best to have kept upwind of them: most had been suffering from dysentery for weeks. And they weren’t quite gentlemen either: at Agincourt they methodically butchered French prisoners.

Manfred von Richthofen, the German air ace killed in 1918, still fascinates people. Having studied him just a little, I can’t help wondering why. Richthofen loved to kill things, be they English pilots or his grandmother’s three pet ducks, which he shot as a young man, probably because he had a gun and they were there. In passing I should mention that Richthofen’s cousin was responsible for the airborne attack on this island in 1941.

The Russians venerate Marshal Kutuzov for hounding Napoleon out of Russia in 1812. But you wonder whether Kutuzov was as wily as he was made out to be. Did he lure Napoleon deep into Russia with the intent of trapping him in the vastness of that land? Or was Napoleon beaten by his own vanity and the cruelties of a Russian winter?

Russia, of course, was where Hitler lost what we call World War II, even though some of us would argue that it should be called The Great War, Part Two. The most terrible battles of World War II were in the east. This time the Sommes and Verduns were at places called Stalingrad and Kursk. Yet myth and memory in the west tends to have World War II won on the beaches of Normandy. By landing Tom Hanks on Omaha Beach, Stephen Spielberg did for Normandy what Lawrence Olivier did for Agincourt.

In Australia, Gallipoli is the centrepiece of our military history and nothing is going to change this. Gallipoli has become a church and a faith and is thus beyond rational argument. But Gallipoli is also a natural story that falls into three neat acts. It’s so good it doesn’t need the myths and the symbolism. The facts are better than the mythology. The facts are more interesting.

Simpson and his donkey, for instance, are seen as a crucial part of the mythology. Now Simpson was a brave man who didn’t ask to be turned into a hero, but his place in the Gallipoli story has come to be out of all proportion to what he did. He wasn’t the most inspirational man on Gallipoli. His name should not be put up ahead of men such as Alfred Shout, Harry Murray, the New Zealander William Malone, or the Englishman Harold Walker. But there is no sense dwelling on this, other than to acknowledge the power of myth.

Nor is there much sense in dwelling on the fact that Gallipoli probably shouldn’t be the centrepiece of Australia’s military history. We lost 8700 Australians killed on Gallipoli and 46,000 dead in France and Belgium in the following three years, and another 39,000 in World War II. Gallipoli was a defeat. The Australian victory under General Monash at Mont St Quentin in 1918 was an extraordinary feat, in that it makes you wonder how men can endure so much and still go on and win. But who remembers Mont St Quentin?

The myths and legends and the sentimental favourites are all problems when it comes to writing history. So how should it be written? This too touches on the debate that has been going on in Australia during the past year or so about the teaching of history in schools.

It would be nice if we simply said the best way to write history is to tell the truth. The trouble is, and no matter how hard you try, you sometimes can’t find the truth – or at least not all of it, and not in a way that would stand up in a court of law. One of the best definitions of journalism I’ve ever heard came from an American who said, “journalism was the best obtainable version of the truth”. That is sometimes the way with history too, and it doesn’t matter so long as you don’t represent to the reader that you have found the objective truth. To give an example of how hard it is to find the truth, think of the debate in the United States about what Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, said upon the death of Abraham Lincoln. One school has Stanton saying, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Another has him saying, “He belongs to the angels now.”

I like history written as narrative. One reason this doesn’t always happen is that narratives are hard work. You have to work out the time lines and you need to craft your work like a novelist, so that the story keeps moving on like a river, widening out as it nears the sea. It’s easier to avoid the narrative and write about themes, and it’s easiest of all to write history through a prism, be it Marxism or feminism or some other ‘ism’. But there are problems with these latter forms, and particularly when it comes to teaching.

The first thing we need to know before we make any judgements, before we decide who are the goodies and who are the baddies, comes down to a two-word question: what happened? What happened? Only when we know this can we start to form judgements.

One of the most annoying things I find about newspapers these days is the breathless story that says in its first sentence that Politician A has said the most shocking things about so-and-so. The next dozen paragraphs are given over to cries of outrage from various lobby groups and calls for apologies and UN sanctions. And a voice inside you is crying out, “Yes, but tell me what he said and the context in which he said it. Tell me what he said that and I can form my own judgements”. First of all you need the narrative.

History is not propaganda. It thus should not be a celebration, something written with the idea of making the nation feel good about itself. This can’t be for the simple reason that every nation owns something to be ashamed of. But one can easily understand why some people have gravitated towards this notion of celebration in Australia in recent times.

