Breaching the barricade

In 1934, Czech writer and communist, Egon Erwin Kisch, sailed to Australia for what should have been a rather low-key event. He was the guest speaker of the Melbourne branch of the Movement Against War and Fascism. But the United Australia Party, (forerunner of the Liberal Party), had recently been re-elected, and one of their platforms was to eradicate the threat of communism. So they took it as an expression of their mandate to block Kisch’s attempts to land in Australia. The charge was led in the courts by the newly appointed Attorney General, Robert Menzies. His office had received information from the Special Branch in London, from an agent known only as ‘Snuffbox’, regarding a secret file about Kisch and his subversive activities.

The only problem was that the Australian government shouldn’t have had access to this file, even though they used it as the basis of their case against Kisch.

Kisch in Australia details the knots the Australian government tied themselves into in trying to keep Kisch out, and the loopholes Kisch leapt through in order to remain briefly in Australia. ‘This, then’, says the author, Heidi Zogbaum, ‘is the so-far untold story of how Kisch and Menzies, the great antagonists, came to be puppets dangling from invisible strings stretching all the way from London to Melbourne’.

Egon Kisch knew first hand what Hitler was capable of, and the direction in which he was leading Germany. Kisch himself was imprisoned by the Nazis in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire of February 1933, and later deported to Prague. Hitler used this national disaster as an excuse to weaken the liberties of his own citizens, and to target communists, socialists and Jewish intellectuals as dangerous dissidents.

As early as June 1933, Kisch was in England already speaking out against Hitler’s government. There he came to the attention of the Special Branch, a subsidiary of MI5. In September of that year he was prohibited from re-entering England. It was this ban that ‘Snuffbox’ referred to in his cablegrams to Australia the following year. So with little else to go on, other than loyalty to Britain and a fear of communism, the Australian government took steps to ensure Kisch did not repeat his message of peace, or his un-Australian criticisms of Hitler, on our shores.

When Kisch arrived in Fremantle on November 6 1934, his passport was confiscated and he was kept on board his ship, the SS Strathaird. His situation was immediately made public. So by the time he reached Melbourne on 12 November, his story was already well known. Publicity only increased when Kisch, still prohibited from going ashore, forced his own landing on Australian soil. He jumped from the quarterdeck onto the dock, breaking his leg in the attempt.

Meanwhile, his case had reached the High Court in Sydney. The Commonwealth lost the case, and to add to the humiliation they had to pay all costs. Kisch, who had been taken back on board the SS Strathaird, despite his broken leg, was now free to land.

But Menzies was not backing down, and before Kisch could leave the boat he was detained by police and taken to perform the infamous diction test. The test was conducted in Gaelic, and he failed. However, reappearing before the High Court, it was demonstrated that the officer conducting the diction test couldn’t pass the test himself. Kisch was free again, and again the Commonwealth was forced to pay his costs. By May 1935, in a compromise with the Commonwealth, Kisch was back in Paris.

While in Australia, in between speaking engagements—made all the more popular because of his attempted prohibition—Kisch was researching a travel book, published in 1937 called Australian Landfall. Here Kisch related his own treatment in Australia in the context of the White Australia Policy and the situation of the Aborigines. But the book was not available here until 1969, three years after Menzies left government, because Lyons had tightened censorship laws. In 1936, when a journalist tried to obtain a list of the censored books, he found the list itself was also banned.

On the surface, Kisch in Australia is a political farce, and it is in this context an entertaining read. But what makes it all the more interesting is that it also contains many parallels with contemporary events, such as the tendency of governments to use national disasters to restrict citizen’s freedoms and silence dissent; the prevalence of embarrassing intelligence failures; Australia’s habit of misplaced loyalty toward more powerful allies; and our paranoid fear of not so immanent threats. In this regard, Kisch in Australia is not only entertaining, but instructive.

Kisch in Australia: The untold story, Heidi Zogbaum. Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76935 8, rrp $26.95

Matthew Lamb lives in Brisbane.

 

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