Model Workers or Hardened Nazis?
The Australian Debate about Admitting German Migrants, 1950-1952

Angelika E. Sauer, PhD
Chair in German Canadian Studies
University of Winnipeg


The 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Immigration and the implementation of Australia's 'populate or perish' policy has been given much coverage in the Australian press over the past year. Arthur Calwell has become a household name, and his legacy is held up as a model of visionary policy at a time when immigration, once again, is at the forefront of public criticism and debate. Among academics, the immigration program of the postwar Chifley government, and especially its Displaced Persons component, has been dissected and discussed. Its three pillars are well known: the aim of introducing an ethnically desirable mix of national groupings with an emphasis on Baltic refugees to counterbalance migration from Southern Europe; the security issues related to screening out fascist collaborators and communist sympathizers; and most importantly, the devices built into the program to ensure that migrant labour would be channeled into certain sectors of the economy to prevent the economic displacement of native Australians.

What is less well known is that programs implemented in the early 1950s by the Menzies government, such as the 1952 migration agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany, embraced these principles. When the supply of DP labour began to dry up, the government of the day looked for other sources of "northern Europeans" who could be tied to certain jobs and would not cause political embarrassment. Although security concerns shifted in focus from right to left, and the economy now called for skills rather than just physical fitness, the basic thinking remained the same. Within the framework of international demands to help out with Europe's surplus population, immigration policy catered to employers, unions, veterans and a not-too-well organized ethnic vote, all vying for the government's attention. This paper will concentrate on the contours of the debate that surrounded the government's move towards admitting Germans in order to explore the dynamics of this process.


German Australians today look at their history with a considerable amount of pride. Like any self-respecting Australians, the community claims First Fleet ancestry (although, significantly, not on the side of the convicts). Germans participated in the early explorations as well as the opening up of at least two states, South Australia and Queensland. They formed the largest non-British immigrant group in Australia until well into the second half of this century. Shortly after the new Commonwealth was formed, sizable German minorities could be found even in West Australia and Tasmania. All the advantages of being an established community, however, did not prevent German Australians from having to bear the brunt of xenophobia and public hysteria during the Great War. Low interwar immigration figures dealt a further blow : after the Second World War, less than 15,000 residents of Australia were German-born. Yet only two decades later, this figure had risen to well over 100,000.

That there should have been such a steady and considerable flow of migrants from Germany to Australia in the immediate postwar years may seem surprising. During the 1930s, Nazi agitation among the German Australian community had been a cause for concern, and the internment of suspicious persons had promptly followed the outbreak of the war. Those who had engaged in subversive activities - mostly members of the Australian NSDAP but also German businessmen and their families - were deported in 1945. But was the problem restricted to a few troublemakers? Now, at war's end, there were warning voices that the German element had always been (and, by inference, would remain to be) indigestible: a cluster of separatist, unassimilated foreign colonies with a strong pan-German racial consciousness. Would not the introduction of tens of thousands of new Germans, immersed in the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority after twelve years of life in the Third Reich, be bound to endanger social harmony, Australia's political institutions and even national security?

While it is not surprising, then, that there was public opposition to mass German immigration - indeed, it has been asked why other countries, such as Canada, which received even higher numbers of German immigrants, did not experience similar turmoil - the real motivations behind the two sides of the admission debate of the years 1950 to 1952 have to be explored. One characteristic of this debate is that it destroyed the tacit consensus that had existed on the issue of postwar immigration policy. No longer a national issue, immigration became a matter of partisan sniping. Immigration expert James Jupp sought to explain this phenomenon in 1966 by resorting to the standard categories of the Cold War: "The conservatives, who had been so outspoken against anti-Nazi 'reffos' were only too willing to accept anti-Communist 'Balts' and Germans. The Left, which had fought for the former, naturally fought against the latter." Given the less than stellar record of both Right and Left on the issue of anti-Nazi refugees, this explanation may be ideologically satisfying but is hardly convincing.

If German migration pitted the two parties against each other, it was not on a matter of higher principles but as an exercise of party politics in an election campaign and an internal power struggle within the ALP. An earlier part of Jupp's explanation provides a useful key to unlocking the strategies involved: "The fears about German migration were organised and expressed so effectively ... because there was a reasonable basis to them." Some of the members of the ALP tried to use legitimate security concerns to focus the opposition. By addressing the issue early on in the debate and enlisting the support of at least part of the veterans' community, however, the Menzies government managed to create a shaky consensus among middle-class Australians, which capitalized on the traditional ethnic acceptability of Germans in Australian society. In a further move Immigration Minister Harold Holt neutralized the Jewish voice in the loose coalition by putting a spotlight on its role in organizing mass protest meetings, thereby creating the spectre of an anti-semitic backlash. By the spring of 1951, the Menzies government had outmaneuvered those ALP officials who had tried to build German migration into a larger election issue.

