I give Russell Crowe an F in Gallipoli history

If Russell Crowe had put what he’s reported to have said yesterday about Gallipoli in a history paper I was marking, I’d have given him an F.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The interview, on Australia’s Seven Network, included Crowe’s suggestion that the landing by Australian forces on 25 April 1915 – part of a wider landing on the peninsula – was the invasion of a sovereign nation that, he is reported to have said, ‘we’d never had an angry word with.

Sigh. The Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 weren’t an unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory. The British and Ottoman Empires went to war on 28 October 1914, on Turkish declaration. By the time of the Gallipoli landings there had already been fighting around Suez, also Ottoman sovereign territory.

Gallipoli was an attempt to end an existing war by knocking out the belligerent. Crowe is right to the extent that there was no earlier dispute between the Turks and the Australians or New Zealanders. Nor was there later, a point made clear in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal – Kemal Ataturk – who commanded the defence against the Anzacs and later became President of Turkey:  ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country … You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away the tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well…

However, the fact remains that the soldiers of both sides were doing their job, and the ethics of the war were not defined by the military operation intended to end the fighting. They flowed instead from a far broader picture, including the reasons why the Ottomans felt obliged to declare war in the first place. In this, Britain was not blameless, though it is facile to point to their taking over two Turkish dreadnoughts completing in British yards, in August 1914, as the provoking factor. The factors ran deeper than that, and German realpolitik cannot be discounted in the mix.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of my book ‘Shattered Glory’ with a marvellous painting of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, by Ion Brown. Now out of print, but I have a few personal copies. If you want one, contact me.

From both the Australian and New Zealand point of view the more crucial historical issue remains the way the Gallipoli campaign has been mythologised. In New Zealand, Anzac Day – the anniversary of the landings – has become a nation-defining moment, upheld as the day when New Zealand strode forth on the world stage and began asserting itself as something more than just a scion of Britain.

I won’t go into all that here, other than to point out that the men were motivated to join the war not to assert New Zealand, but for Empire –  for ‘our nation’, Britain. This was the age when New Zealand was Britain’s imperial Boy Scout, all enthusiasm and jingoism, to the amusement and ridicule of everybody else.

New Zealand’s reinvention of that day as a nation-defining moment began in 1916 with the transformation, largely at the hands of the Bishop of Auckland, of the Gallipoli defeat into a victory. It was still defined as an Imperial victory; but the road led, eventually, to the re-conception of the whole campaign in that nation-defining sense.

One of the outcomes is that our day of remembrance, along with that of Australia, is 25 April – the day we landed in another country. Not the day the First World War effectively ended, 11 November, which is how just about every other Commonwealth country remembers it.

Because we are still buoyed by that mythology, few have yet questioned it – and given the way history works as a discipline, we probably won’t for another generation or two.

As for Crowe – well, sorry, mate, I know you’re a fellow Kiwi, fellow Wellingtonian and all that…but that really is an F-grade historical comment.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a zombie apocalypse

New Zealand has been hit by three significant earthquakes in the last two days. Luckily not strong enough to do damage, and remote enough that even a larger shake would have been more nuisance than apocalypse. But they are a sharp reminder that we live on some very ‘shaky isles’. The next one might well bring tragedy.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

The Christ Church Cathedral – icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin.

It’s to get a better handle on that looming apocalypse that GNS Science have been exploring the Alpine Fault this past few months – drilling far down to set up an early warning system that will give us some prior hint when is about to rupture. Not if, but when – this fault moves every three centuries or so, and it last ruptured in 1717. Go figure.

Well, actually you don’t have to. A study published in 2012 indicated there was a 30 percent chance of a devastating quake occurring on that fault some time in the next 50 years – before 2062. Because probabilities are calculated as bell-shaped curves, this did not mean a quake would occur precisely in 2062; it meant the quake might occur any time from 2012 (low probability) through the mid-twenty-first century (high probability), to the early 2100s (a low chance of it happening that late, but a very high probability of it happening, if it hadn’t happened by then).

This fault is thought capable of generating quakes with magnitude of up to 8.3. Huge. A Civil Defence exercise held in 2013, built around that potential, can best be described as scary. While researching my book on earthquakes, I contacted the author of the exercise – who filled me in on the details. Uh…ouch.

For obvious reasons the science of earthquake engineering is well developed in New Zealand. Some of the world’s leading systems have been invented here, notably the lead-rubber base isolator. This is designed to keep a building ‘floating’ above its foundations. When an earthquake hits, the ground moves – but, thanks largely to its moment of inertia and the reduced energy being transmitted to it, the building doesn’t. Not so much anyway. The first system was installed in the early 1980s in what was then the Ministry of Works building, and major structures to receive it since have included Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum; and Parliament buildings.

