War Remembrance or White Nationalism? The ANZAC Legend and its Meaning to Australian Identity Today


Claire Waddell-Wood


Known by all who have lived on this continent, yet experienced in a diversity of ways, ANZAC Day occupies the Australian imagination as a day of cultural significance. Perhaps the largest shared association of the day is the image of crowds covered in Australian flag paraphernalia getting on the booze to celebrate their love for the country. Others remember solemn ceremonies held to the tune of the Last Post in their school hall, tinted with a strange religious-like fervour. For a few more, ANZAC Day services are a special place for the commemoration of people lost in wars waged by international superpowers. But how has a day supposedly meant for the respectful remembrance of those lost in war also become a day for the rowdy expression of (white) national pride?

A deeper look into the history of the ANZAC legacy reveals that only certain stories have been written, told and retold as generations pass. Largely, the story of the ANZACs isn’t even controlled by the soldiers themselves—but politicians and other powerful people who want to control the narrative of Australian identity. Viewing the ANZAC legend through this lens, a much more sinister national narrative is revealed that traces from World War I to today.

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“My concern is that the history curriculum, particularly that for years 7-10, paints an overly negative view of Australia,” says Alan Tudge, then Minister for Education and Youth, in an interview with Triple J Hack in 2021, “Instead of ANZAC day being presented as the most sacred of all days in Australia… it’s presented as a contested idea. ANZAC day’s not a contested idea, apart from an absolute fringe element in our society.”

In an interview with Skynews, Tudge explains that kids need to be taught that ANZAC Day “is the most sacred day on the Australian calendar,” so they understand “how we became such a free, egalitarian, wealthy nation so that they can defend it properly just as previous generations have done.

In making a case for why the ANZAC legend is relevant to today’s society, Tudge exemplifies those powerful figures who seek to control the narrative of Australian identity and national pride. There are a number of concerning points in Tudge’s views on Australian history;

    1) The purpose of history isn’t to give people a positive view of Australia. To construct a telling of Australian history in order to make school children “defend [the nation] properly” sounds unnervingly like militaristic propaganda.

    2) Tudge’s language on the sanctity of ANZAC day is common among Australians and reveals the intense significance placed on the ANZAC legend in Australian identity that it is celebrated in a religious-like fashion—“the most sacred day”.

    3) ANZAC day has always been contested, even by Australian soldiers who participated in World War I. This statement also denies the fact that all history is contested as new perspectives are included and previously untold stories are revealed.

    4) And “free, egalitarian and wealthy nation”? That’s a national myth which ignores a whole list of historical and contemporary issues—the Frontier Wars, Indigenous incarceration rates, the refugee crisis, the ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence, wealth extracted from the earth at the expense of ecological health. For many, and for most who look closely enough, the experience of this nation is certainly not free, egalitarian, or wealthy.

The recently redrafted national curriculum has now removed any contestation of the ANZAC legend, stating that students will now have “the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the importance of our Western and Christian heritage in the development of Australia as a prosperous and peaceful democracy, as well as learn more about our First Nations Australian histories and cultures.1

If it wasn’t clear already, this quote reveals what the ANZAC legend actually stands for in a modern Australian context—valorising a Western and Christian national identity built on the romanticisation of a horrendous and violent war. It is blatantly ignorant that the phrase ‘learning about the peaceful development of Australia’ is in the same sentence as learning about ‘First Nations histories’, given the largescale and ongoing violence the state of Australia has perpetrated against Indigenous peoples and cultures.

This conflation of white Australian identity and the history of ANZAC is not new. Tudge’s comments have not just appeared out of the blue in order to bolster white Australian nationalism. From the original war correspondence and media coverage during World War I, to the ANZAC revival in the 1980s, to more current idealisations of the ANZAC legend, there has always been an underlying current of constructing and reinforcing a white Australian identity.

