A State with a broad German streak

peter-monteathMention German migrants in South Australia, and the usual association is the wave of 19th century peasants who populated the Barossa Valley.

But that stereotypical view belies a varied and cosmopolitan contribution to the colony and State, which is the focus of a new book, Germans: Travellers, Settlers and Their Descendants in South Australia, edited by Flinders historian Associate Professor Peter Monteath (pictured).

Some of the Germans who appear in the book’s 22 chapters are, like Botanic Gardens director Richard Schomburgk, relatively well known; others, such as artist Alexander Schramm, less so.

Schramm produced numerous closely observed paintings of the Aboriginal people living near Adelaide, and Associate Professor Monteath said that Schramm and many other Germans – artists, scientists and missionaries – showed a practical curiosity about the Indigenous people that few British colonists seemed to share.

Although attitudes towards German heritage became more sensitive over the course of the 20th century, Associate Professor Monteath said that in the late 19th century British settlers tended to have high opinions of the Germans, and vice versa.

One indication of cordial relations was an 1850s project to build a second hospital for Adelaide, in which the two groups collaborated closely. While the hospital never eventuated (due partly to the mass exodus caused by the goldrush), the project was evidence of a form of successful early multiculturalism, Associate Professor Monteath said.

Tensions between Germans and British Australians grew from the time of the Boer War, and the damage done by First World War enmity was still being mended when war again broke out in 1939.

Associate Professor Monteath said a chapter on the activities of local Nazis puts to rest the myth of mass internment of Australian born-Germans during the Second World War, and also reveals that many of South Australia’s Nazi sympathisers remained pro-Hitler and virulently anti-semitic throughout the war.

Nazis aside, Associate Professor Monteath believes that in some ways it was easier for German migrants to become committed Australians.

“The British colonists still identified strongly with Britain, whereas the Germans’ allegiance wasn’t to Britain at all, and they had largely cut their ties with Germany. In a way, they become the most enthusiastic of the settlers about their new country and their new identity.”

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