Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Why Australia must apologise to Italians interned during World War II

Last month, the South Australian parliament unanimously accepted a bi-partisan motion moved by Labor member, Tony Piccolo, to acknowledge the wrongful internment of Italian civilians living in Australia…

Italian-Australians deserve an apology for their mistreatment in internment camps in World War II. Australian War Memorial Collection

Last month, the South Australian parliament unanimously accepted a bi-partisan motion moved by Labor member, Tony Piccolo, to acknowledge the wrongful internment of Italian civilians living in Australia during World War II.

This small step may usher in a new period of reconciling with the darker side of wartime Australia and help us better understand this chapter of our history.

Silent for too long

During World War II, as in the Great War, civilians from enemy nations were detained behind barbed wire regardless of age, health or political views. Italian migrants experienced popular resentment in Australia, although they had escaped Fascism and another war looming in Europe.

Monarchist Italy had fought with the British in the Great War, but the British viewed Benito Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship differently after its invasion of Abyssinia in the mid-1930s. Britain and other European nations also had strong colonial interests in Africa which led to uneasy political relationships.

Once Italy declared war on Britain and its allies on 10th June 1940, Italian migrants in Australia became political pawns.

Heartfelt apology needed

Italian immigrants living in Australia were quickly seen as “enemy aliens” during World War II. Author

Successive Australian governments have been silent on the issue of wartime reparation to civilians who were swept up as “enemy aliens” when their country of birth became a wartime enemy.

Piccolo’s motion to acknowledge Italian migrants’ wartime suffering at the hands of the Australian military and security services revisits WA Liberal Senator John Panizza’s original motion presented to the Hawke government in 1990, which was less successful.

It is a welcome step forward to have Italian pre-war migrants’ sufferings acknowledged by the South Australian parliament. The next stage should be full acknowledgement by our Federal Parliament, as occurred with the Stolen Generations and Child Migrants.

Regrettably, the South Australian motion stops short of a genuine heartfelt “sorry” for the many political, military errors of judgement and violations of human rights that caused incredible sufferings for migrant families in this nation.

There was limited acknowledgement of the widespread xenophobia against Italian families throughout the war years. My research has found that even after 70 years, there is still unresolved anguish for Italians who lived through that era.

The internment story

Italian internee families in Australia during the war had no access to government support. The Salvation Army offered emergency relief for destitute families, but a number of these were eventually interned at Tatura to access basic food and shelter.

Women who were left at home, barely managed to survive on farms, in businesses or as seamstresses. A few internment guards and locals also pillaged internees’ packages sent from families or the Red Cross. Vehicles, bicycles, cameras, and radios were permanently confiscated or later returned broken. Italian doctors’ medical instruments were found in private surgeries after the war, requiring lengthy legal action to be returned.

The motion also omits to mention the many sad cases of Italian deaths during internment. In some cases, the internees were denied access to essential specialist medical care. While the number of reported deaths seems relatively small, many were avoidable while others remained unreported.

There were also women and children who died during their internment at the Tatura camp, but these are never discussed. Salvatore Previtera, a Queensland internee whose child died, wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.

Political pawns

Internees being moved within Loveday, one of South Australia’s internment camps. Australian War Memorial

No nation has a monopoly on unfair treatment of enemy civilians and Australia was not immune to abuses against the most vulnerable migrants from enemy nations. But must Italian migrants accept their wartime sufferings in silence simply because Fascist Italy decided to declare war on Britain?

Most pre-war Italian-Australian families suffered far more than they have ever dared to reveal until now. My research on Italian internment hopes to add to many other eminent scholars works by exploring details of the daily lives of Italian men, women and children in Australia during the war years.

Buried history

Loveday in South Australia was the largest Commonwealth internment camp in the Southern Hemisphere. Italian-Australians were arguably the largest group of almost 5,000 Italian civilians incarcerated in any Allied nation, yet this remains insignificant in Australia’s wartime story.

There are only a few of the former internees left today, now reaching their late 80s and 90s who would benefit greatly from a public acknowledgment of the past, as well as material compensation.

The time is ripe for a full and sincere apology with appropriate compensation for the Italian families who lost so much in Australia during World War II. Canada and the USA have fully apologised to Japanese, German and Italian interned civilians with reparations.

Australian Indigenous Peoples waited for 200 years for an apology. How long will interned Italian-Australians need to wait?

