CHAMPION COLUMN | Why should we remember the Great War?

Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra.

Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra.

November 11 marked the final burst of commemoration of the four-year-long centenary of the Great War of 1914-18. But the centenary hasn’t quite panned out as its progenitors imagined. At least, in Australia. 

In 2011, a bipartisan committee recommended to the Gillard government that Australia engage in a busy program of commemoration, imagining that the nation would embrace the opportunity to engage with its Anzac heritage. 

You might think that as a sceptical observer I took satisfaction in the failure of the Anzac firework to catch fire.

Far from it. I’ve devoted decades of my career as an historian, public and academic, to understanding and explaining the Great War. 

Why would I devote years of my life to researching and writing about it if I thought it was unimportant?

I don’t have an Anzac in the family. I don’t think that Australia played an especially significant part in the war, much less believe that it “punched above its weight”, as the phrase goes.

I don’t think that the Australian nation was somehow mystically “born” on the cliffs of Gallipoli. 

But that shouldn’t mean that we ignore the anniversary of the day it ended, and there’s a lot to think about. 

I do think the war was a tragedy, of course, for Australia and the world, even aside from the suffering and death it imposed. 

For Australia, it derailed the confident, progressive, democratic nation that had been the envy of the world, destroying its optimism and killing or demoralising its most promising minds and bodies. Globally, while the war broke old empires (and wounded those remaining) and created new nations, it unleashed the horrors of the Soviet Union and, through a vindictive “peace” virtually guaranteed a second, even more destructive world conflict.

But that shouldn’t mean that we ignore the anniversary of the day it ended.

Why? Because that war essentially created the world we live in: a world of great powers (but not empires), dominated by global connections; a world in which the United States has been the dominant power; a world in which war became increasingly terrible, and in which civilians suffered as much as soldiers.

  • Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is one of Australia’s premier historians of the Great War.