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April 19, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Commemoration Versus Nationalism

Anzac Day is meant to be a day of remembrance, but in recent years it has sometimes been marred with controversy. Franchesca Walker investigates the competing meanings associated with Anzac Day.

It was a balmy, still, Saturday evening in March. As the clock ticked past eight-thirty, a few environmentally conscious Wellingtonians went to their light switches and thrust them into the off position. Earth Hour had begun. Around the city, one by one, lights flickered out and darkness clung a little more strongly to the Wellington hills.

To the six hundred guests descending on the Old Museum Building for the finals of the 42BELOW Cocktail World Cup, however, the environment was the last thing on their minds. The only future that they were concerned about involved the next few hours. And the next few hours promised vodka, cocktails and rock ‘n’ roll.

Suddenly, as if in retaliation to the invading darkness, a beam of light pierced the night sky. Hundreds of necks strained upwards to make out what was now illuminated on the carillon tower of the National War Memorial.

Was it a bird? Was it a plane? Was it some misguided SOS to Batman?


It was vodka company 42BELOW’s logo, gracing New Zealand’s national memorial to its fallen war dead.

The public outcry that emerged in the following days should not have come as a surprise. According to Jacob Briars, 42BELOW Vodka Professor, the company was bombarded.

“We received numerous phone calls, emails and messages. Some were from people who were deeply offended. Some claimed they were apoplectic with rage. Most, however, were along the lines of ‘If this was a stunt, it wasn’t very clever’.”

For the record, it wasn’t a stunt.

“‘Stunt’ is the wrong word. The event was dressed as an awards night with a rock ‘n’ roll theme, and the giant 42 logo was designed to add to that sense of occasion. This was a case of overly vigorous dressing rather than an attempt to use a national monument for advertising.”

For a few New Zealanders, the explanation and subsequent apology issued by 42BELOW was drowned out by ferocious expressions of outrage. Message boards lit up, with accusations of ignorance, disrespect and bad taste levelled at the company. It was likened to placing a condom advertisement over the grave of your father’s headstone. Yup. People were mad.

At the end of this week, many of us will make our annual pilgrimage to the closest war memorial. In front of it we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow New Zealanders and bow our heads in remembrance of the thousands who made the supreme sacrifice.

Why do we do it? Why do we feel compelled to drag ourselves out of bed each Anzac Day and gather before these monuments? What meaning has Anzac Day become invested with? And how the hell did a simple spotlight, shone onto a pile of bricks and mortar, become likened to a condom advertisement on a grave?


Most of us know the bare facts surrounding the history of Anzac Day. It is a chorus of statistics. On 25 April 1915, some 3100 New Zealand men stormed the Gallipoli peninsula. By the end of the day, it is estimated that between 600 and 700 of these men were either killed or wounded.

For eight months the New Zealand Expeditionary Force clung to their Turkish foothold, advancing, withdrawing and advancing again. When the final evacuation was ordered on 20 December, New Zealand had lost a total of 2721 men—31.8 per cent of the total number of New Zealanders who saw action on Gallipoli. As one veteran later wrote, “So many of my friends and comrades were killed round me every day that death became merely an incident, something not much more important than the issue of rations or change of station from one trench to another.”

Another wrote simply that he “seemed to live on the smell of dead men”.

To the shattered New Zealand community, the campaign was portrayed as the nation’s ‘baptism of fire’. Although the number of casualties sustained by New Zealand forces on the Western Front would eventually far outstrip the carnage of Gallipoli, 25 April maintained an important place in the country’s psyche. It was New Zealand’s opening act in the theatre of war. As the twentieth century progressed and the country was compelled to perform again and again, Anzac Day began to symbolise the supreme sacrifice that was made by thousands of New Zealand soldiers.

Given that the bodies of men killed overseas were not repatriated in either the First or Second World War, memorials played a significant role in remembrance. Instead of directing their grief towards gravesites, the nation mourned in front of what historians Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean have called the ‘surrogate tomb’—the war memorial.

