Social Division and the Repressive State

Australian historians have not been out of touch with international developments in relation to the First World War. Their investigations of home front division in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s reflected wider concerns with the social history of the war, and the effects of that war on the societies behind the front lines. The Australian situation had its analogue in all belligerent societies, the more extreme examples of which were those that succumbed to revolution following, or in anticipation of, defeat.2 For the main part, however, Australian historians were reacting to a consensus view of the war in Australia that had been propagated especially in Ernest Scott’s domestic volume of the official history. Scott had not denied that divisions occurred, but located them as ructions in a broader willingness to prosecute the empire’s cause.3 From the 1960s, historians brought a greater range of groups into the history of the war. Trade unions, churches, schools, and women’s organisations took their place alongside political leaders and the apparatus of the state as the main agents of the story. Their sympathies lay with those against whom they saw that apparatus of the state pitted, whether they be radical workers, pacifists, feminist groups, or ethnic minorities. As Carolyn Holbrook has so ably shown, that sympathy extended from radical nationalist historians’ fundamental aversion to the war’s imperial and conservative embrace. For them, and for those who followed, the war had shattered the idealism and experimentation that had characterised Australian democracy before 1914, leaving a more barren and conservative nation in its wake.4

With the war cast as an agent of change for the worse, those who supported it became its perpetrators, and also the persecutors of those who questioned or stood against the conflict. Lloyd Robson disparaged pro-war advocates, describing “those in the community who actually revelled in the war and the sharpened purpose it gave to their lives ... [as they] engaged in those thousand and one activities calculated to win the war for the forces of sweetness, light, reason and democracy.”5 Marilyn Lake rendered the war in Tasmania as “a fragmentation of the community,” and identified the “persecutors, the patriotic middle-class Tasmanians” whose prejudices the war had affirmed. In reviewing Lake’s book, Robson simply declared that “the overwhelming impression one receives is that the Tasmanian people went berserk.”6 Persecution there certainly was: Gerhard Fischer’s study of the treatment of “enemy aliens” is a catalogue of the destruction of Australia’s German community. His explanation, however, rested on a similar characterisation of Australians at home. Fischer painted the British-Australians who alienated their neighbours as motivated by an unseemly urge to take part actively in the excitement of a war thousands of kilometres away. Having imagined and then disposed of a local threat, “Australians had managed to transport themselves into the centre of the war, from the distant periphery where they were located in reality.”7

Such caricatures of Australians determined to fight the war shed little light on their own sentiments and motivations. This problem persisted even in some otherwise excellent studies emerging in the late 1980s and 1990s, which tried to account for the total war environment in which Australians were operating. With their concerns still squarely focused on the repression of working-class and progressive movements, historians such as Judith Smart and Raymond Evans emphasised high levels of state intervention underpinning the determination to continue fighting the war. Smart framed her examination of progressive movements in Melbourne with the observation that at home:

the activities of civilians, including public opinion formation, had to be as carefully organised and planned as the actual fighting. In this sense, it was the first modern and ‘total’ war, the essential feature of which was the subordination of the interests of the individual to those of the state.8

Similarly, in his powerful study of social conflict in Queensland, Raymond Evans insisted that whatever spontaneous enthusiasm had existed at the beginning of the war “seems to have been of remarkably short duration.” To understand Australians’ motivation to continue to fight, he suggested, one must look to the manipulative and buttressing effects of censorship and propaganda, as well as repression of disaffection with the war—“all regarded as essential strategic pressures to keep the will for aggression alive.”9

None of this is to deny the divisions wrought through the experience of war, or that the agencies of the state were not critical to underpinning the will to fight. What this approach obscures, however, is how Australians actually engaged with the war and, by and large, determined to see it through to its end. These were the very questions that were beginning to occupy European and North American scholars at this time. Encouraged by the new cultural history’s focus on subjectivity, experience, feeling and sentiment, historians began an inquiry into the bases of consent to war. In France, Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker insisted that historians and others confront the uncomfortable reality that millions of people had conducted and supported the mass violence of the war. They observed that:

the essential question of why and how millions of Europeans and Westerners acquiesced in the war of 1914-18 has remained buried. Why we accept the violence of warfare has remained a taboo subject.10

The demand that we understand why belligerent populations accepted that violence would necessitate a reconsideration of the agency of civilians in the conduct of the war. A series of conferences on the nature and meaning of ‘total war,’ led by Stig Forster and Roger Chickering, affirmed the deep interconnectedness of civilians and the battlefront, and developed a more nuanced understanding of civilian will in its prosecution. The key tendency in total war, they insisted, was the dissolving of barriers between armies on the field and those supporting them. And that support was not only industrial but psychological, as civilians sustained both the material and spiritual capacity to fight.11 If this made civilians legitimate targets in total war, it also insisted that civilians had agency in its prosecution. By extension, it indicated that civilians’ comprehension of, and engagement with war had its own history.

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