During the Second World War, Australia interned thousands of men, women and children deemed to be a threat to its national security. The overwhelming majority of internees had been classed as enemy aliens, that is nationals of countries at war with Australia. Australian internment camps also accommodated enemy aliens interned by British authorities in Palestine, Persia, the Straits Settlement and Great Britain and transported to Australia.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, the Australian parliament passed the War Precautions Act 1914, which granted far-reaching powers to the military authorities. These included the power to intern enemy aliens, that is nationals of a country at war with the King of England, and others who were thought to pose a threat to Australia’s security. During World War I, Australia interned almost 7000 people. They included about 4500 enemy aliens and British nationals of German ancestry resident in Australia.
Two days after Germany invaded Poland, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australia had declared war on Germany. Anticipating the war, the security services had prepared a list of potentially dangerous Australian residents. Many of these were arrested within days of the beginning of the war and interned.
The number of enemy aliens resident in Australia in September 1939 far outweighed the number of those resident in Australia at the beginning of World War I. Not least because of the costs associated with large-scale internment, the Menzies government initially decided to adopt a more selective internment policy than its World War I predecessor. Only some 400 enemy aliens were rounded up in the first weeks of the war. Most of them were Germans suspected of strong Nazi sympathies. They included only seven women, and no children.
As the military situation worsened, the Australian Government authorised the internment of large numbers of enemy aliens. Following the retreat of the British expeditionary force from the European Continent and the prospect of Germany's invasion of the British isles, hundreds of Australian residents were interned. Most of them were German and Italian nationals. After Japan entered World War II in spectacular fashion with the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, yet more people who could be suspected of aiding the enemy were locked up. A total of 1141 local Japanese men, women and children were interned, representing 97 per cent of all registered aliens of Japanese descent living in Australia. In comparison, less than a third of aliens of Italian or German descent were interned during World War II.
With the notable exception of Japanese nationals, internment during World War II was not as comprehensive as it had been during World War I. Altogether, about 7000 Australian residents were interned at some stage between 1939 and 1946.
People were interned because they were considered disloyal and a potential threat to Australia's national security. That usually meant that they were suspected of being prepared to spy for the enemy or to commit acts of sabotage.
By interning enemy aliens, the government also responded to public demands. From the beginning of the war, the Australian authorities were inundated with letters and petitions calling for the immediate and indefinite imprisonment of all enemy aliens.
Some enemy aliens, in particular those who had a poor command of English and/or were unemployed, were considered troublesome. They were interned not so much because they could pose a threat, but because their presence in Australian communities could be seen as provocative.
When deciding whether or not to intern a male enemy alien, the security services usually considered two criteria: his age and his date of arrival in Australia. Those who were of military age and those who had arrived shortly before the outbreak of the war were more likely to be interned than others.
In addition to interned residents of Australia, Papua and the Trust Territory of New Guinea, Australia also accommodated internees from the United Kingdom, from Dutch, British and French colonies in the Pacific and South-East Asia, and from the Middle East. On 27 August 1940, the British troopship Dunera arrived in Australia carrying some 2500 internees from Britain. Most of them were German or Austrian refugees who had been arrested and interned in early 1940. Many of them were Jewish.
In 1943, the Dutch authorities transferred 507 political prisoners from the Tanah Merah camp in West New Guinea to Australia. The Australian authorities were made to believe that these prisoners were enemies of the Allies and needed to be kept in internment. Many of them died in internment.
In total, Australia accommodated about 8000 overseas internees during World War II.
Most of the internees were nationals of Australia’s three main enemies: Germany, Italy and Japan. But they also included nationals of smaller nations who were at war with Australia, such as Finland and Hungary.
Not all internees were foreign nationals. Many of the Germans and Italians were naturalised British nationals, and some were British-born. In March 1942, the security services arrested and interned 20 members of the Australia First Movement. All of them were of British descent. They were fiercely nationalistic but opposed to Australia’s involvement in the war.
Internment was the responsibility of the military authorities. The Australian Army administered the internment camps. The Minister for the Army was ultimately responsible for decisions about the release of internees.
Under the National Security Act 1939–40, a large number of National Security Regulations prescribed the rights and obligations of enemy aliens, naturalised British subjects and British-born citizens, and provided the legal framework for the internment regime.
Internees were able to appeal against their internment. While Advisory Committees (for naturalised British subjects) and Aliens Tribunals (for enemy aliens) could recommend an internee's release, their recommendations were not binding.
The last internees were released in 1946. At the end of World War I, Australia had deported most of its internees. At the end of World War II, only a small number of internees were deported. Even many of those who had been transported to Australia by the British authorities, remained in Australia.
The costs of internment arguably outweighed its benefits. Many of those who had come to Australia as refugees would have preferred to contribute to the Australian war effort by joining the armed forces instead of spending idle years in an Australian internment camp; not one refugee was found to be a fifth columnist. But those responsible for national security did not consider the internment regime a failure. During the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the Australian security services again drew up lists of residents who were to be interned in case of war.
Internees have not been compensated for the time they spent behind barbed wire. Only since the late 1980s has the issue of World War II internment received considerable attention from historians and from federal government institutions concerned with the nation's heritage.
To learn more about civilian internment in Australia during the Second World War, please see:
Klaus Neumann, 2006, In the Interest of National Security: Civilian Internment in Australia During World War II, National Archives of Australia, Canberra. This book includes a comprehensive bibliography (up to 2006), and a list of relevant archival holdings.
To learn more about Wolf Klaphake's internment, please see: Klaus Neumann, "Victims of 'unnecessary hardship and mental torture': Walter Stolting, Wolf Klaphake, and other incompatibles in wartime Australia': in J Beaumont, I Martinuzzi O'Brien and M Trinca, eds, Under Suspicion: Citizenship and Internment in Australia during the Second World War, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.