German Australians in Rural Society 1914-1918

By McQuilton, John | Journal of Australian Studies, June 1999 | Go to article overview

German Australians in Rural Society 1914-1918

McQuilton, John, Journal of Australian Studies

In the literature devoted to the home front during the first world war there is a general acceptance that the German Australian had moved from being a model citizen in 1914 to the 'enemy within' by 1916. The pressures of war and government propaganda demonised the German Australian, creating an ugly social climate that allowed the suspension of civil rights, encouraged witch hunts and personal scores to be settled using ethnicity as an excuse. Michael McKernan has argued that this was deliberate government policy. (1) Australia was a long way from the battlefields of Europe and the government, to boost the war effort, manufactured an internal threat. The German Australian became the 'Hun' beloved of propaganda. Without doubt, the most influential book on this subject remains Gerhardt Fischer's chilling analysis. He paints a dark picture of prejudice, xenophobia, cruelty, dispossession, farce and occasional kindness. (2)

Walla Walla was a German Australian enclave with Culcairn Shire. (3) For many in the district German was their first language and the riding consistently returned German Australians as councillors. Tensions between the German and Anglo communities was clearly evident at the outbreak of the war. In November 1914, the local branch of the Farmers' and Settlers' Association met to consider three motions: enemy aliens should not be employed by local farmers; enemy aliens were to be denied access to country districts; and all enemy aliens in country districts should be rounded up and interned in Sydney. The motions were lost by seven votes to five but allegations that local German farmers employed fellow nationals at under-award wages persisted. (4)

Although many of the young men from community enlisted, a sizeable section of Walla Walla's German Australian community largely ignored the war. Others openly opposed Australia's involvement. Frederick Heppner was fined 100 [pounds sterling] and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months in 1915 after charges of disloyalty had been brought under the War Precautions Act. Celebrating the fall of Warsaw he claimed, 'Germany will beat all the world and all you b- Australians.' (5) Tensions within the local German Australian community were clearly evident during the recruitment campaign in early 1916. After a violent struggle, the police arrested a 'German national' for singing 'Wacht Am Rhine'. After his arrest, the 'German' compounded his error by calling for three cheers for the kaiser. Two armed men attempted to spring the prisoner from the cells, but failed and were arrested. The charge laid, however, was not attempting to release a prisoner: the charge was threatening language used against local German Australians. (6)

Although the first internments from Walla Walla had taken place in 1915, doubts about the loyalty of the district's German Australians persisted, especially after the second conscription referendum in 1917. Walla Walla was now seen as a hotbed of not only German disloyalty but also Sinn Fein dissent. There was little the defence department could do with the Sinn Feiners but they could do something about the 'German' disloyalists. In March 1918, four men were arrested and interned, Herman Alfred Paech, Edward D Heppner, Ernest G Wenke and John Wenke. All were Australian born. The Wenke brothers were third generation Australians. The four men were justices of the peace and Paech and John Wenke were shire councillors. The shire council was embarrassed by the arrests, expressing its 'regret' at the action: John Wencke's son, David, had been tended a welcome home social from the front a week before the arrests were made and Wencke had another son still serving overseas. He was released in June. The other three men, however, remained interned. (7)

The war's end brought little change. In 1920, both Paech and John Wencke stood as candidates for the Walla Walla Riding in the council elections. Paech lodged 50 [pounds sterling] with the Culcairn newspaper to be forfeited if anyone could prove his disloyalty.

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