If the threat from Germans outside Australia during the First World War was small, the threat from Germans inside Australia was non-existent. There is no credible evidence at all of any espionage, subversion or sabotage activities by German-Australians. But you wouldn't know it from the way the Australian people and their government behaved. It's not an episode that does the nation credit.
Before the war, the German community in Australia was generally liked and respected. People of German descent numbered around 100,000 in 1914, out of a population of nearly 5 million. That's not very much in relative terms, though it did constitute the largest non-British ethnic group of immigrants. Most of the German-born had lived here for decades: they started coming in numbers in 1838, with the greatest surge coming in the gold rush years of the 1850s. So by the time Germany and Australia went to war, many German-Australians were third-generation and had never seen the country of their forebears. That's not to say they didn't have a distinctive culture: a majority of them were Lutherans, there were German-language newspapers, and they often clustered in 'German' districts and towns, especially in South Australia and Queensland. But the evidence is that they felt they were Australian, and while they were understandably distressed by the outbreak of war, most German-Australians wanted to do their part and were confused when other Australians turned against them.
That didn't happen straight away. At first there were pleas for understanding and tolerance on both sides. Plenty of German-Australians volunteered for the first AIF contingents for overseas service and those who didn't contributed to patriotic causes -- so just like the rest of the country. The first major crack in this unity came with the War Precautions Act (WPA), passed in October 1914. This was similar to the contemporary DORA in Britain in the way it gave the government unprecedented powers over its subjects, or to put it another way removed previously cherished rights and civil liberties. One novel aspect of WPA was the arbitrary detention of enemy aliens. The commanders of each military district (i.e. each state) were granted the power to intern enemy subjects, that is people who were German (or, of course, Austro-Hungarian or Turkish) nationals. Also, the defence minister could order the detention of naturalised subjects, people who were now full Australian citizens. But just who was an enemy alien was in any case never clearly defined. It could mean a third-generation migrant who had a German name but couldn't speak the language, or a child migrant who grew up thinking they were Australian but whose parents had neglected to naturalise. They were both subject to potential internment. At least the Australian-born were not deported at the end of the war (as far as I can tell, anyway), as were practically all the Germans and most of the naturalised (after having their citizenship revoked) too. [Added: I mean 'all the German internees and most of the naturalised ones' were deported -- those who escaped internment were allowed to remain.]
In theory internment only supposed to happen if there was evidence of disloyalty, but no evidence was required and usually none was given. There was no judicial or parliamentary oversight and no right of appeal. The conditions in the camps were harsh, their administration capricious, there was rarely even a tempering sense of humanity. Gerhard Fischer tells of one internee, naturalised since 1899, with an Australian-born wife and daughter in Sydney. His daughter was terminally ill but he was repeatedly refused permission to visit her in hospital. He only found out that she had died when another internee read her obituary in a newspaper. He was allowed to go to her funeral, but the thirty minute visit to his home he was promised didn't eventuate, because the soldier escorting him didn't want to miss their train back. 1
Of course, it could have been worse; and the numbers involved should not be exaggerated. There were about seven thousand internees in total over the war, mostly Germans but also substantial numbers of Austro-Hungarian subjects from Western Australia (mostly actually from ethnic groups hostile to Austria-Hungary); and this number also includes those sent here from British colonies like Hong Kong and Fiji. The biggest camp was at Holdsworthy, near Sydney, which held between four or five thousand internees from all around the country; of these about seven hundred were naturalised and seventy Australian-born. Out of the hundred thousand-odd German-Australians this was not a huge proportion. Certainly, it wasn't enough to satisfy some patriots, as this letter to the editor of the Melbourne Argus shows:
The letters from your naturalised Germans are all right from their point of view, but what would be their attitude were we 'licked'? 'Once a German always a German.' No oath of naturalisation makes the slightest difference to those who are 'tainted' with the blood of 'murderers.' They would and do exult over the victories and atrocities of the Fatherland. We meet them here in Australia every day. We deal from them and with them. Shops trading openly under their German proprietors' names or under the name of a 'dummy' are patronised because perhaps they are cheap, or because 'poor So-and-So is a German but has been so long in Australia that his sympathies are entirely British.' To all of which I say 'bosh.' 'Do unto others as others do unto you.' Intern all Germans at once -- make them feel the public disgust felt for a nation that most surely will bear the 'brand of Cain' for all time. 2
With attitudes like these around, it's not surprising that German-Australians suffered even when they escaped internment. Many were ostracised and vilified. Coworkers called for them to be sacked, their businesses were shunned (or physically smashed), those in public service had their loyalty questioned. The use of German in teaching and preaching was forbidden. Places with German names often switched to something less offensive (in South Australia an act of parliament forced this). And of course individuals were accused of being German spies or worse, as Michael McKernan relates:
'John Bull Junior' suggested that the government intern all the Lutheran missionaries at the Finke River Mission in Central Australia because, with a light machine-gun, a few of them could prevent thousands of Australians from passing through the MacDonnell Ranges. Thus, if the Germans invaded Australia, South Australians would not be able to retreat to the safety of 'the centre'. 3
The Anti-German League pressured the government into taking stronger action against the German community, as did the Bottomleyesque Mirror of Sydney. The failure of the first conscription referendum (technically, plebiscite) in 1916 was widely blamed on the 'German' vote; in 1917 the vote was taken away from them and the second referendum failed by a larger margin. It's no wonder that some German-Australians actually chose to be interned voluntarily: they could no longer live outside them. Fischer quite appropriately speaks of the 'destruction' of the German community: it no longer existed by 1918.
McKernan suggests that Australians on the home front were 'Manufacturing the war':
Apart from the men who enlisted in the AIF most Australians experienced the war vicariously, at a distance, relying on the letters from the front and on newspaper reports for a feel of the 'real thing'. Many Australians seemed to regret that the battles were fought at such a distance; they longed for direct experience and meaningful war work, as the enthusiasm and frustration of Australian women showed. Exaggerated patriotism, impossible demands, flowered in this climate of unreality. The Australians needed to manufacture threats and crises to make the war real and immediate; the claim that Australia was to be the 'first prize' of a victorious Germany was a product of this atmosphere. The political turmoil of referendums and elections grew out of the need to manufacture enemies, thus Australia, it was claimed, lay at the mercy of Industrial Workers of the World agitators or Sinn Feiners. 4
And, as he goes on to show, German-Australians. This is a useful concept; it's something like I think was happening with the mystery aeroplane scare. Looked at in this way, the mystery aeroplanes were one more imaginary battle against one more imaginary enemy, which enabled Australians at home to feel that they were fighting too and that they had a reason to fight. However, there's no reason to think this applies only to Australia: it's time to go transnational.
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- Gerhard Fischer, Enemy Aliens: Internment and the Homefront Experience in Australia, 1914-1920 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989), 222-3.
- Argus (Melbourne), 14 May 1915, 6.
- Michael McKernan, The Australian People and the Great War (West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1980), 159.
- Ibid., 150.