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 of China.

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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