BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Scholarly tour de force
, September 15, 2012
Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany
by David S. Bird
(Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing)
Paperback: 448 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
One of the major problems facing historians, history teachers and history students, is the challenge of getting inside the heads of those who lived in the past — what L.P. Hartley called that “other country” where “they do things differently”.
Pre-World War II anti-Semitism, such as that exhibited by G.K. Chesterton or Rudyard Kipling (both of whom died in 1936), was silly, vulgar and deplorable, but is surely in a different category from that of anyone who lives this side of the Holocaust.
Post-1945 anti-Semitism is quite simply inexcusable.
This distinction is one which it is important to bear in mind when attempting to understand the figures and movements described by David Bird.
It is not a matter of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner — to understand all is to forgive all — but of trying to grasp what support for Hitler and the Third Reich might have meant to those without our hindsight as to how it all eventually turned out.
Many Australians were impressed by the way Hitler had transformed Depression-era Germany socially and economically, while they could simultaneously maintain distinct reservations about other aspects of his rule.
The more thorough-going and ideological Australian supporters of the Nazis during the 1930s and ’40s, ranged from labourers, clerks and dockers, to middle-class professionals (journalists, accountants, lawyers) to academics and writers.
A few had a degree of influence, and were able to organise meetings, movements and publications, while others were stereotypical losers and loners with bees in their bonnets, who founded grandiosely-titled parties of which they were the sole member.
They shared a core range of obsessions, such as a reverence for strong leadership, a contempt for Christianity and parliamentary democracy, and a corporatist rejection of both capitalism and communism; but there were also differences and inconsistencies amongst them.
When it came to gender, the movement contained both misogynists and assertive proponents of female equality, such as the famous British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Adela Pankhurst Walsh (described by a colleague as a “screaming ratbag”), and Miles Franklin.
On ethnicity, most were anti-Semitic (though Xavier Herbert had a Jewish wife) and insisted on the primacy of a eugenically purified white “race”; but some were pro-Japanese and, even more strangely, some subscribed to an idiosyncratic anthropological theory which held that the Australian Aborigines were the prototypical Aryans.
The majority were also aggressive and strident anti-British Australian nationalists, though there was also a minority with broader imperial loyalties and connections to Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF).
Religiously, there was a divide between on the one hand the atheists and the uninterested, and on the other hand the devotees of occultic “Teutonic” paganism, similar to the esoteric enthusiasms of some Nazis, such as Himmler and Rosenberg, in Germany.
The most outstanding of the latter was Melbourne barrister Alexander Rud Mills, who met Hitler, and who was a “high priest” of the global Odinist faith.
A divide within the movement, to which Bird constantly refers and treats as fundamental, was that between what he calls the “politicals” (i.e., the activists) and the “poeticals” (i.e., the literary propagandists).
The main platform and vehicle for Australian Nazi supporters between the mid-1930s and 1942 was the Australia First Movement (AFM), whose leading spokesperson and public face was Rhodes scholar P.R. “Inky” Stephensen.
The AFM, under Stephensen (and its financial prop, Sydney accountant W.J. “Billy” Miles), and its monthly newspaper, the Publicist, followed the “poetical” line; but for a few months from late 1941 until early 1942 it tried to operate as a political party.
This venture collapsed with the internment of a number of AFM members on allegations of pro-Japanese sympathies, marking the effective end of the whole pro-Axis push in Australia.
Stephensen, now a largely forgotten figure of Australian history, continued to spout anti-Semitism unrepentantly until his death in 1965.
Many other and better-known members or associates of the movement, such as novelists Xavier Herbert and Miles Franklin, and poets Rex Ingamells and Ian Mudie, had “made their excuses and left” at the outbreak of, or during, the war.
With the possible exception of the rabid Jew-hater Norman Lindsay, the best-known Australian connected with the movement was historian Manning Clark, who was drawn to it by its nationalism, and never comprehensively repudiated his admiration of Stephensen, even after ostentatiously positioning himself on the left.
Years after the war, Clark described Stephensen as a “cultural prophet”, and concluded in Shakespearean vein that “Taken all in all, he was a man”.
This is a sad, empty, pathetic story.
Stephensen came closer to heroic behaviour than any of the other characters in it, when he addressed a public meeting for 90 minutes immediately after having been bashed by six opponents who blackened both his eyes and knocked out two of his teeth.
The movement is now chiefly of interest for having had some significant interpenetration with Australian literary nationalism; but its political ideals (if they can be so dignified) were unpleasant at the time, and in the light of postwar revelations of the real nature of Nazism, have become unthinkable for any civilised person.
What’s more, like the New Guard which preceded it, and Eric Butler’s League of Rights which followed, its lack of popular appeal meant that it was never going to achieve the slightest success politically.
There was never any chance that communism, its equally repulsive extremist counterpart on the left, was ever going to take over Australia either, but communism attracted (and continues to attract) far more support from naïve and influential Australians than fascism ever did, and has been responsible for far more damage.
Bird has accomplished an awe-inspiring tour de force of thorough and detailed research in compiling this book.
The only glaring solecisms I picked up are both on the same page, 338, where he attributes the words of Saint Paul in II Thessalonians 3:10 to Hitler, and the words of the hymn I Vow to Thee My Country to an obscure Nazi railway porter from Sydney.
Unfortunately, his genius as a historical researcher is not matched by any novelistic flair.
There are 400 pages of small type, and his style, despite occasional flashes of humour, is pedestrian, repetitive and over-inclusive.
He has chosen a potentially fascinating (if ultimately depressing) story to tell, but he fails to evoke the period, or to bring his characters to life.
A compulsive page-turner it is not, but it is certainly worth buying, reading and persisting with.