It has often been acknowledged that nations are born of war. Yet recent scholarship suggests that it is not the sacrifice of the enemy that creates a unified group identity, but the sacrifice of the group’s own.
|Renee D. Lockwood, PhD. Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney.
This essay demonstrates the truth of this hypothesis on the basis of two primary case studies: the “sacrifices” made at Gallipoli and Masada. I will consider the role of these sacrifices in the formation of Australian and Israeli national identity in ensuring the enduring cohesion of these nations.
Described as being at the very centre of national identity and civil religion, the Australian Anzac tradition has remained an intrinsic cultural facet throughout the 20th century. Annually, on 25 April, Australians gather to commemorate the fallen in a day so filled with ritual, liturgy and solemnity as to have been described by Richard White as serving to fill a religious need within a secular society.
This day is manifestly treated with a greater sense of gravity as a day of national unity than is Australia Day. Whilst Anzac Day officially commemorates the sacrifice given during all the wars fought by Australians, at the nucleus of the tradition lies one moment in history. At dawn on 25 April 1915, the first Anzac troops landed on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, a unit which had been assembled with the purpose of forcing Germany’s Ottoman ally out of the War.
Within the first ten days at Anzac Cove, 2000 Australians were killed or died of wounds, making it the greatest loss of life in the history of white Australians at war. In total approximately 7600 Australians died at Gallipoli and, whilst roughly six times that figure died on the Western Front, the period spent fighting at the tiny beach peninsula has remained a seminal moment within Australian consciousness—one which has long been considered the moment of genesis for Australian national identity.
In exploring the mechanisms of sacrifice and its ability to create group cohesion and identity, it is important first to establish the historical context in which the group requires either an act of sacrifice or the adoption of a sacrificial narrative. In Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle describe a key factor of “successful blood sacrifice rituals” as the ability to redefine time and space. “Win or lose, history begins from this moment”.
The First World War, and the battles at Gallipoli in particular, are often seen to represent the moment of independence for the Australian nation, offering a chance for its true national character to emerge. Despite its Federation in 1901, Australia had not yet succeeded in producing a unique identity. Indeed, the power of blood and war to unify and create a distinct national identity was evidently a component of the zeitgeist: the years preceding World War I were filled with the hope and anticipation of conflict, Australians being urged to be “fit and ready for battle”.
Australian war historian Ken Inglis asserts: “She was not yet … the altar [had] not yet been stained with crimson as every rallying center of a nation should be”. After the huge loss of life at Gallipoli, Australia’s prophetic hopes of a national identity born of blood and sacrifice were realized, reflected in such works as Banjo Patterson’s 1915 poem “We’re All Australians Now”: The mettle that a race can show/ Is proved with shot and steel/ And now we know what nations know/ And feel what nations feel.
Several reasons for the sacredness attributed to the victims may be identified. Primarily, the “willingness” of the sacrifice elevates the victim to a status transcending the human. In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas argues: “When someone embraces freely the symbols of death, or death itself, then a great release of power for good should be expected to follow”. The willingness of the victim plays a vital role in each of the cases here.
As a new, noble Australian identity was being forged in the fiery crucible of Gallipoli’s shores, its citizens at home were acutely aware of the genuine sacrifice being offered. Of the contending armies of World War One, the Australian Imperial Force alone was comprised entirely of volunteers, who could thus be celebrated as having truly given their lives willingly.
Furthermore, despite the vast numbers of reported casualties, Australian men continued to join the war efforts. The foreseeable nature of their deaths was acknowledged in such mediums as an epitaph of an Australian soldier buried at Gallipoli’s Anzac Cove, which reads:
Halt! Comrades, halt as you pass by.
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be,
So, comrades, be prepared to follow me!
For each narrative, the power and efficacy of the sacrifice depends on the belief that the victims are part of the group collective. Marvin and Ingle assert that, by offering the group’s own, the sacredness of the group itself is identified: “For what is really true in any community is what its members can be compelled to sacrifice their lives for”.
An offering of the group’s own flesh and blood demonstrates immense reverence, sanctifying the essence of a collective identity, which is ultimately made manifest as an independent entity. Yet the reasons for the belief that the victim truly belongs to the group are multifarious. There is clearly a belief that a willing sacrifice is greater when undertaken altruistically for the benefit of one’s own community. But we must also explore the role of representation.
The power of the tragic events at Gallipoli and Masada to unify and shape identities is primarily due to the fact that they are perceived to have been acts of sacrifice. B. K. Smith and W. Doniger write: “Sacrifice is paradoxically an act which becomes distinguishable from suicide [or] murder only when its ideology is realized”. Only then, with a unified understanding by the group that these seminal events from which their identity emerged were indeed acts of sacrifice, can the efficacy of the sacrifice be realized.
The horrors at Gallipoli would surely, in any other context, be regarded as sickening and justifiably forgotten. Inglis recounts the carnage of Anzac Cove: “Bodies hanging in all sorts of grotesque and apparently impossible attitudes, bodies without heads, legs and arms without bodies. They trod on, even slept on the dead”. Even the historian and great “myth maker” of the war, C. E. W. Bean, recorded having been “splashed by fresh blood”.
The idea that sacredness and power are born from a willingness to die are fundamental to the ideology of sacrifice. Yet even more so is the idea that the sacrificial victim is not representative of itself. The victims of Gallipoli and Masada symbolize the “ideal” citizen, the embodiment of a cultural archetype—a depiction that would fail were the victims ethnically estranged from the group.The sacrificial victims embody the entire group collective, allowing a belief that a powerful act of self-sacrifice has been committed by the entire nation. It is of great interest that the groups concerned are sentient of the powers of sacrificial ritual, demonstrated by the ideology of sacrifice explicit in each of the narratives. Thus, the horrors of Gallipoli are made noble and the acts of slaughter at Masada are neither murder nor suicide. Clearly, such an understanding of a substantial sacrifice of the group’s own is a powerful force in the creation of national identity and the endurance of group cohesion.