The German migrant story holds lessons for Australia’s Muslim community today

Below is an article I wrote for The Conversation.

Kudos to their editors – they’re great to work with!

Over the past few weeks, Australia’s grand mufti, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, has been criticised by government MPs and sections of the media over his response to the Paris terror attacks.

Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg argued that the grand mufti’s comments were a “graphic failure”. He continued:

He [the grand mufti] has more of a responsibility not only to the Muslim community but to the community at large.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton added that Islamic leaders should unequivocally condemn the attacks:

There are young people who hang off every word that’s said … these young people who are being radicalised online need counter messages.

Despite the belief that the grand mufti can – and should – crystallise the sentiments of Australian Muslims, given their sheer diversity, how representative is he of the broader community?

If we focus on the structure and “representatives” of communities, there have been episodes in Australian history from which we can draw a few elements of comparative experience. Of these, the story of German migration to South Australia can highlight the experience of diverse communities, and what can occur to them in a time of serious conflict.

Church, farm and vines

Germans in pre-first world war South Australia have primarily been viewed as “Barossa Lutherans” – a pious, hard-working group of rural migrants who, seeking refuge from religious persecution, contributed to South Australia’s development.

There is truth to the stereotype. Of about 10,000 Germans who migrated to South Australia between 1838 and 1914, the vast majority settled in the Barossa Valley and rural districts of the Adelaide Hills. Many continued to participate in the “life-cycle” rituals offered by church sacraments, such as baptisms and marriages. German-language schools also maintained their importance for the rural communities.

However, when the first waves of migrants arrived in South Australia in the 1830s and 1840s, Germany did not exist. These “Germans” were Austrians, Brandenbergers, Pomeranians and Silesians – separated by confession, regional dialects, laws and traditions.

Likewise, while Muslims in Australia may be bound together by a common religion (also taking into account denominations like Sunni and Shi’a), the community constitutes a large number of nationalities. It spans numerous languages and cultures, with about 38% of the community born in Australia.

From the late 1840s, the socioeconomic and occupational profile of German migrants became increasingly urban. Migrants’ lives also grew distant from the auspices of the Lutheran Church under pastors August Kavel and Gotthard Fritzsche.

In 1854, a group of middle-class Germans established the Deutsche Club (German Club). From their grand rooms on Pirie St, the club’s members represented a mixed identity – embracing their home in South Australia and the emergent discourse surrounding German nationalism.

Members of the club – including men (women were generally left to the domestic sphere) like Friedrich BasedowFriedrich Krichauff and members of the Homburg and Muecke families – would become community leaders.

In embracing roles as members of state parliament, German-language newspaper proprietors and justices of the peace, such Germans sought to bridge the city-country divide among migrants – uniting South Australia’s portion of the German diaspora.

South Australia’s German club. State Library of South Australia

German migrant experiences

Between the late 1870s and the mid-1880s – on the back of attempts to induce the arrival of “sound” German migrants via cheap passage fares and promises of land – a number of working-class migrants made their way to Adelaide.

In 1886, a group of them founded the Sued-Australischer Allgemeiner Deutscher Verein (South Australian General German Association), which attracted upwards of 600 English- and German-speaking members by the turn of the century. Drinking, dancing, rifle shooting, singing, stage performances and picnics were a few activities available to members.

The Verein became an important node within the network of “democratic societies” operating in Adelaide. This in no small part led to the formation of the United Labor Party in 1891.

The relationship between middle- and working-class Germans was, at best, frosty. Noting the sale of the Deutsche Club building in 1897, a member of the Verein wrote to The Advertiser:

I am sure scores of my countrymen will consider the place better employed as a warehouse … than that half-a-dozen Tories should use it for talking platitudes about the German Empire.

Whereas members of the Deutsche Club sought to promote “deutschtum” (German language, culture and customs), members of the Vereinsought to advance the aims of social democracy and the broader labour movement. These examples go some way in problematising notions of an essentialist “German” community.

Similarly, the Australian National Imams Council is but one of a large number of Islamic organisations in Australia. Some reflect national divides but also attempt to reach across them through grassroots community organisation, such as the Lebanese Muslim Association. Others focus on gender issues.

South Australian General German Association Picnic, 1889. Deutschtum Collection. Lutheran Archives, Bowden

Conflict and implications for identity

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, anti-German sentiment overrode acknowledgement of such diversity.

Germanophobia and the curtailment of civil liberties were expressed in the internment of “Germans” on Torrens Island, closure of social clubsand schoolscalls for resignation from public office and the renaming of “German” towns.

Given this example, as well as the current debate surrounding Muslim “radicalisation”, we could perhaps look to comprehend migrant and minority communities from the grassroots up. We could look more critically at all-encompassing notions of a particular “group” and those who claim to speak for it.

In doing so, we may have a better chance of assessing and resolving the problems facing immigrants and minorities in Australian society.


blog image

German Socialists in 19-20thC Melbourne

For most historians/postgraduates working in the field of migration history, a lot of NAA-based research can be done from home. Further, the ability to order documents not yet digitised by the NAA (albeit at some cost) is a particularly helpful service. Despite this, I’m not condoning that you avoid visiting the NAA! Fact is, the travel/research funding for research postgrads in the humanities varies from uni to uni, and people who don’t work in academia probably can’t justify jetting to Canberra or spending days in the local, state-based, NAA offices (unless of course you are Very Important and get on Who Do You Think You Are). So generally speaking, online databases are a good thing.

Of relevance for my research (or anyone interested in their South Australian-German heritage for that matter) are the collections of naturalisation papers (search A711 for the majority of them).

