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Reading Room: The Honest History Book

17 Oct 2017
Reviewed by Dr John Vecihi Basarin OAM

Challenging orthodox views is not an easy matter and the contributors to The Honest History Book have done significant thinking and undertaken research to present alternative views.

It is a collection of articles by several eminent contributors brought together between a book cover that states, “Australia is more than Anzac—and always has been”. This explains the number of articles dedicated to topics as diverse as the environment, immigration and multiculturalism, militarism and indigenous issues, among others. Of course, seven articles themed on Anzac hold a prominent place in the book.

Challenging orthodox views is not an easy matter and the contributors have done significant thinking and undertaken research to present alternative views. The articles make a determined effort to expand the reader’s understanding of issues that are traditionally known to be the historical building blocks of Australia.

Most of the books about Anzac by Australian authors concentrate on strategies, performance and memories of Australian troops. That is understandable as histories are said to be almost always one-sided and selective in what they present. To tell the view from an alternative perspective, particularly the opposing side of ‘the enemy’, is unusual. Although such work, about the Turkish perspective, has existed in Australian literature since 1985, the editors chose not to include such a challenging view.

Thinking about the complex Armenian question, a statement presented on a Turkish government website jumped at me as a potential conclusion: “Turks and Armenians should work to rebuild their historical friendship without forgetting the difficult periods in their common past.”

The lack of primary evidence on Ataturk’s famous “Johnnies and Mehmets” quote about the Anzacs, which was relayed via secondary evidence, is presented as a major finding. The argument that lack of evidence does not mean the non-existence of fact could very well apply here. These conciliatory, peaceful and healing words attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are very powerful in the universal message they give. That is probably the reason why they are widely quoted whenever the Gallipoli campaign and the Turks are mentioned.

In the introduction, Julianne Schultz states, “The chapters of the book present compelling evidence that our history is complex, even messy, a work in progress”. It is hoped that in the future other important issues are addressed, such as the British Empire’s strong determination to have access to Middle Eastern oil being the underlying motive for the invasion of Gallipoli and other Ottoman territories.

The book is recommended for readers who wish to reflect on the way the Anzac legend has evolved and on its influence in determining Australia’s perceived imagination of itself and the meaning of ‘being Australian’.

Dr David Stephens and Dr Alison Broinowski (ed.), The Honest History Book, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2017.

Dr John [Vecihi] Basarin OAM is the chairman of Friends of Gallipoli Inc. a not-for-profit association and co-author of several books on Gallipoli, telling the story from the Turkish perspective.