Behind the politics of the debate, the issue of German migration developed its own momentum. Employers' demands for a skilled immigrant workforce combined with international (especially Canadian) competition to lend an air of urgency to discussions within the government. While foreign policy concerns and practical problems were addressed in bilateral and multilateral talks in Bonn, Geneva and Canberra, the decision to recruit large numbers of German migrants became more irreversible with every step. The Menzies government proceeded, not out of any commitment to German immigration as an element of national development but in pursuit of a short-term manpower strategy. It quickly slashed numbers and changed its tune when the employment situation, especially for recent migrants, deteriorated in mid-1952.


The first German postwar immigrants started arriving long before the issue reached the front-pages of the newspapers. Unbeknownst to many Australians, many former internees chose to stay in Australia rather than return to their native Germany. Public attention focused on repatriating the German Prisoners of War rather than the members of the Nazi party among these internees - a first indication that ideological and political affiliation mattered less than a former enemy alien's military record. Another group of New German Australians which remained largely unnoticed (and whose size is still difficult to define) were the German-born wives of Displaced Persons. German women did not seem to pose the same security risk as men; a Fršulein,   after all, had to do what she could to find a husband in postwar Germany. The assumption that German women were harmless was one which both parties had in common. Holt later applied the same philosophy in his advocacy of the admission of young single women as nurses and domestics.

Early on the Commonwealth government also had an eye on the special skills and expertise of some Germans. Starting in 1948, under a plan first suggested by the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction, Germans with technical or scientific know-how that was needed to build up new Australian industries were admitted in small numbers. By 1950, with statutory bodies such as the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Authority looking for migrants with trade qualifications for special national development projects, the idea of recruitment in Germany was expanded. Thus, the shift in manpower requirements was the first factor that worked in favour of Germans. The Chifley government had concentrated on the recruitment of unskilled labour - the area of least resistance, so far as the labour unions were concerned; as Arthur Calwell admitted, he "prefer[ed] the horny hand of the son of toil." The new Menzies-Fadden coalition had to switch its focus to the recruitment of skilled workers for development and defence. The new Federal Republic of Germany was identified quickly as providing the best pool of this type of migrant. An "almost unlimited numbers of building tradesmen and other skilled workers can be obtained" in Germany, John Storey, industrialist and chairman of the Immigration Planning Council, reported from his European visit in June 1950. The Australian Military Mission in Berlin added that "the German skilled worker has as much industry and pride of craft as any and that ... the German system of apprenticeship and trade testing makes for high standards."

That the image of Germans as 'model workers' was shared by other state-owned enterprises and private companies became clear with an increasing number of requests for German workers. By the end of the year, the Snowy Mountain Authority advertised in the Berlin paper Der Abend   for 600 German tradesmen; the first group of 44 were flown in by the southern fall of 1951. The Tasmania Hydro Electric Commission recruited in the Berlin area as well. Over 500 German workers were needed for the Commonwealth Railways, 900 for South Australian Railways ( a transport of 450 workers from Hamburg and Berlin arrived in Adelaide in late June of 1952 ). The Australian Aluminum Production Commission in Tasmania applied for 53 German building workers to erect prefabricated houses; A.V.Jennings Construction of Canberra followed suit with a request for German carpenters. The young men selected for this venture were said to be "of particularly high standard, of good physique and obvious intelligence."

As German workers under these "Special Projects" were specifically requested by a company, the question of keeping them tied to a job in a two-year contract did not pose any problems. Slightly more complicated was the issue of transportation. In the DP tied-labour scheme, the Australian government had relied on international financial and shipping assistance for the long and expensive voyage to the Southern Hemisphere. DPs were financed by the IRO and transported on IRO ships. For a while, as the IRO was winding up its operations, the companies requesting German workers were able to transport them on IRO ships and planes but reimbursed the fare, later to be recovered from the migrant. This was a stop-gap measure and unsuitable for large-scale assisted migration. Therefore, when the Commonwealth government began lobbying for an international organization for the promotion of European Emigration in mid-1950, it had in mind especially the US.-funded subsidies granted by such a body: "Our direct benefit woul d be reception of relatively cheap German migrants." The establishment of PICMME (Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe) in late 1951 met Australian needs and solved the practical aspect of the problem of German migration.

