The effects of Australia’s internment policies on German communities in Australia during World War I .

10 June 2016


Figure 1: Cover of an Illustrated Diary of Australian Internment

In considering the historical past, especially as it pertains to the activities that transpired during periods of war, the internment in innocent civilians, the extreme loss of life (especially of allied forces), treatment of prisoners, and other atrocities committed by the enemy are usually among the first thoughts that come to mind. Sadly though, in almost all cases, such treatments were not limited to one side or the other. The internment of, so called, “enemy aliens” during the First World War was a phenomenon that transpired globally. In international law, according to Neumann (2006:7), the term internment “refers to the practice of detaining enemy nationals in a time of war. But the term has also been applied to the detention without trial of persons who are considered a security risk, regardless of their citizenship”. During the First World War, civilian, as well as military prisoner detention camps and other facilities exist on every continent around the globe, including in nation-states that, during the pre-war period, were characterized by relatively liberal immigration policies. This paper focuses on the effects of Australia’s internment policies on the German communities in Australia during World War I, and the years immediately before, and after, the Great War.

Early in Australia’s colonial history, German-speaking immigrants established themselves at being the largest non-Anglo-Celtic group in Australia, following the organized large scale immigrations of Lutheran farming communities in the late 1830’s, the failed German “March Revolution” of 1848, and the 1850 Victorian Gold Rushes. According to Gerhard Fischer (2015), post-eighteen sixties, government sponsored immigration, free passage, and prospects of cheap land enticed large numbers of agricultural settlers to immigrate to Queensland, such that by around 1880 Queensland maintained the largest population of German immigrants of any state in Australia. During this time, the German community was not a community confined to the fringes of society. They were generally “prosperous, sophisticated and highly regarded by their British-Australian compatriots” (Fischer, 2015). By 1895, the number of German-Australians, including second and third generation descendants, was estimated to have been about 100,000, a figure that remained stable until 1914 (Migration Heritage Center, 2011; Fischer, 2015).

After Australia’s entrance into the First World War[1], foreign nationals of the countries with whom Australia was at war, and who were residing in Australia during this period, were routinely classified under the banner of “enemy aliens”. This banner was painted broadly as it also included many naturalized British subjects who were born in enemy countries, Australian-born descendants of migrants born in enemy countries, and any others Australian-born or otherwise who the government believed to pose a threat to Australian national security (Australian War Memorial, n.d.). During the period of the First World War, Australia interned almost 7,000 people (National Archives of Australia, 2016). Of these various estimates suggest that about 4,500 were “enemy aliens” and British nationals of German ancestry who had already taken residency in Australia years earlier (Australian War Memorial, n.d.).

Fischer (2015) proposes that the 10th of August 1914 was “the beginning of the end of the once prosperous and proud German-Australian community”, when individuals, of German descent, were directed to present themselves at the nearest police station for immediate registration (Scott, 1941:109). This usually only involved the completion of a form which asked the registering party for a number of personal details such as; name, nationality, sex, date and place of birth, address (place of abode), occupation and place of business, date of entry into the Commonwealth[2], height, build, hair and eye color. Having completed the required paperwork, it was then at the discretion of the local police officers as to what, if any, limitations or restrictions were to be imposed on the individual. Fisher further comments that;

“officers were subsequently required to fill out a second form (‘secret and confidential’), entitled Report on Person reputed to be an Enemy Subject, in which they had to state whether they believed their clients’ statements ‘to be frank and truthful’, and whether the aliens were ‘reputed to be anti-British’ or consorted ‘with persons believed to be of enemy origin’. Finally, they had to give an opinion as to whether or not the aliens ‘should be sent forward for examination by the military authorities’” (Fischer, 2015).


Figure 2: 1916 Registration Notification

abc3Figure 3: 1916 Registration Application

In the period that followed, as if in response to the perceived threat to notions of national identity, paranoia reached new heights and resulted in greater occurrences of widespread “xenophobic repression” (MacIntyre, 1993:155-156; Scott, 1941:106). Despite the unquestionable loyalty, of the majority, to their adopted nation, “the first victims of such violent outbursts were the German settlers, whose roots in this country were deep and who had previously been perhaps the most accepted of its non-British inhabitants” (MacIntyre, 1993:155-156; Scott 1941:108). Individuals of German descent, well established in their local communities, were denigrated, denounced and persecuted because of their ancestry. Regardless of gender, age or generation, men, women and children were, in increasing frequency, “beaten up, spat on, dismissed from jobs, expelled from clubs and associations, abused for attendance at church, and refused service at stores and theatres”[3] (Crotty, 2001). Anti-German leagues, driven by the murder, rape and pillage of Belgian civilians, by invading German soldiers, came into existence and became more organized than ever before. Accounts of persecution even found their way into the school-yard. “One man, recalled his school fellows beating up a boy of German descent, and humiliating the 13-year-old victim by forcing him to walk around the school singing ‘Rule Britannia’” (Kent 1992:61-2 cited in Crotty, 2001). In addition to physical harassment, many families were also placed under more emotional stigmatism as “anonymous letter-writers signing themselves as ‘Britisher’ or ‘Loyal Australian’” sought to ostracize their neighbors and other members of their localized societies born under German surnames (MacIntyre, 1993:156; Scott, 1941:106; Fischer, 1989:79). At all levels, in education, law and in the work place, Australian-German society were discriminated against. Crotty (2001) remarks that this amounted to little more than “a shameful exhibition of wartime hatred”, where even the “mere suggestion [of one having] an anti-British sentiment was enough to warrant internment (Fischer, 1989:90-91). Within a period of no more than six months many of those now declared ‘enemy aliens’[4], under the War Precautions Act, who were of military age, including a proportion of those who had settled in Australia decades earlier and now believed themselves to be Australian citizens, were corralled into hastily prepared internment camps (MacIntyre, 1993:156; Scott, 1941:114).

