Detention of enemy aliens: or stop picking on Nazis

The internees of The Dunera tend to lie on two sides of a divide over their incarceration. One lot – more self consciously Jewish and typically from the Dunera Boys who ended up in Melbourne tend to view the Dunera incident as a scandal – an outrage, perhaps even an attrocity. Well the trip to Australia was a truly horrible one. But the Sydney Dunera Boys, which included my father many of whom like him regarded themselves as Jewish by background but not by religion took the bad treatment with a grain of salt.

One can understand the psychology of thinking it was an outrage. After all these guys were enemies of Hitler, not his friends. But what I’m calling the ‘Sydney’ Dunera Boys tended to see their own experience even with some guilt when they compared it to what became of their families who remained in Europe and indeed the horror of war faced by soldiers on all sides of the war.

I know that mass internments are now regarded as self evidently a bad thing – as obvious folly. Personally I’m more understanding (though perhaps this just reflects my own relative ignorance). Thus the rounding up of Californians of Japanese descent in WWII is regarded as deplorable. But I’m not really sure why. Sure it was unfair to them as experienced by them – plenty wouldn’t have been a security risk. But then wars are like that – a lot of innocent people get hurt as people take steps to defend themselves.

Be that as it may I was amused to see that now the Nazi apologists have come out of the woodwork. Former South Australian Liberal MP and son of a South Australian Nazi has just published a book arguing that his poor father – a card carrying German Nazi who immigrated to South Australia in 1929 – was wrongly victimised by our security services. You see he was locked up as a security risk. Troppodillians please contain your shock.

He travelled to Germany in 1933, met with Rudolf Hess and was the chief organiser for the Nazi Party in Australia. His son says he was the David Hicks of his day.

In the Australian yesterday fellow descendent of a Dunera Boy and general good sort Rebecca Weisser conducts herself with vigour and the moral seriousness appropriate to the cause of denouncing this deranged application of the idea of moral equivalence. It’s over the fold or at the other end of the link just provided.

As for me – well I’m with Indiana Jones in the first of his movies.

Nazis? Phh. . I hate those guys.

Of all the people who might protest against wrongful internment, the last group that one would expect to complain about their treatment are Australian Nazis. Perhaps that is why it is only now, 62 years after the end of World War II, that the case is being made that Australian Nazis were singled out, persecuted and victimised. For anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the history of the war, the notion of Nazis being persecuted in Australia could be dismissed as farcical if it were not for what it tells us about the scourge of moral equivalence that is afflicting contemporary thought.

Last week former South Australian Liberal MP Heini Becker expressed the hope that a new book, The Hitler Club, might restore the reputation of his father Johannes Becker, who led the National Socialist German Workers Party in Australia in the 1930s. Becker Sr had been made a scapegoat, he claimed, just like David Hicks.Yesterday on this page historian Christine Winter argued that Australia was and still is “overreacting to radicals in its midst” and that the internment of National Socialists such as Becker had lessons to teach about “protecting minorities and strangers in our midst instead of pushing them into the arms of radicals”; she claims that “through its surveillance and internment practices, Australia created radicals”.

There is no doubt that Australia interned many innocent and blameless people during the war, but it is odd that the present discussion on the plight of interned Germans has so far made no mention of the German and Austrian Jews who were interned at Hay in NSW and Tatura in Victoria. Perhaps it is because their case doesn’t fit the contemporary thesis that internment radicalised internees.

After all, when 2100 Jews, including my father, Mendel Weisser, were wrongly interned for almost two years, some for much longer, one could hardly mount the argument that they were pushed into the arms of radicals – that is, Nazis – or that their internment created resentment and alienation.

Completely to the contrary, in an appeal for release written to the minister for the army on November26, 1941, the camp spokesman at No.4 Internment Camp, Section A, Oskar Seltmann, cited a resolution that had been passed unanimously: “The inhabitants of this compound strongly oppose Nazism. If any camp inhabitant does not unconditionally support this declaration, we demand of him to apply for his transfer to another camp within one week.” German and Austrian Jews rightly feared Nazis and were concerned about their presence among them.

Discipline and camp rules for internees issued on March 1, 1941, by lieutenant-colonel W.T. Tackaberry, group commandant of the Tatura internment camps, prohibited “the holding of political … meetings at which any political propaganda is used, or Nazi or Fascist principles recommended, advanced or urged … The Nazi and Fascist salutes will not be permitted. The exhibition of Nazi or Fascist emblems, signs or engravings within any compound is prohibited … The victimisation of any internee or prisoner of war holding anti-Nazi or (anti-)Fascist views, or for any other reason, is prohibited.” If there was Nazi organisation or persecution in these camps, it was in clear contravention of the camp rules.

What did flourish among German and Austrian Jewish internees was their love of learning.