However, Dr Kate Hunter, a senior lecturer in history at Victoria University, says that despite having good reasons to do so, the New Zealand public did not pay the memorials much attention in the aftermath of both world wars.

“In the aftermath of the landing at Gallipoli, in many areas Anzac Day was a day for ex-servicemen. In the 1920s it wasn’t uncommon for veterans only to march to the local memorial for wreath laying. In the immediate post World War II decades, Anzac Day was almost ignored by those who had not served. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, early 1990s that the shift occurred.”

President of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (NZRSA) Robin Klitscher agrees that Anzac Day has traditionally had more meaning for veterans. He says that in the past it was the RSA—and not the nation—that was the “principal guardian over matters of memoriam for those who have died in battle”.

Yet he acknowledges that there has been growing interest about how New Zealand soldiers are remembered.

“The nature of public response in recent years on and around Anzac Day,” says Klitscher, “particularly the response of the young, suggests that others besides the RSA are concerned to ensure that the memorial duty is properly conducted, and with honour, dignity and respect.”

Considering the uproar over Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association’s (VUWSA) decision not to lay a wreath at the 2009 Anzac Day commemorations, it would appear that many of these concerned citizens attend Victoria University. After it was reported by Salient that VUWSA had declined an invitation from the Wellington City Council to lay a wreath on the basis that it may inadvertently support warfare, the response was instantaneous.

In an eerie precursor to the outrage caused by 42BELOW’s actions, VUWSA was accused of ignorance, arrogance, immaturity, disrespect and (among other things) of “pissing on the grave of every VUW graduate who lost their lives in military service”.

“You misguided, arrogant bunch of tossers,” wrote ‘MJT’ on the Salient website. “It’s not about condoning war, it’s about remembering and honouring those who had enough of a backbone to ensure you could ponce about making petulant political gestures at their expense.”

You guessed it—people were mad again.

To the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson, such actions and subsequent responses are part of belonging to a democratic nation.

“Freedom of speech is a very important principle, and it’s one of the values that we associate with,” he says.

Yet he notes that it does not mean that we have to support such statements.

“Accepting and allowing free speech as a country is not the same as approving of what’s being said… On a personal and group level, there is nothing to stop organisations … from expressing their disapproval of what is often insensitive behaviour.”


The revitalisation of Anzac Day began in the 1980s. With the ANZUS Crisis and international recognition of New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance, Kiwis felt compelled to express their patriotism and national pride.

With “our still contentious treaty history”, says Jon Johansson, a lecturer in political science at Victoria University, Anzac Day became New Zealand’s “default national day”.

“In the absence of unifying symbols New Zealanders, especially younger Kiwis, have flocked to dawn parades because they want to share in expressing their nationhood and patriotism. New Zealanders have cast around to find a compelling force for shared celebration and respect and Anzac Day has to this extent filled a vacuum for those of us who want to express our pride in our country.”

The increasing emphasis on nationalism is something that many veterans have resisted, claiming that it undermines the sanctity of Anzac Day. When Prime Minister Jim Bolger suggested in 1996 that Anzac Day represents both commemoration and nationhood, the Dominion Executive Committee of the NZRSA formally stated their opposition to “any action by the New Zealand Government that would in any way change the status and emphasis of Anzac Day”.

As Finlayson notes, though, very few of New Zealand’s public holidays have a sole meaning.

“It’s hard to think of many national days where the meaning is uncontested, or is the same for every person—Waitangi Day is another obvious example, but so are days such as Easter, which for many are sacred religious days but for others are more a time for family.”

Indeed, Klitscher recognises that any decision over the meaning of Anzac Day ultimately rests with the public.

“This is a matter for the nation to decide upon, not just the RSA. One could say, I suppose, that Anzac Day means to New Zealanders what they want it to mean.”

It could be that the nation has already decided.

Says Johansson, “It has become one very important way we define our nationalism. It has, I think, grown organically, from within the people in small towns, provincial cities, and urban areas dotted around these isles.”


In recent years, there have been conscious attempts by the government to link Anzac Day with national identity.

