Week in Review

The repetition of Anzac half-truths

COMMENT: April is a month of myths. As we draw closer to Anzac Day, folklore and tradition overtake fact, and much of the nation seems to embrace a soft-lit consensus, or worse, outright delusion. The repetition of half-truths, misremembered legends, and popular fictions is elevated to high art.  

We all know the script: Anzac is the most solemn and sacred day of national dignity, when we honour fallen men who gave their lives so that New Zealand and Australia could assert independence. Both nations, it is said, were ‘born’ on the cliffs of Gallipoli. In fact, the narrative has not changed in over a century. As the Christchurch-based Sun newspaper editorialised on April 24, 1916:

To-morrow is the first anniversary of our baptism of fire whereby we became a nation, and one which, we believe, is destined to take a great part in the future of a regenerated world. We are still a very small nation with a brief, though not uneventful history, but the real beginning of the national consciousness of Australia and New Zealand was made on that eventful April 25 of last year, when the youth of these two outposts of democracy made its unexampled assault upon the cliffs of Gallipoli. It is to the heroism and gallantry of our men that we pay tribute to-morrow, for they, the citizen soldiers of two young countries, by their bravery and sacrifice have conferred honour upon us…

Of course, there is barely a shred of truth in any of this. New Zealand and Australia were not laboured into being on the dusty scrubland of the Aegean coast, but through the earlier signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, Federation in 1901, and Dominion in 1907. To cut deeper, one could say that both nations were in fact founded on the brutal dispossession and usurpation of indigenous peoples. The theft of Māori land and the operation of White Australia - that “not uneventful history” the Sun referred to - are more precise examples of ‘nation-building’.

And one might also wonder how democratic nations can be born from battles between fundamentally undemocratic empires. The Dardanelles campaign, after all, was advanced (in part) on behalf of Tsarist Russia, which had long laid claim to Istanbul as the seat of Orthodox Christianity. The Constantinople Agreement of 1915 signed by the wartime Allies put that claim in writing: it was Russians soldiers who would capture that ancient continent-straddling city in the event of victory at Gallipoli.

Then again, we like to think of Anzac Day as a symbol of peace and reconciliation. On the surface, it would certainly seem that way. Turkey has been welcomed into the fold, and it plays a crucial role in Anzac commemorations everywhere - especially at Gallipoli itself. Those warm and friendly relations were seemingly cemented in 1934 with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ‘Words to the Anzac Mothers’ and there is much pride in claiming that the Turks have tended the graves of our war dead. Former enemies can become friends.

Turkish authorities have never ‘tended’ or ‘cared for’ the graves and monuments at Gallipoli: this has always been the brief of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

But Kemal never told those Anzac mothers to “wipe away your tears”, or said that there was “no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets”. That famous quote is a fraud. The high-level ‘Special Relationship’ between Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey actually dates to the early 1980s. And furthermore, Turkish authorities have never ‘tended’ or ‘cared for’ the graves and monuments at Gallipoli: this has always been the brief of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Turkish government merely grants permission for them to operate on sovereign territory.

It has also become increasingly apparent that the ‘special relationship’ is not quite so cosy as we once thought. We do not share a totalising view of the Dardanelles campaign at all, and there are very different traditions at work in either hemisphere.

In recent years, Turkey has seen a radical realignment of the meaning of the Çanakkale campaign. The traditional, nationalist version focuses on the Ottoman vanquishing of a mighty Allied naval attack on March 18, 1915, and the role played by Mustafa Kemal in beating back the Anzacs on April 25, and later, forcing New Zealanders from the heights of Chunuk Bair in early August. This is considered Kemal’s blooding - the moment when his leadership was forged in steel and death. Or, as the New Zealand minister Bob Tizard stated at Gallipoli in 1985: “For the young Mustafa Kemal, victory here gave him the mana that enabled him, subsequently, to lay the foundations of modern Turkey.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since portrayed the campaign in explicitly religious terms, reviving the symbol of the Ottoman-era Caliphate throughout the Muslim world. Anzacs have been recast as “Crusaders”, Ottoman soldiers as “martyrs” defending the holy land. A notorious television ad made for the centenary saw Erdogan reciting a poem tinged with religious fervour as dramatic recreations of the battles played in the background. “Do not leave this country, which was kneaded by Muslims, with no Muslims, my God,” the poem reads. “Give us strength ... Do not leave the field of jihad ...”

In this light, Erdogan’s recent comment on the atrocities in Christchurch last month have an awful poignancy. The context was not just the local elections raging in Turkey at the time, but commemorations for the Ottoman victory of March 18. He drew a distinct parallel between Anzac soldiers and the self-declared fascist now charged with the murder of 50 people: “Your grandparents came here ... and they returned in caskets," Erdogan warned. "Have no doubt we will send you back like your grandfathers.”

As well as being remarkably insulting to a nation whose small Muslim community had just undergone a horrific trauma, Erdogan’s statement revealed just how little he cares for the sanctity of Anzac. This is hardly the spirit of “lying side-by-side”. On the other hand, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters was dispatched with all haste to Turkey to set the record straight - a rush to the defence of Anzac mythology.

Something similar has happened before. In 2013, the New South Wales state parliament reaffirmed a motion recognising the World War 1-era mass murder of Ottoman minorities like the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks as genocide (a definition agreed by an overwhelming majority of historians).

If the entire foundation of Anzac Day has no grounding in reality, and if the ‘special relationship’ is not so special after all, what’s left? Can anything be salvaged?

Anzac prisoners of war witnessed this genocide. Gallipoli veterans rescued refugees from extermination. Many thousands of Australians and New Zealanders later took part in the humanitarian relief movement to aid survivors, and even travelled to the killing zones to lend their care. The landings of April 25, in fact, were the final trigger in the decision taken by the Committee of Union and Progress (the ruling party in the Ottoman Empire at the time) to expand the suppression of these minorities into a campaign of total annihilation.

Nevertheless, the Turkish government reacted with unrestrained viciousness to the NSW recognition motion. They used the Anzac ‘special relationship’ as a weapon of blackmail. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that anyone who questioned the “very special relations that exist between our peoples” or tried to “damage the spirit of Çanakkale/Gallipoli will ... not have their place in the Çanakkale ceremonies where we commemorate together our sons lying side-by-side in our soil.” Turkey’s Consul General in Sydney Gülseren Çelik clarified Davutoğlu’s threat by saying: “We expect Australians to show the same kind of respect that we have shown to their history and their ancestry. Those individuals who show no respect to our history will not be welcome in Turkey…”

It is precisely because of these threats that both the Australian and New Zealand governments continue to deny the Armenian Genocide outright. But note the language: “their history” and “our history.” This, again, is not “lying side-by-side,” or shared memory, but very different and very separate versions of the past. To put this as plainly as possible: Turkey doesn’t care about your Anzac mythology.

So, if the entire foundation of Anzac Day has no grounding in reality, and if the ‘special relationship’ is not so special after all, what’s left? Can anything be salvaged?

It’s worth returning to the idea of reconciliation between former enemies. Because the notion of three combatant nations quietly mourning and humbly remembering together is quite rare in human history. Creating a genuine shared relationship, holding ceremonies and installing monuments in each other’s capitals, and generally grieving side-by-side really would be a powerful act. But that relationship would have to be based on historical truth and the principles of justice. Dare we try and build something better and more honest in the future?

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