Assent by silence made Hitler’s crimes possible. As Pastor Martin Niemoller wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no-one left to speak for me.
The warning is as relevant as ever. The more we study how the Holocaust happened, the more we must realise how small steps of acceptance, acquiescence, rationalisation, political convenience and expedience, and above all silence paved the path to hell from 1933 to 1945. For 80 years we have glossed over the silent acquiescence of countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia in the period after Hitler, for so long dismissed as just another ratbag, came to power by legal and constitutional means in Germany in 1933.
Many readers have dismissed my assertion in my book Churchill and Australia that except for Britain’s and Churchill’s stand in 1940, ‘The British Empire, including Australia, would have been enrolled as an accomplice in Hitler’s crimes.’ I mean it quite specifically—something more than the world’s general complicity in Hitler’s persecution of the German Jews until the Second World War provided both the means and the cover for the physical extermination of all the Jews of Europe.
One of Hitler’s pet schemes was to send the German Jews to Madagascar, then a French colony. Remember—the physical extermination of the Jews of Europe did not enter Hitler’s public vocabulary until his infamous speech in the Reichstag in January 1939 when he said, ‘If the international Jewish conspiracy plunges Europe into another war, the result will be the liquidation of the Jews of Europe.’ After the fall of France in June 1940, the Madagascar project was put back on the Nazi agenda. The way was clear except for the Royal Navy. Vichy France was a willing collaborator, eager to pass anti-Jewish laws as severe as Germany’s, but not yet ready to kill off a community whose contribution to French culture was one of its glories.
This is a key to understanding the Holocaust. In his first years in power, Hitler moved gradually, almost cautiously, against the Jews. His first move was to ban them from the public service, on the grounds that, with less than 1 per cent of the total German population, Jews held 10 per cent of positions in the public service. Most Germans agreed with the ban and to those applied to the medical profession, universities, journalism and banking. ‘Too many Jews,’ everybody said. In the pervasive anti-Semitism throughout Europe, these measures barely caused a ripple. And so it went on, step by step. Think about this when you hear calls for the repeal of the Racial Discrimination Act.
There is no doubt whatever that part of the deal Hitler was offering Britain—a guarantee for the survival of the British Empire in exchange for a free hand in Eastern Europe—would have been the cooperation of the Royal Navy in facilitating and assisting the transportation of the Jews of Europe to Madagascar. Indeed it is easy to see how such masters of spin as Hitler and Goebbels would have sold this as a humanitarian gesture—saving lives—and how the world would have swallowed it, as we copped so much else between 1933 and 1939.
Only Churchill, Britain and the Royal Navy prevented it, until his invasion of Russia gave Hitler a more efficient way to get rid of the Jews of Europe, the Final Solution. So the Madagascar project was abandoned. The margin by which we of the West avoided being his accomplices was as narrow as the margin by which his twin monster of the twentieth century, Stalin (who was planning his own campaign against the Soviet Jews literally to the day of his death in 1953), prevented Hitler from becoming master of Europe in 1942.
If the Madagascar plan had ever got underway, it is easy enough to see that Australia would have been given a role in the Indian Ocean, as part of Hitler’s offer for his deal with Britain to safeguard the British Empire from his ally Japan. After all, Hitler had no difficulty in forming a pact with his sworn enemy, the Soviet Union, from August 1939 to 22 June 1941. And in a speech to the Reichstag in 1939 Hitler had made great play of the outcome of the Evian Conference of July 1939, called by president Roosevelt to discuss the Jewish refugee question. Not one of the 30 countries represented, including the United States and Australia, was willing to increase their quota of Jewish refugees from Germany (except Columbia on a strictly cash basis). In his Reichstag speech, Hitler gleefully quoted the Australian representative who had said, ‘Australia has no racial problem, and does not intent to import one.’
The shamefulness and stupidity of such a statement by someone purporting to be a spokesman for Australia is underlined by the facts about Australia at the time. The Sydney and Melbourne Jewish communities were among the most respected and successful in the world. (There was at least one Jew on the First Fleet.) Sir Isaac Isaacs, a member of the Federal Conventions and of the first Commonwealth Parliament, High Court judge since 1906, chief justice in 1930, had not long completed his term as the first Australian-born governor-general.
Sir John Monash had been commander-in-chief of the Australian Army Corps in France in 1918. When he died in 1931 he was accorded the biggest funeral Melbourne had ever seen and every foot of the procession route from the Shrine of Remembrance, which he had conceived, just being completed in St Kilda Road, to the Melbourne Synagogue, was lined by ex-servicemen, many in uniform. Roy Rene was far and away the most popular comedian Australia has ever had. Shopping at the Myer Emporium was a Melbourne institution. I like to think that this was the real Australia. With ‘White Australia’ as its basic policy, the Australian representative at the Evian Conference could hardly have made it more clear that Jews were not really Australians. Hitler certainly got the point, and used Western hypocrisy for all it was worth. ‘Nobody wants them,’ he gloated.
