Lest we forget: why November 11 lives in the shadow of Anzac Day

Despite the importance of Remembrance Day in marking the end of the ‘war to end all wars’, it sits below Anzac Day in the estimation of most Australians. AAP/Julian Smith

For all its importance, Remembrance Day, November 11, does not capture the Australian imagination in the way that Anzac Day does, despite the sustained efforts of successive governments to promote the day in the commemorative calendar. The reasons for this low profile are diverse, but can be organised under three broad headings: ideological, atmospheric and prosaic.

Anzac has nation-building appeal

First, to the ideological: Remembrance Day does not have the nation-building dimension in Australia that Anzac Day has. Despite the spontaneous outburst of mourning witnessed in Australia during the earliest Anzac Days, it also carried a sense of relief at the seeming proof of once-doubted national qualities. The day was always leavened with a dose of imperial endorsement for the qualities of the Australian fighting man.

In other words, there was something positive amid the solemnity. Grief and national pride were combined in equal measure, meaning that Anzac Day was understood in different ways. For some it was a day to proudly remember service and sacrifice. For others it was a day to remember the futility of war.

Thus Anzac Day combined mourning and nation-building in a way that November 11 did not. It explained something about modern Australia to Australians in a way that Remembrance Day never could.

At this point, it should be noted that commemorations are not static, despite elements of continuity. They need to remain relevant in order to resonate: that is to say, they need to reflect the social and political contexts in which they take place if they are to sustain and speak to a changing set of participants and spectators.

A comparison with commemorations in other countries helps make this point. In inter-war France and Belgium, November 11 initially represented victory and liberation from the German aggressor as well as an occasion for collective mourning. But in the context of European integration after 1945, acts of collective remembrance were required to perform a different political function, that of sustaining Franco-German reconciliation on which European integration was founded.

This was the impulse behind the famous hand-holding gesture by Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand at Verdun in 1984, which was echoed by the present-day French and German presidents in Alsace in August 2014. Commemoration and politics are closely entwined.

The French and German leaders personified the idea of reconciliation In Verdun on Remembrance Day in 1984. Circle des Européens

As Australia’s imperial connection weakened in the second half of the 20th century, Remembrance Day was no longer needed to sustain a political connection throughout the British Commonwealth. In any case, Empire Day served this function into the 1950s.

But nor was it clear in the 1970s and 1980s that Anzac Day, itself capable of accommodating an imperial dimension when necessary, could change with the times either. Opposition to conscription and the resistance from returned services organisations to allowing non-combatants to march risked pushing Anzac Day into irrelevance too.

But this is where the nation-building element returned. It wasn’t quite the same nation-building required as 100 years ago, although there are obvious continuities. In an era of globalisation, reworked national narratives were required to help explain Australia’s place in the world and ways that Australians could relate to each other in changing socio-economic contexts.

With its portrayal of Australia as an emerging and middle power on the battlefields of Europe, Asia and the Middle East and with its powerful transmission of national values, “Anzac Day 2.0” emerged as the dominant expression of Australian nationhood at the turn of the 21st century.

Such ideological reasons grounded in shifting political needs are not the only reasons that Anzac Day dominates over Remembrance Day in Australia. There are “atmospheric” and “prosaic” dynamics at play too.

A sunny spring day starts at a disadvantage to an autumnal Anzac Day in creating a natural atmosphere of solemnity. AAP/Mark Graham

Spring vs autumn

The atmospheric dimension relates to the fact that Remembrance Day in Australia falls in the spring. In the western tradition, springtime is traditionally associated with growth, rebirth and renewal. This is at odds with the messages contained in the autumnal services recognising sacrifice, loss and death.

For Anzac Day, like Remembrance Day in the northern hemisphere, autumn forms the sympathetic and emotive backdrop to the commemorative event. The day aligns the participant’s experience with the solemnity of the occasion, reinforced by the falling leaves, grey skies and chilly temperatures.

Public holidays are popular

Lastly, to the prosaic: Anzac Day has the great advantage of being a public holiday. Remembrance Day is not a public holiday and so it is not as prominent in the public imagination. It is not signalled as being as officially important as Anzac Day.

This means that there is a sense in which days of commemoration are in competition with each other. Such competition is being played out in Canada as the parliament debates whether to make November 11 a national holiday. But in some ways, this is in competition with Canada Day – nicely situated in the middle of summer. For all its solemnity, a day spent on the shores of Lake Ontario in November is not as appealing as one in July.

These three broad reasons – the ideological, the atmospheric and the prosaic – help explain why Remembrance Day is the perennial also-ran in Australia’s commemorative calendar.