Why Nazis still call Australia home

June 6, 2001


War Criminals Welcome: Australia, A Sanctuary for War Criminals since 1945
By Mark Aarons
Black Inc, 2001
649 pp, $34.95 (pb)

When justice minister Amanda Vanstone said that the alleged Latvian war criminal Konrads Kalejs was "welcome" to stay in Australia, it was a revealing slip of the tongue. Since 1947, when the first Nazi war criminals arrived in Australia, "successive governments have knowingly allowed hundreds of men responsible for the cruel imprisonment, torture, rape and mass execution of tens of thousands of innocent civilians to make Australia home". This is the damning conclusion of Mark Aarons' book on how and why Labor and Liberal governments have allowed Nazi killers into Australia and protected them.

When the first European refugees arrived in Australia after the second world war, under the displaced persons migration scheme, their number included dozens of fascist collaborators from central and eastern Europe. Amongst them were officers, like Kalejs, of the Arajs Kommando, the Nazi-controlled Latvian security police, a volunteer police auxiliary which, by mass shootings, mobile gas vans or deportation to concentration camps, wiped out Latvia's 70,000 Jews and murdered other racial, religious and political targets of the Nazis.

There were also Croatian fascists, whose cruelty is said to have sickened even hardened German Nazis. One of them was Srecko Rover, alleged to be the fanatical officer in charge of a mobile killing unit which massacred Jews, Serbs and, especially, communist-led partisans in the Balkans. Recruited by US intelligence before arriving in Australia in 1950, Rover immediately began a decades-long career as an ASIO agent and organiser of terrorist operations against left-wing migrants and President Josep Bros Tito's communist Yugoslav government.

How did these killers slip through the screening process which was supposed to weed out war criminals from genuine refugees? Post-war confusion, incompetence, diffidence and corruption by Allied immigration officials in Europe were partly to blame. But more important was the Cold War political climate.

Many anti-socialist conservatives thought the Allies had fought the wrong war (it should have been with Hitler against Stalin). Australia's attorney-general Bob Menzies in the 1930s was an admirer of the Nazi state as a bulwark against "atheistic Bolshevism". The Nazi war criminals may have been anti-Semitic mass murderers but they were anti-communists and therefore welcome.

These Nazis found a ready champion in ASIO. Allied intelligence agencies gave the Nazis a clean bill of health in the screening process, allowing them to assume false identities or lie about their past, and frequently recruiting them as agents. ASIO put them to use as spies and covert operatives against the migrant left.

When Australian governments were forced to investigate suspected war criminals, they happily relied on ASIO which was far more interested in putting Nazis on the payroll than investigating their crimes. When the Yugoslav government requested the extradition of Milorad Lukic and Mihailo Rajkovic in 1951 for their fascist war crimes at POW camps, the head of ASIO in Western Australia reported that the two men, ardent anti-communists and supporters of Menzies, "represent a body of Yugoslavs who cause infinitely less trouble to this organisation than the great body of their fellow immigrants", as well as providing "invaluable assistance to ASIO", as ASIO boss Charles Spry wrote to the head of the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs.

Post-war Labor and Liberal governments ignored mounting evidence of Nazi arrivals. Refugees, immigration staff, crew members of US Army transport ships and even ASIO's predecessor, the Commonwealth Investigation Service, reported anti-Semitic incidents, including serious assaults, on the refugee ships and in the migrant reception camps and hostels. The blood group tattoos, or scars from their removal, observed under the left armpit were a giveaway of SS membership. Nazi memorabilia, such as Hitler statues and swastikas, were regularly seized in the migrant camps.

When the import of Nazis turned to the so-called Volkdeutsche, ethnic Germans expelled from Stalinist Europe under the terms of the post-war settlement, many brought with them not only trade skills for major infrastructure projects but Nazi ideology and a past of war crimes committed in support of the invading German armies.

On the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, for example, an Auschwitz survivor recognised an SS officer who had served at the camp. At the Commonwealth Railways project in Port Augusta, Nazi cells were seen doing drills, giving "Heil Hitler" salutes and assaulting other migrants.

All these reports were angrily dismissed by Arthur Calwell, the ALP immigration minister, as "gross and wicked falsehoods". His Liberal successor, Harold Holt, denigrated the Jewish community's charges that Nazis were active in Australia as those of a minority sectional interest.

Both Labor and Liberal governments conducted a systematic cover-up of the import of Nazis to hide their connivance in assisting them into Australia to counter the left.

The Liberals were least shy about openly embracing their new anti-communist buddies. A Hungarian fascist was president of the Hungarian branch of the New Australian Liberal and Country Movement. Following the establishment by Nazi emigres in Australia in 1957 of the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations (ABN), a peak body of ultra-right migrant groups, senior Liberal politicians flocked to support it. Victorian Premier Henry Bolte and prime ministers John Gorton, Billy McMahon and Malcolm Fraser were just a few who shared platforms down the decades with their fascist hosts whom they extolled as noble anti-communist "freedom fighters".

The first ABN president, a Hungarian mayor who organised and participated in the murder of his town's 18,000 Jews, was a wanted war criminal, known to ASIO, who nevertheless became a prominent member of the Liberals' Migrant Advisory Council.

In the 1970s, the Nazi emigres became entrenched in the NSW branch of the Liberal Party. Heading a powerful, extreme-right, pro-fascist faction (dubbed the "Uglies") was Leo Urbancic, a senior Nazi propagandist in Slovenia during the war. Such propaganda created a climate that made the mass killing of Jews, communists and Allied soldiers acceptable.

In 1961, when Liberal federal attorney-general Garfield Barwick announced that the government had "closed the chapter" on war criminals in Australia, an amnesty was in effect granted to Nazi murderers. This was presented, with twisted Cold War logic, as a triumph of democracy over "Communism", the government trumpeting the "right of asylum" as its excuse for rejecting the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries' requests for the extradition of war criminals. It was one in the eye for the evil Reds. The Labor "opposition", which did not want to be seen as "soft" on communism, remained silent on the amnesty.

It took 40 years before an Australian government formally recognised the fact that Nazi war criminals were in Australia. In 1986, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, under pressure created by Aarons' exposure of Nazi war criminals in an ABC radio series, established the Special Investigations Unit to track down Nazis for prosecution in Australia under an amended War Crimes Act.

However, because of the evidence trail having grown cold, the age of key witnesses and accused, and a lack of bureaucratic support, only three of the 800 suspects who were investigated were brought to trial, none successfully (thanks to obstructionist judges and prosecution blunders). Hawke also prevented the SIU from investigating ASIO's role in protecting and employing Nazi war criminals. Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating pulled the plug on the unit in 1992.

Australia remains the only Western country with a significant Nazi war criminal problem which has no legislation to allow the deportation of suspects for trial in their homelands. The Howard government did pass legislation to deal with war criminals who arrived in Australia after 1997 (50 years behind the times as usual).

Only the Kalejs case has disturbed the complacent political waters, embarrassing the government into rushing through an extradition treaty between Australia and Latvia.

For more than 50 years, the Australian capitalist establishment has opened its doors and closed its eyes to fugitive Nazi mass killers. Aarons' book is a solid, impressively documented indictment of successive Labor and Liberal governments', top public servants' and the spy agencies' complicity in harbouring Nazis and war criminals.

Today, as thousands of refugees fleeing tyrannies around the world languish in Australian detention centres, they may well be wondering why the red carpet was rolled out for right-wing murderers and what this shows about the true colours of Australia's "democratic" government.

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