A history lost in the fanfare


The Brisbane Home Front, 1939-1945
Exhibition, Brisbane City Hall
Seven days per week until August 20
Reviewed by Dave Riley

After a life in the shadow of my parents' memories of "the War" (as though there have been no others since), the enthusiastic nostalgia tinged with jingoism that marks this year's 50th anniversary of the end of the conflict leaves me very ambivalent. Us baby boomers depended on the active and intense procreation generated among the men and women of a demobbed nation set on putting the butchery and sacrifice behind them.

While it may seem obvious to say, the postwar world I was born into differs greatly from that of today. The selective hindsight we are currently treated to stinks, to put it bluntly. The real history of the war seems lost in the fanfare.

The war we are presented is a succession of military battles played out over a six-year period. But there was another front that was just as important to the war effort, the home front.

How was it that a country like Australia, which cannot now guarantee employment for 10% of its population, managed to raise a huge army, airforce and flotilla, feed itself and its allies, generate full industrial production and ensure discipline from its people during such a time?

This side is not so keenly addressed nor so eagerly remembered except as part of exhibitions such as this one. Aspects such as the early banning of the Communist Party, the internment of supposed enemy aliens, the campaign against strikes, the imprisonment of pacifists, generalised censorship and the concentration of executive power by the Curtin Labor government do not share the same focus as offshore military activities.

Indeed, the tripartite consensus we have been treated to over the last decade was initially explored during wartime. And, like now, the carrot was employed along with the stick.

Morale was orchestrated and the population mobilised by huge propaganda campaigns that prevailed upon Australia to fight on until victory. Media outlets worked up a keen national identity. For the sake of the war effort, even Women's Weekly could be relied upon to forgo the Packer family's grave differences with communism so that Joseph Stalin could replace the king on its front cover. Before the Cold War, the Soviet Union was portrayed correctly as victor over fascism.

Despite many kitschy artefacts and the happy photographs of young couples playing out their very own Casablanca, the storyline that accompanies this exhibition carries more than mere general interest. Brisbane spent longer as a garrison town during the war, and its population experienced a greater degree of the struggle for its heart and mind as fear and hope were played upon by a mixture of reality and manipulation.

The display is keen to tell it like it was. The evocation of the period blends individual lives into the larger scheme of things. As I toured with my parent, I was treated to successive anecdotes as a picture, a rationing coupon or an event triggered memories of a time of great hardship and fear.

This is not the way the RSL tells it, nor was it the golden age the true believers in the Labor Party like to remind us of. Unfortunately, 50 years after the event, and regardless of mixed sentiments that are now exploited, the real history of the war and its aftermath remains something of a national secret. Through events such as this exhibition, the hidden reality of the conflict can be suggested to a wide audience.