53. Anti-German sentiment in the Shire of Alberton to the end of 1915

Why does the Kaiser drink out of a saucer? – Because all the German “mugs” have been ordered to the front.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 16/10/1914, p2.

This post continues the focus on the hyper-patriotism that was evident from the start of the War. It looks at anti-German sentiment evident in the local community through to the end of 1915. While there were very few people with a German background living and working in the Shire of Alberton, there was widespread fear and loathing of ‘Germans’, and anti-German sentiments and actions were on display. 100 years on, the anti-German behaviour exhibited in the local community seems far-fetched, if not farcical.  However, it also points to the degree that people used the anti-German hysteria to flaunt their patriotism. Patriotism became a cover for anti-social, vindictive and even violent behaviour. The local media reported, and thereby fuelled, the general hysteria.

In the public mind, Germany had caused the War. It had denied Belgium’s neutrality and drawn Britain and its Empire, reluctantly, into the War. Germany’s military conduct in Belgium, characterised by real and imagined atrocities, was further proof of its brutality.  Also, over several decades the view had formed that the German state and German culture itself were inherently and overtly militaristic. On the other hand, Britain and its Empire were regarded as democratic and liberal. Germany was portrayed as a ruthless, technologically-advanced and implacable enemy, and it posed the greatest threat the Empire had ever faced.

The 1911 census gave an indication of the small number of Germans in the Shire of Alberton. In the County of Buln Buln, which included the Shire of Alberton as well as the greater number of towns and settlements in Gippsland, there were only 176 people who had been born in Germany. By contrast, 2,119 had been born in England, 768 in Scotland, 87 in Wales and 1,168 in Ireland. There were even more born in Scandinavian nations (190) than Germany.  In terms of the general immigration of German-born people to Victoria – for the whole of Victoria, the overall number in the 1911 census was just over 6,000 – the data indicated that those born in Germany tended to be in their fifties, sixties or seventies, indicating that they had been living in Australia for many years prior to the outbreak of War. Moreover, the great majority of these were naturalised. They were also English-speaking. Basically, the number of German immigrants living in the Shire of Alberton was minimal, and the great majority of this small number would have been naturalised. However, the more important observation is that the minimal numbers did not in any way curb the general sense of paranoia in the community or the obsession to expose ‘Germans’ or German sympathisers.

The focus for this post is the initial display of attitude to those very few people in the local community who did have a German background.

The local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 23 October 1914 gave an account of proceedings in the police court at Yarram involving an assault on a local man, Robert New. Robert Rodgers New was a labourer of Yarram. New was assaulted by another local, Stanley Campbell, who was convicted and fined £1, in default one month’s imprisonment. The charge of assault was common at the time but what was striking about this case was that Campbell assaulted New because he was convinced that he (New) was a German. It is worth quoting the report in some detail because it offers an insight into the inevitable consequences of the heady mix of paranoia, alcohol and innate aggression.

While walking from Freudenthal’s shop [Frederick William Max Hellmutt Freudenthal was the local baker in Yarram] to Weir’s boarding house he [Robert New] saw Campbell with some children, to whom he gave some lollies. Noticed he had drink, and said to him “You appear to be having a good time.” Campbell followed him along Commercial Street as far as the Commercial Hotel, and joined other men.  He called out “are you German?” New replied, “Who told you so? I am an Australian, like you.” Coming back, Campbell stopped him, and kept repeating ”You are a German.” New jokingly replied, “What if I am.” Campbell then drew a bottle full of beer from his pocket and hurled it at his head. Fortunately it missed its mark.  New said, “You are mad: I am a Britisher born and bred.” Campbell tried to get another bottle out of his pocket, at the same time using filthy language. New then went inside the passage where Campbell struck him. New told Campbell that he was so helpless that he would not hit him. Others interfered and wanted them to go to the rear of the hotel and have it out. The invitation was declined. New then informed the police.

At the trial, New was keen to make it clear he held no German sympathies:

… New said he was not a German, nor had he expressed sympathy with the Germans. A brother of his had enlisted, and were he a single man would go to the war himself.

For his part, Campbell had no recollection of events:

Accused, interrogated by the bench, said he knew nothing about it, and had nothing to say.

The two justices on the bench were keen to make an example of Campbell and they were clearly keen to rein in people’s aggressive and misplaced patriotic urges. This was not how decent, law-abiding people who were committed to democratic principles behaved.

Mr Blanc [one of the 2 justices] said no man should be accused of being a German, even if he were, so long as he was a peaceable and law-abiding citizen. He cautioned accused [Campbell] to let Germans alone, so long as they did not interfere with the people. Australia was a free country.

What was not made clear in this report was the fact that Campbell was calling out New as a German because he had been in Freudenthal’s bakery. The bakery was called the Yarram Bakery.

The connection to Freudenthal and his shop  became much clearer about a month later when another local – Walter Mitchell, pound-keeper of Yarram – was found guilty of offensive behaviour against Frederick Freudenthal, baker of Yarram. Like Campbell, Mitchell was also under the influence and he claimed he had no recollection of the events. The report of the court proceedings in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative  on 13 November 1914 was detailed and would have been read very closely by the locals.

