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Reflecting on the Armistice

Date

November 11 marks the tragedy of violence, writes Gareth Knapman

Rememberance Day at Melbourne's Shrine of Rememberance on November 11, 2010.

Rememberance Day at Melbourne's Shrine of Rememberance on November 11, 2010. Photo: Craig Abraham

What is the role of Remembrance Day, November 11, for Australians in the 21st century? Since the end of World War I, Australians have faced questions around the purpose of Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is Armistice Day, and the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month marks the moment peace was declared. As a day of peace it should have universal appeal, but its future is far from certain.

Not that long ago all traffic lights turned to red and all schools and workplaces stopped to mark the two-minute silence. Most citizens wore red poppies on Remembrance Day.

Today, apart from politicians, Department of Defence personnel and the odd primary school student, poppy wearing is distinctly absent in the broader community.

The importance of Remembrance Day was instilled in 1919 by King George V's request that the peoples of the British Empire stop to recognise the armistice ''which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years and marked the victory of Right and Freedom''.

The following year the remains of unknown soldiers were interred in Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. With these acts, Remembrance Day took on an international flavour. In the United States of America, November 11 became Veterans Day and in France and Belgium, November 11 is a national holiday. It is this internationalisation that means Remembrance Day's future has been, and will continue to be, overshadowed by Anzac Day in Australia.

When faced with the commemoration of war dead in the 1923 Melbourne meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers - a faith that is committed to non-violence and peace - it was decided that ''Anzac Day, apart from Australian heroism, represented at best a historic instance of bungling and incapacity in high places.

Armistice Day, despite its ultimate outcome of disappointment, stood for the possibility of larger international relationships based upon generosity''. The logical reasoning of the Melbourne Quakers is as valid now as it was then.

Anzac Day is invasion day and marks the real beginning of Australia's military tradition. This is particularly bizarre when in 1914 Australians had gone to war under the principles of ''truth'', ''justice'', ending ''German militarism'', and the ''defence of Empire'' - the first three terms are ambiguous and were never explained to the Australian community.

Despite the inconvenient truth that an invasion of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) was not an attack on German militarism, only months after the landing on April 25, 1915, there were calls to make April 25 a national holiday. Connections between the words ''Anzac Day'' and ''sacred'' were commonplace in 1915, and by 1916 the two were inseparably linked.

The fact that Anzac Day is a holiday in Australia is the deciding factor. From 1916 onwards, Anzac Day was a statement about Australian identity above and beyond remembrance of the dead. The convergence of Remembrance Day with Anzac Day is clear when we look at different official statements on commemoration.

The Australian War Memorial takes a broad approach to Remembrance Day, maintaining the international spirit as being ''in memory of those who died or suffered in all wars and armed conflicts'', yet the Australian government cites former governor-general William Deane's 1997 proclamation that Remembrance Day was about ''the sacrifice of those who died or otherwise suffered in Australia's cause in wars and war-like conflicts.''

In Australia we too easily use remembrance to define our Australian identity and miss the opportunity to reflect on the tragedy of violence. Maybe the 1923 Quaker approach to remembrance is more fitting for a globalised world.

Dr Gareth Knapman is a Research Fellow and project manager for the History of Anzac Day ARC Project, National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

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