Fear, uncertainty, doubt — VII

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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  1. Gerhard Fischer, Enemy Aliens: Internment and the Homefront Experience in Australia, 1914-1920 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989), 222-3. []
  2. Argus (Melbourne), 14 May 1915, 6. []
  3. Michael McKernan, The Australian People and the Great War (West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1980), 159. []
  4. Ibid., 150. []

4 thoughts on “Fear, uncertainty, doubt — VII

  1. I find myself agreeing with this. I wonder how you can fit it with the larger narrative of building the idea of Australia, as a nation.


  2. Post author

    Interesting question! WWI is usually seen as a crucial formative period in Australian history: the Anzacs, Gallipoli, baptism of fire, acting on the world stage etc. But it also seems to have closed off the possibility of understanding Australia as anything other than 'British' for more than half a century. Not until after WWII did large-scale non-British immigration begin again and even then it took until the 1980s for the idea of multiculturalism to take off. Before then, anything originating outside the Anglo mainstream was viewed with suspicion and had little chance of influencing the wider culture. But whether internment and Germanophobia was decisive in this process or not, I can't say. Australians were probably pretty insular long before then.

    Fischer portrays internment/Germanophobia as a setback not only for early Australian multiculturalism (a relatively new term when he wrote his book), but also for democracy and civil liberties: 'Australia as a pluralistic and a liberal, democratic society did not pass the test of the crisis brought about by the war in Europe' (7). Again, that's hard to argue with. Not only did the security state come down hard on the German community, but civil society was, on the whole, remarkably unconcerned about what was happening to its fellow citizens. A few MPs here and there spoke up in individual cases, and the Catholic Church sometimes did too, but by and large it seems that very few people wanted to be seen sticking up for Germans. So what was in many respects a model democracy for its day (universal adult suffrage, for example, unless you were indigenous) was shown to rest on shallow foundations.

    Again a comparative context is important. Most, if not all, of the combatant nations interned 'enemy aliens' or otherwise made them subject to severe restrictions. Even deeply assimilated groups like the German Jews were singled out as disloyal, despite all evidence -- and they weren't even 'enemy', just 'alien'. In an age where race and nationalism were dominant concepts it was probably never going to be otherwise. So whether Australia was better or worse than the international norm is another question.

  3. Canada, and practically everywhere else, had its share of internments in the First World War. Germans escaped at the time, arguably because the history of German settlement in North America is so old. (Although Berlin, Ontario, was renamed Kitchener, Ontario. Hilarious!)

    The WWI experience, however, is dim and distant in the national collective memory compared with the internment of Japanese Canadians (and Americans) in the Second war. In this case, the nation seems to have indulged in a little memory editing.

    That is, race-based xenophobia aside, it was an opportunity to make the case that Asian immigration to Western Canada, rather than beginning earlier than Caucasian emigration, was somehow a novelty. The preliminary take on that is that what is novel can be reversed, and there was a move to deport Japanese Canadians after the war, similar to the deportation of German Australians that Brett mentions.

    However, there is next to no evidence that the same people who deported Japanese Canadians wanted them gone! (I make this argument on the basis of the repeated failure of consumer boycotts against Asian owned businesses.)

    My thesis is that deportation should be seen as a self-defence mechanism (mis-)addressing long-standing insecurities, and I can't help but wonder whether the same general insecurities are at the root of most or all of the great Twentieth Century ethnic cleansings.

    Those who've paid attention to my crazy theories about the actual demographic history of the settling of the Americas will perhaps see where I'm going here. Ethnogenesis of mythically pure nation states is a phenomena of Europe just as much as of the so-called settler colonies. Australia, where a particular kind of social anxiety is pretty much inherent in the way the nation was founded, would be a particularly telling case.

    So I guess I'm saying that it all goes back to the convict fleets, which, now that I formulate it so baldly, will turn out to be one of the founding historiographic fallacies of bad Australian history.

  4. Post author

    Australia, where a particular kind of social anxiety is pretty much inherent in the way the nation was founded, would be a particularly telling case.

    Well, quite.

    I wonder what difference geography makes? Here in Australia we have a vast continent (well, it's actually small for a continent, but vast for a country) all to ourselves. So we have an island mentality in every sense, and are tempted to indulge in fantasies of population control and ethnic/cultural purity, not only in the past but for the future. In the past this was done through deportation (as in the case discussed here) and ethnic cleansing. But we as a nation still, literally to this very day, apparently cannot stand the idea of a few thousand boat people trying to land on our shores and claim asylum.

    What effect did having the United States across the border have on Canadian beliefs about the ability to control their population? Did it make it more important or less important, more easy or less?

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