In fact, participation in PICMME killed two birds with one stone, as it also served some foreign policy aims. The Western occupying powers in Germany had been concerned about the social, economic and political effects of overcrowding for quite some time. At first it was the French government which approached Calwell during his 1947 visit to Europe. He declined to consider the German surplus population as a possible source of migrants, explaining that the "question of admitting enemy aliens was full of political implications and we had to tread wearily." By 1949 a Working Party, set up by the three Military Governors, made inquiries about the Australian attitude to German immigration; as a favour to Britain, Australia was reported to have agreed to take over 31,000 ethnic German refugees from the British zone. By the time the Menzies government took office, the international situation had deteriorated, and the United States took a leading role in promoting German emigration as a means to stabilize the country. The Australian government, Immigration Minister Holt argued in an article in the conservative paper Argus,   could help ease the strain and make a gesture of goodwill. This sentiment was echoed in the rationale behind the 1951 Immigration Programme but promptly earned the government the accusation that it was all too willing to cooperate in American Cold War measures and to appease fascism.

Another international factor that impacted more directly upon Australian considerations involved the recruitment activities of other countries. In August 1950, the Minister for External Affairs warned the Immigration Minister that there would be an "early competition from other countries such as Canada which is paying according to my information special attention to Germany." Australian visitors to Germany over the following months confirmed this assessment. One reported that the "Canadians are most active in encouraging German migration, and Canadian officials were enthusiastic in their comments on the German as a migrant." Another visitor observed that Canadian instructions set no limit as to the number of Germans that could be recruited. Australia's chances to obtain good German settlers were diminished by this competition; "if the subject is deferred for any considerable time, the cream of the German people available for migration will have already been selected and transported to other countries."

With this sense of urgency, and the momentum building behind the programme from other sources, the government tackled the problem in the domestic arena. In February 1950 Holt indicated that government was considering a scheme to bring German migrants to Australia in 1951. This trial balloon was followed by an immediate effort to bring the veterans' organizations on the government's side. Delegations of key officials were sent on tours of security bases in Europe to demonstrate to them that the security screening of Germans would be satisfactory. The leadership was impressed but the membership was not: A motion in August 1950 to allow selected German migrants to come to Australia was voted down by the New South Wales Branch of the RSL by 91:71. The Federal Executive overturned the vote, but the government made sure to emphasize strict security screening in all subsequent announcements with respect to German migration. Throughout 1951 RSL leaders were encouraged to scrutinize the security apparatus and the provisions made for the screening of German applicants.

While veterans groups were pacified with the promise of careful selection, the government also relied upon the traditional scale of ethnic ranking to win over mainstream Australians. Germans had in fact some outspoken advocates among officials. The head of the Australian Military Mission in Berlin, NoŽl Deschamps, regarded them "particularly good types." The Deputy Chair of the Immigration Advisory Council confessed to being "most impressed with the orderliness, application to work and general social and hygienic standards of the German." The selection officers in Germany also reported that they were "very favourably impressed" by the German applicants who were "much superior in every way to the displaced persons presented to the selection teams recently." If Germans compared favourably to DPs, they beat Italians by a much larger margin. Italians were " not as clean, smart, or intelligent as the types he saw in Holland or Germany," an RSL official reported. The prejudice against Italians among veterans was well known in government circles and put to good use. However, there can be little doubt that the government itself considered it important to create a northern European counterbalance to migration from Italy. Germans, it was argued, assimilated more easily and generally fitted in while Italians did not.

With about two thirds of the Australian public willing to accept carefully selected German immigrants by late 1950 and the approval of both Immigration Planning and Advisory Councils, the government went on the offensive and revealed its plans for 1951 which included over 20,000 German migrants, mostly Volksdeutsche.   The announcement was greeted by large protest meetings in Melbourne and Sydney. Defending the program at the Jubilee Citizenship Convention in January, Holt reminded his audience that "many of our most industrious, law abiding and valuable citizens are people of German origin." Prime Minister Menzies jumped into the fray as well: While he had reminded delegates a year earlier that "the German settlers in this country have made an imperishable contribution to the wheat industry of Australia and to the whole history of rural development in Australia," he now claimed that Australia would have missed out on some of its celebrated citizens if it had not been for German migration in the past. Both Holt and Menzies demanded that the discussion about admitting German migrants not be based on unacceptable racial prejudice. Holt went so far as to claim that objections to German migration came "mainly from sectional groups, and in particular from Jewish organisations." He then spelled out - "in all friendliness to our Jewish friends" - that many members of the Jewish community would not have been admitted to Australia if it had not been for Australian "tolerance, good sense, and humanity." If anyone was justified to voice opposition, it was the veterans - not the former refugees. Only later did he admit that the "bitterness" of the Jewish community "towards the German race" was "understandable."

