Anyone familiar with historical studies is all too aware of the influence of Marxist and left-wing ideologies in the study and teaching of history. In too many quarters, famous episodes of history, movements and people are re-analysed through the prism of class, gender or race.
Fortunately, not all historians have succumbed to such paradigms of interpretation. One who has swum against the tide is Australia’s Dr David S. Bird.
He is author of two substantial works, published by Australian Scholarly Publications, which have challenged widely accepted understandings of Australian political life between the wars. The first of them, published in 2008, is Joseph Lyons: the ‘Tame Tasmanian’: Appeasement and Rearmament in Australia 1932–39. The second, published in 2012, is Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany.
Born and educated in Tasmania, Bird was first captivated by history at school. His undergraduate and master’s degrees focussed on Latin and ancient history. After completing a year’s teacher-training, Bird spent a year teaching in Zimbabwe. There he experienced first-hand Robert Mugabe’s one-party socialist rule. His outspoken criticisms of the ruling Zanu-PF party were less than favourably received.
Dr David S. Bird
After teaching in Tasmanian government schools, and being involved in the island-state’s curriculum development, Bird moved to Melbourne to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Melbourne. He conducted detailed archival research on the foreign policy of Joseph Lyons, a former Tasmanian premier (1916-19 and 1923-28), who served as prime minister of Australia from 1932 until his death in 1939.
Traditionally, Lyons has been dismissed as a leader who did little to help Australia recover from the 1930s Depression and prepare it for World War II, seeking instead to serve his conservative masters at home and be a lackey to British Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Bird has come to believe, though, that these largely negative assessments of Lyons have been essentially inspired by left-wing anger at Lyons’ defection from the Labor Party in 1931.
However, Lyons successfully managed to hold together the newly created United Australia Party, made up of conservatives and former Labor identities. If he was as appalling as his critics suggest, why did the Australian people re-elect his government twice, making him one of Australia’s longest-serving prime ministers? This achievement in itself suggests that Lyons and his policies enjoyed broad Australian support.
Bird, whose first book was based upon his doctoral thesis, explodes many of the myths surrounding Lyons. His conclusions are based on thorough and painstaking research, including careful examination for the first time of key historical documents and/or placing crucial ones in their correct chronological sequence.
The focus of the study is Lyons’ foreign policy. Bird argues that Lyons, far from conforming to the popular stereotype of his being a lackey to Whitehall, was pro-active in developing Australia’s own distinct foreign policy.
Throughout his term as Prime Minister, Lyons gradually asserted his role in foreign affairs such that, particularly after 1937, he often acted in place of, and without significant reference to, the Department of External Affairs. At his death in 1939, Australia was on the verge of sending fully accredited ambassadors to a handful of countries, a process in which Lyons had taken a keen interest and played a decisive role in bringing about.
Furthermore, Lyons’ increasing involvement in Australian foreign policy saw his government move from a policy of “cunctation”, that is, delaying while waiting for the other power to move first, to one of appeasement, that is, taking active steps to try to avert a deterioration in foreign relations, particularly with Japan, Italy and Germany.
It seems that much of the hostility directed at Lyons is because he presided over a policy of appeasement that ultimately failed. It is always easy to judge a politician with the advantage of historical hindsight; but it must be remembered that appeasement was the democracies’ favoured approach throughout the 1930s.
The memory of the huge loss of life in World War I loomed large — Lyons himself was visibly moved when visiting a war cemetery in Europe — and few public figures at that time wanted another major conflict.
Although Lyons saw Australian foreign policy as belonging broadly within the framework of British imperial policy, he made definite moves towards appeasement with Japan over Manchuria from 1933 onwards.
Australia was keen not to antagonise Japan, because of the threat of instability in the Pacific region. Lyons ultimately refused to recognise Manchukuo, the puppet state established by Japan in Manchuria, but resisted Britain’s proposal to impose imperial economic sanctions on Japan. He feared that such retaliation would rupture Australia’s delicate diplomatic relations with Japan, and jeopardise Australia’s slow economic recovery that depended extensively on trade with Japan.
Lyons’ Australian Eastern Mission of 1934 was largely a success, but he was unable to secure a non-aggression pact with Japan in 1937.
A major new finding in Bird’s research concerns Lyons’ important role in the Munich crisis of 1938. Chamberlain and Lyons were in contact during key points of the crisis. Former Australian PM Stanley Bruce, as the then Australian High Commissioner to London, was actively involved in the League of Nations. As a result, Lyons was, paradoxically, better informed about the unfolding political situation in Europe than were many members of the British Cabinet!
Bird, by organising systematically the timeline of key telegrams and file notes of telephone conversations, has been able to throw new light on Lyons’s possible contribution to Chamberlain’s handling of the Munich crisis. At the very least, Chamberlain discussed with Lyons on September 28, 1938 (when it was morning in London and afternoon in Australia) a proposal to seek Mussolini’s intervention to delay Hitler’s threatened annexation of Sudetenland — and thus avert war — so as to allow time for talks with Hitler.
However, Dr Bird argues that, despite Chamberlain’s taking credit for this course of action and Lyons’s self-effacement in the Australian parliament the following day, Lyons may well have suggested this course of action to Chamberlain.
