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In Both World Wars, Many Enemy Aliens Were Interned in Australia Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

In both world wars, many enemy aliens were interned in Australia. Were the Australian Governments in each war responding to real threats of internal subversion and spying or were these Governments responding to the surge in narrow race patriotism and the fears of the general community? Your answer must make reference to examples from both world wars.

At the outbreak of both World Wars many people of an alien nature in Australia were interned into protective custody. As an example during the First World War 6,890 Germans were interned, of whom 4,500 were Australian residents before 1914; the rest were sailors from German navy ships or merchant ships who were arrested while in Australian ports when the war broke out, or German citizens living in British territories in South-East Asia and transported to Australia at the request of the British Government. Some internees were temporary visitors trapped here when the war began. About 1,100 of the total were Austro-Hungarians, and of those around 700 were Serbs, Croats and Dalmatians from within the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were working in mines in Western Australia.

The government’s overriding rhetoric for this action was the social cohesion of Australian society in a time of war1. Both Pam MacLean and Kate Darian-Smith argue that the early responses of government were for conformity and a united goal in a time of war, termed ‘equality of sacrifice’ and ‘equality of service’. Darian-Smith commenting on the Second World War further states that that this conformity was achieved through censorship, coercion, sweeping legislative powers contained in the Commonwealth War Book and enforced through National Security Regulations, and propaganda. One facet of the propaganda used was the circulating of warnings that there was an enemy within our society; the spy, the saboteur, the secret agent.

Darian-Smith argues that the ‘us and them’ mentality of wartime encouraged pre-existing intolerances and prejudices. Although there was some limited intelligence that Australia may be a prime target for the Germans; it was on the whole a fabricated enemy. This paper will attempt to show that this act was in itself an ideological tool used by government to distract and coerce the populace from the social divisions within their society and mobilise its war effort, in other words this scenario was used as a control mechanism by the super-structure. The argument will also maintain that the psychological topography of racism or British superiority in Australian society was so ingrained that it could be used as a control mechanism, if the government created the right environment like the ‘enemy in our midst’.

The Australian psychological topography is an important starting point in our discussion, especially in regards to the Great War. Edward Said6 in his thesis relates a certain mindset attributed to the British, one of chivalry and mental superiority of the white race. He uses Balfour’s speech in the House of Commons in 1904, to illustrate his contention. In this speech Balfour, justifying the colonial mindset, relates reiterates the responsibility of the superior British to spread civilisation across the globe. It is oblivious from his speech that Balfour and his countrymen believe this superiority to be real. This mindset was inevitably transferred to their colony, Australia. The flow on effect of this mindset can be seen in the migration policy aptly named the ‘White Australia policy’. Although prior to the Great War immigration intake policies had been relaxed to take in some non-British migrates. Still identifying with its white Australia policy, Dutton argues7 that there was a small influx of German immigrants and had the Great War not interfered Australia would have publicised its need for migrants in countries such as Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Northern Italy, and parts of Russia; to make up for the shortcomings in the number of emigrants from Britain. However the Great War changed this temperament quite markedly.

Dutton8 argues that the Australian attitude towards Europeans turned from moderate welcoming to outright hostility, he goes on to state that it was the Commonwealth in its policies that created this environment of nationalist hatred and jingoistic fervour. Not a difficult mania to create considering its predisposed mentality of white supremacy. As a consequence of the mass wartime mobilisation of a nation a regime of stringent controls of the movement and conduct of its populace was introduced, the advent of this chain of events was to monumentally change the dynamics of citizenry in Australia. To graphically illustrate this point Dutton refers to the Labor Member of Parliament, William Finlayson’s clich� of the ‘…call of blood’.

The overriding assumption of this change to the paradigm of citizenry was that both citizens and aliens were assumed to be loyal to their nation of origin and therefore were to be treated accordingly. Hence Germans and Austrian nationals were deemed ‘enemy aliens’, and suffered various forms of control ranging from compulsory registration to internment; naturalisation had become irrelevant10. Although complex in nature, the philosophy postulates a link to nations of origin and of ‘Nation States’, and ultimately political allegiances. This is the rationale as to why naturalisation could not alter the ‘call of the blood’. Dutton alludes to the premise that these measures were taken as a measure of National Security or as he describes it, “…obsessed by the danger of subversion, and determined to employ the full extent of its powers to observe, quantify, marginalise and deport those deemed disloyal”11. Dutton does not enter into the discourse of an imagined enemy as does MacLean. They both bring to reference the same stringent controls and the changes to the boundaries of defining citizenship bought about by the advent of the Great War, but MacLean critiques these events in terms of a widening of governments’ control mechanisms.