It’s a clever idea. And tricks like this – along with a raft of others – all have to be applied quite seriously in earthquake zones. One of the outcomes, certainly as far as civil defence planning is concerned, is that the likelihood of casualties during the quake is reduced. Buildings constructed with proper attention to earthquake-proofing won’t collapse, and if they’re done right, they also won’t shed parts that crush people beneath. That’s what caused most of the casualties in the 1931 Napier earthquake, for instance, which provoked New Zealand’s first serious earthquake-proofing regulations.

Study, inevitably, is ongoing. But what I can say is that New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a ‘zombie’ apocalypse. The ‘earthquake’ apocalypse we’re actually facing is serious enough. For more…well, you knew I’d say this – it’s all in my book.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Can we view 9/11 as history? A Hobsbawmian perspective.

Do you remember what you were doing at the precise moment when you heard about the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington? I do – and I’m not American. I’m a Kiwi. But I remember. Here in New Zealand, on the other side of the date-line, initial news broke in the early hours of 12 September. My wife – listening to overnight talkback radio on earpieces – heard the news and jabbed me in the ribs. ‘Wake up, a plane’s hit a building in New York.’

Thinking about tragic accidents, we got up to see whether anything was on TV. It was. And then the news got worse. Way worse. The fact that there was live coverage, here in New Zealand, underscored the scale of the tragedy as a world event.

A fireman calls for 10 more colleagues amidst the ruins of the World Trade Centre, 10 September 2001. US Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A fireman calls for 10 more colleagues amidst the ruins of the World Trade Centre, 10 September 2001. US Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

That reveals the huge dimension of those events 13 years ago. A human tragedy of appalling scale that became a defining moment not just for New York, not just for the United States – but for the planet. One that helped shape the first decade of the twenty-first century for everybody in the developed world, not least because of the behaviours, attitudes and oppositions that followed, ranging from tighter security for air travellers to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The time is not yet ripe to consider these events history, for they are not. But when they are – in two, three generations, when young children view 2001 much as we view 1941, a distant time of grandparents and great grandparents – how will we see the 9/11 attacks then?

The answer, to me, emerges from the way that history, for professional historians, is all about meaning – about finding the broad shapes and patterns that turn the world of the past into the world of the present. These patterns seldom match the number system we use to count the passing years.

When we look at history that way we cannot go past the work of Eric Hobsbawm, who was to my mind perhaps the greatest historian of the twentieth century. I do not make such statement lightly. He took the long view. The historian’s view. A view divorced from the round-number dates into which we usually divide the past, like the end of a decade or a century.

For Hobsbawm, centuries were defined by the patterns of social and economic trends. That was why he called the nineteenth century a ‘long century’, marked by its ‘age of revolution’. To him, this century began in 1789 with the revolution that ended the ancien regime in France and which began a pattern of industrial-driven social dislocation and revolt. It ended in 1914 when the ‘guns of August’ heralded the end of the old European order in its entirety. Of course the trends that led to these pivotal moments pre-dated the specific instant by decades. Nothing, historically, comes out of a vacuum. But these dates offered defining events that, for Hobsbawm, brought the wider underlying trends into a decisive and overt reality.

USS Arizona, 7 December 1941. Public domain, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/ OnlineLibrary/photos/images/ac00001/ ac05904.jpg

Distances of history. In 2087, the tragedy of 9/11 will be as far removed in time as Pearl Harbor is today. How will people view it? Public domain.

Following the same logic, Hobsbawm also argued that the twentieth century was ‘short’ – beginning in 1914, with that collapse of the old order and the rise, in its place, of a tripartite world in which democracy was initially on the losing side of totalitarian fascism and communism. That resolved with the victory (luckily) of democracy – an event Hobsbawm argued was marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revolutionary state that had emerged from the First World War.

The decisive date, for Hobsbawm, was the formal end of the Cold War in 1992. By this reasoning the twenty-first century began in 1993. But I wonder. We cannot know our future – cannot say whether there will be any long and over-arching socio-political pattern to the twenty-first century. But so far, one does seem to be emerging, for the early part of it at least.

Like Hobsbawm’s long and short centuries, this shape has been defined by trends bubbling away well before the pivotal moment. They were evident for quite some time through the late twentieth century, partially masked by the over-powering priorities of the Cold War. But if we want to point, in Hobsbawmian fashion, to a defining moment – a point where those underlying issues suddenly became present and urgent in everyday consciousness, it has to be 9/11. Sure, that leaves us with a 9-year interregnum after the end of the twentieth century – but, as I say, history at the thematic level never does tidily match up with numeric dates or round numbers.

