The Second War in Every Respect: Australian memory and the Second World War

Joan Beaumont


The Second World War stands across the 20th century like a colossus. Its death toll, geographical spread, social dislocation and genocidal slaughter were unprecedented.  It was literally a world war, devastating Europe, China and Japan, triggering massive movements of population, and unleashing forces of nationalism in Asia and Africa that presaged the end of European colonialism. The international order was changed irrevocably, most notably in the rise of the two superpowers and the decline of Great Britain. For Australia too, though the loss of life in the conflict was comparatively small, the war had a profound impact. Yet for all this, the Second World War is relegated to a secondary place in the Australian national memory of war vis-à-vis the war of 1914-18. It is a lesser war in every respect. Why this is so, when the war itself was fought on such a monumental scale globally, is addressed in this article. The subordination of the Second World War is ultimately attributable to the fact that the signifier of ‘ANZAC’ leads in the imagination and national mythic representation not to any battle or experience of 1939-45 but to 25 April 1915.  ANZAC is now irrevocably entrenched in the national political culture as a complex secular signifier of identity and belonging to the nation.

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JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.