German Assessments of British-Australian Relations, 1901-1914

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"The Federal Government does not have the most basic grasp of military matters". Consul-General Dr Georg Irmer, November 1909

An examination of how Australia's closest colonial neighbour in 1901 viewed the creation of a new political entity and its implications for British Imperial unity and regional defence contributes much to the continuing debate over the development of an Australian national identity. Germany in its Pacific colonies had a direct strategic and economic interest in how the new entity would present and project itself in the region. As a number of historians have indicated, long before Australian troops faced Germany in 1914 Australia had become an object of considerable interest in the age of imperial rivalries.

As Irmline Veit-Brause has indicated, as early as 1879 the establishment of a Consulate-General demonstrated "a fundamental change in the assessment of Australia's importance in the Pacific region". There was a complex nexus between the commercial and political strands of German-Australian relations. By the next decade, Prusso-German views of Australia in an international context had changed from being a mere appendage of Britain, to one of providing a springboard into the Pacific. (1) In the decades before 1914 the focus of German attention shifted from fascination with exotic flora and fauna to the emerging characteristics of a new social and political entity, which it was predicted would exert considerable regional influence. The growing trading partnership between Australia and Germany presented an increasing challenge to Britain's regional predominance, and the Teutonic commercial drive "was only part of a larger strategy for Germany's quest for 'world power' [...]". (2) That this is denied by some Australian historians despite the overwhelming archival evidence highlights the importance of the ongoing debate. (3)

Expectations of Australia acting independently of Britain existed quite early and were based on the experience of American expansion into the Asia-Pacific region, which Germany was encountering in a number of places. The Americans "sought to make the Pacific their own lake by means of the Monroe Doctrine", wanting not only Hawaii, but also Samoa and Tonga as stations on a route through a future Panama Canal to Australia. "There are, indeed, Americans who dream of a future republican union and federation of the various Australasian Colonies with the United States", observed Herbert yon Bismarck. (4)

German interest in Australia finds its significance in the problems of Imperial defence, which were not solved simply and which were implicit in the geographical position of Britain and its Empire. (5) The demands of home defence had to be balanced with defence of Imperial communications routes through the Mediterranean/Suez to India, East Asia, and the Pacific. A threat in one region posed dangers for the whole, and foreign policy was marked by a seemingly insoluble security dilemma: the situation in Europe always would make meaningful intervention at the periphery a risky undertaking. (6) German observers were always seeking trends which would indicate a divergence of policy from that of Britain, if not an actual political break, and at this time there were several issues of disagreement between London and the Dominions. (7) As one German historian has noted, foreigners often had difficulty understanding the imponderables of the peaceful continuance of the British Empire, and all too often its break-up was predicted. (8) This was especially so in the years before the War when German planners were eagerly seeking cracks in Imperial unity which they could widen to their advantage.

Federation and Imperial Defence Policy

In April 1900, Ambassador Paul Graf Wolff Metternich in London composed a lengthy assessment of the moves then underway for the federation of the Australian colonies.

The recurring thread was the extent to which a unified nation would and could contribute to British defence. …