Historian Henry Reynolds examines the legal underpinnings of Australia.
What are the legal foundations for Australia? How was a whole continent simply claimed by the British Crown? Was such a move even legal under international law? And what of the estimated original five hundred nations that lived on the landmass, ruled by their own laws and customs? Did they even exist, or were they no more than the flora and fauna covering the land? These and many other fundamental legal questions historian Henry Reynolds addresses in Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement.
What we learn is that the British were on shaky legal ground when Australia was claimed. It was more a massive land grab than a legally binding property transfer. International law and thinking at the time bears this out. Land that was already inhabited by indigenous peoples could not be appropriated. The only option was treaty making, a practice that was already happening in America with its First Nations.
The total absence of treaty making in Australia, along with the shaky legal foundations of claiming a continent as uninhabited (terra nullius), meant there was no clear pathway to negotiating with the First Nations. Official word from England was to treat the indigenous population with respect and to avoid violence. But this authority was too far away to enforce its directives and soon settlers were pushing out into First Nation territories. Violence ensued, with no legal foundation to mediate the conflict. Were Indigenous people now subjects of the British Crown, with a right to its legal protections, or could they simply be killed? (The euphemism was “disperse”, that is, groups of Indigenous people could be “dispersed” by shooting.) Media reporting and letters at the time refers to the progress of this frontier as warfare. As Henry Reynolds maintains, no one at the time was under any illusion as to what was happening.
Fast forward to the National Constitutional Convention in 2017 and its landmark Uluru Statement from the Heart, which declares sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished. Truth-Telling demonstrates that so much more work needs to be done, on treaty making and the recognition of Australia's frontier wars, among other things.
Henry Reynolds must surely be one of Australia's most penetrating historians, with his deep reading of the contemporary literature on our country's early years. His writing is intellectually honest and brave. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Truth-Telling is deeply considered and researched, presenting some of the most serious issues facing Australia today.
Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, by Henry Reynolds. Published by New South. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An unforgettable memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany.
First published in Germany in 1966, The Broken House is a memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany. Born in 1919, novelist and journalist Horst Kruger was fourteen when Hitler came to power. He was part of a resistance movement, escaped serious punishment and eventually was conscripted into the German army. When all was lost, he surrendered prematurely to the Americans and gave them vital coordinates, helping close down a battlefront early.
Kruger looks back to his youth in Eichkamp, Berlin, to try and figure out what the appeal of Hitler was. The enigma of the century, why was Hitler so popular, how did he get away with the murder of six million Jews? The irony, as he writes it, is that the sentimental, suburban, middle-class Germans who adored Hitler were not paid up Nazi members. Although in one passage Kruger describes his mother buying him a “pretty” swastika to put on his bicycle. It was this broad cohort of non-political Germans, Kruger maintains, who created Hitler. Without them Hitler couldn’t have existed. Indeed, it’s easy to see how respectable middle-class Germans turned a blind eye to the looming Holocaust. Jewish neighbours were disappearing left, right and centre, yet no alarm bells went off. People merely shrugged their shoulders.
In other chapters Kruger describes the strange middle class preoccupation with respectability. When his sister commits suicide, what seems more important, to his mother at least, is that appearances are kept up. They lie to the neighbours about her sudden and dramatic ambulance journey and Mrs Kruger is relieved that she died a virgin, her sacredness intact.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing and compelling chapters is the description of the trials for war crimes. A parade of unremarkable men – doctors, academics, public servants – are assembled in court. A seemingly innocuous bunch. It’s hard to put these respectable images next to the hideous crimes they performed. A perfect example of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
For anyone trying to understand this incomprehensible period of history, The Broken House offers the feel, smell and mood of a Germany that thinks itself innocent, having emerged from the humiliations of the 1918 Versaille Treaty. Hitler offers the country self-esteem, hope and a bright future. But anti-semitism is everywhere around these simple German folk. It’s essential to Hitler’s madness. Failure to see these wrongs will form a large part of Germany’s downfall.
For some reason this fascinating time capsule has only recently been re-discovered in Germany, republished in 2019. It appears now in English for the first time. With the novelist’s gift for narrative, lyrical description and compelling character studies, Horst Kruger’s memoir is both aesthetically pleasing and of deep historical value.
The Broken House: Growing Up Under Hitler, by Horst Kruger. Published by Jonathan Cape. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A pithy, entertaining short history of China.
