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Imagining nationalism through Anzac suffering

  • 23 April 2012

Every year Anzac Day comes around and events held across Australia attract ever growing numbers of people. At dawn services proportionately more youthful and larger crowds venerate the memory of young men (and some young women) who died in the many wars Australia has fought since the late 19th century.

The growth in popularity of Anzac Day is an intriguing phenomenon. It occurs in a period when the vast majority of Australians have never had anything to do with the armed services and have never experienced violence, other than perhaps in the street or the pub or the home.

Australia no longer has conscription or national service and most young people, especially those with tertiary education, would not consider the military as a future career path. The Australian Defence Force has been struggling to meet its recruitment quotas for some time now.

So the reason Anzac Day draws such large numbers cannot be that those who attend have a personal connection to the services. There are also some underlying cultural currents at work.

There is no doubt that Anzac Day represents a form of nationalism — this is not to belittle it, only to recognise its true nature. Anzac Day is part of a process of national imagining that takes place through ritual commemoration — a process described by historian Eric Hobsbawn in his book The Invention of Tradition and by Benedict Anderson in his famous exegesis of nationalism, Imagined Communities.

By paying tribute to the Anzacs, Australians reinforce their sense of common identity: in doing so the Australian nation is imagined as a sovereign and limited community defined by certain ideals.

Arguably this focus on ideals is what makes Anzac Day so popular. Day to day political affairs and cultural and social debate is often antagonistic — democracy as a process of public argument rather than public reasoning. And in the realm of morality, modern life is defined by a plurality of moral perspectives so that it is difficult to form a moral consensus on a wide variety of issues. Anzac Day, by contrast, is an occasion for public concord and consensus — it is marked by displays of solidarity.

The 20th century political theorist Isaiah Berlin argued that nationalism often manifests itself most strongly in