The enemy at home
German internees in World War I Australia
review by Craig Wilcox

Almost the first thing you see after climbing the Museum of Sydney's blond stairs toward the temporary exhibition The Enemy at Home is Billy Hughes come back to life. A flickering, ghostly film shows Australia's prime minister for most of the First World War shaking his fist at some grave threat. That threat, the film subtitles tell us, is Germany — not the stolidly respectable republic of today but the spike-helmeted warrior-kingdom of a century ago, locked in combat with half the world for four bloody years from 1914 to 1918.

large AV screen in the 
    Enemy at Home exhibition
The large screen display in the Enemy at Home exhibition

© 2011 Migration Heritage Centre: Powerhouse Museum

The vast project of preventing Germany from dominating Europe and then bullying the rest of the planet sucked in societies from Brazil to Bengal. New weapons like chlorine gas and old strategies like naval blockade killed millions. The lives of millions more were twisted off course, usually for the worse. Among them were 7000 men interned in Australia during the war as 'enemy aliens'. Most of them subjects or former subjects of the German emperor or his client the Austrian emperor, they were living here or visiting when the war broke out, or were captured from German merchant and naval ships. The Enemy at Home interprets their wartime experience behind barbed wire, inspired by photographs taken by Paul Dubotzki.
On the eve of the war, Bavarian-born Dubotzki was photographer with a German mission to East Asia that might have been gathering military intelligence as well as scientific and anthropological data. When the war began he was apparently in Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, as the German-controlled portion of today's Papua New Guinea was called in that age of empires, photographing military reservists and police and captioning the results in code.[1] Somehow he made his way to Adelaide, where he was arrested as an enemy alien in 1915 but not considered a spy. He was interned on nearby Torrens Island, then in Holsworthy outside Sydney, then at Trial Bay Gaol in northern New South Wales among internees of wealth and social standing, and once more in Holsworthy. Allowed to carry the mission's camera equipment with him, he snapped images of his fellows, his guards and himself. His view from the machine gun tower that loomed over Holsworthy reveals the soul-destroying military architecture of the place, block after identical block. His shot of normal-looking men in a normal-looking store in Trial Bay captures another, gentler side of the internment story.
Internee Art Studio 1, Trial Bay
Photograph on the gallery wall of prisoners in Internee Art Studio 1, Trial Bay

photograph by Paul Dubotzki
© 2011 Migration Heritage Centre: Powerhouse Museum

A playwright and researcher called Nadine Helmi rescued Dubotzki's work from nine decades of obscurity. She found some of his photographs in the Trial Bay Gaol museum, then a thousand more kept by his family in Bavaria along with precious relics from a long life as a dedicated photographer. But if their discovery sparked the exhibition, Dubotzki's photographs are hard to pick out from everything else in The Enemy at Home. Despite Helmi's generous appraisal of them, the photographs are more illustrative than insightful, and sometimes not even illustrative. Dubotzki was no artist, and his subject matter was an elusive one: the slow, ulcerous burn of cramped confinement instead of the beating, starvation and murder that internees in so many other countries have experienced over the past century.

Then again, the greatest of photographs would struggle to stand out amid the exhibition's delightful objects and dubious text.

The objects are few and, in a way, unspectacular — some letters and newspapers, a couple of wooden boxes with carved lids, a camera, an internee's coat, a zither. It's their survival that's remarkable, along with their momentary rescue from the Dubotzki family and the vaults of various institutions. From Sydney's Mitchell Library come written appeals by internees to the outside world, one with a frantic message of 'Long live Liberty Fraternity Equality and down with those who force us to [be] slaves', that suggests the writers' desperation and sheer, uncomprehending indignation. From Berrima's district museum comes a dowdy framed memorial to some camp guards that tries to wrap a neat khaki bow around a different story, that of an embarrassingly undangerous war service. The Australian War Memorial supplied the internee's coat — dull enough if seen from the front but unsettling or comical from the rear, on which its wearer sewed in large letters three German words nicely calculated to give his guards a good case of apoplexy — 'Gott strafe England'. But the most evocative objects may be the little zither with its crimson cover, given by an internee to a local girl and treasured ever since, and one of those wooden boxes with a crude carving of Holsworthy's machine gun tower.

Internee's jacket, on display in
     The Enemy at Home
Internee's jacket, on display in The Enemy at Home

© 2011 Migration Heritage Centre: Powerhouse Museum

Fragments from the past like these speak quietly and intimately if we let them. Unfortunately, as with nearly all exhibitions in Australia, they're largely talked over by a wordy written narrative, in this case outlining and criticising internment in Australia during the First World War. Panels and labels explain how and where internees were housed, how they occupied their time, how they bickered among themselves, how their guards treated them, how they were released after the war — sometimes with disdainful expulsion from Australia. 'I can't read that writing', a child complained to his mother on one occasion I visited The Enemy at Home, 'It's too hard.' In fact the style is easy, admirably so. The problem is the sheer weight and slight dogmatism of the words, which together conscript the subtle photographs and objects into illustrating some point or other, discouraging visitors from giving them a second glance, from sensing their ambiguities and multiple messages, from making up our own minds about them. You're there to read and learn and move on, as the child intuitively understood, not to look and wonder.
Enemy at Home exhibition gallery
Enemy at Home exhibition gallery

