German Australians suffered 'enemy heritage' persecution during war: historian


German people living in Australia during World War I suffered persecution and brutality because of their backgrounds, a historian says.

In 1914, no one with German heritage was above suspicion. Not even South Australia’s Attorney General, Hermann Homburg.

"The army came and stood outside his ofice with the rifles and demanded that he leave," historian Ian Harmstorf says. "If he didn't leave voluntarily they were going to frog-march him out of Parliament house."

This incident reflects strong anti-German sentiment that saw almost 40 Lutheran schools closed, and German-language classes banned.

Those wanting to serve in the defence force faced barriers and some changed their names in order to enlist.

Mr Harmstorf says others changed their names to avoid persecution, even those who’d been here for generations.

“Every German, every person with a German name was under suspicion,” he says. “The slogan was ‘the only good German is a dead German’.”

The War Precautions Act allowed people of so-called “enemy heritage” to be arrested and placed in prison camps without trial.

"Every German, every person with a German name was under suspicion."

Internment camps were set up to manage these perceived enemies, who were then Australia’s 4th largest cultural group with more than 100,000 citizens.

But opinion is divided over the extent of internment.

Dr John F. Williams is the author of "German Anzacs," an analysis of German Australians at the time of the Great War.

He says basic logic would suggest the rates of internment have been overstated, arguing the practice was aimed at making an example of a few, in order to control the majority.

"To intern say 100,000 people, we’d have to have traces of our Belsens and our Dachaus and Buchenwalds and we don’t,” he says. “The internment thing I think was exploited by the Australian Prime Minister Bill Hughes. He was able to sort of invent this as a threat over people’s heads. If you don’t toe the line, you’ll finish up in a camp. It’s a very good way of keeping people in line."

By contrast, Ian Harmstorf says the camps were large, plentiful and brutal – and often referred to as concentration camps.

“There is a photograph of a German concentration camp. So they concentrated people there. Now South Australia was by far the worst and there was a man called Captain Hawkes who was in charge and he brutalised, he flogged the prisoners with ‘cat o’ nine tails’, he encouraged the guards to poke them with bayonets and there are photographs."

"If you don’t toe the line, you’ll finish up in a camp. It’s a very good way of keeping people in line."

Dr Williams agrees it wasn’t pleasant, but contends it wasn’t as bad as popular belief would make out.

"It certainly would be ridiculous to claim that everything was sweetness and light, that we were decent to the Germans - we weren’t. But we weren’t obscene…we didn’t put them in concentration camps either."

Dr John Williams says some 18,000 German Australian soldiers fought with the Australian Imperial Force against their ancestral homeland.

He's concerned the heroism of soldiers with German origins has been neglected.

"They haven’t received their proper recognition," he says. "You first of all have to recognise that they were there. That they did fight, before you recognise what they did. And the whole pressure has been not to recognise that. 

"The story of the internment thing has taken people's minds off the fact that these people were actually fighting and dying on the Western front. And if we are a multicultural society and we recognise Greek Australians and Aboriginal Australians, and my Anglo-Saxon Australians in having played our part in the development of the building up of the country, then it’s long overdue. The Germans are long overdue in getting the proper attention in this respect."

The government of the era claimed not to discriminate against German Australians, but its actions told a different story.

The 1917 Nomenclature Act attempted to wipe German place names off the map and it was most felt in South Australia, where more than 60 towns underwent cultural whitewashing.

"Hanhdorf" was renamed "Ambleside," "Lobethal" became "Tweedvale" and “Blumberg” adopted the name of "Birdwood," after the famed Gallipolli commander.

"The Germans are long overdue in getting the proper attention."

While some towns like Hahndorf have again embraced their German heritage, others like Birdwood have never made the reversion.

Ian Harmstorf says it's not just places, but people too, pointing to many families who to this day remain reluctant to reveal their roots.

"Their parents and their grandparents were so traumatised by the wars that they have this inner feeling they don’t want to talk about it, because somebody one day can turn around, and say - as has been said to me – 'You bloody Nazi'."

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