However, on this occasion I had been searching for references of ‘verein’ – association or club. One of the features of migrant life was the preponderance of associations and clubs that catered for the social, cultural, and political demands of the German community. In Adelaide there were many, including the Sued-Australischer Allgemeiner Deutscher Verein, the Adelaider Turn Verein, the Adelaider Liedertafel, the Fortschrittsverein, and the Deutsche Club. Further afield, Brisbane was home to the Deutscher Turn-Verein (next to the Gabba & great for a beer during the cricket!), and Melbourne had – amongst others –  the Verein Vorwärts.

Whilst my own work has looked at German socialists in the South Australian labour movement, and my supervisor A/Prof Andrew Bonnell has written on German socialists in Queensland (you can find a version of his 2011 ASSLH paper here), little is known about working class/socialist Germans in Victoria, particularly the goings-on of the Verein Vorwärts. So when a military report about the association popped up during my NAA search (MP16/1, 1918/21), I got a little excited, and forked out for document delivery.

some context

Following the outbreak of WWI in July 1914, the Australian federal parliament passed the War Precautions Act 1914. One key element of this law was the ability of the foreign minister to intern, at his discretion, ‘enemy aliens’. In South Australia, this resulted in approx. 400 ‘Germans’ being imprisoned on Torrens Island (see my review on an exhibit about this here). Larger camps were established in NSW, where up to 7000 ‘Germans’ were interned. Also on the hit list of the 1914 Act were proponents of the extreme-left. Spurred on by government fears of the Wobblies (International Workers of the World), surveillance was also carried out on suspected anarchists, communists, and in some cases, relatively moderate members of the labour movement.

So… being a trustee of a German socialist association was no doubt going to pike the interest of the military authorities.


forward, onward.

In 1876, shortly after the merger of the the Eisenacher & Lassallean wings of the German labour movement into the united Social Democratic Party (SPD), the party established its own newspaper, Vorwärts (it’s still in existence today!). The who’s-who of contemporary left-wing thinkers wrote for the paper (or for my HIST2407 students, the who’s-who of who’s that). Though, Lenin never got a go.

Since then, the word was a common feature  in the names of local, and international socialist organisations founded by Germans.

What does it tell us?

On one level, the interviews offer an insight into the activity of socialist migrants. For instance, the membership fees funded a reading circle, taking in the latest newspapers, pamphlets, and tracts from the international labour movement.

A different reading may focus on occupation, and domicile. Rather than the rural communities of the western districts of Victoria (including Hamilton, Geelong, and Tarrington) where many German migrants were located, members of the Verein Vorwärts can be found residing in Brighton, Hawthorn, Malvern, and Richmond, working as cabinetmakers and tailors.

Another would look at the tensions aroused by WWI. In an attempt to play down fears of his being an ‘enemy alien’, Friederich Ewe emphasies his status as a naturalised British subject, his avoidance of German military service, and notes that he married the daughter of a former Mayor of Bendigo. Mitscherlich on the other hand, appears less willing to please. Documenting why the Verein contributed funds to a strike, Mitscherlich states: “we believe in no war, or creed, or nationality, our religion is ‘the brotherhood of man'”.

Good stuff!

Letters to the Editor – The Advertiser 16/02/15

‘Back to the Future’ for SA Labor, The Advertiser

It was interesting to read in Wednesday’s Advertiser (11/02/15) that SA Labor is seeking to broaden the scope of the land tax. Drawing on Henry George’s 1879 tract, Progress and Poverty, certain members of the South Australian labour movement in the late 19th century believed that by introducing an expansive land tax – charging higher rates for undeveloped land – property owners would have no recourse but to make productive use of it. Those in favour argued it would increase investment, and inturn employment, benefiting an economy hit hard by the fluctuations of agricultural output. The land tax was most vehemently supported by a host of ‘democratic societies’, who would successfully lobby for its inclusion on the South Australian United Labor Party’s policy platform throughout the 1890s, and the early years of Federation. Taking into account the current economic conditions of SA, one looks forward to the commentary on the modus operandi of this particular initiative.

Published 16/2/15 as ‘Back to Future’

Featured Image -- 110

Treatment of Enemy Aliens in Queensland 1914-1920

Stories from the archives

This blog post is part of a series of essays commissioned by Queensland State Archives and written by historian Dr Murray Johnson.

Before the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, German migrants were held in high esteem for their industriousness and agricultural skills. Successive Queensland governments actively encouraged German immigrants, who came to dominate rural communities in the Logan River district, Lockyer Valley, Darling Downs, Binjour Plateau in the Burnett, and centres in the far north.[1] With the declaration of war, however, the strength of that admiration was soon to be tested, and as records at Queensland State Archives reveal, it was often found wanting.

Letter from the Senior Inspector of Police, Brisbane, to the Commissioner of Police, Brisbane, enclosing a weekly return of German and Austrian reservists in the District, September 1914 Letter from the Senior Inspector of Police, Brisbane, to the Commissioner of Police, Brisbane, enclosing a weekly return of German and Austrian reservists in the District, September 1914

The British Empire and its allies – including Australia – were faced by four…

View original post 1,122 more words

Letters to the Editor – The Advertiser 17/10/14

Historical Precedent

THE article “Just kill Westerners” (The Advertiser, 14/10/14) drew an interesting parallel with events in South Australian history. Like “Muslims” of today, being defined as a “German” in South Australia during the first quarter of the 1900s was the gross simplification of a complex identity. Confession, class, political ideology and region of origin were the cornerstones of the many disparate communities formed by “Germans” upon arrival in South Australia. With both the Boer War and the growing militarism of Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, suspicions heightened over German colonists’ allegiances. Given that the outcomes of this “German” label included expulsion from representative office, closing of social clubs, and internment on Torrens Island, we could do well to ponder our history.

– Published 17/10/14 as ‘Suspicious Minds’.