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.

That is why they are a reaction, a beleaguered response, an action rather like King Canute who bid the tide to cease its advance. In a generation hence someone might read this book and wonder how we could have been so exercised by the obvious: that the history of the people who have lived in this land is a record of human activity that reveals virtue and vice, courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, like the history of other countries.

I wrote this book after I had engaged in a debate with Keith Windschuttle up in Blackheath before a mixed audience of Blue Mountain retirees, curious and interested people, and members of the Quadrant editorial board. It became apparent to me that much of the background and many of the issues raised during the debate were not apparent to the curious and interested portion of the audience, and accordingly I have sought to provide an account of the history wars as contemporary history.

I could not have done so without the support and encouragement of many people, who are listed in the acknowledgements, and I thank them all. I would not have done so if Louise Adler had not encouraged me. (Encourage is hardly an adequate verb in her case! She and Max Gillies read each draft chapter and helped me to see where I was going.)

I was especially fortunate to be working already with Anna Clark in her research into school history, which is one of the principal sites of the history wars, and Anna had already made a very astute study of the Black Armband debate. I am grateful that she agreed to contribute the chapter on school history, 'What do they teach our children?' And she also conducted much of the research for the book, hunting out chapter and verse of The history wars.


Stuart Macintyre is Ernest Scott Professor of History, Dean of Arts and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. A prolific author, Stuart is also a former member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committee. These are his speech notes upon the launching of The history wars (MUP, 2003), by Stuart Macintyre with Anna Clark.


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