Remembrance of things past
SCMP May 2, 2005
Perspective in history is a necessary but elusive goal. Comments in
my last article about Japan and its textbooks endeavoured to put them
into a wider historical context. But that clearly touched a very raw
nerve, and I received a flood of letters, some remarkably abusive.
So here, I will look at some other aspects of history - but steer clear
It is a truism that some episodes of history acquire symbolic importance
out of all proportion to their practical importance at the time. Let
us look back to 1915, whose anniversaries are producing plenty of examples.
Last Monday was Anzac Day, which commemorates the Australian and New
Zealand Army Corps' losses in the Gallipoli campaign against Turkey
during the first world war. Gallipoli, where more than 8,000 Australians
died during a nine-month campaign, is deeply embedded in the Australian
psyche and national mythology. Heroism was embellished by some flamboyantly
inaccurate accounts by the father of newspaper baron Rupert Murdoch,
and later, fact and fiction merged to become a touchstone of nationalist
sentiment. More French and twice as many Britons died there as Australians,
and more Australians were killed the following year on the Somme and
again in Flanders in 1917 than at Gallipoli. But Gallipoli was symbolic
because it was the first bloodying of the new nation in a major battle
and was one in which Australia and New Zealand played roles out of
all proportion to their size.
For non-Australian history, Gallipoli was a less important encounter
than one which occurred at the very beginning of 1915, but which few
people in the west or Australia have heard of - let alone seen fit
to commemorate. That was the Battle of Sarikamis when, in a few days,
80,000 Turks lost their lives to Russian forces and frostbite in midwinter
in the mountains of eastern Anatolia.
More important still, Sarikamis led to the Russian advance, and Russia's
creation of a (Christian) Armenian state on Turkish soil. This last
advance of Tsarist Russia, in turn, sparked massacres of Armenians
throughout the Turkish part of the Ottoman empire. The Gallipoli invasion
by western Christians the same year added fuel to Turkish Muslim communal
violence and perhaps 500,000 deaths.
Genocide of Armenians or not, the aftermath of Sarikamis has left
a wound as deep as the Nanking massacre and continuing rows over Turkish
guilt and Turkish textbooks. This issue may yet decide the crucial
question of Turkish membership of the European Union.
Did Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his British counterpart
Tony Blair, who attended last week's Gallipoli commemoration, know
about Sarikamis? Or were their school books also selective in the choice
of heroism and cruelty?
Judging by recent editorials, Southeast Asian textbooks may have some
gaps, too. How honest are the Thai ones about their wartime alliance
with Japan? In the Philippines, many members of the nationalist elite,
including then president Corazon Aquino's future father-in-law, were
in the puppet government of president Jose Laurel. He fled briefly
to Japan but Laurel was never prosecuted, returned to politics and
was nearly elected president in 1949.
It is hard to blame the Filipinos, who had to exchange one yoke for
another. Japanese occupation was unpleasant, but the biggest losses
came with liberation in 1945 when 'American Caesar' General Douglas
MacArthur ordered an all-out assault on Japanese-occupied Manila. It
cost 100,000 lives, mostly Filipinos, from air and artillery bombardment
in what was the bloodiest city battle of the second world war after
Stalingrad. Maybe it is best for people to forget some history, but
historians should not.
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