The Rise of Cultural History and Memory Studies

As such histories proliferated, there was little reason to imagine that social and labour history would soon be in rapid retreat. The social and labour history of the war being produced by Australian scholars to a large extent ran a parallel course to British historiography, where the study of the First

World War was also being influenced by new developments in social and labour history.39 But also in line with many of their colleagues in Britain, Europe and North America, historians of the Australian war experience increasingly turned to memory, mourning and commemoration. At the same time, social history found itself under challenge from a cultural history influenced by the linguistic turn, while labour history suffered from its association with the Labor Party and union movement during a time of working-class demobilisation, deunionisation and neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s.40 Strikingly, many of the historians who made the intellectual journey towards an engagement with the new cultural history and memory studies had come out of the labour history tradition. In Britain, for instance, there was Jay Winter, who has become one of the most influential global figures in First World War historiography; in Australia, historians such as Bruce Scates and Joy Damousi shifted their focus from histories of socialism and other radical ideas to mourning and memory.41 The intellectual roots of historians such as these in a critical social and labour history remained discernible in their writings, but there was an inevitable decentring of class as a concept as well as a shift from a preoccupation with ideology—a central idea for critical labour and social history—to the alternative of “collective memory. ”42 Meanwhile the trend of Anzac and First World War studies largely founded by Inglis in the mid- 1960s bore fruit in his ground-breaking study of Australian war memorials, Sacred Places (1998).43 Increasingly, much Australian research in the field of history and memory would take its place in an international historiography that found some room for Australian work that engaged with transnational themes and scholarship. Inglis’ own magnum opus was attuned to work being carried out elsewhere, such as by George Mosse on Germany, Annette Becker on France, and Jay Winter on Britain and Europe—all of them founders of, and prominent contributors to, the influential museum and research centre at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne.44 Contact with overseas scholars became easier with cheaper and faster air travel and the rise of the Internet, better access to research and conference funding for overseas collaboration, and the intellectual, cultural, and institutional pressures to internationalise Australian scholarship.

Where did this leave the study of the Australian home front? The study of memory and the preoccupation with the Anzac legend initially marginalised the broader form of social and labour history that had such dominance in the 1980s. It is striking, for instance, that a topic such as conscription, once considered so important to the social and political history of Australia during the First World War, gave rise to little significant work after the mid-1990s. The broader social history of the home front was continued in the work of John McQuilton, who produced a major study of the north-eastern region of Victoria during the war, a style of enquiry more recently pursued by Philip Payton in relation to South Australia’s copper triangle. But Payton’s work is important, also, in bringing the local and regional Australian scene into dialogue with a wider transnational or global history. Payton is probably the world’s leading authority on Cornish migration, and his writing on South Australia needs to be seen in the context of his concerns with the social history of the Cornish, who were numerous in South Australia’s copper mining communities. Payton’s work is a reminder that while we need to consider Australia’s First World War in the context of its place in the British Empire or what historians have increasingly called ‘The British World,’ there are also opportunities for bringing together diverse local and regional histories.45

 
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