The sport of German-baiting during World War I


There should be a section in any guide to fighting war on the home front about Harry Paech’s Great War, for it shows why Australians have been reluctant to give government the authority to arrest on suspicion, even in times of peril.

In August 1914, Harry Paech, President of Hume Shire, north of Albury in regional NSW, organised several meetings to raise patriotic funds. That was a praiseworthy show of loyalty from a district that had been closely settled by Germans.

German-baiting was already underway, and Harry’s friend Jacob Wenke was not convinced that such displays of Australian patriotism would have any effect. To Wenke, it seemed the future was ‘awfully dark’.

It did not take long for reports to appear of atrocities committed by the fiendish Huns against Belgian nuns and babies. Local Germans were shamed by association, even more so when some expressed sympathy for the enemy. 

The worst shaming was at the ballot box.

At the referendum into hotel hours in June 1916, electoral officials were given the discretion to set aside the votes of people of enemy origin and their children. Even tighter restrictions on the vote were put in place for the conscription referenda.

In 1917 postmen were asked to identify people of enemy origin. They were paid a penny halfpenny for each name that was, as a result, deleted from the electoral roll. That exercise cost government £20 in Hume Shire.

Harry Paech protested loudly against disenfranchisement, which in effect banished people, including the naturalised, from the community. He protested just as loudly against conscription.

Both protests caught the attention of the police. 

Paech was one of several people of interest investigated by officers from a military intelligence unit in 1918. On the basis of their reports, Paech and three of his friends were interned at Holsworthy.

No charges were made or tested in open court. No explanation was ever given, although the local Border Morning Mail newspaper thought authorities reckoned on Germany using its emigrants as an advanced guard of the German conquest.

Official files reveal that Paech was considered dangerously influential. His opposition to conscription may have lowered the rate of recruitment, though no specific action was cited. The files also show a bank manager labelling Walla Walla, Paech’s town, a ‘Berlin’ and a ‘hotbed of disloyalty’. 

Under the guise of religion, the Lutheran Church, insisted on using German. Consequently it had germanised the whole town, including its youth. Some people had pictures of Germany in their houses, even pictures of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm.

Letters petitioning for Paech’s release pointed out that, with his wife, Emma, he had raised £1,253/13/6 for patriotic funds. He was a respected Justice of the Peace and councillor. He had not counselled his own sons against enlisting. 

After his release, ranting returned servicemen ensured he could not take up his position on council in 1920. A discouraged Paech retired from public life. 

The unexplained detention of the Walla Walla four may have helped Australia win the Great War. Nowadays, it remains a salutary lesson in how wars are fought on the home front and an explanation of why many Australians are wary of war.

Bruce PennayBruce Pennay is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Charles Sturt University and a member the management committee of the heritage park on the site of the former Bonegilla migrant reception centre outside Albury-Wodonga.

Topic tags: Bruce Pennay, Bonegilla, immigration, refugees, migration, riot, apology, Downer, Grech



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Existing comments

The Federal Government must apologise to the descendants of German -Australian citizens interned during WWI. It remains a blight on our democracy. Shameful.

Peter Goers | 25 September 2014  

This article by Bruce Pennay is an excellent accompaniment to Andrew Hamilton's "Anti-Islam is the New Anti-Catholicism". Both articles remind us today of our historical alienation of Australian citizens based on their religion or ethnicity shared with "the enemy" in a conflict of the time. Many press columnists, some members of Parliament, and an alarming number of reader-commentators are similarly alienating Australian Muslims today, by seeing potential terrorists in all.

Ian Fraser | 25 September 2014  

When I started my education at a catholic school in Australia in 1950 as a thirteen year old son of Irish migrant parents I was impressed by certain codes of behaviour among my classmates which were sacrosanct. One was - to brown nose, to suck up to the teacher/coach/officer in charge of the cadet corps was despicable. Another was - to dob anyone in to the authorities was a betrayal. I didn't feel any peer group pressure to adhere to these principles. I just did. I admired them. I certainly didn't get them from my parents who were very law-abiding and, respectful of authority - be it personified in a policeman or a priest. I can't say when or how far such schoolboy attitudes were diluted or faded away. To some extent I still have them. But in reverse. When over the course of a public service career attained positions of authority I felt uncomfortable when some of my staff were obsequious towards me or dobbed in others. Human prejudice is a puzzling thing. I have to work against mine on a daily basis.

Uncle Pat | 25 September 2014  

I agree with Ian Fraser. An excellent article and an appropriate reminder for those behaving so shamefully toward Muslim Australians.

Annabel | 27 September 2014  

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