German Nazi Party Members in South Australia’s Barossa Valley

I was interested in an article that was trending on Twitter on the history of Nazis and the far-right in Australia. I was intrigued being of German heritage (on my father’s side) of the photo of men dressed surrounding a Nazi flag, which was taken in the Barossa Valley in 1935. My ancestors migrated to South Australia during the nineteenth century like many Germans. I, unfortunately, could not find a list of names of the men that stood in the photo with the Nazi flag wrapped around the quintessential Australian gum tree and a Barossa vineyard in the background.

What I did discover was that they were not just a group of Nazi enthusiasts. The leader, Dr Johannes Becker, was a German Nazi party member who migrated to the small town of Tanunda in South Australia’s Barossa Valley in 1925. Not only was he the leader of a small Nazi group in South Australia in which he founded in 1932, but he was the leader of the Nazi party for Australia.[1] Becker would be later interned, on the run as a fugitive jumping on a ship bound for South America, and eventually deported back to Germany on 1 December 1947. My main interest in this story is, however, the response to this small group that overshadowed any threat they held. The media’s response to the photo was one I would characterise as hysteria. The photo led to the German South Australian community being characterised as a Fifth Column.

Newspaper articles echoed around the country of suspicious Nazi activity in the German migrant communities of the Barossa. At the start of the war in 13 September 1939 an article wrote of the unusual Nazi activity in South Australia. The article notes Light Square, just north of where the infamous photo was taken as being an area of Nazi activity. The Soldier’s League called for the government to close all German schools in the state. The next day, the Lutheran Church of South Australia swiftly rebuked claims that the community was nothing but loyal to Australia and Great Britain. After it is clear that the Nazi photo at Tanunda became widely known,  on the 27 November 1938, the Mayor of Tanunda defended the residents of the town, declaring that they regarded themselves as Australian. But fears continued to reverberate around Australia of the Tanunda Nazi members whose aim was the Conquest of Australia.

Although, it is important to note that fear of German Nazi conspirators was not thought to be restricted to South Australia. Even before the outbreak of World War II, fear circulated of national-wide Nazi activity with an Adelaide based newspaper on 20 July 1939 setting the tone for paranoia with the title ‘we are watchful.’ However, with the help by Dr Johannes Becker, South Australia was especially singled out as ‘the headquarters of the Nazi Party for the whole of Australia.’ Just days after the end of World War II articles only increased in the interest in the Nazi leader in Tanunda. Adelaide’s The News wrote ‘Chief Confidential Agent Lived in Tanunda.’ Not only did the article claim that a Nazi agent was reporting back to Germany, it made all South Australian German migrants and their descendants suspect. News spread with an article on 6 September 1945 entitled ‘STRONG NAZI FIFTH COLUMN IN S. AUSTRALIA.’ The article reads ‘In the early days of the war Tanunda was known to contain many Nazi supporters. Dead silence often used to fall in hotel bars when men in uniform entered, and some children jeered at our soldiers.’ More alarming still, the article claims that the locals were stockpiling ammunition possibly arousing fear that the war was not over at home. On 11 September 1945, 400 residents of Tanunda protested the newspapers’ claims that associated them with Nazi activity. The reports that associated the small town with Nazism was so strong that a German anti-Nazi campaigner flew into Tanunda from England on 15 August 1946.

I do not wish to diminish how confronting it would have been to see a photo of Nazi loyalists in Australia during World War II. However, the response to the photo was likely compounded by the long-held suspicion of German migrants, where South Australia had a significant German migrant community. By the First World War, German migrants in South Australia made up approximately 10 per cent of the population in comparison to 3 or 4 per cent in other states.[2] Tanunda became known as ‘Little Berlin’ during the war.[3] German migrants in the Barossa were distinct as they had their own dialect, known as ‘Barossa Deutsch.’ [4]

During the First World War, 50 German language schools were closed, German place names were Anglicised, and hundreds of Germans and their descendants were interned on Torrens Island, near Port Adelaide.[5] The conditions were so poor in the concentration camp that it was closed just a year later in 1915. The 300 internees were either released or transferred to another camp in New South Wales.[6] Germans were removed from government buildings and a Bill was introduced to prevent Germans from voting in state elections unless their sons had enrolled in the war.[7] Much the same occurred during World War II. An internment camp was established in the Riverland where 3,000 internees included not only people of German origin (even German Jews fleeing persecution) but also Italians and Japanese.[8]

The fear of far-right extremism in Australia today is very different to what it was around World War II. While fear of fascism was a common factor, Australians during World War II feared German conquest from the large minority group. Although European, they were distinct in their culture and language from the Anglo-Saxon majority. None of the articles surrounding the fear of Nazis I have discussed mention fear or disgust in the spread of white supremacist ideology at home. After all, at the time Australia had the ‘White Australia Policy.’

[1] David S. Bird, Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany, London: Anthem Press, 2014, p. 186.

[2] Gary Gumpl and Richard Kleining, The Hitler Club: The Rise and Fall of Australia’s No.1 Nazi, Brolga Publishing, 2007, p. 17,

[3] Gumpl and Kleining, 2007, p. 23.

[4] Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round, Carol Fort, The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History, Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001, pp. 68, 439, 592.

[5] Prest, Round, Fort, Carol, 2001, pp. 68, 439, 592.

[6] Paul Sendziuk and Robert Foster, A History of South Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018 p. 111.

[7] Sendziuk and Foster, 2018, p. 110.

[8] Sendziuk and Foster, 2018, p. 151.

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