© 2011 Migration Heritage Centre: Powerhouse Museum

But all this text is necessary, someone who works at the museum assured me, because most people know nothing about wartime internment — about what we did to them, as she put it.
The view that Australia hounded its essentially harmless German minority during the First World War might be news to many people. But it's been around at least since the publication in 1980 of Michael McKernan's masterful book The Australian People and the Great War. McKernan pointed to an ugly impulse among Australians who didn't or couldn't enlist to take a stick to a hitherto harmless minority. Heavily committed to a geographically remote war effort, these civilians 'needed to manufacture a war close at hand lest their knitting and fund-raising be their only real war experience'.[2] Another historian, Gerhard Fischer, built on McKernan's insight to write his own book about wartime internment, Enemy Aliens, a dark and detailed account that condemned 'Anglo-Saxon Australians' for closing ranks against the German minority.[3]
Gerhard Fischer collaborated with Nadine Helmi in creating the overall interpretation behind The Enemy at Home — an interpretation in which the all-too-human impulse spied by Michael McKernan becomes a bureaucratic policy to destroy a community. 'The prime minister, Billy Hughes, was determined to create an enemy at home to galvanise the war effort, while ridding what he saw as an Anglo-Celtic nation of a potentially dangerous minority', was how the Sydney Morning Herald put Fischer's view when covering the exhibition's opening.[4] 'Germany was the new superpower on the block', Helmi told the Herald, and 'Hughes was determined to destroy German enterprise and influence' in Australia. The exhibition text nudges us to see how political and, well, how Anglo the whole project was. Indeed the 'practice of establishing concentration camps', one panel claims, was 'first employed by the British during the Boer War'. To mention that Spanish camps established in Cuba were the model for all modern internment and concentration camps, or that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia took the cake when it came to abusing camp inmates, would have risked muddying the message.
Racial cleansing and commercial advantage, if any Australian seriously held these motives, were no more than stupid justifications for a harsh but understandable and, all things considered, fairly restrained wartime policy. That's not to say that internment didn't damage hundreds of men and their families, often unfairly, sometimes pointlessly. But it was the product of a rougher age than ours, and by the standards of the day it was usually carried out humanely. 'Conditions are just unbearable', the exhibition quotes one internee as saying. But his heartbroken cry is challenged by The Enemy at Home's many photographs of well-fed, well-clothed, well-exercised men who were rarely denied the books and paper, the cloth and paints and canvas, to sustain a diverting cultural life. Civilians in Berrima protested that local internees had things too good, and the military authorities intervened — to exclude civilians from a zone outside the camp where internees were allowed to wander freely.
Internee smallgoods kitchen, Holsworthy
Large photographs, such as this one of a smallgoods kitchen for internees, dominate the exhibition

photograph by Paul Dubotzki
© 2011 Migration Heritage Centre: Powerhouse Museum

It was ridiculous to lock up Edmund Resch, the 70-year old brewer naturalised in 1889 who had encouraged many of his employees to enlist to fight his native Germany. The 'old brewer', Fischer wrote in Enemy Aliens, 'was forced to spend twelve horrid months in the overcrowded barracks of the German Concentration Camp at Holdsworthy [sic], to be released only two weeks after the armistice in November 1918.'[5] An exhibition panel repeats this sorry tale. But according to the newspapers Resch was released after just three months.[6]

It seems that only two in five German nationals in Australia were ever interned. And wasn't it reasonable to imprison young Germans legally obliged to try to return to their homeland and enlist, ditto sailors hauled off German warships? What should have been done with Dubotzki himself? Apart from having at least one brother in the German army, he seems to have been cataloguing British resources in South-East Asia as war approached. If Dubotzki had been an Australian photographer on German soil in 1914 he might have had to answer some tough questions, and at the very least surrender his camera. He would surely have ended up in Ruhleben, the wartime home outside Berlin for British subjects in Germany who were rounded up rather more smartly and interned no more or less humanely than their opposite numbers in Australia.

But it might not matter that the exhibition's message is a dubious one. The quiet and intimate voice of what's on display whispers under all those heavy-handed words in a voice that Nadine Helmi and Gerhard Fischer might approve of and could have encouraged. As I watched visitors engage with the exhibition I eavesdropped on comments that children made to teachers and husbands made to wives. No one showed the old Australian prejudice against a wartime enemy. Most seemed to take in what they saw — or, more often, what they read — less as a condemnation of what we did to them than a kind of proof of individual ingenuity and faith in the human spirit in depressing conditions that the winds of war could blow towards any one of us one day.

Craig Wilcox is a historian who lives in Sydney and takes occasional tours for the Historic Houses Trust.

Exhibition: The Enemy at Home: German Internees in World War I Australia

Migration Heritage Centre and Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales

Curator: Nadine Helmi
Designer: Cathy Osborne
Venue/dates: Museum of Sydney, 7 May – 11 September 2011
Catalogue: Nadine Helmi & Gerhard Fischer with contributions from Beth Hise, Stephen Thompson & Mark Viner, The Enemy at Home, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2011, 288 pp., RRP $44.95
Website: enemyathome/the-enemy-at-home, Stephen Thompson (original concept, content and project management), Annette Loudon (designer, working from the exhibition design by Cathy Osborne)

1 Nadine Helmi and Gerhard Fischer with contributions from Beth Hise, Stephen Thompson and Mark Viner, The Enemy at Home, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2011, pp. 8–9.
2 Michael McKernan, The Australian People and the Great War, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 177.
3 Gerhard Fischer, Enemy Aliens, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1989, pp. 6, 9.
4 Steve Meacham, 'Portraits of life from behind barbed wire', Sydney Morning Herald online edition, 4 May 2011.
5 Fischer, Enemy Aliens, p. 122.
6 Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1918, p. 6, and other Australian newspapers from 28 February to early March.