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World War I was taken as an opportunity to lay the foundations for an Australian national identity in the state’s first foray on the global stage. So, Australian war correspondents and politicians constructed the ANZAC legend—a homogenised and romanticised narrative of the Australian soldier experience on the frontlines of World War I. The mythologised ANZAC soldier was fashioned to embody the values of the ‘true Australian patriot’—strong, stoic, brave, a larrikin, a mate, and of course, a hero. Charles Bean, Australian war correspondent, was one the key figures in creating this ANZAC myth. As historian Alistair Thomson explains, 2 Bean endeavoured to show through his writing how the ANZAC soldiers exhibited the uniform masculinity of these ideals: 

What was the dominant motive that impelled [the soldiers]? It lay in the mettle of the men themselves… to live the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge that he had set his hand to a soldier’s task and had lacked the grit to carry it through–that was the prospect these men could not face. Life was very dear, but life was not worth living unless they could be truer to their idea of Australian manhood.3

Here, Bean ascribes the ANZAC soldiers’ bravery and strength to something innate within Australian men, attributing this to how the colonial and frontier lifestyle breeds a stronger and braver soldier.4 Any act that went against the ANZAC narrative—deserters, avoiders, mutineers, or just failing to complete a task as in the quote above—were classed by Bean as disloyal and un-Australian, the opposite to the ANZAC soldier.

It is absolutely unrealistic to believe that Australian soldiers were fighting on the frontlines of World War I driven by their desire to maintain this strict definition of Australian manhood. The lived experience of a soldier in World War I—an experience of vulnerability, trauma and fear —differed immensely from the constructed narrative of total heroism and bravery that was publicised. In fact, many soldiers suffered psychological stress from the pressure to live up to the ANZAC legend, and the disparity between their lived experience and this dominant cultural narrative on the homefront. 5 Clearly, the ANZAC narrative was not created to serve the ANZAC soldiers or aid in respectful war remembrance, but rather to construct a carefully curated Australian national identity.

Furthermore, Bean has heavily romanticised the actions of the ANZAC forces as always gallant, fair and righteous. Rather, ANZAC soldiers committed atrocious acts of violence and aggression—for example the Battle of Wazzir, where around 2,500 ANZAC soldiers drunkenly rioted through and destroyed an area of Cairo in opposition to rising prices, poor alcohol and venereal diseases in sex workers. Yet, for some reason, the story of the drunken, rioting, brothel-visiting, criminal ANZAC soldier is not often told.

Casting the idealised ANZAC soldier as the ‘true Australian patriot’ meant that whiteness, masculinity and colonialism were foundational components of the ANZAC legend, and, by extension, were inextricably linked to the newly forming Australian national identity. Bean’s establishment of the homogenised masculine identity of the ANZAC soldier as the stoic, brave, larrikin/mate links the ANZAC legend to a set of uniform masculine values that were impossible for soldiers to actually live up to. Bean’s claim that the ANZAC soldier’s strength was developed from his success on the colonial frontier also links the ANZAC legend to concepts of whiteness and colonialism. Despite many people of colour fighting in the Australian forces, including First Nations people, these bodies and stories were completely erased from the dominant narrative of ‘Australians at war,’ with the ANZAC soldier portrayed in exclusive whiteness.

Rather than a significant moment in Australian history that is commemorated in respect of those who have served the Australian forces, the ANZAC legend corrupts the remembrance of war, its homogenised narrative silencing the actual lived experience of soldiers. The ANZAC legend was a myth-making mission by powerful Australians to form an Australian national identity rooted in whiteness and masculinity. These foundational ideals are still present when powerful Australian figures make associations with the ANZAC legend today.

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    Cultural memory is a term used to describe a community’s collective memory of events that occurred beyond the scope of living memory, three or four generations in the past. Cultural memories are curated and held in the dominant discourse through a process of institutionalisation, being included in the community’s traditions, cultural practices, ceremonies and institutions. As time has passed, the ANZAC legend has become a particularly strong cultural memory of the Australian community, the subject of a public holiday and numerous ceremonies and services, as well as being a hallmark of the Australian identity.