And will future historians look back on the twenty-first as a long century? A short one? That’s up to us, really – meaning, everybody on the planet – and the choices we make.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The real truth of the First World War

There has been a growing consensus among historians in recent years that the First and Second World Wars were not separate events. They were two acts in a 31-year drama that began in 1914.

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Royal_Irish_Rifles_ration_party_Somme_July_1916.jpg

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, there are reasons to argue that this war was followed by a third act, set up by the collapse of the old order in the First World War – the rise of Communism, which was not resolved by the Second World War and led to the Cold War. That did not end until 1992. These events defined the society, politics and economics of the twentieth century; and it is for these reasons that Eric Hobsbawm has argued that this century – in those terms – was a ‘short’ century, beginning in 1914 and ending in 1992.

I’m inclined to agree. As far as the two World Wars are concerned there is little doubt about the integration between them. Briefly the argument is this. In 1918, the German state collapsed, but the advancing Allies were still – certainly by George Patton’s estimate – a few weeks off being able to beat the German army. The result was that Germany essentially retained an unbroken field army. This was dispersed by Versailles, but the soldiers, brought up like the rest of Germany on the notion of ‘Reich’, felt cheated. Into the breach leaped a shell-shocked veteran of the Ypres front, sporting the Charlie Chaplin moustache he’d devised for gas-mask wear.

SMS Baden, one of the last of Germany's First World War super-dreadnoughts.

SMS Baden, one of the last of Germany’s First World War super-dreadnoughts. Public domain.

It wasn’t difficult for Hitler to whip up support based on the popular sense of injustice and denied destiny, drawing power from disaffected former soldiers who formed a significant demographic group. It was also not hard for him to find a sub-culture within Germany who could be blamed. All of this was wrapped in the guise of a ‘new order’, but actually it was not – the Nazis, in short, did not come out of a vacuum; they merely re-framed an idea that already existed. This connection was realised by the British as the Second World War came to an end and they wondered how to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1919. As early as 1943, Sir Robert Vansittart argued that Hitler was merely a symptom. The deeper problem was that Versailles hadn’t broken eighty-odd years’ worth of Bismarckian ‘Reich’ mentality.

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThis perspective demands a different view of the First World War. So far, non-military historians in New Zealand – working in ignorance of the military realties – have simply added an intellectual layer to the cliche of the First World War as a psychologically inexplicable void into which the rational world fell as a result of mechanistic international systems, the pig-headedness of stupid governments and the incompetence of Chateau-bound general officers. There has even been an attempt by one New Zealand historian to re-cast Britain and the Allies as the aggressive, evil villains of the piece. Military historians have not been seduced by such fantasies, but have still been captured by a pervasive framework of sadness, remembrance and sacrifice. Into this, again for New Zealand, has been stirred mythologies of nationalism, of the ‘birth’ of today’s nation on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915. The result of this heady mix has been a narrow orthodoxy and an equally narrow exploration of events in terms of that orthodoxy.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

Landing on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

I question this framework, not least because of the argument that the Second World War was a specific outcome of the First. The implication of the two being different aspects of a single struggle is clear; there are questions yet to be investigated about the ‘why’ of the First World War. The issue is the extent to which the ‘Reich’ mentality was perceived as a genuine threat in 1914 when Britain (in particular) debated whether to enter the conflict, and whether and how that answer drove the Allies to persist even after available offence (infantry) had proven itself inadequate against the defence (wire, machine guns and trenches). We have to remember that fear of German imperialism had already driven Europe’s alliance structures from the 1880s. And, for New Zealand, the question is how did that intersect with – and potentially drive – the sense of pro-British imperialism that did so much to define our mind-set in the generation before 1914?

These sorts of questions are beginning to be asked in British historical circles now. I keep being invited to symposia at various universities over there, where these matters are being discussed. Unfortunately we are a long way off being able to properly pose such queries in New Zealand. Yet, realistically, that interpretation needs to be explored. Perhaps I should do it. What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Remembering the dawn of darkness: 75 years since Hitler invaded Poland

It is seventy five years this week since Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime put Europe to the torch. A moment that – certainly here in New Zealand – risks being lost against the public profile of the First World War centenary.

The KM Schleswig-Holstein during the Battle of Westerplatte that opened the Second World War. Public Domain.

The KM Schleswig-Holstein during the Battle of Westerplatte that opened the Second World War. Public Domain.

In a narrative sense, the Second World War began on 1 September 1939 in Danzig harbour when the pre-dreadnought Schleswig-Holstein – then on a port visit – opened fire on the Polish barracks at Westerplatte. By 4 September, Germany was at war with Britain, most of her Empire,and France. The conflict did not end, for Europe, until the Red flag flew over Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin, nearly six years later. By then, seventy million people were dead.