Despite that, Lyons was realist enough to see through the Nazi veneer of diplomacy, particularly in the wake of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish violence, barely a month after Munich.
After Hitler’s occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, Lyons belatedly realised that the policy of appeasement had to be abandoned for the present, and announced this in a public radio broadcast. Interestingly, his announcement preceded a similar British one.
Two weeks later, Lyons died of a massive heart attack. Was his sense of failure over appeasement the final shock that killed him?
Bird also challenges the widespread belief that Lyons did virtually nothing to boost defence, leaving Australia largely unprepared for World War II. Lyons certainly sought to avert war, but did not ignore the necessity for Australia to have a ready and capably trained defence force.
Bird demonstrates that the Lyons Government, in the course of its five stages of rearmament, allocated an increasing proportion of the Commonwealth budget towards defence spending, including the building-up of the Citizen Military Force (CMF), forerunner of the Army Reserve. Lyons was always critical of the weakness of Britain’s Singapore strategy.
Like many of his predecessors, such as Alfred Deakin and Billy Hughes, Lyons realised the necessity of American assistance, were Japan ever to launch an attack towards the south-east, and took extensive steps to secure assurances of American assistance should this ever eventuate.
Hitler’s Australian admirers
While researching his doctorate and completing his first book, Bird unearthed evidence revealing the existence during the 1930s of a surprising number of Australian sympathisers of Hitler’s Third Reich. Bird used this material for his second work, Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany (2012). This book is a detailed and seminal 448-page study, which has brought to light not only eccentric individuals existing on what many would describe as the lunatic fringe of society, but also some quite prominent Australians who admired Nazism during the 1930s and, in some cases, well into the 1940s.
Much of this history has been lost from Australia’s collective historical memory. It is not surprising that, after the war, many former Hitler sympathisers were keen to distance themselves from their former political positions.
At one end of the spectrum were the likes of Alexander Rud Mills, a solicitor who wrote under the pen-name, Tasman Forth. He was enamoured of Nazism to the extent that he not only travelled to Germany and met Hitler, but also became a leading proponent of Odin worship. During much of the war, Mills was considered a security risk and interned by Australian authorities.
Especially bizarre was the support that Nazi enthusiasts gave to the Aborigines. According to Nazi racial theory, the Australian Aborigines were part of the Aryan race! However, the broad sympathy they accorded to the Aborigines Progressive Association, the leading activist group of Aborigines, was not reciprocated, especially after this organisation protested against the treatment of German Jews after Kristallnacht in November 1938.
One of the better-known supporters of Nazi Germany was Rhodes scholar P.R. “Inky” Stephensen, a leading luminary in the Australia First Movement (AFM). Backed by W.J. “Billy” Miles, Stephensen described himself as an Australian National Socialist.
Stephensen called on Australia to sever all ties with Britain and develop a unique Australian culture. At one point, the leadership of the AFM was closely aligned with the leadership of the Jindyworobak literary movement. Stephensen’s literary associates included renowned authors Miles Franklin and Xavier Herbert. Stephensen’s press published the first edition of Herbert’s Capricornia after it had been rejected by mainstream publishers.
Even moderate politicians were not immune from making positive observations about Nazi Germany. Robert Menzies was critical of certain aspects of Nazism; but, after visiting Germany in July 1938, he offered reserved support for the Nazi leadership only days before Kristallnacht.
Although relatively unknown at the time, another well-known Australian to offer qualified support then was historian Manning Clark.
Clark’s subsequent condemnation of Nazism and its atrocities is well known. In particular, he claimed to have been an eyewitness of Kristallnacht. However, as Bird demonstrates, this cannot be true. Clark was in England at the time and did not visit Germany until a fortnight after the event. Furthermore, upon his return to Oxford, Clark continued to defend Nazi Germany.
Nazi Dreamtime, despite its serious scholarly purpose, contains examples of Bird’s dry humour on almost every page. For example, he observes: “P.R. Stephensen was a talented man and, like most of the Nazi enthusiasts and their fellow-travellers, a man of the utmost sincerity. But Friedrich Nietzsche, his much-abused mentor, should be allowed the last words: ‘A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything’.” (p.399).
This book is an exhaustively detailed study of a period of Australian history which to date has been insufficiently understood. Although at times the work can be a demanding read, it is well worth persevering with, as it unearths uncomfortable and “inconvenient truths” about well-known Australian identities.
The book, Nazi Dreamtime, has attracted considerable public interest. Since its appearance, Bird has spoken frequently at prestigious public forums, such as the Sydney Institute, and on radio.
His pioneering work is already having an impact not only on historical scholarship but also on fiction. In January this year, Robert Gott’s detective thriller, The Holiday Murders, was published by Penguin Books Australia. The story is set in Melbourne on Christmas Eve, 1943, and concerns a police investigation into a vicious double murder. The police also discover secret cells of Australian Nazi sympathisers — a feature of the book for which Gott acknowledges his indebtedness to Bird’s findings in Nazi Dreamtime.
Bird’s current research is still focussed on Australian history but with a slightly different emphasis. He is currently investigating aspects of Australia’s Federation.
Michael E. Daniel is a regular contributor to News Weekly.