When Australia interned Jewish refugees

November 28, 2016
Tatura internment camp.

Nazis In Our Midst: German-Australians, Internment and the Second World War
David Henderson
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016
197 pages

When World Word II began, Australia’s then Prime Minister Robert Menzies said that it would be “absurd to intern refugees and anti-fascists when they were on the Allies’ side”.

Yet, writes La Trobe University historian, David Henderson, in his case-study history, Nazis in our Midst, this is exactly what happened in Australia during the war.

Despite Menzies’ statement, German Jews and anti-Nazis were detained along with Nazis in Australia’s five internment camps. Most of the 1500 German-Australian internees were the innocent victims of racial prejudice or espionage hysteria simply because they were German.

Military intelligence justified blanket internment because they saw refugees as “excellent cover for agents” or as susceptible to blackmail by Hitler’s Nazi regime threatening their relatives in Germany. The Australian press was vigorously pro-internment — “this is no time for squeamishness in dealing with foreigners in our midst”, honked the Hobart Mercury, for example.

Both the Menzies and Labor governments used broad internment powers to respond to a public sentiment that had reanimated latent World War I Germanophobia with paranoia about Nazi “fifth columnists”. In this toxic atmosphere, the wildest denunciations about disloyalty were treated by the security agencies as good coin.

This included gossip, rumours, personal animosities, conflicts between neighbours, professional rivalries and even a fondness for German music composers.

Appeals tribunals offered scant scope for remedy. These quasi-judicial bodies had a legal veneer, but the hearings were held in secret. Specific allegations by (mostly anonymous) informants were not disclosed and could therefore not be tested under the usual rules of evidence. A presumption of guilt applied to the internee and judges could only make non-enforceable recommendations to the Attorney-General for an internee’s release.

The appeals process was “at best an unequal struggle, at worst a sham”, says Henderson. He notes the discrepancy between a war ostensibly fought for liberty, democracy and the rule of law versus the legal-face-saving travesties of justice that accompanied internment.

The outcomes for those unjustly interned (years of monotony, morning roll calls, weather extremes, overcrowding, social stigma and long-term “damage, trauma and loss”) were vastly disproportionate to any actual domestic Nazi threat. There were fewer than a couple of hundred full-blown German Nazis in Australia. Any nationalist hankering for Germany among Anglicised German immigrants was largely sentimental nostalgia.

No matter how diligently the Auslands organisation (the foreign arm of the German Nazi party) cultivated recruits from Germans living in Australia, their returns were meagre. The Nazis’ takeover of Australia’s German Clubs (including celebrations of the Fuhrer’s birthday and Hitler’s beer-hall putsch, swastika flag-flying and Nazi salutes) yielded few political gains among the Club membership.

However, the visible display of Nazi rituals and propaganda fed suspicions among Australian authorities that German-Australian communities were “outposts of the Third Reich”. They weren’t. No German-Australian internee was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage, whilst only 77 internees were deported after the war.

Henderson generally strives for non-committal “balance” in his treatment of internment. However, he does bloody his knuckles against historians who suggest that the Australian security agencies’ obsession with the Red Menace rather than fascism led to a rushed implementation of dragnet internment of Nazis which also netted the innocent.

Henderson’s message is clear — beware governments who grant themselves broad, sweeping powers and ask us to trust that they will not abuse them. The political temptation to be seen to be doing something muscular at the time of a “national security” crisis will almost certainly result in harmful overreaction.

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