German experience in Australia during WW1 damaged road to multiculturalism

A ‘view from tower’ reveals the long rows of huts at Holsworthy internment camp, where Germans were interned during the First World War. Paul Dubotzki/Dubotzki Collection

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.


On September 26, 1999, Governor-General Sir William Deane delivered the opening address at the inaugural Australian Conference on Lutheran Education at a Gold Coast resort. In his speech, he offered an apology to members of the German–Australian community present at the meeting:

The tragic, and often shameful, discrimination against Australians of German origin fostered during the world wars had many consequences. No doubt, some of you carry the emotional scars of injustice during those times as part of your backgrounds or family histories. Let me as Governor-General say to all who do how profoundly sorry I am that such things happened in our country.

The little-known apology invites reflection on a number of issues, particularly in the context of the centenary commemorations and the privileged role the Anzac myth as Australia’s foundation narrative has been accorded in recent years. The story of the German–Australian community offers an alternative view of Australia’s history as a nation.

While Deane referred to “scars of injustice” and family histories, and thus to individual grief and loss, it might be appropriate also to recall the experience of a collective loss the nation incurred when a significant community within its ranks was destroyed during the Great War.

Early migrant movements

During the 19th century and well into the 20th, German-speaking immigrants constituted the largest non-Anglo–Celtic group in Australia. Organised large-scale immigration had begun with the arrival in 1838 of groups of Lutheran farming communities from the eastern provinces of Prussia. They settled in South Australia. The foundation of their first villages, Hahndorf and Klemzig, served as a point of attraction that was to bring many more immigrants to the Barossa Valley.

A smaller wave in the wake of the failed German revolution of 1848 brought a different group of immigrants: urban professionals and intellectuals, outspoken democrats and liberals who were dissatisfied with the lack of political reforms in Germany and preferred to live in a country that promised constitutional democracy and progress towards their ideal of a unified nation state.

A third wave of German immigrants was contained within the huge number of fortune-hunters who came to Victoria during the gold rush years of the 1850s. When the goldfields were exhausted, many of the diggers and tradesmen of German origin took up farming in Victoria and New South Wales.

After 1860, government-sponsored immigration and free passages coupled with the prospect of cheap land brought large numbers of agricultural settlers to Queensland. Around 1880, the number of German immigrants in Queensland had surpassed that of South Australia.

There was a sizeable urban community of merchants, tradesmen and labourers living in and around Brisbane. However, most of the German immigrants settled on the land, along the coast and on the Darling Downs, where they played a significant role in the pioneering work of opening up the country for agriculture.

In New South Wales, no such areas of contiguous settlement existed. But a substantial number of German immigrants, mostly skilled tradesmen, chose to live in or near Sydney.

By around 1860, a very visible German–Australian community was well established. It was prosperous, sophisticated and generally highly regarded by their British–Australian compatriots who preferred to think of the immigrants from the Continent, with some patriarchal condescension no doubt, as our Germans. In the towns, German clubs, complete with their marching bands, athletics associations and Liedertafel choirs, constituted centres of social activity that attracted wide audiences not limited to members of their own ethnicity.

There were prominent business establishments that carried German names. Australians of German origin were active in the medical and legal profession, in education, the arts as well as in commerce and industry, science and politics.

In the metropolitan cities, and in Adelaide in particular, one could spend the day easily without having to speak a word of English: shopping, attending doctors’ or dentists’ surgeries, relaxing over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake while reading the Australische Zeitung in a German Konditorei (coffee shop), or wining and dining in one of the city’s two German hotels, the King of Hanover or the Hamburg Hotel, both in Rundle Street.

In 1861, towards the end of the Victorian gold rush, people of German origin comprised 4.32% of the total Australian population. They were by far the largest non-British immigrant group. The Chinese, as the second-largest, came to 3.28% by comparison; the Italians as the third-largest made up only 0.21%, and the total migrant population of 48 other ethnic communities amounted to only 3.25%.

By 1895, the overall number of German–Australians, including the descendants of immigrants of the second and third generations, had been estimated at approximately 100,000. This figure remained stable until 1914. As the total Australian population was approaching five million at the outbreak of war, the percentage of Germans in Australia comprised roughly 2%: hardly a significant number statistically.