Writer and sinologist Linda Jaivin takes the reader on a speedy, drive-through history of China, starting with Stone Age Peking Man (homo erectus pekinensis) eking out a living along the Yellow River's fertile alluvial plain, through millennia of dynastic rule – the Zhou, the Qin, the Hang etc. – right up to the last great dynasty, the Qing. Incursions from the British (the humiliating Opium Wars) and the Japanese (the Rape of Nanking) during the 20th century caused great instability and civil war. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party would eventually win, only for China to be further plunged into turmoil, with famines and the so-called Cultural Revolution causing extraordinary mayhem and disorder. Jaivin finally documents the economic rise of China in the post-Mao era and ends with a word of caution about the repressive, authoritarian government of President Xi Jinping, with its cult of personality.
Linda Jaivin writes a snappy history, thronged with a teeming cast of great personalities. Special attention is paid to women's contribution, through sketches of female warriors, politicians, scientists, radicals and trailblazers. For those seeking perspective on this complex and multifaceted society, The Shortest History of China is instructive and enjoyable.
The Shortest History of China, by Linda Jaivin. Published by Black Inc. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Five biographies of pioneering women who pushed boundaries and changed the world forever.
The title of this book, Square Haunting, is a bit of a misnomer. Taken from Virginia Woolf's 1927 essay “Street Haunting”, about the ethereal pleasures of walking London's city streets, Francesca Wade's debut concentrates on pioneering women who broke boundaries. Mecklenburgh Square is the location where five extraordinary women – Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf – lived at one time or another. The five didn't work together in a concerted cultural effort, although there were informal links and much mutual admiration.
Mecklenburgh Square between the two world wars was an easy going place where the rent was cheap, perfect for society's fringe dwellers, intellectuals and artists. Landladies didn't ask too many probing questions and independently minded women could attain that most cherished “room of one's own”, rather than the typical destiny of marriage, children and putting husband first.
The five biographies that are the core of Square Haunting centre on the often soul destroying difficulties of trying to establish a career in a male dominated world. Well credentialed and talented women were passed over time and time again in favour of mediocre but well connected men. The anthropologist, Jane Ellen Harrison, is a good case in point. She was continually denied university roles based solely on her gender.
The poet Hilda Doolittle and crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers would both write about the importance of female independence and being equal partners in marriage. Historian Eileen Power wrote books that highlighted the important, but overlooked, roles women had played in the past. She was also a passionate pacifist. Virginia Woolf needs no introduction. Wade concentrates on Woolf's feminist writings and her final, tortured months at Mecklenburgh Square as Hitler's bombs devastated the city.
Francesca Wade has written an inspiring history of the decades between the wars, through the prism of five brilliant writers and activists. Inspiring because it shows how tenacity and courage, sometimes sacrifice, can bring forth change. Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf all laid the path for future generations and the freedoms we enjoy today.
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade. Published by Bloomsbury. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A highly readable history of modern China that will answer many questions about the country's development and its current political challenges.
Jonathan Fenby's sweeping history of China covers the modern period from 1850 right up to today, finishing with Xi Jinping (updated in 2019 for the third edition). The book starts by chronicling the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which featured prominent figures such as the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the power behind the throne for close to five decades.
Upon the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the country was run by a disparate group of warlords until civil war broke out between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong's Communists. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was declared. Mao's rule, from 1949 to 1976, would see some of the worst crimes against humanity, with millions killed due to unnecessary famine and ideological warfare. Mao's Cultural Revolution tipped China into a veritable state of madness. Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping would start to open up the country's economy and herald a new era of rising wealth. Despite liberalising trade and lifting living standards, politically China remains authoritarian. Many Western thinkers have presumed that China would follow the West into democratic government due to its embrace of capitalism, but this hasn't happened.
China's last 170 years have been turbulent, violent and full of terrible suffering for its people. The humiliations it suffered at the hands of the Japanese and Western powers has left its indelible mark on the nation's psyche. Descriptions of the Nanking Massacre are beyond horrific. Yet despite many decades of tragedy, China has managed to rise and become a formidable global power.
One of the main questions the book raises is the contradiction between China's liberalised economy, which has brought much wealth, and it's autocratic government, with more and more power concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping. This contradiction is causing much tension in Chinese society and it remains to be seen whether this is sustainable. Will public unrest breakout and destablise the country, or will China retain its repressive government?
For anyone looking for a bracing recent history of China, Jonathan Fenby's brilliant book won't disappoint.
The Penguin History of Modern China, by Jonathan Fenby. Published by Penguin. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold presents the harrowing biographies of the Jack the Ripper victims.
