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Subject: Cultural Studies »

Andrew Markus on the role war plays in intensifying racism

Andrew Markus.

Historian Andrew Markus explains the role war plays in intensifying racism



Date Added:

06 February 2009


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mov (Quicktime);

File size:

12.5 MB






... in a time of war where any issues of life and death are paramount, you can get a very rapid shift in attitude and we’ve seen that repeatedly. A sense that, you know: my country, right or wrong, that we have to think in terms of absolutes, 100 and zero, we don’t have the luxury in these circumstances to draw fine distinctions. Those sort of attitudes tend to be paramount in times of conflict and warfare. Interestingly though, quickly as those attitudes can come, they can dissipate as quickly. So what actually characterises that is the crisis and once the crisis passes, then the traditional attitudes can be re-established.


If I can just give you a very simple example: during the Second World War, Australia’s great enemy included the Germans. And again, in that context, it was difficult to be a German Australian. But after the war, in fact even during the war, there was a disposition to treat for example, German prisoners of war as of better stock than for example Italian prisoners of war or prisoners of war from other areas. And straight after the Second World War, Australia joined the rush to recruit German scientists. Because they were – had knowledge that would benefit Australia and in the 1950s, early 1950s there was a major controversy in Australia about recruiting from Germany and from former German lands as immigrants to Australia, which created considerable controversy in Australia.


So while at a time of conflict attitudes can shift very rapidly and you can get demonisation and hostility and very difficult for people to live if they’re on the wrong side of the group that’s being demonised, those attitudes often are not permanent but are really a function of that crisis.


One of the impacts of the Second World War was to entrench some of those racial hostilities that the conduct of the Japanese would necessarily explained in terms of culture and in terms of trying to understand what might have motivated the Japanese, to take a very aggressive policy in the Asian context but to explain that in racial terms and to see their behaviour as a function of their racial heritage and again, one might reflect on the aftermath of the Second World War, in which you have like a reinforcement of hostility towards particularly the Japanese, as a function of racial understandings but quite a rapid dissipation of attitudes towards the Germans and hostilities towards the Germans. Such that, Australians took – had great difficulty in trying to understand why there was this desire for German war criminals to be punished.


If we think that through again even to the present time, that issue that particularly in the Jewish community, that you find, the way that the war is understood as opposed to often mainstream understandings of what happened. And yet, you’ve got very strongly entrenched hostility towards the Japanese. To give you a couple of examples: there’s the issue of Japanese war brides. The issue of Japanese war brides is that there were Australian troops as part of the army of occupation, after the Second World War and some of these married Japanese women – just a small number – now when they sought to bring their wives to Australia, you know that was a really major issue, it provoked hostility in parliament, Arthur Calwell who was the minister of immigration basically vowed never to basically allow this to happen and yet look for evidence of Australian soldiers marrying German brides and I think you probably won’t find any reference to it, because it wasn’t a controversy. It wasn’t an issue.


And yet, here were these two opponents and foes of Australia in the Second World War if anything there’s some respect for the way that the Germans had fought – a tendency not to look at some aspects of that war and a rapid reinforcement of attitudes and hostilities against the Japanese.


End transcript