During World War I, the government of Australia pursued a comprehensive internment policy (Neumann 2006:8). The Bill for the War Precautions Act was passed through the House of Representatives, the Senate, before being given Royal Assent on the 29th of October 1914. This act provided the government, and relevant military authorities, a wide range of new powers, and virtually “free discretion in the devising of new modes of protecting the public safety of the Commonwealth” (Menzies, 1918:9). In less than two months after the assent of the Bill, the authority to intern any and all enemy subjects, whose conduct was deemed unsatisfactory, had been transferred to the commandants of the military districts. At this time, the internment of naturalized subjects still remained solely the purview of the Defense Minister, and only when, when under his consideration they fell into the categories of “disaffected or disloyal” (O’Brien in Crotty & Roberts, 2006; Scott 1941:110). Regulation 55 set out that:

Where the Minister has reason to believe that any naturalized person is disaffected or disloyal, he may, by warrant under his hand order him to be detained in military custody in such place as he thinks fit during the continuance of the present state of war. (Menzies, 1918:15; Australian Government, 1915; Fischer, 2015)

In May of 1915, paragraphs 55 and 56a augmented the already considerable power of the minister, such that the act now afforded the Minister with powers for the ”internment of disloyal natural born subjects Australian by birth of enemy descent, and of persons of hostile origin or association”[5] (Saunders 2003:28, O’Brien in Crotty & Roberts, 2006; Scott 1941:110). Prisoners were often confined to internment, unbeknown to their families, without trial, and frequently without being advised of the “crime” they were found “guilty” of committing (Fischer, 1989:78, Migration Heritage Center, 2011). O’Brien (2006) notes that although under regulation 56 “authorities were required to provide a written statement outlining evidence for internment” no physical proof was required nor were authorities required to reveal their sources (Fischer, 1989:78). Those who are responsible for the national security must be the sole judge of what the national security requires. It would be obviously undesirable that such matters should be made the subject of evidence in a Court of Law or otherwise discussed in public. (Lord Parker[6], cited in Menzies 1918:15). In October of 1916, the registration regulations were again extended to make inclusive “all aliens, whether enemy or otherwise” (Scott 1941:109). Fischer (2015; also cited Armstrong, 2015) expresses his opinion that;

“the machinery of registration, censorship, surveillance, internment and deportation set up by the department to control the resident ‘enemy’ population in Australia was also …used to investigate and prosecute pacifists, unionists, radical socialists, Irish nationalists, anti-conscriptionists of all ideological persuasion”.

Although the early internment process was to a large extent improvised, distinct policy objectives were discussed, implemented and maintained (Fischer, 1989:86-87). During the course of the war, these policies developed into a means for the application of ethnically aligned social control (Fischer, 1989:81-86, 2015). Such policies were used to segregate and, after the war, to exclude undesirable residents not only because of their ethnic origin or association, but also because of their poor or declining socioeconomic status (Fischer, 1989:86). A large percentage of the German population interned during the war summarily fell into the latter category as a result of the governmental regulations forced upon them.

With the conclusion of the War in November of 1918, the internment camps were closed, and the Australian government was confronted with the mammoth task for the organization, and the transportation of thousands of deportees. A total of 6150 persons were forcibly “repatriated” to Germany in 1919, in a government-backed form of ethnic cleansing. Of these, 5414 had been interned (Migration Heritage Center, 2011)[7] [8]. The remaining number were primarily family members of the internee being repatriated, though there were other non-interned “ex-enemy aliens” who had voluntarily accepted governmental offers of repatriation, “convinced that there was no future for them in a country that had robbed them of their rights and freedom”, or were under order to leave the country (Fischer, 2015). A small number of individuals appealed the decisions for forcible repatriation, requesting to stay, only to be later rejected by the Department of Defense’s Aliens Tribunal. The last internees and “prisoners of war”[9] were repatriated on the 5th of May 1920, nine months after the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.

