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Australia's history with fascism

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Robert Menzies, before WWII, expressed support for Adolf Hitler (image via Techly).

Australia has had closer ties to fascism than previously believed, writes Peter Henning.

FOR MANY YEARS, it has been de rigueur in Australia to dismiss any comparison of local reactionary right-wing political organisations with European fascists of the 1930s, especially Mussolini’s regime in Italy and Hitler’s regime in Germany. 

In general terms, attempts to draw parallels between the hard right fringe of the Australian political spectrum, in its various manifestations, and fascism of the 1930s, is usually met with howls of derision and condemnation, usually on the basis that it is offensive to the reality of the Holocaust, the attempted genocide of European Jews.

We should remember, however, that back in the 1930s, when Mussolini was in power in Italy and Hitler was Germany’s Chancellor, there were plenty of Australian conservative politicians, business leaders and members of the military establishment who were profoundly impressed with Mussolini’s and Hitler’s successful destruction of trade unions, freedom of the press and political opposition.

Australian Prime Minister Joe Lyons was impressed by Mussolini and, in 1938, Robert Menzies expressed his "admiration" for the achievements of Hitler’s regime. An important context of Australian support or sympathy for fascism was that it crushed "communist" or "socialist" trade unions, promoted white racial, cultural and religious superiority, and made things nice and cushy for the industrial oligarchs and the anti-democratic aristocratic establishment.

Antecedents to the highly-secretive Old Guard were established in Australia in the early 1920s to fight the ALP and its "socialist" agenda, formed and funded mainly from within the socio-economic-political conservative establishment of NSW. They were actively supported by the Bruce Federal Government and used to violently disrupt Labor meetings and pit returned servicemen against unionists, using the propaganda of "loyalty to King and Empire". 

Both the Old Guard and its more public New Guard offshoot recruited about 40,000 members in the early 1930s to destroy the NSW Lang Labor government.

The significant irony for the Old and New Guard was that a number of its senior members in the military establishment between the two world wars would hold senior commands in the AIF during the Second World War, fighting fascism rather than supporting it.

One significant example of this story was the appointment of Lt-Col WJR Scott to command the augmented 2/21 Battalion (called Gull Force) sent to Ambon in 1941. According to Professor Joan Beaumont, who wrote a history of Gull Force, Scott was a key member of the King and Empire Alliance, and likely

‘... responsible within the Alliance for recruiting a secret army which was intended to take over the State in 1922 should the Labor government attempt to introduce "Bolshevik’"measures.'

In 1925, Scott was apparently asked by Bruce to recruit 500 men to assist police ‘in the event of there being civil disorder when two waterside workers’ leaders, Thomas Walsh and Jacob Johnson, were to be deported’. The High Court of Australia ruled the attempted deportation illegal, so Scott’s paramilitary force was not mobilised.

In 1930, Scott was a leader of the Old Guard and in 1932 he ‘had plans to oust Lang by force’, and was about to mobilise his troops when the NSW Governor, Sir Philip Game, dismissed Lang. Scott was also prominent during the 1930s is supporting Japanese military expansion into Manchuria and China, a supreme irony, because in February 1942 Scott and Gull Force were captured when the Japanese invaded Ambon.

That was not the end of the story because during imprisonment Gull Force POWs came to hate Scott due to his policy of handing Australians over to the Japanese to be disciplined. They ‘despised him with a venom that was to last through the rest of their captivity and well after the war’.  Scott never attended reunions of Gull Force survivors held after the war.

Scott’s story is salutary, for after 1945 Nazism-fascism was thought to be relegated to the dustbin of history, never to return, just as he became persona non grata with his own men.  Any notions that Nazi sympathisers existed in the corridors of power in Australia during the 1930s were buried or went underground for a generation.   

Given the Holocaust and the brutal treatment of POWs by the Japanese it is little wonder that fascism in Australia after 1945 became dormant, lying low, waiting for the wheel of historical amnesia to slowly turn.  As the horrors of 20th Century fascism have faded with the passage of time, the forces of political conservatism and reaction have reopened the door to a fascist agenda. 

As in the 1930s, we have been witnessing for some time now in Australia how easy is it for these forces to normalise brutality towards vulnerable people, and how those same forces are deliberately creating a society of increasing inequality, distrust and fear of "otherness", through racist dog-whistling about immigration and multiculturalism. 

Just as in the 1930s, Australian conservatives are again ideologically aligned with fascism. We need to remember the story of Lt-Col Scott of Gull Force, for his contemptuous and contemptible attitude to the fate of his own men is ultimately a classic example of the character and values of fascism in practice.

Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian who lived in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania during the pulp mill controversy.

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