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Today’s youth protected against 20th century’s Armageddon

Former prime minister Paul Keating delivers a Remembrance Day address in Canberra. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Delivering the Remembrance Day address at the Australian War Memorial, Paul Keating has highlighted the protection that unifying Europe gave from the sort of dangers that led to “Armageddon” last century.

Keating described the First World War as “a war devoid of any virtue”.

“It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism,” he said.

“The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.

"But at the end of the century, from the shadows, a new light emerged. Europe turned its back on the nation state to favour a greater European construct. Individual loyalties are now directed from nationalist obsessions towards an amorphous whole and to institutions unlikely to garner a popular base. It is difficult to imagine these days, young Europeans going into combat for the European Commission, or at a stretch, the European Parliament.”

That meant European leaders were no longer in a position “to ask or demand the sacrifices which once attended their errant foreign policies. A century beyond Armageddon, young men and women are now freed from that kind of tyranny.”

Keating was invited to give the address 20 years after, as prime minister, he delivered a much-praised eulogy on the occasion of the interment of the Unknown Soldier, whose remains had been brought from the Western Front.

Keating said that today’s young Australians, like the young Europeans, could “no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesman”.

“They are fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became – young innocents who had little or no choice.”

He said the “virulent European disease of cultural nationalism and ethnic atavism” had not just destroyed Europe but the world’s equilibrium.

A century ago Australians - moving through the processes of federation to new ideas of themselves – had no need to reaffirm their European heritage.

“We had escaped that mire, both sociologically and geographically. But out of loyalty to imperial Britain, we returned to Europe’s killing fields to decide the status of Germany, a question which should earlier have been settled by foresight and statecraft,” he said.

“Those Australians fought and died not in defence of some old world notions of competing empires and territorial conquests but for the new world - the one they belonged to and hoped to return to.

"Australia was never in need of any redemption at Gallipoli.

"There was nothing missing in our young nation or our idea of it that required the martial baptism of a European cataclysm to legitimise us.

"What the Anzac legend did do, by the bravery and sacrifice of our troops, was reinforce our own cultural notions of independence, mateship and ingenuity. Of resilience and courage in adversity.

"We liked the lessons about supposedly ordinary people; we liked finding that they were not ordinary at all. Despite the fact that the military campaigns were shockingly flawed and incompetently executed, those ‘ordinary people’ distinguished themselves by their latent nobility.

"The unknown Australian soldier interred in this memorial reminds us of these lessons as much as he reminds us of the more than one hundred thousand Australians lost to us by war.”

Words from the 1993 eulogy - “He is one of them, and he is all of us” – have now been placed on the stone surround to the grave. An earlier plan to remove the iconic phrase “Known unto God” from the tomb and replace it with the Keating words was abandoned after protests and intervention by the Abbott government.

Listen to Brendan Nelson on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.

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