When German ‘aliens’ lost their liberty
Nazis in our Midst: German-Australians, Internment and the Second World War
By David Henderson
Australia Scholarly Publishing, 197pp, $39.95
Any book with Nazis in the title is sure to receive attention, such is the fascination with the movement that personified evil in the 20th century. So it is that there will be considerable interest in the stories of former German-Australian internees and their families at the Tatura internment camp in rural Victoria, and in other Australian detention centres.
As La Trobe University academic David Henderson points out in ‘Nazis in our Midst’, the reality of the internment of Germans who were deemed enemy aliens in Australia from 1939 to 1947 does not sit comfortably with orthodox national narratives of World War II.
Prime minister Robert Menzies declared in federal parliament shortly before he announced the beginning of hostilities against Adolf Hitler’s Germany that “the greatest tragedy that could overcome a country would be for it to fight a successful war in defence of liberty and lose its own liberty in the process”.
Yet for a great many German-Australian internees this is exactly what happened. Some not only lost their livelihoods and their dignity, but many, arguably far too many, lost their liberty. It’s sad, ironic and more than a little shameful.
The Australian government detained 8100 residents in internment camps, without trial and in utter breach of the principle of habeas corpus. The same thing had happened to 6890 people during World War I.
While the focus of Henderson’s thoroughly researched book is on German ‘‘aliens’’, their fate is also usefully explored and explained in the light of the experiences of Italian and Japanese internees.
The book is based on in-depth interviews with five groups of surviving German-Australians and on detailed excerpts from hitherto unpublished internees’ letters and diaries. The author also looked at extensive case histories from commonwealth Investigation Branch files. ‘Nazis in our Midst’ is a fine example of historical scholarship coupled with a no-nonsense, easily accessible writing style that, at its best, reminds me of George Orwell.
As well as interviews conducted throughout Australia, Henderson was fortunate to speak with some family members in Germany. In particular he was privileged to listen to the stories of Heinz, Lothar and Helga Lewandowsky, who returned to Germany after the war. As Henderson confides, listening to them talk, in broad Australian accents, about their life in Queensland in the late 1930s and about their wartime experiences with their parents at the Gaythorne internment camp in Enoggera, near Brisbane, crystallised a key idea featured in his book.
That is that the narrative of German-Australian internment in World War II stretches back to the Germany of the chaotic and hyperinflationary Weimar Republic and to the relatively small Nazi Party in Australia during the early 1930s. It also extends far beyond the mid-20th century and well into the present. Indeed, the experiences of those deemed enemy aliens still resonate in the minds of former internees and their families.
There is no doubt that, just before the outbreak of war in September 1939, the Investigation Branch, Military Intelligence and security services were ready to believe the worst of German-Australians. One report put it that the Nazi Party in Australia was “deliberately seeking to undermine the allegiance of Germans to their country of adoption”. But while this may have been the party’s wish, it is much harder to ascertain the degree of its success.
As Henderson makes clear, even though life in Australia’s internment camps was often boring, especially for the children, in the main the German-Australian internees were treated relatively well and fairly — if there can be anything fair about some being locked up for no good reason. However, a major source of trouble in the camps was when Jewish internees clashed with those who strongly supported Hitler and his virulently anti-Semitic regime.
This book includes some revealing black-and-white photographs, including a stunning snapshot of the Glockemann family at the Tatura camp and another of the large Lewandowsky family at Gaythorne in what is now suburban Brisbane.
As it happens, neither the Glockemanns nor the Lewandowskys were pro-Hitler.
Another powerful illustration is a reproduction of the 1937 masthead of the popular anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, Australian-German newspaper ‘Die Brucke’ (The Bridge), which celebrated the Fuhrer’s achievements. Throughout its few years of existence, this popular bilingual propaganda sheet highlighted on its masthead an image of a large jumping Australian kangaroo.
Rather poignantly, Henderson’s fine book features a contemporary photograph of the ruins of the Tatura internment camp in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley. Unlike the internment camp, the German war cemetery on the outskirts of Tatura is well tended and well preserved. It contains the remains of 250 German-Australian internees from both world wars.
It also includes the remains of some Jewish civilians and other committed anti-Nazis who, along with devoted supporters of the Third Reich, had been interned at Tatura. The irony of that still resonates.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books.
The Weekend Australian 18-19, 2017, review, Books pp18-19.