Aside from the personal affront to their individual civil liberties, the Australian German community suffered as a whole, both economically and socially. Economic measures, initiated by Prime Minister Hughes under the ideal of “Empire Trade”, to block “commercial interference”, were rapidly and strictly applied and enforced against all perceived German business interests (Fischer, 1989:92). These were enforced through the implementation of a comprehensive legislation, with restrictions that ranged from the prohibition to buy or sell land to owning or even managing a business. The Enemy Contracts Annulment Act , various Trading with the Enemy Acts and the Enemy Shareholders, Land Transfer, and Mining Regulations, which were passed between 1914 and 1918, worked to prevent individuals of German descent from undertaking any action through which they may derive profit (Scott, 1941:110, 137-140). Fischer (2015) remarks that “suspected aliens were ordered to disclose holdings in shares, securities or bank accounts. Businesses were wound down and assets transferred to a trustee”. The employment of such legislation was, by design, not only to prevent Australian products from reaching Germany, but also at restricting or preventing any form of German orientated product from reaching the markets in Australia (Fischer, 1989:92). Many believe that these actions sought to unconditionally eradicate what the Commonwealth government considered to be German firms operating in Australia for many years to come, even those that were founded in Australia and continued to be Australian[10] owned and run (Fischer, 1989:93; 2015). Even after the war, governmental action imposed additional difficulties over any attempt to restructure or rebuild what had been lost. German ‘money-men’, financiers, traders, businessmen and their descendants were found more likely to have been deported than farmers or agriculture workers who, the government stressed posed less of a risk to the security of the Commonwealth (Fisher, 2015).

Socially imposed restrictions also enforced the closure of schools and churches. Certain elements of music were banned and even the names of some foods were renamed. Most significantly though was the overt renaming or places, streets and monuments that took place (Scott, 1941:149). In excess of one hundred locations around Australia had their original German names either Anglicized, or were provided with, and renamed with Aboriginal names or after notable soldiers and battlefields. Some of the most well-known examples of these include, Blumberg which became Birdswood, German Creek became Empire Vale, Stegelitz became Woongoolba, and Mt. Bismarck became Mt. Kitchener. Fischer (1989:100) argues that it was the aim of the government to “destroy the community as an autonomous, socio-cultural entity within Australian society”.

The actions, and restrictions imposed, by the Australian Federal Government during World War had caused the almost literal destruction of the once “proud and highly visible German–Australian community” (Fischer, 2015). German immigrants who remained in Australia, experienced a lack of cohesion as the communities that they had so long relied upon failed to rebuild as most entered a kind of “assimilationist hiding” (Fischer, 2015). Australia had waged a war at home, against a host of imaginary and perceived enemies. Many of the governmental actions taken sought to highlight, not so much the ideology of creating a ‘white’ Australia, as some people believed, but rather more simply, at enhancing the “Britishness” of Australian society with hope to reinforce its ties with the Motherland and Her Empire. More recently, the internment of enemy aliens and prisoners of war has been linked to more generalized suppositions that surround the “culture” and actions of WWI, such as the treatment of minorities, POWs, civilians, and other human rights abuses, the centralization and nationalization of prisoner and refugee relief systems, and the development of new definitions of citizenship designed to either exclude or include particular groups of people. The consideration of many of these will unfortunately reflect the experiences of the Australian-German minority during the First World War.



Figure 1:              Cover of An Illustrated Diary of Australian Internment by Edmond Samuels (NAA: A1336, 7597)

Figure 2: Registration Notification,

Figure 3:              Registration Application,



Armstrong, M., 2015. “How World War I led to class war”. Marxist Left Review, No.9 Summer 2015. Socialist Alternative. Aust.

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Australian Federal Government, 1915. War Precautions Act No.2, 1915. An Act to amend the War Precautions Act 1914.

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O’Brien, H., 2006. “The Enemy Within: Wartime internment of Enemy Aliens”, in Crotty, M. & Roberts, D.A., (ed.). 2006. The Great Mistakes of Australian History. University of New South Wales, Sydney, Aust. Ch. 9.

Saunders, K.E., 2003. “The Stranger in our gates: Internment Policies in the United Kingdom and Australia during the Two World Wars, 1914-39”. Immigrants & Minorities 22(1). Pp.22-43. Frank Cass. U.K.



[1] and Second World War

[2] Note that it does not specifically state entry into Australia.

[3] A number of examples are provides in Scott (1941:110-113)

[4] The definition of ‘enemy subject’ was widened in 1916 to include all those born in Australia of enemy parentage or grand-parentage (MacIntyre, 1993:156)

[5] Fischer (1989:78) notes the arrest and internment of individuals from allied and neutral countries

[6] The Zamora p.107

[7] The opposite concludes that of those interned only 1476 were granted permission to remain in Australia following their release. Speculation would suggest that the vast majority of this number were Australian-Born internees.

[8] The exact numbers are unclear other sources such as Scott (1941:137) puts the number of repatriations at 5,276. Significantly less than other reports. Similarly Fischer (1989, 2015) provides different figures.

[9] According to Fischer (1989:77), this was the official classification afforded internees

[10] German-Australian