As The Australian Intercollegian reported in November 1941, the Collegium Taturense established by German and Austrian Jewish internees organised an average of 113 lectures a week that were attended by an average of 690 students in its first year of operation. Of 23 lecturers, 17 were graduates and the remaining six highly qualified in the subjects they were teaching, resulting in a standard far above that to be expected under internment conditions.

The collegium endeavoured “to be an academic institution and to foster the academic ideal. To keep alive the true spirit of European science and culture is our aim and for that we shall not cease to strive.” In summing up, the internees wrote: “Today the Collegium Taturense may be justly proud of its accomplishments, and when one day peace reigns again on earth, we shall look back on our internment, remembering Goethe’s words: ‘part of that power, designing evil, yet creating good’.”

Nazis interned in Australia suffered nothing more than cold nights, hot summers and dust storms while their counterparts in Europe inflicted incredible suffering, leading to the deaths of 60 million people, including six million Jews, amid barbarity on a scale that has not been seen before or since. When Australians were fighting the Nazis, internment in Australia was entirely justified.

For others who were wrongly interned then or today, it is an injustice that must be remedied, but, as Australia’s Jewish internees demonstrated, one that could bring out the best in humanity. They were wonderful, warm, witty men and after the war many of them were distinguished in their fields of endeavour, including anthropology, literature, art, music, mathematics, physics and economics.

Those, such as Fred Gruen, who stayed in Australia made a great contribution to public life. It is their legacy we should be celebrating, rather than fretting about the internment of Nazi sympathisers or drawing spurious moral parallels with contemporary events.

Anyway, maybe the Nazi’s son had a point. This is what the commanding officer of the Dunera, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott had to say on arrival at Darling Harbour concerning the three classes of passengers being carried.

(a) German Nazis. Having warned this group prior to sailing of my methods should trouble arise, . . . their behaviour has been exemplary. They are of a fine type, honest and straightforward, and extremely well¬ disciplined. I am quite prepared to admit however, that they are highly dangerous.
(b) Italians. This group are filthy in their habits, without a vestige of discipline, and are cowards to a degree.
(c) German and Austrian Jews. Can only be described as subversive liars, demanding and arrogant, and I have taken steps to bring them into my line of thought. They will quote any person from a Prime Minister to the President of the United States as personal references, and they are definitely not to be trusted in word or deed.

So there you go.

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simon smith
simon smith
16 years ago

One of the reasons why the internment of Californian Japanese-Americans is deplored is because it was done so brutally. Those affected were often given only hours notice and had no chance to pack up their houses, notify friends, etc – and thus their property was often looted, and they had nothing to return to.

Secondly their treatment in detention was appalling with bad food and healthcare. Consequently there was much unnecessary death and sickness, especially among the old, and a high rate of suicide, especially among young women (many of whom had come from Japan for the purpose of marriage).

The treatment doesn’t compare with british internment, since many japanese-americans had been americans for 2 or 3 generations. The british tended to intern mainly german citizens resident in the UK – and had far better treamtent during interment.

There’s little doubt that race was an element in the cruelty meted out to the japanese-americans – after all, the pacific war was motivated by racial and racist fears

david tiley
16 years ago

It is a question of paranoia, isn’t it? It is always possible to imagine members of some social group in wartime behaving in ways contrary to the military machine.

So the question is: how large is the probability of the subversion, as loaded against the injustice, social disruption and sheer loss to the society of internment?

Churchill apologised for the Dunera mess; the men went on to be useful in the war effort, and closing the camp presumably reduced the need to provide guards. As far as I can tell, the situation did not arise from any expectation that the men would do harm.

But the Japanese-American internments are very different. Was it plausible that they would resort to terrorism, or spy on the US? Was there any evidence this was possible? I guess we can back-track now to say that the major risk was just venal non-Japanese Americans willing to sell secrets like a number of spies have subsequently.

With the Barossa-Deutsch, the Becker family were happily promoting fascism in South Australia, and the notorious South Australian motorcycle TT of 1937 was believed to be a conscious strategy by the German government to influence attitudes in that community. In other words, the government did have some tendrils of evidence of subversion. To its credit, it did not intern large numbers from the Barossa. Indeed, if I understand the history properly, the hysteria of WWW1 did not happen as intensely from 1939.

This is not academic. We are looking at Australian Muslims from the corner of our eyes already. When we start to take Iraqi refugees, some will claim that they are Baathist supporters of Saddam, torturers in civilian clothes.

Part of the venom about David Hicks et al is surely that he passes – he is a Caucasian Muslim and we can’t pick those people by the colour of their skin.

(this is all cod history, of course, assembled from remembered pieces. I hope I can provoke Those Who Know to put me right. So much more civilised than an afternoon on Google. More about the bike race at, including a pic of the machine itself).