In the 1980s, the ANZAC legend experienced a revival where it was again brought into the dominant cultural narrative of Australia. Historian Katie Holmes says that “while the reasons for that revival are complex, it was fuelled by government, powerful interest groups, the media, filmmakers and writers captive to the myth and its endless potential for reinvention”. 6 Since then, the ANZAC legend has become an incredibly pervasive and ever-present cultural memory of Australian society, used by those in power to control the narrative of Australian identity.

Throughout John Howard’s Prime Ministership, he called upon the ANZAC spirit and values to support his actions in Australian foreign policy. Howard expressed the same sentiment as Bean and Tudge towards the meaning of ANZAC day to Australians: “[the Gallipoli landing is] the most defining event in our history”, which “established the Australian spirit” and “bequeathed Australia a lasting sense of national identity” and “sense of self”. 7 Howard used the ANZAC legend to bolster his foreign policy objectives in the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ era, often alluding to the values of ANZAC without referring to ANZAC directly. 8 The current Australian forces became living embodiments of ANZAC values, and Australia’s involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was justified through the ANZAC’s honourable quest for peace —“History helps us to remember but the spirit of Anzac is greater than a debt to past deeds. It lives on in the valour and the sacrifice of young men and women that ennoble Australia in our time, in scrub in the Solomons, in the villages of Timor, in the deserts of Iraq and the coast of Nias.”

Tony Abbot made very similar remarks in 2015, in an opinion piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘Exemplary Anzac Spirit Guides Successive Generations’. In yet another example of a powerful Australian figure calling upon the ANZAC legend, Abbott discusses the direct lineage between the ANZAC soldiers and Australian society today, and how Australians should aspire to emulate the ANZAC values. Abbott states that “the Great War was the crucible in which the Australian identity was first forged,” and “the sacrifices of our forebears have left us an enduring legacy of freedom”. The common thread throughout these quotes is obvious, and illuminates the pervasive power of this myth in contemporary Australian politics.

The ANZAC legend is inseparable from its foundations as a national identity based on whiteness, masculinity and colonialism. When Bean, Howard, Abbott and Tudge make comments on Australia’s national identity being guided by a romanticised war narrative, they erase the many identities on this continent that don’t align with the mythologised ANZAC figure. Deep histories of First Nations cultures and the rich multiculturalism of Australian society today are disregarded and overlooked when ANZAC is heralded over and over again as a cornerstone of Australia’s national identity. An even deeper erasure is attempted when Tudge attempts to ‘pretty up’ Australian history so children will have a positive view of the country and ignore the ANZAC legend’s history of contestation. Challenging the nature and significance of the ANZAC legend is part of Australian history. Altering history and removing the room for critical voices is thus an attempt to control what it means to be Australian. While there should be space to reflect on and remember the immense suffering caused by war, celebrating the ANZAC legend can be dangerously analogous to celebrating white national pride.


1    Jordan Baker, ‘Christian and Western heritage elevated in revised national curriculum’, Sydney Morning Herald, February 4, 2022.

2    Alistair Thomson, “Steadfast Until Death'? C.E.W. Bean and the representation of Australian Military Manhood,” Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 23, No. 93, 1989, p. 462-478.

3    Charles Bean, “End of the first phase of the campaign” in The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume I: The Story of Anzac: The First Phase, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1921.

4    Thomson, “Steadfast Until Death?”.

5    Thomson, “Steadfast Until Death?”.

6   Katie Holmes, “Generation Covid: Crafting history and collective memory”, Griffith Review, 2020.

7   John Howard quoted in Jason Flanagan, “John Howard’s “Use” of the Anzac Legend: Applying an Epideictic Lens”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 64, No. 1, 2018, p98-111.

8   Jason Flanagan, “John Howard’s “Use” of the Anzac Legend: Applying an Epideictic Lens”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 64, No. 1, 2018, p98-111.




Claire Waddell-Wood is a musician and historian living on unceded Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Country. Her main field of research is environmental history, and at present is researching forests, fire and logging in the Gippsland region in the period immediately after the 1939 Black Friday fires.

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