Living in History

LONDON – I recently took part in a public debate with Paul Keating, Australia’s former prime minister. He is an interesting man, a genuine intellectual driven by his inner demons both to flay those who pay insufficient credit to his transformational role in Australian politics and to expose what he regards as waffle and myths.

This regularly engulfs him in controversy, but it can serve an educational purpose. Recently, for example, he denounced the idea that Australian sacrifices in the Gallipoli campaign of 1916 during World War I had somehow made and redeemed his nation. For him, Australian came of age later, at Kokoda, often called Australia’s Thermopylae, when a small group of young soldiers resisted the advance of Japanese army divisions that seemed set to take Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and threaten the Australian continent. Keating believed that the fighting at Kokoda represented the real birth pains of an independent Australia, not some colonial appendage of Britain created to serve imperial purposes in the Far East.

I would not dare to challenge the sensitivities of Australians about their own history. I like their country too much for that. But Keating’s remarks raise a general question about history that goes to the heart of the sense of identity that binds every community.

Most countries fabricate at least some of their history; or they simply whitewash the bits that do not match their heroic idea of themselves. My own country, for example, invented much of what it means to be British in order to accommodate Scotland in the eighteenth century to the idea of rule from England, and to persuade the whole of the United Kingdom that it should not object to being ruled by German kings.