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!

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