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Reflecting on his life’s work, W.K. Hancock once recalled that during the years from 1925 to 1935 the study of nationalism was his ‘main preoccupation’. He ‘felt that nationalism was the main driving force behind the anarchic sovereignties of the 20th century, and… believed that the optimistic liberal verdict upon the national movements of the 19th century called for revision’.

19 December 2010

12:00 AM

19 December 2010

12:00 AM

Reflecting on his life’s work, W.K. Hancock once recalled that during the years from 1925 to 1935 the study of nationalism was his ‘main preoccupation’. He ‘felt that nationalism was the main driving force behind the anarchic sovereignties of the 20th century, and… believed that the optimistic liberal verdict upon the national movements of the 19th century called for revision’.

A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W.K. Hancock
by Jim Davidson

UNSW Press, $59.95, pp 624
ISBN 9781742231266

Reflecting on his life’s work, W.K. Hancock once recalled that during the years from 1925 to 1935 the study of nationalism was his ‘main preoccupation’. He ‘felt that nationalism was the main driving force behind the anarchic sovereignties of the 20th century, and… believed that the optimistic liberal verdict upon the national movements of the 19th century called for revision’.

Jim Davidson’s masterly biography shows that much of Hancock’s greatest work was written in that decade. Even his first and least well-known book — a study of Ricasoli and the Risorgimento in Tuscany (1926) — was animated by the contemporary context; in this case the rise of fascism in Italy. ‘After Mazzini,’ Hancock often asked himself at that time, ‘how Mussolini?’ His classic one-volume work, Australia (1930) was followed by the magisterial first volume of his Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs (1937), a thesis which epitomised his liberal imperialism and elaborated on the tension between empire and liberty, particularly in hotspots such as South Africa, Palestine and Ireland.

Hancock enjoyed a stellar rise through the academic ranks: a graduate of the University of Melbourne, he was a Rhodes Scholar and the first Australian Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He successively held chairs in history at the Universities of Adelaide, Birmingham, Oxford and London and at the ANU in Canberra.


In addition to the aforementioned works, he edited the multi-volume Civil Series of the Official British History of the Second World War, produced a two-volume biography of the South African statesman Jan Smuts and wrote a pioneering environmental history of the Monaro district around Canberra. He also had a good pair of boots. Hancock held fast to the maxim of the great French scholar and second world war resistance hero, Marc Bloch, who once opined that historians had to be more than just ‘useful antiquarians’. He was active in public life, from keeping watch on the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz to leading a constitutional commission to Uganda in the 1950s, from protesting the construction of the Black Mountain Tower in Canberra in the 1970s to arguing against the presence of US defence installations on Australian soil. It was an active pattern of civic engagement. Hancock, as Davidson shows, was never one to miss an opportunity. He was adept at seizing the moment.

And yet for all the stunning intellectual achievement and public visibility, Hancock’s name now struggles for recognition in Australia. The very fact that the book’s title is compelled to identify him as ‘the historian W.K. Hancock’ suggests that beyond the halls of academe, and perhaps a few of the more historically conscious bureaucrats in Canberra, his name is now barely known — eclipsed, it would seem, by the name and legacy of Manning Clark.

After reading this work, however, few would disagree with Davidson that Hancock has the stronger claim to be the best historian that Australia has produced. Today Clark’s works are barely seen on reading lists in history departments across the country, and if they are, it is more often to examine the way in which Clark changed so dramatically from being a critic of the radical nationalist myth to becoming one of its chief standard-bearers. Hancock could never have opted for the pretentious and self-indulgent prophecy that epitomised some of Clark’s later writings and antics.

More to the point, Hancock’s Australia (1930) continues to resonate: it remains the most influential work written about the country and, unlike Clark’s works, is still debated in undergraduate tutorials. In it Hancock ranged widely, looking at questions of politics and population, the economy and education, agriculture and the Aborigines. He brought to the task many fields of social inquiry, including town planning, constitutional law, geography and literary criticism, as well as a crucial international context: ‘For good or ill,’ he wrote in the early pages, ‘Australia has had enforced upon her the inheritance of all the ages.’

That book has not only had a seminal influence on how Australians understand the role of the state — ‘to the Australian the state means collective power at the service of individualistic rights’ — it has had no less an influence on the question of national identity and loyalty: ‘Among the Australians,’ Hancock observed, ‘pride of race counted for more than love of country… Defining themselves as Independent Australian Britons they believed each word essential and exact, but laid most stress upon the last.’ It was a formulation which eschewed the idea that Australian nationalism and British race patriotism need be inherently contradictory. Rather they could be mutually reinforcing. Radical nationalists chafed at it then; some still do so today.

But in the end even this academic who rode the ‘red carpet to the heart of empire’ had to watch as the rapidly shifting dynamics of the postwar world brought about its dissolution. And Hancock had his own blind spots. He showed little interest in India or indeed America and gave little away about his reaction to the end of empire both in Australia and across the globe. Beyond his lament for Gough Whitlam’s brutal excision of the word ‘Commonwealth’ from official Australian nomenclature, it is hard to discern how Hancock dealt with the increasing obsolescence of the imperial ideal in Australia and elsewhere.

But Davidson does chart the remarkable transformation in Hancock’s world-view: from his membership of the Round Table — an organisation whose ideal was an Imperial Parliament sitting in London to govern for all the Empire (though Hancock himself never subscribed to that particular pledge) — to being an advocate of a neutral, nuclear-free Australia in the 1980s. That in itself was quite an intellectual and ideological odyssey.

Davidson has produced a richly textured work, a meticulously researched and elegantly written study of a life and mind. It cannot have been easy. Hancock, cunningly enough, left no consolidated set of personal papers, and Davidson has had to piece together that life across archives in Australia, the UK, South Africa and elsewhere. It is a stunning achievement, a classic account of the forces that shaped this scholar and the forces he himself helped to shape.

Davidson portrays a historian ultimately fascinated by power, craving acceptance from the British elite, but ever keen to remind his peers that despite his global roaming he retained his Australian essence. That tension between Country and Calling, the title of the first volume of his autobiography, animates Hancock’s life. But Hancock knew, like all good historians, the danger of absolutes. ‘An Historian,’ he once wrote, ‘is not a smart person who knows all the answers, but a persistent one who has come to grips with a few very difficult questions.’


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