Her argument maintains that the advent of the War heightened the ‘Conservatives’ agenda-a greater emphasis on leadership, on centralisation, on bureaucracy, and on surveillance. Commenting on these control mechanisms she clearly states, “…emergence of a system of censorship and surveillance during the war…seemed out of keeping with the democratic traditions of Australian Society”, and, “…the abuse of increased state powers for personal political purposes”. Both historians allude to the premise that these powers and redefinition of citizenship were introduced to create a cohesive society-but it is MacLean that sees the underlying motive as sinister in that it was introduced to coerce the populace, when she states, “Time and resources were wasted pursing non-existent dangers…(Italics mine)”; followed by arguing that as the war situation deteriorated by 1915 social divisiveness escalated. To follow her argument logically, one could extrapolate the thesis that the stringent government controls, of which the enemy alien model was spawned, was an ideological tool attempting to divert or cover the divisions within society at that time and also the personal political advantages trying to be gleaned in a time of global upheaval.

According to Darian-Smith14 the Second World War of 1939-45 was not racked by the bitter political and sectarian disputes that characterised the

Great War 1914-18; however she argues that rhetoric of unity propagated during this time was similar

to that of the Great War period in an attempt to divert the attention of the populace and mask the divisions of class, age, gender, ethnicity, and race prevalent in Australian society at this time.

Kay Saunders15 points to another key aspect of the internment policy of World War Two-although not officially published these actual procedures reflected the Allies defeats on the battle fields rather than a fair assessment of any individual’s case; according to Saunders Australia’s internment policy was driven by impulses of xenophobia. She further argues that Australia maintained a dependant colonial mentality and this linked with a long standing hostility to those not of Anglo-Celtic origins showed the nation’s immaturity and hesitancy. While many see Curtin’s stand against Churchill, when he forced the return of his soldiers against the will of the Churchill, as the decolonisation moment for Australia; Saunders is quite accurate in her assumptions here. It is the contention of this paper that the super structure needing to mobilise its war effort resorted to the use of the xenophobic nature of the Australian populace to maintain social control.

This point is supported by Gerhard Fischer when he states, “The internment system thus developed into a tool of social control”16. He argues that internment procedures had surpassed its original ideal of National Security during the Great War, and had now taken on the form of social manipulation by the super structure. We see the social control tool at work when in the early years of the war destitute enemy aliens males could give themselves up if without prospect of finding any way to pay for their livelihood. The super structure had manipulated societal expectation and tolerances to force naturalised German/Australians to the point of destitution; and hence it controlled not only the aliens, but had diverted attention from the pressing social issues facing Australia during this epoch of history. The ‘social control tool’ was now used to segregate this component of Australian society.

This segregation continued after the war, as Fischer argues, it was used to “…exclude undesirables residents not only because of their ethnic origin but also because of their socio-economic status”17. People were now being interned due to their employment status or their need to receive charity. Others were interned due to their perceived mental faculties, or previous criminal records. As Fischer argues, “…these immigrants were not at fault. Their lack of success…was entirely due to the war which had changed their status and their chances overnight”18. The question remains as to why these people were treated without compassion? Fischer gives us some reasons when he states that the government saw their role solely in preventing unnecessary expenditure (focussed war effort) and in ensuring the racial and ethnic homogeneity of an all-British Australia (Xenophobic nature and linked to ‘White Australia Policy).

In either war the threat of subversion was dubious at best. Fischer believes this imagined threat was used by Hughes during the Great War to justify his conspiracy theory. Again working from a base of White supremacy he had advocated favourable policy to British trade and shipping-to quell what Hughes believed to be the ever increasing domination of German commerce especially in regards to their shipping. Hughes, according to Fischer, saw politics as a conspiracy, both internationally and at home-he also believed that the war was being fought for economic supremacy, and hence the advent of war provided an opportunity to eradicate German influences from trade of all parts of the Empire19. Interestingly Hughes used the enemy alien as a diversion from social issues his country faced at the time, but he also used the enemy alien as a scapegoat when his two attempts at introducing conscription failed citing their subversive actions as being responsible for the failure of his vision. This was the mentality that approached the question of Aliens in Australia. When Hughes spoke of eradication of ‘German influences’ we could not expect a sympathetic policy to a faceless ethnic mass.

During World War II a similar policy regarding enemy aliens was implemented with thousands of men and women were interned in ‘camps’ around Australia, some for the duration of the entire war. These people consisted of ‘enemy aliens’ (especially Germans and Italians), naturalised and Australian born persons of enemy alien descent, enemy aliens arrested overseas and transferred to Australia, and prisoners of war transferred to Australia. Some Australians were also interned because of their political activities. Hence we witness a propensity for the Australian government to widen the definition of ‘Enemy Alien’ during this time. Darian-Smith20 argues that initially internment had been restricted to enemy male suspected of being politically sympathetic to national socialism or fascism-this definition widened indiscriminately to included Germans and Italians, regardless of their political beliefs; the refugee alien (Jews who had fled Nazi regime as an example), Japanese residents (men women and children) who were interned solely based on their ethnicity.

