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internment: the view of Australia’s official historian during World War II

National Archives of Australia Exploring Citizenship: Teachers Resource Kit

Paul Hasluck, official historian of Australia during World War II and later a Commonwealth government minister and Governor-General, provides background to wartime internment.

In the five years immediately before the war over 9 000 German nationals had migrated to Australia besides 10 000 Italians and about 20 000 other continental Europeans, many of them refugees from Nazi or Fascist rule...The means for the control of aliens were provided by National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations. The most important measures taken during the first six months of war were the internment of enemy aliens; the registration of all aliens; and restrictions on travel and movement, the requirement for enemy aliens being that they must obtain permission to leave the police district in which they resided while all aliens had to notify a change of abode. Enemy aliens might also be required to report periodically to the authorities and all aliens might be made subject to restrictions regarding the place of residence.

The most severe of these measures was internment. The general policy laid down in the War Book was that internment of civilian enemy aliens on the outbreak of hostilities would be restricted to the narrowest limits consistent with public safety and public sentiment. As a general rule women were not to be interned but when the interest of public safety demanded, they would be kept in custody. This policy was amplified by instructions issued later to the Military Commands to the effect that internment was only to be resorted to when it was considered that other forms of control would not be adequate: there must be a reasonable case against an individual enemy alien before he was interned, but membership of Nazi or Fascist organisations was to be considered a prima facie ground for internment...it was desirable that no refugee from an enemy country should be interned unless he had been given an opportunity to state his case, the onus being on the refugee to show that he had thrown in his lot with Australia.

Up to the time of the entry of Italy into the war and the fall of France these powers were exercised moderately. With the increased danger...the restrictions became more cramping...internment of enemy aliens, which had hitherto been exceptional, tended for a time to be general, and individual hardship was imposed on alien refugees who were interned for no other reason than their foreign birth. The injustice of indiscriminate internment, however, roused Australians themselves and, as a result of public protests and appeals, the application of the security powers was made less drastic and at the end of November 1940 enemy aliens were given the right to submit objections to an Aliens Tribunal which could recommend release (by the end of 1941 the number of internees had fallen to 2 231).

After the outbreak of war with Japan and the existence of a state of acute danger on the Queensland coast, the number of internees rose sharply largely through the internment of all Japanese in Australia, in conformity with a decision taken by the War Cabinet on 9 May 1941, and of a large number of Italians in Queensland. The total of local internments rose to a maximum of 6 780 in September 1942 (including 1 029 Germans, 3 651 Italians and 1 036 Japanese), but thereafter steadily declined until, by September 1944 the total was down to 1 380.

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