The five victims of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – are often assumed to have been prostitutes. This assumption, stubbornly in place for 130 years, has allowed a terrible misogyny to go unchecked. These women it has long been thought were “just prostitutes” who had put themselves in harm's way and were therefore in some way the authors of their own misfortune. While no one deserved to be brutally murdered, that it happened to these women was somehow considered to be understandable.
Social historian Hallie Rubenhold has done a stunning job in getting to the truth of the matter. Researching the lives, social milieu and economic circumstances of “the five” she has created nuanced portraits of Victorian women and the brutal, unforgiving society they had to navigate. It's a story of alcoholism, domestic violence, economic exploitation, sex trafficking, hard labour in workhouses and endless childbearing. Women had only one career option, marriage, which mainly involved looking after a husband and an ever growing brood of children, often on a limited income.
Poverty was the main reason Mary Ann, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane were targets of Jack the Ripper. Most had their throats slit while they were sleeping rough on the streets. One one of the women, Mary Jane, worked professionally as a sex worker. Elizabeth Stride, like many poor and destitute women, reluctantly performed some sex work to keep her head above water, but most likely would not have identified as a prostitute. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes were not prostitutes.
Most of the women had problems with alcohol, some cases severe. The most bracing parts of the book describe some of London's most notorious quarters, with their desperate poverty. Women who lost a male partner or fled an abusive husband could find themselves soon sinking fast, living in crime riddled neighbourhoods and rubbing shoulders with all sorts of unsavoury types. The only other option besides living rough on the streets was to enter the workhouse, often considered a fate worse than death, with its abuses and punitive regimes.
The Five demonstrates how much popular thinking still likes to blame the victim. Hallie Rubenhold redresses this error, bringing to light the many injustices against women of the Victorian era.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. Black Swan. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A gorgeous romp through the French Belle Epoque.
Award winning novelist Julian Barnes starts his new work of non-fiction with three men on a shopping trip in London. The year is 1885. The three men are all French - Prince de Polignac, Count de Montesquiou-Fezensac and famed gynaecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi. When Barnes discovered the sumptuous John Singer Sargent portrait of Pozzi, Dr. Pozzi at Home, he was inspired to trace the doctor and his milieu.
For the most part, The Man in the Red Coast is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic ride through the French Belle Epoque. It's an age of outsized egos, quick tempers, frequent bitchiness, aristocratic entitlement and easy wealth. Friendships play out like complex chessboard manoeuvres, and when associations sour and allies turn, aggrieved parties slander each other through the press. All the big names of the age walk regularly through these pages – Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Zola, Guy De Maupassant, Colette. Plus lesser known characters, such as the overcooked dandy Jean Lorrain and gossip mongers, the Goncourt brothers.
Of the three men introduced on the 1885 shopping trip, it is Montesquiou and Pozzi who get all the attention. (Prince de Polignac makes only minor appearances. He marries a lesbian heiress, and being homosexual himself, lives pretty much happily ever after.) Dilettante and aesthete Montesquiou rubs shoulders with the great and rich of the age, and will appear as a character in many fictional works, most notably in Joris-Karl Huysmans' À rebours and Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. He's a pretty unsavoury character – vain, insecure, frivolous and mean. In the one endeavour where he tried to make himself useful – writing – he failed. Not many people read Montesquiou in his day, and less do now.
The bright light of the book, surrounded as he is by so much decadence and sickly self-indulgence, is the gynaecologist Samuel Pozzi. He was progressive in his thinking, cultured, well educated, a collector of beautiful things, but also a useful person. He worked at the forefront of medical science, was instrumental in spearheading new procedures and took great interest in the personal well being – the comfort and ease – of his patients. By most accounts, an all round nice guy. (His predilection for seducing patients, however, would get him struck off the medical register if he were practicing today.)
An education in the Belle Epoque and a lively entertainment (Barnes obviously loves the period and relishes its eccentric cast of egomaniacs), The Man in the Red Coat is a tonic and a delight.
The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape. $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Garry Linnell’s portrait of escaped convict William Buckley is a stunning triumph.
William Buckley (1780 – 1856) is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters of Australian history. He fought Napoleon as a soldier in the King's Own Regiment in 1799, but later came undone for receiving stolen goods - a bolt of cloth. He was given 14 years and sent to New South Wales, arriving upon the Calcutta in 1803. Exhausted and terrified, Buckley soon bolted with three other prisoners. The group separated and Buckley spent weeks on his own, living off shellfish. He probably would have expired, if not for the contact he made with the local Aboriginal people who thought he was a ghost, one of their ancestors who had died, then “jumped up” again as a white man.
