Wednesday, 8 April 2009

History wars

Over the last decade or so in Australia there have been what has been dubbed the “history wars.” What these come down to is the clash between ideologies. One side believes that the arrival of white people in Australia started unfolding a terrible tragedy. Others subliminally (or overtly) believe in the notion of progress and inevitability. Some believe that Australian history should be taught with respect to and for, the original owners of the land. Others believe that respect is due to the “mother-country.” Still others fall somewhere in the middle and get shouted down by both sides. This war is fought in the media, in our national institutions such as parliament, in museums, in academic publications and occasionally by “regular people.” On one hand, you have to admire the fact that historical ideas are debated in the national media. On the other hand, you also have to realise that the proportion of Australians who consume such national media (such as The Australian newspaper, ABC or SBS television) is very small.

Last weekend’s Australian declared that the history wars are over, or at least old hat. The writer has clearly never visited Marburg. Regular readers are probably familiar with the fact that the name of Marburg was changed during World War One to Townshend. General Townshend was infamous for the siege of Al-Kut (160km from Baghdad) where after 143 days he surrendered his army of 12,000 Indian soldiers to the Turks. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica “This disaster became a national scandal for Britain and led to the immediate resignation of India’s secretary of state, Austin Chamberlain.” Of immediate interest to Marburg, Townshend was defeated by Wilhelm Leopold Colmar, baron von der Goltz or as he was known by his Turkish army, Goltz Pasha. Goltz was a Prussian who successfully modernised the Turkish army and was their key strategist in Mesopotamia.

Not only was Marburg forced to change its name, but to that of a disgraced general who had been captured by a Prussian. It was either a carefully calculated insult, or sheer carelessness. The tale of Marburg’s reclamation of its name has been told elsewhere. In 2009 however, the RSL Honour Board in Rosewood is being refurbished. In response to some public demand, the proposal was put forward that war dead from Marburg be listed as being from Marburg and not Townshend. The historical society was expected to support such a move.

After much discussion, the historical society has decided not to support a name change on the honour board. Instead they are proposing that a plaque be placed to inform the public about the former name of Marburg, the reason for the change to Townshend and the reason for the change back to Marburg when so few towns reverted to their original names. To members of the society, this is an important story about pride of community, the ability of committed people to work for change and indeed, historical veracity. The fact that in 2009 we see the name change as the wrong thing to do does not change the fact that it took place. What is important is educating people about what happened and why. It says important things about the wartime experiences of local German migrants and the realities of xenophobia in the Rosewood Scrub.

Some people are not happy. Rosewood’s honour board has allegedly been left out of an upcoming publication on Ipswich area war memorials until this issue is resolved. Phone calls are being made. Presentations and arguments put forward. Politicians are being lobbied. Skirmishes are taking place. Our history wars are not over.

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