The conflict over conscription during the First World War had a number of complex and conflicting racial overtones. The BritishAustralia racism of William Morris Hughes and the ruling class was used to whip up wild jingoistic hostility to Germans and Turks in Australia, and to the «disloyal» Irish Catholics.
Unfortunately the anti-conscription side resorted to a certain racism of its own, with accusations that the ruling class intended to flood the country with cheap labour from unacceptable places. This conflict came to focus around an unfortunate shipload of 214 Maltese migrants, who had the bad luck to arrive in Australia on a French ship, the Gange, in the middle of the first conscription referendum campaign in 1916.
As the propaganda of the anti-conscription side against the government about Maltese migration was obviously damaging the government in the referendum, Hughes ditched the interests of the Maltese migrants, whom he had previously encouraged.
The unfortunate Maltese were first of all interned for some weeks in New Caledonia, and then they were detained for a further long period like convicts on a dilapidated old hulk at Berry's Bay in Sydney Harbour. A mad and virulent controversy ranged around the heads of these unfortunate immigrants for nine months.
They were defended by a courageous and redoubtable Maltese priest, Father Bonnet. After being thus interned for such a long time, they were finally allowed to land in Australia in March 1917, well after the first conscription referendum. Predictably, the most vehement advocates of deporting the Maltese were the bureaucracy of the Australian Workers Union.
One wonders whether Terry Muscat, the Maltese migrant, who was recently elected National Secretary of the AWU, may even have had the odd relative on the Gange. The shameful incident of the internment of the Maltese, is described in detail in Barry York's very fine book, Empire and Race. The Maltese in Australia 18811949.
The greatest atrocity perpetrated by British Australia against any cultural group after the enormous atrocities committed against indigenous Australians, the Chinese, and the Kanaks, was the ruthless cultural destruction of the GermanAustralian community during the First World War.
This is described thoroughly and graphically in a 400page book Enemy Aliens by Gerhard Fischer, published by University of Queensland Press in 1989. The large GermanAustralian community was assaulted by anti-Boche hysteria in every possible way. All the German-language schools in South Australia and Queensland were closed down. Many Lutheran churches were locked up. Even the German names of villages of German settlement (like Hahndorf in South Australia) were changed. An arbitrary and brutal policy of internment was inflicted on the German Australian community.
Not everybody was interned. That would have been impossible, as there were about 70,000 people of some German ancestry. But all the significant leaders of the German community, and many others besides, were interned in a completely arbitrary way. They included Edmund Resch, the brewer, interned at the age of 71, a large number of Lutheran ministers, a Catholic priest, Australia's foremost orthopaedic surgeon, a number of musicians, a waiter in a German club who happened also to be a member of the IWW, the secretary of the Sydney Motor Chauffers Trade Union, who had committed the unpardonable sin of leading a successful strike of his members in time of war, a second-generation German Australian leader of the wharfies' union, and even a second-generation farmer in the Riverina who was interned just a week after his eldest son, a volunteer in the AIF, had been invalided back from France.
Many of the GermanAustralians interned were Australian citizens and many had even been born in Australia. No evidence was ever produced of political activities on behalf of the German war effort.
The citizens of other belligerent countries on the other side in the war were also interned extremely arbitrarily, including Bulgarians, Austrians, Turks, and even some Afghans who were classed as sympathetic to Turkey because of their Muslim religion.
In Western Australia the then racist mineworkers union played an unpleasant role, succeeding in provoking the internment of 300 southern Slavs, Croatians and Slovenes, who were classed as enemy aliens because they were citizens of Austria-Hungary. These were mainly mineworkers at Kalgoorlie, who the racist union had been trying to exclude from the mines for years.
Even some Serbs, who were actually British allies in the First World War, were interned, so viciously confused was the attitude of authority. Later, a number of Russians, also ostensible allies, were interned, really because of their trade union and labour movement activity. Most of these people were locked up in an enormous concentration camp at Holsworthy near Liverpool, in NSW.
When the war ended, these prisoners, who by then numbered about 6000, were kept interned until after the signing of the Versaille Treaty in 1919, when the overwhelming majority of them were ruthlessly deported to their countries of origin. A few, like the brewer Resch, managed to stay in Australia after mounting an extensive and costly legal campaign, which he had the resources to fund. The overwhelming majority of the Germans were not so favoured by circumstances.
Many of the deportees were back-loaded on empty troop ships. A large and significant number of those deported were Australian citizens, and many were Australian-born. So much for «citizenship» in British Australia. According to Fischer's book, hundreds of migrants who weren't enemy aliens, but who were politically and industrially active on the left, were deported in the same sweep.
To quote Fischer: «The total number of deportees, based on the shipping lists of the nine transports, comes to 6150. Of these, 5414 had been interned, the remainder were family members and uninterned exenemy aliens who either accepted the offer to be repatriated or were ordered to leave the country.» The major Australian figure who publicly opposed this atrocious witch-hunt was His Eminence Archbishop Mannix.
The intrinsic cruelty of all this is almost unimaginable. Six thousand people uprooted and implacably deported from this country where they had built their lives, and had lived for many years, to the chaotic and miserable Europe of the 1920s. The main instrument carrying out all this brutality was BritishAustralian military intelligence, particularly one Major Piesse, whose name will be remembered in infamy for generations.
An examination of the written records of military intelligence suggests that all this cruelty was motivated by a kind of mad, but in a way logical, notion that the crisis of the war gave the British economic interests the chance to settle accounts with German business activity in Australia and the Pacific, which was seen as a major competitor with Britain.
The GermanAustralian cultural community was cowed and crushed by this, and the old centres of German community settlement have never really regained their German multicultural aspect, which is a great pity for the cultural richness of Australian society.
Nevertheless, one of the ironies of all this is that after the Second World War substantial German migration to Australia recommenced, and when you refer to the redoubtable Charles Price and his computer breakdowns of Australian ethnicity, he presents convincing evidence that the German ethnic component in Australia is still the largest after the English, Irish and Scottish, and ahead of the Italian and Greek, at about 4 per cent of the mix. The current best-known GermanAustralian is, of course, Tim Fischer, the leader of the National Party.
The foundation of the Australian Communist Party, as a section of the Communist International, in 1920, had considerable repercussions, over time, on the labour movement's attitude to the White Australia policy and racism. From its inception, the Communist Party had a formal opposition to the White Australia policy and racism, though many of its members were quite naturally still influenced by the prevailing racist mood of the labour movement as a whole.
Nevertheless, even the left-wing union bureaucrats, the 'Trades Hall Reds', led by Jock Garden, the Secretary of the Sydney labor Council, took, for that time, quite a courageous stand against racism. They affiliated the Sydney Labor Council to the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, which had its headquarters in Vladivostok, which included unions in a number of Asian countries.
This gave rise to a hysterical clamour from the establishment and right-wingers in the labour movement, like the bureaucrats of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), who accused the Sydney Labor Council of thereby undermining the White Australia Policy, which was in fact true, and completely laudable.
At the ACTU Conference in 1930 there was quite a complex battle over affiliation to the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, with the conference evenly split over the issue, the Sydney Labor Council and Garden in favour of the a