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Think Piece: German-Australians in the Great War – the forgotten story

Thursday 9 February, 2017

Michael WohltmannThe treatment, imprisonment and deportation of German-Australians and other ‘enemy aliens’ by the Australian government during the Great War is not well-known and is rarely mentioned in our history books and school rooms.  But as an adult Australian with German heritage I have learnt that the Great War had a deep impact on the German-Australian community throughout Australia, especially in Queensland and South Australia where the nation’s largest numbers of German migrants had settled.

The majority of Germans who arrived in South Australia after 1840 settled in the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Mid–North Region, and the Riverland. Australians with German heritage could be found in most farming communities throughout the State where they formed their own cultural enclaves. They were perceived as model and zealous citizens who were law-abiding, mostly conservative, and proud of their Lutheran religion and German culture.

When the Great War broke out German-Australian communities faced the issue of dual loyalty: to King and Empire and to their German heritage.  Historical evidence shows that most German-Australians had little or no loyalty to Germany seeing themselves as loyal and proud South Australians. The South Australian German newspaper Australische Zeitung of December 1914, reminded German-Australian’s of their oath to King George, urging them to stand by their new home ‘to which they owed so much.’

In Adelaide, a prominent urban elite of educated professionals and businessman with German backgrounds had been ‘punching above their weight’ in South Australia’s political and economic affairs for years. Hugo Muecke, who figured prominently in the commercial and public life of South Australia, was appointed Vice-Consul of Germany in Australia in 1877, and in 1883 Imperial German Consul. This was a post he held here for 32 years until the commencement of World War I when he renounced the appointment, demonstrating his loyalty to the Commonwealth. In 1903, he was elected to the South Australian Parliament, serving as a member of the Legislative Council for seven years and at the outbreak of war, encouraged the German-Australian community to “remain strong – being genuine Germans means to treasure the richness of the German language, the language of poets and thinkers, as well as German customs and good habits, but at the same time remain faithful to the English King.”

But by March 1915, the German-Australian community faced significant hostility from within. The Commonwealth mounted a fear campaign epitomised by propaganda such as “Enemy within the Gates”. By April 1915, all Germans and German South Australians had to register and report weekly to their local police station. Any trivial sign of disloyalty could see you searched, placed under arrest and interned. Military authorities did not require proof, suspicion was enough to incriminate, with no requirement for military authorities to bring a person to trial. By early 1916 the South Australian Government had introduced legislation which included closing German speaking schools.

Every State in Australia had internment camps, with Torrens Island being South Australia’s main camp. During the Great War some 6890 persons of German or Austro-Hungarian origin were interned throughout Australia and of these 4500 were Australian residents. The remaining were naval and merchant sailors who were in Australia when War in Europe was declared, along with those German citizens transported to Australia from South-East Asia at the request of the British authorities.

Despite his contribution to public life, Hugo Muecke was one of the German-Australians interned in South Australia from April 1916. Although he had lived in South Australia since the age of seven, when his parents first migrated here, Hugo was briefly interned at Fort Largs, and then confined to house arrest for the duration of the war.  Another prominent South Australian, Attorney General Hermann Homburg had his office raided by soldiers with fixed bayonets. Due to the accusations levelled at him as a South Australian with German heritage, Homburg made the decision to resign from his portfolio to avoid ‘embarrassing’ the government in a forthcoming election.

Between October 1914 and September 1915, Torrens Island detained more than 400 South Australian internees. When the camp closed due to reports of mistreatment of internees and the camp’s very primitive conditions, most were transferred to the Holsworthy Internment Camp near Liverpool in Sydney, until their release or deportation.  One of the last internees to return to South Australia was Hermann Carl Goers, who was only able to come back to the state in June 1919. Despite his ordeal he went on to become managing editor of the Barossa News, where he had been employed since the newspaper’s inception in 1908.

Between May 1919 and June 1920, the Commonwealth deported 6,150 persons of German heritage from Australia. Of these, 423 were from South Australia. They not only included Germans who had simply been accused of being ‘enemy aliens’ but many German-Australians and naturalised Australians.

What transpired throughout the Great War went far beyond notions of how we deal with ‘enemy aliens’ in wartime. I have no doubt that these were the beginnings of a progressive erosion of the rights and influence of the German-Australian community. Through the actions of many loyalist groups, and most importantly, those of the State and Commonwealth governments at the time, the political, social, cultural, and religious spheres of German-Australian life were severely constrained.

It is a sad chapter in our State and National history; one that has all but been forgotten. Hence my desire to highlight it here as a fact well worth thinking about while we reflect on all that the Anzac Centenary represents.

Lest we forget

For more information and to obtain a copy of Michael’s book visit:

Image: Torrens Island Internment Camp courtesy State Library of South Australia, SLSA B 12161

Image: Torrens Island Internment Camp courtesy State Library of South Australia, SLSA B 12161

Michael Wohltmann was born in Australia. His parents, Hans and Helga came to Australia from Germany in 1952. They came to Brisbane and worked on the sugar fields in Innisfail before finally moving to Adelaide. During his professional life Michael has worked in a number of fields including as a senior history and politics teacher for 30 years. He has also worked in area schools, country high schools including Maitland, Mount Gambier and Port Pirie. Most recently Michael authored a book titled “A Future Unlived: A forgotten chapter in South Australia’s history” about the internment of German ‘Enemy Aliens’ on Torrens Island during the Great War, and the marginalization of German South Australians from 1914-1924.

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