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. John Lamp
    John Lamp is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Senior Lecturer, School of Information and Business Analytics at Deakin University

    My uncle had his amateur radio gear confiscated during WWII because, according to the authorities, anyone with a surname of "Kaiser" was suspect. The irony is that his father was given that surname by the orphanage in which he grew up.

    report
  2. Sue Chapman

    Citizen

    Well done Mr. Piccolo! There may be few actual internees living, but the scar runs deep. The bulk of cane farming in Nth Qld was immigrant run, with a string of Italian towns. Women who mostly could not speak English had to suddenly survive in an alien country, with no men or youths. Within an Australian era of deprivation and stress, they suffered extra, and passed the shock and distrust down the generations. Italian-Australians: I loved growing up in your villages, and I am sorry for what our government did to your forebears, who had voted with their feet to be Australian.

    report
  3. John Tognolini

    Mr

    Certainly an apology is long over due. I also feel Australian/Italians who were subject to racism should be apoligised to as well. My Uncle Stephen suffered many racist remarks despite being an ANZAC who not served at Gallpoli and on the Western Front and won the Military Medal twice, but also lost his brother John/Jack in action and another brother who died of illness. He also had his two younger brothers serving in WW2, one of whom was my father Victor a veteran of the Battles of Greece and Crete.

    report
  4. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    In regard to Mr Lamb's statement that his uncles wireless transmission equipment was seized, it was not because of his German sounding name, but, because EVERYONE else in Australia had such equipment seized, unless it proven that they were in a remote locality and so needed them. So all ham wireless operators not in the far 'Bush' lost their equipment.

    In regard to the internment process in Australia in the 1939-45 War, all internment camps were visited by the Protecting Power. A neutral nation…

    Read more
  5. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    HAVING JUST LOOKED at this message, somehow a couple of lines have dropped out, this is how it should have read:

    In regard to Mr Lamb's statement that his uncles wireless transmission equipment was seized, it was not because of his German sounding name, but, because EVERYONE else in Australia had such equipment seized, unless it proven that they were in a remote locality and so needed them. So all ham wireless operators not in the far 'Bush' lost their equipment.

    In regard to the internment process…

    Read more
  6. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Excellent article. History ignored yields history repeated. Thus today there are about 4,000 innocent refugees, including about 400 children, indefinitely and highly abusively imprisoned in Australia without charge or trial but evidently for the perceived "crime" of coming to Australia by boat in the last stage of their escape from the US Alliance killing fields from Somalia to Pakistan. A Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Inquiry found that The inquiry found that between 1 July 1999…

    Read more
  7. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    The suggestion that there should be a national apology to civilian citizens of enemy countries who were interned in Australia during World War II should be discussed. But it should also be rejected.

    After all, many Australian prisoners-of-war, and some civilian internees, were mistreated in World War II. Especially by the Japanese - and to an extent significantly greater than the isolated cases of hardship endured by enemy internees in Australia. Have all of these countries, including Italy, apologised…

    Read more
  8. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Neil James is incorrect about the Geneva Conventions. They were introduced AFTER WW2 in 1949, with additional parts subsequently added.

    The Geneva Convention defines the rights and protections of non-combatants: "Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall, at all times, be humanely treated, and shall be protected, especially against all…

    Read more
  9. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    Gideon Polya is not correct about the Geneva Conventions - as he is about most of his other polemical claims on this and other topics.

    The first Geneva Convention (those applying to Prisoners-of-War in World War II) was signed in 1929. The 1949 set of Geneva Conventions were the updated ones based on the experiences of World War II and extended the Conventions to the protection of non-combatant civilians.

    Previously (ie, in World War II), as I noted in my comment above, the existing international…

    Read more
    1. Gideon Polya

      Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

      In reply to Neil James

      According to Wikipedia, quoted in my post: " The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of the victims of war. The singular term Geneva Convention denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–45), which updated the terms of the first three treaties (1864, 1906, 1929), and added a fourth treaty. The articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention…

      Read more
    2. Mia Spizzica

      PhD Candidate at Monash University

      In reply to Gideon Polya

      Thank you to everyone who has given feedback or comments on the article. While I am very pleased for comments and discussions that develop my research topic's depth, I really feel that the topic is focused on the WW2 Australian homefront. Other comments and discussions relating to topics outside the WW2 internment of civilians in Australia are not as relevant to the argument I am proposing.

      There have been some very pertinent comments, but just as many misinformed assumptions that are historically…

      Read more
  10. David Faber

    Visiting Research Fellow, University of Adelaide

    I generally endorse Ms Spizzica article and comments. I feel Mr James objections are based on a confusion of the term `concentration camp' with the notion of an extermination camp. The term was originally a euphemism for a prison camp. Concentration camps were and are camps for the concentration of a given population; hence Ms Spizzica's characterization of internment camps [another euphemism] as concentration camps is correct, however colorful it may seem, given the bad odor which surrounded Kitchener's…

    Read more
    1. David Faber

      Visiting Research Fellow, University of Adelaide

      In reply to David Faber

      Further to my above comments & in reply to Mr James further remarks, I feel his distinction between ethnicity & citizenship in the 1940s is anachronistic. Certainly they went together then, in reality & in the official mind, more than they do now. How otherwise to explain the significant number of British subjects of Italian origin who were interned? To suggest that some aspersion is cast on the sacrifice of Australian families whose men served by noting the impact on the Italian community of the…

      Read more
  11. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    Gideon Polya's extremist rants are not worthy of a reply. It is puzzling why those moderating this discussion allow his extremist polemics to be published as they show no objectivity, and certainly no academic-standard analysis, at all.

