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Subject: Cultural Studies »

John Lack on anti-immigrant sentiment

John Lack and Mara Moustafine.

Historian John Lack reflects on anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1920s



Date Added:

06 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

19.8 MB






We haven’t quite worked out why it was that what seemed on the surface to be a fully integrated, homogenised Australia in 1914 suddenly tears itself apart with victimisation of the Germans who have been among the most honoured migrants in southern Australia, certainly in Victoria and South Australia and turns on the Irish because of their supposed lukewarm attitude to the war. Now that –that’s pretty frightening stuff and again it was my father whose experiences illuminated that for me – not the history books. My father. I’m an historian, if I am an historian – because of my father, because he told good stories, you know and he told me about the teacher with the German name whom they victimised. He told me about the boy Herman whom every day someone wrote on his back, “Herman the German.” Or wrote it on the blackboard.


And you know, he was honest enough to tell me about these things because he’d been involved in them and I think probably he was a little ashamed of it all. But that almost overnight turning on the people of German ancestry, is something pretty frightening to read about. I’m doing a little research on the First World War at the moment and I noticed that within a week of the outbreak of the Great War, the local newspaper was saying, “This is shameful.” So within a week before we’d even sent any troops or anything, I suppose they did have the German invasion of Belgium which was regarded as outrageous.


Local people who presumably you know, are second and third generation German, are being victimised. And then the Irish – we never thought of ourselves as Irish although my father was a quarter Irish, we were Irish and Cornish but mainly English as a family – and then the Irish, the turning on the Irish and the allegation that they weren’t sending people to the front in the numbers of their proportion in the community which was just outrageous nonsense. That’s pretty frightening, so, there was another side to British Australia which under pressure of war could be turned pretty nasty. I don’t think that the recent treatment – the demonising of refugees – the hostility to young Italian men in the ‘50s that I remember very strongly, the attempt to empty out the Asian refugees, wartime Asian refugees are at all surprising when you look back at this other side to Australian society.


Then the other thing that fascinated me in that period was the treatment of the – what were called the Southern Europeans. The Yugoslavs, the Italians and so on who came to Australia and the Greeks. And it – I’d only ever known in my boyhood, before the post-war migration, I’d only ever known Italians who had fruit shops and fish and chips – and the Greeks who had wonderful fish – fish and chips shops they were – they were my people. And of course they were in the comic strips, Ginger Meggs – you know there was an Italian ice cream seller in that, who spoke in humorous broken English.


It wasn’t vindictive but it had a little edge to it even in the comic, when you look back. So when I went to research that period as – to look at the responses to those sojourner migrants, they tended to come as single men to earn a – some money and to go back and maybe return again and then eventually get a little property and bring their family out – fascinating, the whole process is quite fascinating. The incredible hostility to –


End transcript