- The History Wars
The term "history wars" came into currency in 1996, in a book of that title about the controversy surrounding a Smithsonian Institution exhibition on the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities. But that was simply to attach a label to something that has been happening, in localized outbursts, even before professionalization of the historical discipline. One only has to recall the angst in Germany over the Fischer thesis to realize that the past can be a dangerous place.
The Australian "history wars" have been going on since at least 1984, and this twenty year crisis looks like turning into a thirty year war. What distinguishes the Australian history wars from counterparts elsewhere is not duration or even the levels of acrimony, but the sheer variety of issues, ranging from immigration policy, the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations, indigenous rights and the representation of Aboriginal history, through to school history syllabi and museum display policy. There is, however, the same politicized and polarized situation that characterizes other history wars and the constant of national guilt versus national pride. That is to say, the opposite sides of the Australia history wars are divided into opposing camps comprising left wing proponents of "black-armband" history, who depict the Australian past as a deplorable tale of dispossession, and the conservative and neoconservative exponents of "whitewash" history, who exalt British origins and the achievements of white ancestors.
Stuart Macintyre's book (which contains a chapter by Anna Clark on school syllabi) traces the twists and turns of the intense Australian Historikerstreitand the manner in which it has become politicized. The intervention of successive Prime Ministers has raised the temperature, beginning with Labor-leader Paul Keating's denunciations of Britain's abandonment of Australian troops at the fall of Singapore and his 1992 speech on the dispossession of Aboriginals. Keating was provocative but nothing compared to his Liberal Party successor John Howard. Following his accession to office in 1996, Howard expressed opposite viewpoints with frequency and gusto. His crusade was complemented by a parallel thrust from the Australian media, notably The Australian,and by right-wing journals such as Quadrantand the IPA Review,which combined to place the largely Labor-leaning historical profession under sustained attack. Some historians, such as Geoffrey Blainey and the late Manning Clark, were able to operate in a more public domain. But as Macintyre points out, the generality of academic [End Page 786]historians, more accustomed to sedate debate within the confines of the seminar room, are ill-equipped to enter the fray via the daily media, talkback radio and television debates. Ironically, historians form a minority of those engaged in the Australian Historikerstreit,being well outnumbered by lawyers, journalists and so-called opinion-makers, yet the historical profession as a whole is under siege.
Macintyre correctly predicted that the major theatre of the Australian Historikerstreitwould be the Aboriginal question, and he correctly foresaw that Keith Windschuttle would take center stage with his "strident polemic" The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. 1Among other things, Windschuttle takes issue with historians such as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, whom he claims have misused and falsified evidence in order to inflate Aboriginal deaths at the hands of troops and settlers. It has become something of a cause célèbre,widely reported in the daily media, with Windschuttle occupying the high empirical ground, accusing opponents of fabricating the past and supposedly showing an orchestrated litany of inexcusable errors on their part. Lyndall Ryan was hounded by antagonistic journalists and left to fend for herself by her university. Windschuttle has won the media war but more recently his evidential double standards have been brought to light with Bain Attwood's exposéof Windschuttle's own factual errors and misrepresentations. 2The accuser has become the accused, but Attwood's publisher was unable to persuade the news media that there is a story here.
This one sidedness of access to the means of public debate helps explain why The History Warsis...