REVIEW: Uncertain Allies with Prof James Belich
War Stories: Uncertain Allies with Professor James Belich and Sir Lockwood Smith reflected on the Great War and the alliances that were challenged and strengthened – across the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
It started with a history joke – renowned New Zealand historian Professor James Belich apologizing for his rushed beginning, noting it was perhaps comparable to the Australian and New Zealand contribution to the Battle of Jutland, where the HMS Australia and HMS New Zealand on their way to the action had ‘banged into each other’ and missed the entire encounter.
An opening which set the tone for a surprising hour – challenging the orthodoxy of a commonly held understanding of Australian and New Zealand history, but also the very stereotype of a history lecture itself. Engaging, entertaining and full of detailed facts, Professor Belich was not like any history professor I’d encountered at school, and this was not your average history lesson.
Introduced by the NZ High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith, Professor Belich first acknowledged the significant contribution to World War 1 Australia and New Zealand had made. Particularly as small countries, and new countries at that, the proportion of men heading to war, and then more importantly the proportion not returning, he noted was staggering.
In particular, it was a war with an enemy people at home couldn’t see – a war fought across oceans many thousands of miles away.
“The Great War was a lethal absence in Australian and New Zealand history”, he said.
Here is where the mythology sets in – newly independent countries asserting their sense of national identity on a world stage, an important stepping stone in the development of a post-colonialist and self-assured identity.
Not so, said Professor Belich. In fact during this time, and right up until the 1970s, there was a strong sense in Australia and New Zealand of being British. The large numbers that flocked to Britain’s aid during the war did so precisely as the result of a feeling that they were “fighting for Britain because they were British.”
That is, the idea that the kernel of collective identity was planted in the dirt of Gallipoli and the Somme and has grown into our modern sense of independent patriotism is somewhat overstated. There was a collective feeling borne out of WW1, Professor Belich acknowledged, but was this identity “an independent nationalism or a better Britishism?”
The idea that both countries’ national identity grew steadily in the post-war period is also, Professor Belich argued, a myth. There was instead the feeling that in fact a sense of ‘Britishness’ could be better preserved in the colonies – away from the trappings of English notions like class. Australia and New Zealand did not see themselves as victims or subjects of the British Empire, but as co-owners – “the leading edge of Britishness”.
As a result Australia and New Zealand had a “protracted adolescence” – which carried with it its own disadvantages such as racism, but also it’s advantages – privileged access to London, high standards of living, and a vested sense of self that lay with the British Empire.
“It’s not necessarily a comfortable idea”, acknowledged Professor Belich as he concluded.
“But then again, history is not meant to be comfortable.”