We choose our history to suit who we are, but ‘the great Australian’ silence is slowly being broken

We choose our history to suit who we are

By Stan Grant

The Angel of History is a harbinger of doom and catastrophe. Its eyes are forever turned backwards to a time of catastrophe which defines everything that comes after.

The Angel of History threatens to trap us in its wings, forever binding us to suffering and misery.

The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about what he called this Angel of History. Benjamin lived through the rise of the Nazis and saw how history could be spun into a tale of vengeance.

Benjamin was inspired by a mono print — the Angelus Novus — by German artist Paul Klee. Benjamin bought it in a Munich market and for him it became a talisman. Benjamin hung the artwork on the wall of every apartment he lived in.

For Benjamin, the Angelus Novus became a powerful symbol of history. The angel’s “eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread,” he wrote. “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past … he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”

I came face to face with the Angel of History recently in a panel discussion for the Melbourne Writers Festival. It was a conversation about our history — Australia’s history — and how we struggle under its weight. 

I shared the panel with Indigenous scholar Marcia Langton and historian Henry Reynolds, whose work has challenged us to look to the other side of the frontier to tell another truth of invasion and massacre on our country.

It is a story too long written out of our history books, still not taught fully in our schools. It frames what the late Australian anthropologist William Stanner famously called the “great Australian silence” — a national amnesia.


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History: not a shared story, a battlefield

We were joined by Thomas Mayor, an Indigenous writer and champion of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement calls for a national truth telling.

The conversation went to the sins of Australia, the complicity of some of our leading figures and founding fathers in crimes against First Nations people. As Reynolds pointed out, Australia still celebrates these men. There are statues to people with blood on their hands.

Professor Langton also wondered: Where are the statues to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heroes — the warriors of resistance in the still unrecognised frontiers wars?

Our history, like the history of all countries, is fraught and bloody. Like all countries it is a history written by the powerful. Gradually though, other voices are being heard. The silence is being broken. 

We choose our history to suit who we are, but 'the great Australian' silence is slowly being broken
The Angelus Novus became a powerful symbol of history for Walter Benjamin.

Yet rather than history being a shared story, it is a battlefield. History is ground zero in the culture war. History is far too often more about identity than facts.

We choose our history to suit who we are. The French philosopher and historian Michel de Certeau wrote that history is not really about truth, it is about narrative.

History is born in the writing and, as he said, “This is writing that conquers”. To Certeau, the writing of history reinforces our feelings of loss, mourning and absence. 

As past Australian historians have written a narrative of exploration and adventure and peaceful settlement, revisionist historians like Henry Reynolds construct a counter-narrative.

Each side carefully assembles its facts. Each can lay claim to truth. Neither is the whole truth. So we are left with a contest. A contest of power. It is a contest that reveals more about who we are today than who we have been. More about the present than the past.

Reynolds pointed out that a review of his latest book about Aboriginal warrior Tongerlongeter (a name like so many others unfamiliar, if not utterly unknown, to most Australians) and the frontier war in Tasmania was met with an avalanche of negative comments accusing the historian of being anti-Australian.

Giving voice to the other side of frontier — for so long ignored, written out and powerless — apparently is somehow treasonous.

Does the answer lie in forgetting?

Similarly, there are others for whom history is an open wound, a site of endless grievance. They don’t seek to tell the truth of the past, they prefer to prosecute the past. To put Australia on trial.

I know full well how history can cast a long shadow. As an Aboriginal person, the stories I heard at home from my parents and grandparents told me of a very different country to the myths of brave explorers, daring navigators, downtrodden convicts, and heroic governors that I was taught at school.

But what is the use of history? Am I chained to the past? Is there a point at which history ceases to matter? Should Australia be judged by what it was or what it is? Must I choose my side? 

This isn’t about justice. Justice is about rights. It is about recognising the place of First Nations people; it is about restitution.

But that’s not history. History, it seems, is less about rights and more about wrongs.

French historian Ernest Renan thought we could have too much history. In a famous lecture in 1882, he wondered how a nation can carry the burden of its past. A nation, he said, was a soul divided between the past and the present — one a rich trove of memories, the other the desire to live together.

Nations are acts of violence, Renan wrote, and we cling to our grief. It can become a source of unending, unforgiving resentment and it can pit us against each other. The answer, he suggested, may rest in forgetting:

“Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation.”

Renan’s lecture has been called the most important meditation on nationhood. Yet he is sadly at odds with this age. Historical “truth” has taken on the power of liturgy. Forgetting is heresy.

History is a fault line that runs through our world. How we construct the past divides us. From the alt-right to Islamist extremism, from China to Russia to Turkey and Hungary, populist strongman leaders exploit historical grievance as a fulcrum of national identity.

Black, white, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish all stare into the abyss. All are visited by the Angel of History, the harbinger of catastrophe.

We cannot change the past and we cannot let it go. Like Sisyphus we are condemned to bear its load for eternity. What good is history if it doesn’t release us from The Angels of History stirring in our world, feeding resentment and vengeance and drowning out the better angels of peace and justice? 

Walter Benjamin saw the rise of the Nazis; he fled to France only to see Hitler’s army conquer. Trying to flee again, he is believed to have taken his own life.

He left us with his Angelus Novus — the Angel of History: A warning that our eyes cannot turn to the future when they are fixed so deadly on the past. 

*Stan Grant is the Vice Chancellor’s Chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University. He was formerly ABC’s Global Affairs and Indigenous Affairs Analyst.

*This article first appeared on the abc.net.au website.

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