We have had so much ‘black armband’ history that there had to be a reaction against it. My feeling is that most Australians don’t believe that their history is a long saga of shame. They know it’s about triumphs and follies, the good and the bad, but more good than bad. They also, I’m sure, are wary of revisionism and politically loaded interpretations.

Revisionism truly is tiresome. Again, one sees much of it with military history. World War I is still being fought by people who can’t seem to understand that generals born around 1870 needed time to come to terms with how the industrial age had changed warfare.

Churchill is still being criticised for the fall of Singapore -- and, yes, the British were culpable there – and for the Greek campaign that led to the Crete campaign -- and, yes, mistakes were made here too. But Churchill had a little on his mind in 1940 and 1941 when he was virtually fighting Hitler alone, and we should allow for this. It matters when you come to write history that you try to understand the people you are writing about in terms of the world in which they were living.

Loaded history – seeing the world through the prism of some political theory – is something that, as a minor scribbler, I have trouble trying to understand because it seems to make the author’s curiosity redundant, and one of the great things about writing is that they pay you to indulge your curiosity. I’m not as good a writer as I’d like to be, and never will be, but the one thing I know is that you should try to look at material with an open mind. You should be prepared to be surprised. You’ve got to accept that sometimes the story doesn’t lead where you thought it would.

And the trouble with some political theories – Marxism, for instance – is that they offer simple explanations for complex events. In fact, if you’re an ardent Marxist, you sometimes know the answer before you start sifting the evidence and writing the book.

These political theories kill curiosity: you don’t need to think too much because, as with some religions, the dogma explains everything, and all your heroes end up sounding like victims of a conspiracy. Which means they can end up as stick figures. One thinks of the line from the film Dr Zhivago, where Tom Courtenay explains everything that’s wrong with Russia with the sentence, “It’s the system, Lara”.

One of the interesting things in writing about people is that just about all of them – the very good and very bad – are full of ambiguities that give them a human dimension. When you know that Hitler liked dogs it makes him seem even worse, because it gives him a human quality, and it then seems more shocking that a human being rather than a monster with horns and a tail committed such crimes.

And finally there’s the matter of readability. One of the fallacies of postmodernist theory is the suggestion that all writers are the same and that there is no literature, just texts, that there is no difference between Shakespeare and the writer of a comic strip. If we were to transfer the principle of postmodernism to medicine, a brain tumour would not be much different from dandruff. And if we were to transfer it to the law, murder would just be a more dramatic form of assault.

How history is written does matter, because how it is written determines how widely it is read and how appealing it is to school children. And people like stories, not sermons. Think only of what the Greeks – Homer and Herodutus, for instance – have done for storytelling. We still read them; we still marvel at their skills.

When it comes to what appears on the page, it still matters to care about the craft of pushing words together and to think of the reader. In other words you have to think of more than the story. You have to think about how you’re going to tell it. You don’t write for your peers, as some academics do; you write for people.

There’s nothing demeaning about writing for people, and it doesn’t mean you’re heading down the market. High on the list of writers I admire are people such as Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Clive James, Antony Beevor, Rebecca West, Tolstoy, Truman Capote, Scott Fitzgerald, Geoffrey Blainey and Helen Garner. All of these people have produced what qualifies as literature -- and they have also found mass readerships. They have done so because they write well.

I can’t help but think that part of the trouble with Australian history is that some of its recent custodians need to think a little more about how they put it on a page. You will not reach the public if you see yourself as an insider writing for insiders, or if you are in thrall to academic conventions of language, or if you ignore the notion of a ‘voice’ and see writing as an exercise in group therapy. And, as I said earlier, if you do not reach people, you do not influence people.

Quite simply history matters because, good or bad, it’s the memory that links one generation to another, and it’s the thing that tells us where we came from and how we came to be the way we are.

It’s hard to go past the words of the American Arthur M. Schlesinger.

“History”, he said, “is to a nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and future”.

Or as Clive James wrote recently, “How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces if we don’t know how it was put together”.

But we learn slowly. Whether we like it or not, history keeps repeating itself, though seldom neatly and hardly ever in exact parallels. One can see that in the Greek and Crete campaigns of 1941. Here were echoes from the Gallipoli campaign. Here again was indifferent generalship on the allied side. Here again was the romantic idea of attacking Germany through the Balkans. And here was the idea failing again.