The role of the Lutheran religion

Their history, as Augustin Lodewyckx noted in 1932, is the “history of their Anglicisation” – although “Australianisation” is perhaps a better term. To compete socially, in business and on the labour market, it was necessary to speak the language and to become familiar with the vernacular, the customs and norms of the new country.

In rural districts, where the church was the central focus of the community, assimilation was a slower process. But the Lutheran pastors were in no position to resist the process of assimilation, nor – it must be emphasised – was it in their interest to do so.

Loyalty to the state and respect for the secular authorities, based on the concept of the Zwei-Reich-Lehre (that is, the doctrine of the two kingdoms, spiritual and temporal), had been central tenets of Lutheran theology ever since the Reformator’s dilemma in having to side with the feudal princes against the rebelling peasants during the Peasants’ War of the early 16th century.

This was a point that was emphasised over and over again: as Lutheran Christians, their allegiance was to the government of the state in which they lived, its institutions and constitutional authority.

The Lutheran pastors were very conscious of their identity as representatives of an Australian, not a German, church. They were subjects of the British Crown and citizens of their respective Australians colonies, and of the Commonwealth after 1901. It made no difference to them whether individual parishioners had become naturalised or not. Relations with Germany were of a purely private nature, concerning the maintenance of language, family ties and cultural traditions.

At the same time, the Lutheran clerical establishment fastidiously insisted on its autonomy in religious and cultural–educational matters, including the teaching of German in its schools. The German language reminded the German–Australian Lutherans of their country of origin, but it was above all the language of Martin Luther, his Bible and catechism, and of his wording of the Lord’s Prayer.

The decline of the Lutheran schools gives a clear indication of the process of Australianisation. Around 1900, there were 46 Lutheran schools in South Australia, 45 in Queensland, ten in Victoria and one in Sydney. They were all primary schools, small to very small (average size of 35 pupils) with only one or two teachers. English had become the main medium of instruction in most of the schools. Only classes in religious studies were conducted in German.

In the following years, most schools were forced to reduce their operations from five days to one – to become purely denominational Saturday schools, devoted to maintaining the German language for the purpose of reading liturgical texts.

By 1913, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Australia had begun publishing in English. Its monthly periodical, now titled The Australian Lutheran, had a decidedly national tenor, as the foreword of the first edition explained:

The term “Australian” … is a “national” cognomen, signifying that the paper is published in Australia, by Australians and, first and foremost, for Australians, be they Australians by birth or adoption.

All Lutheran schools were closed during the war, as were all German clubs and German-language newspapers.

Holsworthy internees perform a breathtaking number in the camp’s gym. Paul Dubotzki/Dubotzki Collection

The migrant ‘48ers’

The arrival of immigrants, who left Germany for political reasons after the disappointing failure of the March Revolution of 1848 – known as “48ers” – marked a new beginning in the history of the German–Australian community. Their numbers were comparatively small, but they exerted considerable influence due to their role as journalists and publishers of German-language publications.

The most prominent 48er was Hermann Püttmann, previously arts editor of the Kölner Zeitung, a friend of poets Heine and Weerth and associate of Marx and Engels. Püttmann arrived in Melbourne in 1855 after residing for a few years in London. As author and publisher of journals and calendars he soon played a leading role in the German-speaking community in Victoria.

In Adelaide, Carl Wilhelm Ludwig Mücke, head of a group of like-minded immigrants from Berlin, was no less prominent as the spiritus rector of the South Australian German community. He had studied classical philology and sciences in Bonn and Berlin. His special interest was the propagation of a new curriculum where scientific and technological topics were to be given a prominent role.

In 1847, a year before he arrived in South Australia, Mücke was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Jena for his achievements as a pedagogue. In 1878, the University of Adelaide followed by awarding him an honorary master’s degree, the highest academic honour that was available in Australia at the time.

Mücke’s Australische Zeitung, a newspaper that grew out of his earlier Tanunda Deutsche Zeitung, eventually became the flagship of the German-language press in Australia.

