War and remembrance

Page 5 – Commemoration and protest

In 1967 protestors laid a protest wreath in Christchurch on Anzac Day to highlight their opposition to the Vietnam War. They were subsequently convicted of disorderly behaviour. A decade later further controversy arose when a women's group laid a wreath in memory of women killed and raped in war. During the 1980s other activist groups – feminists, gays, Māori and peace activists – all used Anzac Day services to seek publicity for their cause. Some ex-servicemen and politicians also used Anzac Day ceremonies to speak out during the anti-nuclear debate of the 1980s. In 1996 Prime Minister Jim Bolger suggested that Anzac Day should be a day not only of commemoration but should also celebrate our nationhood.

Other New Zealanders were uncomfortable with turning Anzac Day into a political event. Many returned servicemen felt that their day was being hijacked. Others argued that the ritual and symbolism associated with such occasions had already made it a political occasion. They argued that as this day focused the country's attention on war it was the perfect day to debate defence and war-related issues. Shouldn't we try, they argued, to avoid the need to build future war memorials?

  • Is Anzac Day a legitimate day of protest in your opinion? Explain your answer.
  • What do your students think of Jim Bolger's idea? 
  • How has the current generation redefined Anzac Day?

Questioning the monuments

Michael Harcourt from Wellington High School shared an interesting article with me which opens up a whole other way of considering this topic. In How to question historical places, monuments, memorials, and museums Mark Hatlie explores the way in which ‘historical markers create a link between three different situations’. The event or person to which the marker refers; the building of the marker itself and the ‘now - you standing in front of the marker and "learning" from it’. The marker ‘creates communication over time and sometimes over space, depending on where the marker stands relative to the historical locations of the events memorialized. The distances in time and space can be very great or very small. All three of these layers or situations have a wider context which is important for the monument.’

In the quest for historical perspective Harcourt suggests students look at how events such as Anzac Day or places such as the National War Memorial (or any memorial) have been used over time by different people for different reasons. He cites the visit of US Vice President Lyndon Johnson to the National War Memorial in 1966. It is common for visiting dignitaries to visit the memorial but the sole purpose of Johnson’s visit to New Zealand was to firm up our government’s support for the United States in the Vietnam War. As such this visit took on a whole different meaning. The protestors who greeted the Vice President on his arrival were well aware of how the memorial was being used for reasons other than remembrance.

Many school visits to the National War Memorial take a ‘traditional’ approach. The emphasis is on loss and mourning as well as the historical reasons for this. But is this the memorial's only purpose? How do we include other perspectives on war? The memorial should present an opportunity to question and debate. If such places suddenly vanished what would we replace them with? How or who would decide what would be appropriate now?

For an upcoming publication Harcourt considers an approach to places of significance such as war memorials. To assist this he has developed a list of criteria to determine the geographical significance of a place. These are:

Power – is it a place which reveals power relations in society? Its meaning for some people might have been silenced or marginalised in the past. Perhaps some people felt or continue to feel a sense of belonging there while others are excluded.

Legendary – The place is ‘storied’. People tell legends there and it is used to sustain myths.

Affected by change – How has the place changed over time, whether this be physically or in terms of how it is used or viewed?

Contested and connected – was this place argued over? Is it still a source of debate? People may feel a strong sense of connection to it, often for different reasons.

Evocative – The place is one where you can ‘feel’ history.

It would be interesting to apply these criteria to a place of local significance such as a local memorial. Likewise, it would be interesting for students to apply Hatlie’s three ways of historical connection with historical markers such as memorials and monuments. 

How to cite this page

'Commemoration and protest ', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/war-and-remembrance/commemoration-and-protest, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012

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