The range and severity of internment and the fines imposed upon them reflected a large range of views held in various states by officials responsible for the development and implementation of alien policy. In other words there was no single organised approach to the address the question of the alien. Localised public opinion and pressure groups exerted considerable influence over debate, policy formation and implementation. The statistics show that Victoria and New South Wales maintained the highest number of registered alien living within their state, yet these two states ranked amongst the lowest in interned aliens. The two ends of the spectrum show Victoria interning 2.9 per cent in contrast to Queensland’s 43.1 per cent. Although Darian-Smith explains alternate fears of isolation in regards to geographical position and potential enemy insurgence as a possibility for these harsh measures towards the aliens-it is interesting to note that in the 90’s a political party, with its policies rooted in racism, was able to get a foothold in Australia’s political landscape from this same State.

Kay Saunders22 argues that Australians maintained internal racial attitudes and policies concerning the alien question. Building upon long-standing formulations that emerged from the process of colonial conquest, the rhetoric of racism in Australia was recast and expanded in order to address the unprecedented crisis of the war in the Pacific. With the ever expanding definition of an enemy alien Aboriginal people were thus portrayed as potential collaborators who would aid the invading Japanese; and hence they too were incorporated in the definition of enemy alien.

The much feared imaginary fifth column now had a new member, so along side the Italians, the Japanese and the Germans stood our own indigenous people. Lastly, the introduction of large numbers of black GIs among the American forces, argues Saunders, challenged notions of racial and sexual purity. Australians were ultimately fighting to preserve a white British-derived nation. The ‘race war’ on the Pacific frontline intensified racial awareness and allowed hysterical overreaction that had tragic consequences for its victims. Although it is hard to fathom that is narrow mentality was used by intelligent men to formulate stringent polices that would ultimately and disastrously affect so many human beings, I believe that the ingrained psyche of colonial Australia that maintained White superiority was the diving force that surfaced as fear of the enemy alien.

The end of internments after the Second World War did not lead to mass deportation as it had after the First. In fact, in a little recognised way, the internment experience led to the reception of Europeans and displaced persons after the War. Through this process the official commitment to white Australia slowly eroded. And as Darian-Smith states although wartime fears concerning Australia’s internal security led to the implementations of polices that enabled the government to suspend the civil rights of civilians on the basis of ethnicity; this actually led to the formation of the Immigration Department. Consequently, with the mass migration from Europe and later Middle East, Africa and Asia; the Second World War marked the end of a homogeneous British-Australian society.

In conclusion, both wars saw the Germans immediately identified as potential threats to the nation’s cause; in the Second, Italians and later Japanese were also declared enemy aliens. When war broke out, persons born in enemy countries were required to register as “aliens,” no matter how long they had resided and irrespective of their naturalisation. Thus the forerunner to internment was the identification and tracking of people suspected of disloyalty simply on the basis of their nationality or ethnic heritage. Like today’s asylum-seekers, they learned in internment camps that their nationality and ethnicity rendered them prime subjects for detention in a country that simultaneously maintained exclusionary immigration policies. So it is my contention that the ‘enemy in our midst’ was in fact a fabricated enemy. The governments of the day were quick to seize upon the fact that Australian society maintained an undercurrent of racist ideology, and by playing upon this shortcoming of the Australian psyche they were able to divert the attention of the populace from the pressing social issues that were eroding the social fabric of the time and at the same time the super structure had a control mechanism in which it controlled not only the alien but the general populace as well.


1 www.teachers.ash.org.au/dnutting/germanaustralia/e/internment.htm. accessed on the 7/10/2004

2 Pam MacLean: War and Australian Society, in Joan Beaumont (ed), Australia’s War 1914-1918, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, Australia, 1995, p69

3 Kate Darian-Smith: War and Australian Society, in Joan Beaumont (ed), Australia’s War 1939-45, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, Australia, 2000, p55-9

4 Op cit, MacLean, p55.

5 Gerhard Fischer, Enemy Aliens: Internment and the Homefront Experience in Australia, 1914-1920, St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1989. p 3-4

6 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, London : Penguin, 1991, c1978

7 David Dutton. One of Us? : A Century of Australian Citizenship. Sydney, UNSW Press, 2002 p45.

8 Ibid. p45.

9 Op cit, Dutton. p92

10 Ibid. p92

11 Ibid. p95

12 Op cit, MacLean, p70-1

13 Op cit, MacLean. p71.

14 Op Cit, Darian-Smith, p55

15 Kay Saunders and Roger Daniels, ed. Alien Justice: Wartime Internment in Australia and North America. St Lucia, Qld. : Queensland University Press, 2000 p114-5

16 Op cit, Fischer, p85.

17 Op cit, Fischer, p85

18 Ibid. p85

19 Op cit, Fischer, p47

20 Op cit, Darian-Smith, p56-57

21 Ibid, p57-58

22 Kay Saunders, Ethnic and Racial Studies, April 1994 v17 n2 p325(17)

23 Op cit, Darian-Smith, p58

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