Buckley spent the following 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. He was respected by the Wadawurrung and was influential in trying to preserve the peace between different clans and groups. In 1835, Buckley re-entered European society. He was given a pardon by Governor Arthur and worked as an interpreter. This role as intermediary took its toll on Buckley, who saw many abuses of First Nations people and moved to Van Diemen's Land for the rest of his life.
Garry Linnell takes an interesting approach in Buckley's Chance, presenting the narrative in an almost fictional form. In some ways the structure of the book is like an 18th century epistolatory novel, with Linnell addressing himself to an imaginary Buckley, posing questions about his emotional state and responses to key events. Almost like speculative fiction, this style of writing gives the book a tone of intimacy and humanity, asking the reader to imagine Buckley's personal conflicts and psychological states of being. The narrative is interweaved with thorough research and quotes from key contemporaries, making the book invaluable as an early history of New South Wales, Tasmania and most notably, Victoria.
The portrait that emerges of Buckley himself is of a sad and tortured soul, caught between two cultures, one exterminating the other. His two years working with the Port Phillip Association, most notably with John Batman, was extremely painful as he assisted the land grab that saw widespread dispossession of the Wadawurrung and other peoples. Yet for all that we have on the record, plus Buckley's own memoir, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley written by journalist John Morgan (Buckley was illiterate), the man himself remains frustratingly distant and mysterious. He was often portrayed as a dolt, but surely knew more than he let on.
Buckley's Chance is a tremendous achievement. Engaging, passionate and fascinating it's a book that invited the reader to re-imagine Australia's formative years, a time that was harsh and often horrific.
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. Published by Michael Joseph. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
David Day brings to life an important figure in Australian history.
Maurice Blackburn (1880 – 1944) was an influential member of the Australian Labor Party and a barrister, specialising in cases defending socialist causes. He held seats at both the state and federal levels, was heavily involved in the divisive conscription debates during the First World War and could at times be a controversial figure, due mainly to his intellectual independence and dogged integrity. His relationship with the Labor Party was often strained as he differed on party policy and would not compromise his beliefs for political expediency. The Labor Party twice expelled him.
Esteemed historian David Day brings to life the rowdy and theatrical politics of the time: street meetings in Melbourne's inner suburbs; rousing speeches on the Yarra; and dodgy political and business characters, such as Prime Minister Billy Hughes and thuggish businessman John Wren. Against this backdrop Maurice Blackburn emerges as a rare beast, a politician and activist who was broadly esteemed for his integrity and consistency.
David Day writes a splendid history of Australia's nascent Labour movement and one of its major figures, distilling the complex social and economic issues of the time into a bracing narrative. Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People will appeal to the general reader and history buff alike.
Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People, published by Scribe. $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba.
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
In 1945, a shocking wave of suicides spread across Germany...
As Soviet troops advanced on Nazi Germany, and all seemed utterly hopeless, large numbers of German citizens chose not only suicide for themselves, but suicide for their families as well. Florian Huber pieces together a chilling, tragic and sometimes bizarre narrative of ordinary Germans trapped in circumstances of their own blind making. Once Hitler had committed suicide, on April 30, 1945, there was no conceivable path out of the national madness he had created. Hitler was all; extraordinary numbers of Germans believed he was a virtual messiah, come to save them. When news got out of the death camps and gas chambers, Germans muttered that Hitler couldn't have known. If he had known, he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. Popular delusions ran deep.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself (named after a father who gave his daughter a gun, told her to run and then kill herself) has two major parts. The first is a history of that wave of 1945 suicides, the story of a people immobilised by fear and lacking any moral compass; the second part tries to analyse why Germans got taken in by Hitler. The harsh terms set out for Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, goes some way to explaining Hitler's popularity, but not all. So much still remains an enigma.
The most fascinating parts of the book discuss political scientist Hannah Arendt's experiences on returning to Germany after the war. Ordinary Germans, she discovered, remained indifferent or unwilling to face the crimes of the Nazi regime. These callous, self-pitying responses left Arendt in a state of shock.
A fascinating addition to the history of Nazi Germany, using contemporary diary entries and letters to explain the mindset and attitudes of ordinary Germans who created for themselves a horrific nightmare.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, by Florian Huber. Text Publishing. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books