By using the racial card - to apply a current term - and isolating the Jewish community in the opposition to German migration, Holt played an insidious game. Although anti-semitism, according to Australian Holocaust expert Paul Bartrop, was not endemic in Australian society, it was a factor sufficiently strong to blur the issues. Among immigration officials , for example, the prewar determination to keep Jewish immigration limited to a minimum still lingered. Having found its earlier expression in the stipulation that no more than 15% of any group of Displaced Persons could be Jewish, it now resulted in another simple but warped argument: in view of the "antagonism towards both displaced persons and German migrants" shown by Jewish interests, vacant berths on ships carrying German migrants should not be allocated to Jewish Landing Permit holders. More importantly, sections of the Australian public did not react well to the perception that mass protests were organized solely by Jewish groups. One reader in Perth complained that a Town Hall Meeting on 22 January 1951 reflected an "attempt by a minority to bring pressure to bear on a Government Department," while another claimed that the resolutions passed represented not Western Australia but "the prejudiced feelings of an audience which was 90 per cent Jewish."

The interpretation of the opposition movement to German migration as a Jewish protest persists in much of the literature that mentions the events. It is certainly true that Jewish groups were among the driving organizational forces behind Town Hall meetings and letter-writing campaigns. The Council of Australian Jewry, according to its President, Ben Green, was behind a nation-wide campaign against the government's plans in early 1951, which started with a crowded but orderly meeting in Perth, moved to an equally uneventful "conference" in Melbourne but culminated in a mass public protest in Sydney that got "a little out of hand" and ended in a brawl. By that time, other interests had clearly taken over and the protest began to resemble a political streetfight. Some newspaper reports blamed "New Australians" and "dark, swarthy" men as the instigators of public unrest. The Tribune   took the opportunity to blast the government, proclaiming that those "present at the meeting felt it could be the turning-point, the beginning of a united movement that can rapidly oust the Menzies government from office." The audience was reminded how democratic people could remedy the situation if their protest was ignored, and the meeting's most prominent participant, Dr. Herbert Evatt, gleefully predicted that the government would "meet with a stern judgment from the people of Australia."

This had the air of an election campaign, and it has to be stressed that by February 1951 the issue of German migration had indeed become a function of a political struggle, within the ALP and between the Labor Party and the government. Accusations were flying. Margaret Kent-Hughes, a trade unionist, insinuated that there had been a directive given to the newspapers by Canberra to tow the line on the question of German migration - suspicions that were partly based an editorial in which the Sydney Morning Herald   rendered Holt's justification of the programme almost verbatim. Another prominent participant, Labor MP Les Haylen, charged that intimidation by the press had made the organization of the Sydney Town Hall meeting difficult , and Dr. Evatt also claimed that there had been attempts to interfere with the conduct of the meeting. "[T]he use of the red bogey against the meeting," Kent-Hughes said, "reminded her of what she had seen when teaching in Germany in 1936-37."

While the Labor contingent of the protest meeting linked the government to Nazis and fascists, the accused continued their at the time well-entrenched pattern of attacking the opposition for its alleged communist sympathies. Holt pointed out that Evatt, who was so outspoken on the Nazis, seemed rather quiet on the Communists. In a supportive editorial, the West Australian   echoed the Minister's charge, declaring it ironic that several Communist organizations supported the Sydney meeting and deploring that Evatt had seen fit to "associate himself so outspokenly with this particular campaign." While this was probably standard political fare, a barely discernible rift in the ALP was potentially more serious and eagerly exploited by the government. Arthur Calwell, former Immigration Minister and unsuccessful leadership contender, had appeared on the same platform with Holt at the Citizenship Convention and was praised by him for transforming immigration into a national programme that remained untouched by "controversies of party politics" and "carping criticism." In fact the ALP party brass did not endorse the protest staged by Evatt; instead, the federal president warned that the Communist Party might be seeking to make capital on the issue and maintained that "there was no official Labor policy on the admission of Germans as migrants." Even during the election campaign in April 1951,Calwell continued to stress that "the Labor party had no prejudice against the G erman people," although he promised that his party would not allow mass migration of Germans for security reasons.

These, then, were the arguments on both sides of the issue. Opposition to German migration was based on numbers and the influence of Nazi ideology on the German mind, and especially young people. A proper security screening would be impossible, given the sheer numbers involved - and in any case: "Not screening but a clairvoyant could see into the hidden recesses of the German mind." The Germans, Evatt predicted in an ABC broadcast, would "set up a core of anti-democratic and subversive colonies" and introduce to Australia the "dangerous pan-Germanic idea of racial superiority." Public speakers stressed that their protest was not against the 'Germans as Germans,' but to some Australians the issue was far more clear-cut: "Germans are notorious meddlers, arrogant to a degree, and without any natural instinct for the democratic way of life," one person wrote. "Let us get British, Dutch and Scandinavian settlers."