It is with equal shame that one reads in the 1942 volume of Documents in Australian Foreign Policy that the Labor government told the US Government in January 1942 that black American troops would not be welcome in Australia. This at the time when we were begging the United States to send everything they could to the Pacific theatre. The Americans promptly told us to jump in the Pacific (even though its own army was still racially segregated). Throughout the war, black units were not allowed to take leave north of the Brisbane River. They were never allowed to march in the great processions that were a regular feature of Brisbane life when I was a kid there. Everyone knew this. Everyone shut up about it.
This is the key to my generation of Australians; immensely privileged in a world of incomparable criminality. But all the terrible events since the rise of Hitler in 1933 happened in my lifetime. I do not fall for the fallacy that the Holocaust exorcised anti-Semitism for all time, or removed the scourge of all kinds of racism. Nor do I accept that the Holocaust compels us to silence on every aspect of policy or conduct of the Israeli Government. And nobody who has lived through the period and studied it can fail to see how racism is at the root of half the avoidable evils of the world. When mixed up with religion, it is deadly.
Nor can I forget that there were hundreds of Germans bearing my name, some of them the direct descendants of my own German great-grandparents, who must have been involved in one way or another in the criminality of the Nazi era. Hitler could never have risen without their silent acquiescence. When I hear it said that people such as Hanson or Katter or Trump are only saying what many really think, I can read the code.
In the countries such as the United States and Australia that have risen to unprecedented prosperity on the backs of migrants, migration of itself is not a cause of racism. Migration means salvation for millions. And it has been the making of modern Australia. During the Cold War, when communism was our only preoccupation, we courted the Muslims. When White Australia prevailed as official policy until 1973, the Immigration Department began to redefine ‘White’ to include countries such as Lebanon and Egypt, not least because their people believed in God. When General Suharto took over in Indonesia, and permitted the killing of, by some estimates, a million people, including ethnic Chinese, allegedly members of the PKI, the strongest communist party in the Muslim world, prime minister Harold Hold commented, ‘Well, that’s a million less communists we have to worry about.’
Fear, suspicion and hatred of migrants is worked up by people such as Hanson when events in their country of origin make it profitable—in her case, literally. Except for the aftermath of 9/11, and its exploitation, the wave of refugees called the ‘boat people’ would have taken its place in the perspective of an immigration program that, over 50 years, has coped with more than 200,000 a year. We would have had a perfectly manageable spike in the migration figures for a few years. In addition, we now have in Australia about 800,000 people on temporary residence visas. These are people on ‘457’ visas, working holiday makers and students. The number of migrants coming each year and temporary residents in the country is about 1 million. The ‘boat people’, like the Vietnamese before them, would have become just another 30,000 to 50,000 valuable migrants, interested only in getting on with their new lives. Instead we have Manus Island and much else toxic in our national life.
Madagascar and Manus are not parallels. But they are warnings. The Madagascan idea didn’t eventuate, but it was planned as part of a pattern of events that did happen and that all the world knew were happening. The Nuremberg Laws were no secret. Hitler’s speeches to the Reichstag predicating the extermination of European Jewry ‘if the Jews plunge the world into another war’ were no secret. The detention of asylum seekers on Manus is happening; we know that it is happening; but we are not allowed to learn, in the name of ‘national security’, exactly what is being done in our name.
We know enough about human nature to know that you cannot herd together 800 young men who have broken no laws but to whom freedom—and all hope—has been denied, without terrible consequences. We are knowingly creating 800 unhinged young men with deep and irreparable grievances—the very breeding ground of modern jihadism in the form now causing so much grief, terror, hatred and thirst for vengeance around the world.
This provocation in Australia’s name is supposed to be justified by ‘national security’ and by the vow Rudd made in his political death-throes, promptly supported by Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison and Shorten, that no person who had tried to enter Australia by boat would ever be allowed to defile our sacred soil by a single step upon it. Of course, being politicians, they are bound by their promises.
But what is our excuse for our complicity? The building of a secular multicultural society is one of the greatest and most difficult endeavours ever undertaken by any country in the modern world. We are largely a derivative society, and this is our one great chance to make an original contribution to the decency and progress of humanity, which began to go so badly off the rails with the dreadful catastrophe of 1914–18. We must not let this priceless opportunity be lost through silent acquiescence in its sabotage. Given our place in our region, itself multicultural on a global scale, the success of the Australian project is the key to our survival.