During the 1850s, Mücke and his journalistic collaborators played a major role in a public debate on the issue of “German rights” that was being discussed in the context of introducing “responsible government” – that is, a local colonial legislature. The German immigrants protested vehemently against plans to exclude them from standing for election to the proposed parliament.

They were supported by a number of British-born Australians, including the governor. But there were many who voiced opposition, arguing:

The Germans should be grateful that they were even allowed to come to South Australia and stop demanding equal rights with Englishmen.

There is no doubt that the writer’s sentiment represented a substantial popular feeling, one that would re-emerge time and again in the decades to come.

In the 1850s, however, the German–Australians carried the day. They were granted the right to stand for parliament, and in the first elections of 1857 one of the 48ers, Friedrich Krichauff, became the first legislator in South Australia of German descent.

The winning of both active and passive voting rights was an important step in the integration of the German–Australian community in the public life of the colony. The German-speaking minority now had a voice in the highest constitutional body and their spokesmen were accepted as co-legislators with full equal rights.

German–Australians were assured of being able to participate in the political affairs of their new home country and to enjoy the privileges and liberties the democratic institutions offered, including the privilege of working towards new political goals and of disagreeing with the politics of the government of the day.

Between December 1883 and February 1884, the Australische Zeitung ran a series of articles that amounted to a campaign for Australian independence. A comparison was repeatedly made between US and British–Australian citizenship. The comparative analysis clearly suggested a deficiency in the status accorded to “naturalised British subjects of Australia”:

The acquisition of citizenship in the US affords full equality and protection. This is not so in British colonies where the German immigrant gives up his German citizenship for a thing of little significance. Through naturalisation in a colony, he only becomes a citizen of that colony but not of all colonies, and especially not a citizen of Great Britain, although he has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Queen of England. If a naturalised German leaves his own colony, he is completely homeless, a pariah, a member of no nation, whereas the British colonist remains a Briton.

The final article in the series, on February 28, 1884, concluded with an eloquent call for Australian sovereignty in which the alternatives, Australia as a free country or as an inferior colony under the tutelage of Great Britain, were clearly spelled out:

Only with independence can a truly national life develop in which immigrants from everywhere fuse into one free nation. This is impossible as long as there is a mother-country to which Australia is politically subordinated, to which the British colonists look and whose ways they seek to force upon the other non-British colonists.

Developing an Australian identity

Mücke’s vision certainly has a very contemporary resonance in terms of suggesting a fusion of different ethnic groups into a multicultural society. But how could a “truly national life develop” in Australia? And how could German immigrants, representing a small minority within a British colony, put forward a claim towards defining Australian nationhood?

To the overwhelming majority of Anglo–Australian immigrants at the time, “home” meant the British Isles, their “nation” was the British Empire.

Mücke and his friends saw Australia as a nation in statu nascendi. They recognised it shared a common fate with the Germany they knew. To become a nation, Australia had what Germany lacked, namely a constitutional form of government that ensured individual freedom and civic rights to guarantee the democratic participation of its citizens in the development of their country.

What Germany had, on the other hand, was what Australia lacked or did not yet possess, namely a consciousness of its mission to become a nation. This was precisely what the 48ers thought they were able to contribute. Their experiences in the struggle towards a unified, democratic nation state in Germany, unsuccessful though it had been in 1848, could be made productive in an effort to create a national consciousness in Australia.

The 48ers were Australian nationalists and early republicans who developed a concept of triple identity: a cultural identity linked to the German language and to the immigrants’ intellectual heritage; a political identity that implied loyalty to the King or Queen of England as the constitutional head of Australia; and a national identity as Australians committed to a nation in statu nascendi.

The 48ers firmly believed that Australia would eventually follow the American model and develop into an independent republic. Their concept of an Australian nationalism had a number of things in common with the “Australianism” that was beginning to be propagated by Anglo–Celtic Australians around 1890. It shared a belief in a singular Australian identity, based on an appreciation of the land and of the unique experience of the pioneers who first developed it, on the special geographical, floral and faunal features of the continent, as well as a shared history.