    Once again I suggest that Mia Spizzica's belief that wartime internment was based on ethnicity or race is not correct. Perhaps her apparent confusion arises because Australia was a much more ethnically homogeneous society in that era and internment then may seem…

    Read more
    1. Mia Spizzica

      PhD Candidate at Monash University

      In reply to Neil James

      Mr James' comments are welcome, if constructive, but since he is closely associated with the military point of view can only be one-sided as well. Of course there were may reasons why individuals were interned and without double, as stated in my previous reply, there were persons of British origin who were deemed to be of concern to the military.

      However, Mr James fails to consider that there were not just a few but many thousands of civilian FAMILIES that were adversely affected because their…

      Read more
  12. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Re "academic-standard analysis" (see above, noting that I have been an academic for 40 years) means dispassionate argument supported by documented facts and NOT ad hominem, pejorative abuse as again exhibited above.

    Robert Menzies was surely a good prima facie candidate for internment during WW2. He was notorious for his pro-Nazi and pro-Fascist statements and of course for exporting pig-iron to Japan when Japan was raping China (35 million Chinese dead, 1937-1945) for which he earned the moniker…

    Read more
  13. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    Mia Spizzica's assumption that myself or the ADA somehow represents "the military point of view" (whatever that might be) unfortunately clouds the whole tenor and content of her reply.

    The ADA is Australia's independent, non-partisan, national public-interest watchdog for defence and wider national security matters. It is not the defence force's professional representative organisation, nor is it a body comprised of former defence force members. Most ADA members have never served in our defence…

    Read more
    1. David Faber

      Visiting Research Fellow, University of Adelaide

      In reply to Neil James

      Mr James recall to researching the profile of the ADA reminds us that he too might benefit from a little reading. He would find Ms Spizzica's admittedly provocative employment of the term `concentration camp' for `internment camp' only too warranted if he consulted even the Wikipaedia article on `Internment Camps'. But Wikipaedia, although a good place to start an enquiry, is no place to end it. If he consulted `Collar the lot!' by the Gillmans about the contemporary British experience of wholesale…

      Read more
  14. Mia Spizzica

    PhD Candidate at Monash University

    Neil James' latest comments are rather misleading as have some other misinformed judgements and historically misrepresented 'facts' in previous comments.

    Mr Polya's views are on the other extreme of the pendulum so I am wondering if these are an example of the diverse reactions that my research is eliciting? Whatever the viewpoints, it is fair to keep the dicussion civil.

    Mr James, why did you not state that 5 of the 7 Board of Directors of the ADA are former SENIOR military men? I also note…

    Read more
  15. Maurice Furlan

    Retail

    Hi all...I have come across this site as a result of exploring my family history. I have discovered that my Italian father arrived in Australia in 1928. He had three attempts at naturalization; 1940, 1942 and succeeded in 1948. Can anyone explain the significance of this ?

    report
    1. Mia Spizzica

      PhD Candidate at Monash University

      In reply to Maurice Furlan

      Hi Maurice, It would be important to know your father's situation before I could attempt to answer this question with some certainty. The state he lived in is a key to his story. If he wasn't interned, it would be interesting to know where he lived and what work he did - this would help explain his situation. Was he conscripted to work for the government in community projects? In any case, as you may read in the article, in June 1940, Fascist Italy declared war on the British, so Italians in Australia…

      Read more
    2. Maurice Furlan

      Retail

      In reply to Mia Spizzica

      Thanks for your interest Mia .... I will send you what little info I have to your email .... I wish you well ...

      report
  16. Avan O'Keefe

    logged in via Facebook

    My Grand Uncle was shot down over Italee During WW2. At the time they were fashust wogs and nartzees pozzing a threat the the democratic planet. To a large extent nuthing has changed to this day. They were the enemee and were treated as such. There is no need to apologize at all. To a large extent we should be doing the same today to aneeone not born to this land mass, and that includes all government employees. Add to this that we should be doing the same to communists and arabs in dictatorships around the planet. Educated indeviduals no these things and to me they are winging POMS and WOGS who should probablee be deported bac to their misserable existance in mideval Europe.

    report