Letters to the editor in favour of German migrants, on the other hand, stressed their historical record of assimilation, especially in the second generation. "Germans assimilate with us perfectly. ... I believe German migrants of the right type will be a valuable addition to our population," one reader wrote, and another: "Germans make good settlers and are good fighters, and their descendants will grow up to our way of life." The government's assurances of proper security screening and careful selection were widely accepted, while a complete ban of Germans was condemned, even ridiculed. "The total exclusion of German migrants," the Sydney Morning Herald   editorialized, "could be justified only on the assumption that all Germans are bad Germans - a racial theory of the very kind which the Nazis upheld and which Jewish critics of the government have been the first, very naturally, to condemn." The West Australian   agreed: "At the least - apart from the understandable Jewish attitude - there is being displayed an unreasoning intolerance which would apparently condemn and outlaw an entire people ... . How many Australians really believe that there are no decent Germans...?" On balance, it seems, the widespread opposition predicted by Evatt never materialized.

A key element in the government's defence of its German migration program was the importance of German trade skills to the Australian economy. This crucial point explains why the Menzies government pulled back from its original plans even after it won the election in late April 1951. By this time, West German government officials, including Chancellor Adenauer himself, had indicated their keen interest in the possibility of expanding the flow of migration from Germany to Australia. In early April 1951, the Australian representative in Bonn eagerly arranged for a German delegation - consisting of people with no Nazi background and fluent in English - to be sent to Australia for informal talks on existing Special Projects and future migration prospects. To his great frustration, Canberra then began dragging its feet and postponing the visit several times. When an invitation was finally re-issued by early November 1951, German priorities had changed; the delegation did not arrive until late April 1952.

The central importance of economic agendas became obvious in these talks. The Germans were anxious to have Australia's help in assisting German refugees who could not find employment in West Germany. The delegation lobbied for the admission of farmers with dependents but were told that Australia was looking for young, single and highly qualified skilled workers. The Germans firmly maintained that, for political reasons, there had to be explicit assurances that both skilled and unskilled labour, as well as entire families would be accepted by Australia. A compromise was hammered out over thenext couple of weeks. The Australian government itself had shifted towards an emphasis on agricultural labour in its programme for 1952 and, in a dramatic turnaround in mid-year, curtailed overall immigration figures by 50% with a focus on family-oriented migration for the purpose of population building. This provided the context for Holt's announcement in June 1952 that the country would accept 10,000 skilled and rural workers from West Germany within the next twelve months and later reductions of that number. Whereas the original agreement with the German delegation spoke of 8,000 German migrants for 1952, the number mentioned at the signing ceremony of the German-Australian Migration Agreement on August 29, 1952 at the Palais Schaumburg in Bonn was 4,000, including 2,400 dependents.

Thus, German migration to Australia never happened on quite the grandiose scale envisaged in 1950. However, the culprit was the Australian economy rather than a widespread fear of admitting hardened Nazis. Endorsement by the RSL of the government's screening procedures had made security a non-issue; in any case Australians had all along been more worried about military records than Nazi ideology. Nazism seemed a concern of the past, and communism the new national preoccupation. The new Federal Republic of Germany was rehabilitated in the eyes of the Western powers, and its citizens returned to an acceptable status. The perceived assimilability of Germans and inherent trust in the robustness of the Australian political system also accounted for a widespread endorsement of the government's plan. The public debate of the issue, which climaxed in early 1951, reflected various cross-currents of genuine concern, vested interests and political agendas but never amounted to a general rejection by Australians of German migration.

The Menzies government never wavered in its determination to include German migrants in its manpower strategy. As Immigration Minister Holt said, "some excellent potential migrants are to be found in Germany, including very many skilled tradesmen and other specialists in the categories we need." "There is an unusually qualified reservoir of human material here," the Daily Telegraph   reported at the time of Holt's visit to Europe in 1952. Work, it said, was the new religion of Germany, and "those Germans who do come can be counted upon to bring in their heads much inventiveness from a land which has many claims to ingenuity... ." The Australian government had no intention of letting this potential asset slip away, or worse, be scooped up by industrial competitors such as Canada. German 'model workers' were welcome under the Southern Cross.


NOTE: Footnotes not included in this electronic version. For further information contact the author.

© Angelika Sauer, March 1996


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