But the inclusive commitment to an Australia made up of “immigrants from everywhere” offered a sharp contrast to the vision of the Australian Natives’ Association or the writers of the Bulletin who also advocated a separate Australian identity. The Bulletin’s masthead motto, “Australia for the White Man”, was clearly incompatible with Mücke’s vision that was based on the universal principle of the Rights of Man and the ideals of the European Enlightenment.

On July 16, 1883, a festive banquet was held at the Adelaide German Club to mark the election of Carl Mücke as an honorary member. The occasion was his 68th birthday. It was a special, symbolic event: on this day, Mücke had spent exactly half his life in Germany and the other half in Australia. Before an audience of more than 400 German–Australians, Mücke gave a vote of thanks that spelled out his vision of an Australian nation:

All of us have found in our dear Australia a new home Heimath which we sincerely love and where we can be happy, happier – for the most part – than we perhaps could have ever been in our old home country. Let us therefore return our active thanks to this our new home country. And what could our thanks be?

Let us not forget that it was our fate, when it led us with broken hearts out of the old country to this place here, which destined us to help forming a new nation coming into existence in Australia, a nation made up of citizens of all nations but notably from England.

Dr Max Herz rehearses Minna von Barnhelm at Trial Bay. Paul Dubotzki/Dubotzki Collection

During the Great War

On August 10, 1914, all “Germans” living in Australia were called upon to report to the nearest police station. It was the beginning of the end of the once prosperous and proud German–Australian community. Registration involved filling out a yellow form which asked a number of personal particulars – name, address, date and place of birth, trade or occupation, marital status, property, length of residence in Australia, nationality, naturalisation details.

It was then up to the local police officers to impose any restrictions they may have thought fit. Usually these took the form of a Provisional Order – the aliens in question had to notify the police of any change of address or to report at daily or weekly intervals.

The officers were subsequently required to fill out a second form (“secret and confidential”), entitled Report on Person reputed to be an Enemy Subject, in which they had to state whether they believed their clients’ statements “to be frank and truthful”, and whether the aliens were “reputed to be anti-British” or consorted “with persons believed to be of enemy origin”. Finally, they had to give an opinion as to whether or not the aliens:

… should be sent forward for examination by the military authorities.

On October 29, 1914, the Commonwealth parliament assented to the War Precautions Act, conferring upon the government and the military authorities a wide range of powers. As Frank Crowley observed, the act:

… gave the Commonwealth Government complete control over the press and the economy, and enabled it to establish a centralised and militarist administration.

The Manual of War Precautions listed no less than 81 separate offences. It contained a bewildering collection of rules, orders and prohibitions – such as measures that forbade enemy aliens the possession of motor cars, telephones, cameras or homing pigeons. Internment was only one, albeit the most severe, infringement of their personal rights and liberty imposed upon German–Australians during the war.

By the end of 1914, the commandants of the military districts had been given the authority to intern “enemy subjects with whose conduct they were not satisfied”. Then-defence minister George Foster Pearce reserved for himself the right to order the internment of naturalised subjects when he thought they were “disaffected or disloyal”.

In 1915, paragraphs 55 and 56a enlarged the power of the minister:

… to cover the internment of disloyal natural born subjects Australian by birth of enemy descent, and of persons of hostile origin or association.

Once a military intelligence officer had decided an individual “enemy alien” or a person of “hostile association” constituted a “possible danger”, that person was arrested and placed in a camp behind barbed wire. It was “internment without trial”. The government routinely refused to submit the complaints of internees to the ordinary procedures of legal arbitration.

In October 1916, the registration regulations were extended to apply to “all aliens, whether enemy or otherwise”. In the end, the machinery of registration, censorship, surveillance, internment and deportation set up by the department to control the resident “enemy” population in Australia was also being used to investigate and prosecute pacifists, unionists, radical socialists, Irish nationalists, anti-conscriptionists of all ideological persuasion – practically anybody who dared to speak out against the government’s commitment to the war.

A precedent was established, involving the use of the state apparatus for the purpose of suppressing political opposition that constitutes one of the ominous features of the political culture first developed in Australia during the war.