It was a terrible cost. And yet we have to ask what would have happened had Europe’s democracies not stood up? If they had carried on with the ‘appeasement’ policy of the late 1930s that allowed Hitler to seize large parts of Europe, apparently with impunity. Today we live in a world dominated by democracies; but the survival of democracy as the leading world political system was by no means a foregone outcome in the late 1930s. Back then the three big democracies – Britain, France and the US – were still staggering to their feet after a deep depression. The US was staunchly isolationist; and democracy as a system was apparently a declining force in a world where the rising powers were the fascist ‘new order’ of Germany and Italy and the Communist but equally totalitarian Soviet Union. There was little difference between these two systems – police states that worked by repression, suffering and by targeting whole groups of their own populations for institutionalised murder.

Of the two, the Nazis were judged the greater danger from the western perspective, because Germany already had a two-generation long history of world ambition. That was what the First World War had been all about – Hitler merely renewed the push, adding totalitarianism to the mix. It is unlikely Hitler’s regime was stable enough to have survived his intended ‘thousand years’, but certainly the world would have had several miserable generations of Nazi hegemony – directly, for those unlucky enough to be in Europe and places like Ukraine, and indirectly, for most of the rest of the world, probably via economic levers. How long would the main democracies have survived as an effective system in a world dominated by totalitarianism? Would the democracies have been in a position to pick up the pieces when the Nazi regime eventually collapsed – or would some new dark power instead arise to fill the gap?

Sir Winston Churchill i n 1942 - quite possibly the greatest Englishman that ever lived. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C

Sir Winston Churchill i n 1942 – quite possibly the greatest Englishman that ever lived. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C

That was why Britain and France took a stand when Hitler threatened Poland. That was why, when Britain faced its ‘darkest hour’ in mid-1940, Winston Churchill insisted that there could be no backing down. As a historian, he knew the score – knew the ‘monstrous tyranny’ had to be stopped, ‘whatever the cost may be’, even if Britain had to do so alone – lest the world fall into what he called the ‘abyss of a new Dark Age’. The Nazis, as he well understood, were evil – evil in the truest sense, because they were rational, coldly logical, and calculating about it. And Churchill knew that, at the very least, that cost of stopping that evil would likely be Britain’s Empire. He knew India would go. But it was a price to be paid if the world was to be saved.

A justified war, then, insofar as war can ever be justified.

Right now, the anniversary of its beginning runs the risk of being swamped by the attention currently being paid to the First World War, a century ago.

Yet – if we step back and take the long view of history – actually it doesn’t. For the Second World War did not really begin in September 1939.

That was when the fighting started, sure – but as always, history runs deeper than the surface narrative. The reality is that the Second World War was not an isolated struggle. It was the second act of the struggle that began in 1914 – the First World War. Indeed, from this ‘long view’ there were not two wars; there was but one, two acts of unbelievable violence separated by an uneasy twenty-year interregnum.

I’ll explain. Next week. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The sadness of those who rage at the world

I have always thought it sad that mass movements almost always define themselves by what they are ‘against’. A point underscoring one of the unfortunate truths of the human emotional condition, where anger and revenge – every time – are more attractive than kindness and good.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comIt seems to be a human failing. I first saw it at university where the undergrad community defined and validated themselves by what they were against – in effect, allowing the very world they raged at to define their frameworks. But this also meant they never broke clear of what they apparently hated. And so they raged against authoritarianism by demanding blind obedience to their struggle to break authoritarian control. They raged against racism by defining racists as inferior beings who had to be discriminated against. And so it went on. Those who did not join them were, by definition, part of what they defined as wrong – an insidious and un-arguable mechanism for enforcement.

What they were actually raging at, of course, was their own powerlessness. I suppose most of them grew up and learned how to let go. But the experience underscores the way that even intelligent people are drawn into lowest common denominator behaviour by the emotions of joining a movement, en masse, that speaks to their sense of validation.

All of this, looking back, was a reflection of a very common aspect of the human condition. There is nothing new about the way mass movements draw from emotion and not reason – an emotional mix where anger and revenge are the stronger powers. Unfortunately.

Napoleon Bonaparte confronted it on the streets of Paris in the 1790s. His answer was to deliver the protestors a ‘whiff of grape’ – cannon-loads of musket balls fired into the crowds at short range. Not a good answer.

And now? As I look around the world – look at the troubles erupting in a multitude of places – I can’t help thinking that humanity hasn’t learned. The big lesson – to let go, and so open the door to kindness, seems elusive. Sigh.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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