Increasing publicity has been given to a government-sponsored essay writing competition concerning New Zealand’s involvement in twentieth-century conflicts. In 2000, five students were chosen to accompany the official delegation to commemorations marking the 85th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, based on their essays which addressed the significance of Gallipoli on the development of New Zealand’s national identity. The winning work was subsequently compiled in a commemorative book and distributed to all New Zealand secondary schools and RSAs.

This was repeated in 2001 for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Crete; in 2002 for the 60th anniversary of the Second Battle of El Alamein; in 2003 for the 50th anniversary of the Armistice in Korea; in 2004—well, you get the idea.

“This year Prime Minister Hon. John Key will lead an official contingent to Gallipoli to take part in formal ANZAC Day commemorations,” Finlayson says.

“The 2010 contingent will include 22 veterans who have served New Zealand in past wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations, and 21 students from across the country.”

However, one of the winners of the 2002 competition, Adam Allington, disputes that the government has overtly promoted nationalism through this medium. He says that, in his experience, the official commemorations in Italy “seemed to balance between remembering those lost, which was done with great emotional intensity and sincere reverence, as well as celebrating the achievement of the veterans in fighting for their country and advancing their war aims”.

Instead, he found that it was the media that attempted to link nationalism with New Zealand’s participation in the Battle of El Alamein.

“Print, television and radio media attended, and their lines of questioning were more concerned with national identity. I was interviewed on the Holmes show and discussed with Mr Holmes prior to the show what questions he would ask me on air and he wanted me to draw analogies with Gallipoli. I told him I’d rather keep the questions just to the Battle of El Alamein.”

Hunter admits to being more cynical than Allington about some of the government’s attempts to commemorate fallen soldiers.

In November 2004, the government exhumed the remains of a New Zealand soldier from the Somme in France and reburied him at the National War Memorial. Prior to burial, he was honoured with the campaign medals of two World Wars, the Operational Service Medal, and the Badge in Gold.

Such actions, claims Hunter, were “driven by political and nationalistic reasons rather than any other motivations”.

“A soldier who is ‘known only unto god’ has lost everything that personalises him except the time, place and reason for his death. To exhume that soldier, repatriate the remains, and then claim—as the New Zealand government did—that he represents all New Zealanders who have lost their lives in conflict, seems to me to strip that soldier of the last remaining vestiges of his identity and his dignity as an individual with a history and a family. I can’t think of any other reason why a government would do that other than to nationalise the cult of the soldier for political gain.”

If other New Zealanders recognised the motives behind these moves, they didn’t seem to mind. An estimated 10,000 people paid their respects to the Unknown Warrior as he lay in state at parliament prior to his internment. A further 100,000 lined the streets as he was taken to the National War Memorial.

He would have had a front row seat to the light show 42BELOW provided in March.


So why do we get up early every 25 April? And does it matter?

“A colleague of mine once remarked that New Zealanders seem to have a habit of digging up healthy plants to examine the roots,” Klitscher says.

“We have seen a significant uplift in public interest in what Anzac Day represents. I for one think it is probably healthier to accept and welcome it rather than to question it, or to try to analyse it in depth.”

However, Hunter asserts that in doing so, we can’t over-idealise the men whose names grace war memorials.

“They were just blokes—they were fearful, irreverent, drunk, promiscuous, dutiful, loving, tolerant, racist. They were just men, with all the failings and nobility that that entails. I think we owe it to them not to hold them up as paragons of virtue or heroes.”

She could be right.


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Comments (4)

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  1. Franchesca Walker says:

    I’d just like to point out a mistake that I made in the article in relation to the El Alamein commemorations. The commemorations were held in EGYPT in 2002 and not ITALY, as written.

    I apologise for the error.

  2. Alyx says:

    Did you happen to ask VUWSA what, if anything they’re planning on doing to commemorate ANZAC Day this year?

  3. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Alyx: VUWSA happened to clarify this themselves a couple of weeks ago:

  4. Alyx says:

    Aha, thanks!

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