A German ‘enemy alien’ is taken to the Torrens Island internment camp. Paul Dubotzki/Dubotzki Collection

On the economic front, too, measures against perceived German business interests were enforced on the basis of comprehensive legislation. The Enemy Contracts Annulment Act and various Trading with the Enemy Acts, passed between 1914 and 1918, imposed restrictions that ranged from the prohibition to buy or sell land to owning or managing a business. Suspected aliens were ordered to disclose holdings in shares, securities or bank accounts. Businesses were wound down and assets transferred to a trustee.

The war provided a welcome opportunity to realise one of Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ long-held aims, namely “the eradication of German influences from the trade of all parts of the Empire”. This was to be achieved by diverting “trade from enemy to Empire”, as Hughes put it.

The Trading with the Enemy legislation was designed not only to prevent Australian products from reaching Germany during the duration of the war, and vice versa. It was meant to destroy permanently what the Commonwealth government considered to be German firms operating in Australia, regardless of whether they were branches of foreign companies or whether they were businesses founded in Australia and run by Australian residents.

Hughes was not afraid to point out that the war was being fought for economic supremacy. This was an argument to support Australia’s unreserved commitment to the war rather than to oppose it.

Since it was physically impossible for the Australian authorities to detain all adult German–Australians, the government decided early on to pursue a policy of selective internment, even though “patriotic Britishers” continued to call for the internment of all enemy aliens (“Intern the lot!”) throughout the war.

While the internment process was to a large extent improvised and capricious, there were nevertheless distinct policy objectives. The Commonwealth government had announced early in the war that destitute enemy alien males could volunteer for internment if lacking any prospect of being able to pay for their livelihood. Their families, after being means-tested, were granted a small allowance.

Progressively, the government then developed a policy of interning destitute or unemployed enemy aliens even if they did not volunteer. The Aliens Instructions, a military handbook detailing the rules of how to deal with “aliens”, explicitly gave district commandants the power to arrest aliens who they considered to be without a regular income. If the intelligence officers found that such individuals had no ties in the Commonwealth and were likely to become a burden on the government, it was routinely recommended that they should be deported after the war concluded.

The internment system thus developed into a tool of social control. It was used to segregate and, after the war, to exclude undesirable residents not only because of their ethnic origin but also because of their poor socioeconomic status. Internees who had been imprisoned because they were considered mentally weak were similarly singled out. Yet other people were interned and later deported because they had criminal records.

In South Australia and Queensland, the Department of Defence also pursued a policy of actively seeking out and interning those residents who were regarded as the political and spiritual leaders of the German–Australian community. The aim of the government was to destroy their community as an autonomous, socio-cultural entity within Australian society.

This objective was pursued through many different avenues: the closing of German clubs and Lutheran schools, the cancelling of German place names and the internment of community leaders in order to deprive German–Australians of their spokesmen in the mainstream public sphere of Australian society.

Thus, the Honorary German Consuls (as opposed to official members of the German diplomatic mission), usually prominent German–Australian businessmen residing in the capital cities of the different states, were all interned. The government firmly believed they were working in alliance with the Lutheran clergy on behalf of the Imperial German government.

In South Australia, Consul Hermann Mücke, son of Carl, was briefly interned during April 1916 and subsequently detained in his home in Adelaide under military guard. At the same time, his youngest son, Francis Frederick, was serving with the Australian Imperial Forces in France after being wounded at Gallipoli.

The Lutheran clergy were also believed to be leaders of the German–Australian community under orders from Berlin. In Queensland, nine pastors were interned. Six of them were naturalised, two of them had been born in Australia. One of the latter two was Pastor Friedrich Gustav Fischer of Goombungee, born in South Australia in 1876. Both his parents had also been born in South Australia.

Fischer’s internment was approved by Hughes’ cabinet following a recommendation by Pearce, who had based his opinion on an intelligence report prepared by his department. It read, in part:

The situation in the German districts gives great anxiety to British residents, and the best way of relieving their anxiety, as well as of keeping German residents in check, is to intern occasionally a few leading German residents. From this point of view it is considered that the internment of Fischer would be justified.

The government steadfastly maintained in public that its policy was to intern only persons who were considered “angerous”. However, the recommendation by Pearce that was accepted by cabinet clearly spells out the actual motivation of the government – to intern the leaders of the German–Australian community, dangerous or not, in order to keep the rest of the community “in check” and, at the same time, to accommodate the wishes of the local “British” community.

