Stuart Macintyre: His Answer to the History Wars of Australia

Historians in the News

Mary Ryllis Clark, in the Australian Age (Oct. 5, 2004):

Historian Stuart Macintyre thought the Howard Government a temporary aberration when it won the election in 1996. He acknowledges that he misjudged the change of mood, but as he points out in the new last chapter of his recently reissued A Concise History of Australia, historians are not futurologists.

This chapter, What Next?, begins with a brief but fascinating discussion on the role of the historian. Macintyre argues that the traditional approach to writing history exemplified by the great 19th-century literary historians has fallen into disrepute. Historians, he writes, no longer approach their subject as detached observers, unfolding and interpreting forces that shaped societies, providing contemporaries with the capacity and confidence to make sense of the present.

"The historian is now inside the history," he writes, "inextricably caught up in a continuous making and remaking of the past." The ethical demands and complexities of this approach are explored in The Historian's Conscience, a new book published this month in which Macintyre and 13 other historians put history and their profession under the microscope.

The son of a Congregational minister and mother with considerable sympathy for the underdog, the boundaries of Macintyre's thinking were further expanded by an inspirational history teacher at school, a former Uniting Church minister with similar views to his parents.

"He made you think about the assumptions that wealth is synonymous with privilege and desert. Then when I was a student at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s I was caught up in student politics and drawn into the left. It was a political choice I made."

Macintyre, dean of the faculty of arts at Melbourne University, and Ernest Scott, professor of history, is far from being a detached observer. In his controversial book, The History Wars, Macintyre clearly sympathises with historians accused of fabricating and distorting facts, particularly in reference to Aborigines. The book, recently reissued, discusses issues such as attacks on Manning Clark's reputation as a historian and the way Australian frontier history is interpreted in publications, schools and museums.

Macintyre describes present times as "an era of disenchantment".Louise Adler, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing, commissioned the book because of the way interpretations of Australian history were hitting the front pages of the newspapers. "I wanted to know why," she says.

Adler approached Macintyre in February last year and he delivered 70,000 words in May. The book, which includes a chapter by historian Anna Clark, granddaughter of Manning Clark, was launched by Paul Keating. "It's a remarkable piece of writing," says Adler. "Stuart couldn't have done it without (his) 30 years of scholarship."

The extraordinary response to The History Wars dominated the media for two months. "A lot of people said I must be pleased about the controversy," says Macintyre. "That it was good for history to be in the news. In one sense that's true. In another, it wasn't really a discussion of history but a discussion of political issues that are ascribed to what historians do."

John Howard condemned those academics who had made Australian history what he described as "a basis for obsessive and consuming national guilt and shame". Most people, however, were intensely interested in the issues. The first edition of the book sold 8000 copies, a bestseller in terms of histories. The second edition has already sold almost 2000 copies and it has been shortlisted for the prestigious Australian History Award in NSW.

"The history wars are very much a phenomenon of the present government and the way in which the Murdoch press has a particular relationship with it. I'm quite sure that if there were a change of government, much of the oxygen of the history wars would be withdrawn," Macintyre says.

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