Reading journal: Victory on Gallipoli and other what-ifs of Australian History edited by Peter Stanley

Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2017
Date read: July 2018

I’m interested in alternate history. It’s a bit like studying history in reverse. In the study of history, the European approach is to examine primary sources to establish facts, and then retro-fit an interpretation onto that information. The interpretation changes as society and our current pre-occupations change.

Red background, torn newspaper headlines in foreground

Alternate history is different. It postulates a change in “known” facts, then  tries to deduce what would have changed as a result. Of course some retro-fitted interpretation must still be present, but is usually not explicitly stated.
In this volume, the authors do exactly this. I have a couple of complaints.

  • Firstly, the events they have examined all fall into the traditional ‘famous men’ theme — military history, political events, and you guessed it, famous men. There are 24 stories, two are about women, and they are both political women (Vida Goldstein and Edith Cowan).
  • Secondly, the interpretation. In almost every case, the event changes, but the long-term consequences are not world-shattering. Australia ends up pretty much the same as it did in the original timeline.

The idea of this book is promising. It’s interesting to read about the chosen events (e.g. Federation, Eureka, Gallipoli, the New Guard, the communist party banning referendum), and the presentation style, as imagined primary documents, is good.
I would have liked more. If the capital really had been located in Melbourne instead of Canberra, what would that have changed? Nothing, according to this book. If Western Australia hadn’t joined the Federation, surely the massive iron ore boom that the rest of the country didn’t therefore benefit from would have had dramatic effects a century on? But the story doesn’t go there.
Perhaps I’m asking too much. Historians wrote this book, not science fiction novelists. A pity, perhaps, it would have made for more interesting stories.

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