Interned ‘butchers’ pose proudly with their authentic German sausages at Holsworthy internment camp. Paul Dubotzki/Dubotzki Collection

After the war

In total, 6890 persons were interned in Australia during the war, including 67 women and 84 children. Despite the official designation “prisoners of war” given to them by the Commonwealth authorities, the internees were mostly civilian Australian residents. They included approximately 700 “naturalised British subjects” and some 70 “native-born British subjects” who were Australian by birth, sometimes second- or even third-generation Australians of German ancestry.

At the end of the war, a total of 6150 persons were “repatriated” – that is, summarily shipped to Germany: a mass deportation unparalleled in Australian history. Of these, 5414 had been interned, the others were family members or non-interned “ex-enemy aliens” who either accepted the government’s offer to be repatriated or were ordered to leave the country.

Six hundred and ninety-nine people were compulsorily deported. The internees who had been brought to Australia from British dominions overseas were not allowed to return to their previous places of residence. They were all summarily deported.

Most of the internees consented to leave Australia voluntarily. They were convinced that there was no future for them in a country that had robbed them of their rights and freedom. A few protested and appealed to stay, only to be rejected by the Aliens Tribunal that had been set up by the Department of Defence.

The tribunal, consisting of a single magistrate, rubber-stamped the applications according to the guidelines issued by the government. As a rule, businessmen and importers were to be deported, while farmers – who were said to “have shown themselves of less potential danger than the German businessman” – were allowed to stay, unless there were unspecified “special reasons”.

Workingmen were to be deported “if there seems to be any doubt of their obtaining regular employment” after the war. Here, as elsewhere, the official language with its curious linguistic construction – that is, some individuals had shown themselves to be less potentially dangerous – reveals the real political motivation hiding behind the bureaucratic rhetoric.

When the war ended in November 1918, the government was confronted with the task of organising the transport of thousands of deportees. While negotiations were underway with the British government to requisition ships, 104 internees died of the worldwide pneumonic influenza that struck Australia in 1919.

The last prisoners were released on May 5, 1920, a year after the Treaty of Versailles had come into effect. They included 14 “mentally feeble” internees (of the 50 who had been brought to the Holdsworthy camp from insane asylums around Australia) who were transferred back to their original institutions. The other 36 had either died or had already been put on ships to be “repatriated”.

By the end of the war, the once proud and highly visible German–Australian community had disintegrated. German immigrants, if they had not been deported, had gone into assimilationist hiding. It was the end of a process towards a multicultural society that would eventually lead to an independent Australian nation – or so had been the hope of the spokesmen of the German–Australian community who had publicly proposed the notion of a republican Australian citizenship as early as the 1870s.

How can one explain the Australian homefront experience during the Great War: the extraordinary conversion by which an apparently peaceful, largely homogenous, “optimistic” society with strong traditions of British-style liberal democracy based on constitutional rule of law, turned into a violent, aggressive, conflict-ridden society, torn apart by invisible lines of sectarian division, ethnic conflict and socio-economic and political upheaval?

How did domestic co-operation and laissez faire change into spiteful intolerance and blatant injustice?

The war at home against an imaginary enemy, waged by a government that called on the Australian people to assist in every way possible, fuelled a jingoistic atmosphere of demarcation and exclusion. Its aim was to emphasise the “Britishness” of Australian society and to reinforce its links to the Empire.

As a civil, pluralistic, liberal and democratic society, Australia did not pass the test of the crisis brought about by the Great War in Europe. The country suffered a setback in its political culture from which it did not recover until long after the next world war which, with regard to the treatment of “enemy aliens”, was largely a repetition of the experiences of 1914–18.

It was another 60 years before Carl Mücke’s 19th-century dream of an Australia with citizens who felt able to embrace multiple identities began to be revived following the postwar immigration program, which doubled the population and gave birth to a new multiculturalism. In a forerunner of other apologies, it took almost a century before the “shameful discrimination” and its consequences were to be acknowledged.


You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.

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