In the inter-war years, the Australian War Memorial was one of the nation's premier cultural institutions, its displays addressing Australia's fundamental nation-building experience up until that time, the First World War. However, these displays have not before been fore-grounded in interpretations of the institution in this period. The study that follows seeks to make inter alia a contribution compensating for this lacuna in our knowledge, offering a new understanding of the Memorial obtained through a fresh methodology. It also adds to our understanding of the Anzac Legend and Australian commemoration in the inter-war years, as well as Australian nationalism.
Envisioned and guided by Australian Official War Correspondent and Historian C.E.W. Bean, the Memorial's inter-war displays (1922-35) offered a heroic vision of the Australian war experience, with a narrative of test, ordeal and triumph at their heart. Integrated into this was an interpretation of why the Australians had come through victoriously, focussed on perceived martial virtues such as courage, determination, ferocity and nobility. In addition, proof was offered that Australian soldiers had been superior to their opponents. At the same time, the Memorial dealt sensitively and honestly with defeat, death and the wounded, although these subjects were treated so as to play down their horror and emphasise Australian triumph over them. Further, the displays were governed by a strict realism of presentation which operated through a process I have named "naturalisation" to insist that both military fact and moral assertion were equally true. I have labelled the Memorial's version of the Australian overseas war experience the "national" interpretation of it.
It is argued that the influence of what I label "martial" nationalism was the key to these displays, as it was the key to Australian commemoration more broadly. This was a major mode of nationalist thinking in Europe before 1914, expressed in a complex of war memorials and triumphal writings that equated national identity with success on the battlefield. Certain educated Australians were seeking a national history which could compete on this martial ground in the same pre-war period, and when the Australian troops performed creditably in 1915 and 1916, and with increasing effectiveness in 1917 and 1918, martial nationalism was embraced, complete with its accompanying glorification of victory.
A major aspect of Australian inter-war commemoration was the enunciation of an Australian national identity. Two major nationalist models were taken up, the martial, championed by educated Anglo-Australian elites, and what might be termed the "developmental," advocated by such moderate Leftist groups as the Australian Labor Party. These were manifest in two "cultures," which have been labelled the "monumental" and the "anti-monumental." The former recognised the horror of war, but concentrated upon the positive elements of the Australian war experience, building a major national tradition upon those elements. The latter could not see beyond the horror. The result of these varying visions of the war was that the monumental culture wished to publicly remember the war forever, "to keep green the memory of the AIF," while the anti-monumental argued that the war experience should be consigned to oblivion. The monumental culture was dominant; indeed, it is suggested that this was the predominant commemorative reaction in the immediate post-war years. The so-called Anzac Legend, a myth focussed upon the characteristics of the typical Australian soldier (and by extension, the typical Australian citizen), which emerged from the war and which was regularly rehearsed on commemorative occasions and in war literature, was strongly martial nationalist, being founded upon an assertion of Australian military supremacy.
Through its war narrative, its interpretation of typical soldierly characteristics of Australians, and its proof of military supremacy, the Memorial made a significant and enduring contribution to the monumental culture and its martial nationalist vision of the war. Its displays outlined the characteristics of a typical solider, and thus typical Australian male, thereby promoting the martial vision of Australian identity against competing visions. It held physical evidence for the many public assertions made about Australian soldiers and their military abilities. Also, the Memorial embodied a strong masculinist ideology; men had defended the nation, its logic asserted, and this made their citizenship deeper and more important than women's.
Finally, all memory of the war was imbued with political connotations, and throughout its inter-war life the Memorial was associated with the leading figures of conservatism in Australia, with Nationalist politicians and returned officers on its controlling committee. Its messages about the war were in broad agreement with those of the dominant right-wing groups in the country, including the RSSILA, whose agents controlled vital commemorative days and whose non-political stance masked a clear conservatism.