III The War at Home: Politics, People and Historiographical Perspectives

Labour and the Home Front: Changing Perspectives on the First World War in Australian Historiography

Frank Bongiorno

The emergence of labour history in the 1960s, as one of the most lively and influential fields of Australian history, coincided with the new wave of interest in the history of the First World War. This coincidence would have powerful consequences for both fields of study. It helped ensure, in the first place, that some of the earliest academic interpretations of the Australian home front during the war would be animated by the concerns of the first generation of university-based labour historians. These scholars were in several instances Second World War servicemen and former members of the Communist Party who had retained a strong commitment to working-class struggle and national independence. Their preoccupations included the role of class relations in Australian history, the contribution of the union movement to social change, the fortunes of the Labor Party and socialism, and the development of a distinctive national culture and identity.1 Labour history was also one of the main vehicles for the development of social history in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1981 the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History’s academic journal, Labour History, added the subtitle, A Journal of Labour and Social History, and it remains in place to this day.2

F. Bongiorno (*)

Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_7

The first aim of this chapter is to explore some of the distinctive characteristics of the study of Australia’s experience of the First World War from the 1960s through to the 1980s. I suggest that for much of this period the study of the home front was the dominant historiographical preoccupation of First World War historiography. I then go on to offer an explanation for why this perspective declined from about the late 1980s. A major weakness of this literature—one related to Australia’s post-imperial context of the 1960s and 1970s—was an ambivalence about locating Australian experience in a wider global or imperial frame. National, professional and institutional impulses drove the effort to carve out a field called ‘Australian History’ that was distinct from ‘Imperial History’ and, in common with historiographical developments across the former British Empire (including the United Kingdom itself), the dominant modes of social, political and labour history emphasised the internal dynamics of society.3 This was so even when historians were dealing with forces that were obviously global in character, such as the communist movement or the influence of transnational Britishness. There was, moreover, a simultaneous and related reluctance to engage in cross-national comparison; it was almost as if the very act of telling a national story would be sufficient to establish the distinctive features of the local scene.

By the end of the century, the historiography of the Australian home front during the First World War was in the doldrums. Studies now increasingly concentrated on the burgeoning fields of memory, mourning, trauma and commemoration.4 Interest in these areas was welcome, but also helped redirect historians’ attention away from profoundly important yet still unresolved questions in the wider social, labour and political history of Australians at war. Less positively, the growing ascendancy of the Anzac cult in popular culture, while providing an apparently insatiable market for popular military history and sentimental journalism, offered little space to studies ofAustralian men and women who remained at home during the First World War. In recent years, there have been signs of revival, but the result has been a very different kind of home front history, one much more attuned to the intersection of local, regional, national, imperial and global histories.

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