The history wars

Stuart Macintyre

The history wars are not history but an argument for control of the past as a political resource. They are conducted as a polemical argument and rest on a misunderstanding of the nature of history and historical understanding.

Hence, the Prime Minister's attack on 'the attempt to rewrite Australian history in the service of a partisan political cause'. History is not revealed to us in tablets of stone, it has to be created from the remains of the past. It is not fixed and final, but a form of knowledge that is constantly being supplemented and reworked. Research and rewriting is an essential aspect of any academic discipline.

The history wars are conducted in the media and subject to the procedures of the media. They are restricted to a narrow cast of players, whose personalities and character become part of the story. They operate in a gladiatorial style, where the very integrity of the participants is called into question. I am indebted to Gregory Melleish and the Australian newspaper for a perfect example of this tactic.

The history wars rely on allegation, on ridicule and abuse. Manning Clark was condemned as a traitor who disparaged his country's past. Geoffrey Blainey served as an academic victim of political correctness. The battle over the Bicentenary was fought between those who wanted to celebrate Australian achievement, and those whom they accused of imposing a hairshirt. The Black Armband denoted the excessive gloom that enveloped the national achievement.

The history wars have been generated and propelled by pressure groups, think tanks and a political coterie. They have been taken up and pursued by the present government in its attempt to impose its views on public institutions by intimidation, stacking and victimisation. The History Wars operate on the martial principle of conquest, of us against them, right and wrong, of a single correct view of history, and a profound hostility to the history profession.

The history wars are an international phenomenon, operating in many countries, and in each theatre the warriors take their own nation as unique in its virtue, while adopting the techniques of their counterparts elsewhere. They respond to the changes that are challenging the nation and the nation-state, globalisation, unprecedented movements of people and cultures across national boundaries, the recognition of difference, the acceptance of the claims of indigenous peoples, compassion for the dispossessed and the outsider.