Anzac: The stuff legends are made of

Why did Anzac fall so dramatically from popular favour and how did it begin the spectacular rise to the status it enjoys today?

As five years of centenary celebrations of World War One get under way, Monash University historian Dr Carolyn Holbrook from the School of Social Sciences has sought to explain why Australians of the 21st century are so emotionally attached to a military event that took place nearly 100 years ago.

In her latest book Anzac, the Unauthorised Biography, Dr Holbrook traces how, since 1915, Australia’s memory of the Great War has declined and surged, reflecting the varied and complex history of the nation. She also asks why many Australians persist with the fiction that the nation was born on 25 April 1915.

Dr Holbrook said the history of the Great War in Australian imagination demonstrates why we should remain vigilant against the selectivity of our memories and remain aware of the distance between memory and actual events.

“My question doesn’t imply disdain, rather fascination and intrigue,” she said.

“The book is my attempt to trace the history of the way the Australians have thought about the Great War.”

During the 1960s and `70s, commemoration of the Great War declined, but in the 1980s there was an unpredicted revival.

“There is extraordinary currency in the Anzac legend in contemporary Australian society,” Dr Holbrook said.

“The national cricket team travelled to Gallipoli to learn about the place where the spirit of Australia really came from; advertising has made Australians feel they must attend dawn services because it is un-Australian not to; the Anzac Medal is awarded during the AFL’s Anzac Day clash to the player who best embodies the Anzac spirit. All are very far removed from the original monumental event in the history of Australia.”

An immense amount of material has been produced about the Great War over the past 90 years, from monuments and museum exhibitions to histories, novels and films.

Dr Holbrook examined academic histories, newspaper reports, soldier memoirs and fictions, film, family history and political commemoration to gain insights into the continuing interest in this conflict.

She also interviewed former prime ministers, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard. Former leader of the Labor Party Kim Beazley also wrote the foreword.

“Political commemoration plays an increasingly significant role in shaping our opinions of the Great War,” Dr Holbrook said.

“Over the past few decades, scholars around the world have turned increasingly to the study of memory. The meanings that Australian have ascribed to the Great War over the course of a century are a valuable record of the history of Australian identity, nationalism, politics and culture during that time.”

Anzac, the Unauthorised Biography by Dr Carolyn Holbrook is published by University of NSW Press.