In brief, Freudenthal claimed that he was outside his shop when Mitchell approached him and asked first for some tobacco and then a coat. Freudenthal noted that Mitchell was ‘a bit under the influence of liquor’. When Freudenthal turned down Mitchell’s requests, Mitchell proceeded to call out loudly and repeatedly that Freudenthal was a ‘___ German’. He was doing this so that all those within earshot, including the neighbours, would hear.  Freudenthal’s wife heard the yelling and carry on from inside the shop and she, not Freudenthal,  called the police. Freudenthal himself did not want to make anything of the incident.

Subsequently, Constable Mcleod had become involved. Only after this did Mitchell seek to apologise for his behaviour. Constable McLeod obviously took a poor view of the attack on Freudenthal’s reputation and argued that … such behaviour should be put down. He also wanted to make it very public that Freudenthal … was a naturalised British subject.

The justices agreed with Constable Mcleod and even though the behaviour had not gone beyond the offensive, taunting and very public remarks, Mitchell was found guilty of the charge of offensive behaviour in a public place and fined £1, in default seven days.  The bench noted that … Freudenthal was a respected member of the community, and was entitled to the same protection as other men. They also warned that, The Patriotic business ran riot at times.

Interestingly, Mitchell was represented by local solicitor, B P Johnson. Johnson was one of the most outspoken, high profile patriots in the local community, actively involved in the recruiting process. Johnson’s basic defence for Mitchell was that he was drunk and had no recollection of events. But he also managed to insert his client’s undoubted patriotism into the defence and he also attempted to raise doubt over Freudenthal’s real allegiance.

Mr. Johnson said that having heard that Freudenthal was a German, accused’s patriotic feelings came up, although respectable Germans should not be interfered with. They could not help their love for their Fatherland.

The clear implication was that a person’s German background could never be denied or ignored. Even if such people were respected in the community, and even if they were naturalised, there would would always be the lingering doubt that they would never be able to overcome their first love for their Fatherland.  The logic was that just as a true Britisher could never forsake their loyalty to the Empire and all its values, someone with a German background could never totally renounce the equivalent set of loyalties.

The local hostility and suspicion directed at Freudenthal continued into 1915. Freudenthal himself felt the need to defend himself in a letter-to-the-editor which appeared in the paper on 14 May 1915. There was a story about town that he had justified the the sinking of the Lusitania.

Sir. _ A serious rumour has got about that I in an argument with a person in this township justified the drowning of women and children by the sinking of the Lusitania. This I emphatically deny. I may state that I utterly deplore such acts, and I defy any person to say that I have justified any act of outrage during this unfortunate war. My whole nature revolts at such acts, and I appeal to British fair play to be allowed to live as a law-abiding citizen. I left Germany as a youth, and became a naturalised British subject, and my wife and child are both Australian born. I am aware at these times passion runs high, and can fully sympathise with those who condemn the Germans for such atrocities as they have recently appeared in the press.

But such appeals were never going to work in the hyper-charged environment of the time and the hostility directed at Freudenthal, and the associated boycotting of his business, continued.

In the July 16, 1915 edition of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative  a letter-to-the-editor appeared from W T Johns, the Methodist minister in Yarram. Incredibly, Johns felt the need to write to the paper to deny the charge that he too was a German sympathiser.

Sir, __ There are some suspicious rumours current to the effect that the local Methodist minister is pro-German. He stoutly avers that he is not; that all his utterances, private and public, are directed against the arrogance and aggressions of that nation; that he has frequently exhorted his hearers to rise to their full duty as Britishers….

Overall, the tone of the letter was one of light-hearted mockery.

It is generally known that at the Parsonage there is a cement lined well, evidently designed as a howitzer emplacement. The arrangement of the clothes line also bears more or less resemblance to a wireless installation. … A tall pine in his garden is admirably adapted, and has been grown specially for signalling to von Tirpitry’s (sic) ships, as they roll gently in Kiel canal.

He also mocked himself for lending his field glasses – expensive, but more pointedly of German manufacture – to Sergeant Newland when he enlisted.

But in all the nonsense, there is a direct reference to his refusing to join the boycott of Freudenthal’s bakery.

Furthermore, he holds aloof from the policy of starving a long-naturalised baker and his British born wife and child. The Almighty must have meant that man to be damned by having him born in Germany, so let us do the will of God and starve all three.

It is interesting to reflect whether key local leaders like Johns – as well as being the local Methodist minister, he played a lead role in the temperance movement and was the secretary of the local Rechabite Tent – saw that there was far more to fear from alcohol-fuelled, lower-ordered, loud-mouthed patriots than the hard-working, respectable and quietly-mannered proprietor of the local bakery, even if he had been born in Germany.

As much as some of the leading citizens of the community tried to curb the excesses of patriotic extremism, it is clear that for many others in the local community the chance to vaunt their patriotic credentials by attacking anyone with any sort of German background was too much to resist. It was a very simple, easy and no-risk variety of patriotism.

Future posts will continue to explore the anti-German sentiment. One will definitely examine the case of the ‘disloyal’ postal worker from Traralgon, Rudolph Schmidt, who was sentenced in late 1915 to be interned for the duration of the War. The problem, it turned out, was that he was not even German.

References

Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1911 Volume 2, Part 2. See tables 19, 46, 96.

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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