By DAVID S. BIRD
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012, 448 pages, $44 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
‘This modern abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty ... has something rather magnificent about it’, said an impressed federal Attorney-General, Robert Menzies, after his three visits to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Hitler, Menzies added, was ‘a man of ideas, many of them good ones’. The future Liberal Prime Minister, writes David Bird in Nazi Dreamtime, “saw much that he liked” in the fascist state whose Fuhrer, enthused Menzies, ‘produces a spiritual exaltation that one cannot but admire and some small portion of which would do no harm among our somewhat irresponsible populations’.
Menzies, so often treated with reverential but undeserved awe, was not alone amongst conservative Australian politicians who licked their lips at the overseas models of right wing extremism. Italian fascism had earlier beguiled the Premiers of Victoria and NSW, and the Depression Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, who said that Mussolini had done ‘immense good’. Hitler’s brand of fascism continued the spell on the Premiers of South Australia, Tasmania and NSW (the latter receiving a Hitler Medal during the 1936 Berlin Olympics). The federal Trade Minister said in parliament (as late as 1939) that Hitler had a ‘shining record of service to his people’.
All these worthies were to be amongst the many “minute-to-midnight” conversions to anti-fascism just ahead of the outbreak of war in 1939 when fascist Germany and Italy transformed from shiny exemplar to darkly threatening imperialist rival. Many of these politicians, and other prominent Australians, writes Bird, went on to “adjust their memory” of their early pro-fascist acclamations.
Few had been genuinely “rampant Nazis”, says Bird, but all were “fellow-travellers” of an extremist radical right, sharing some or all of the fascist ideology of ‘Aryan’ racial superiority, rejection of “Western liberalism, humanitarianism and democracy”, and antagonism to trade unions, socialism and Jews.
Around these hard-core Nazi “politicals” there circulated a group of patriotic “poeticals” - “literary nationalists” who kept bad company with those who supported their literary endeavours. Bird is largely forgiving of the “poeticals” but he also extends a less warranted pardon to the mainstream politicians who flirted with fascism.
Whilst these politicians made no public suggestions that fascism was needed in Australia, and whilst they found some fascist methods distasteful, their benign or positive endorsement of the overseas fascist “experiment” showed a wilful turning of blind eyes to the reality of fascism. It also spoke to a discomforting proximity between right wing ‘bourgeois-democratic’ capitalist politicians and their fascist cousins. Both waged war on behalf of the wealthy classes against the working class - Communists, after all, were Hitler’s first victims, as they were the desired targets of Menzies who, as post-war Prime Minister, tried to intern them and ban their party.
This class politics at the heart of fascism is also missing from Bird’s documentation of the occupations of Australia’s fascists which included solicitors, undertakers, farmers, chemists, doctors, dentists, finance executives, advertising agents, salespersons and real estate agents. This was the shock-jock-listening, taxi-driver class of the time, and, as in Europe, it was this petit-bourgeoisie, the middle class, that formed the mass base of fascism.
Hitler’s fascist ideology demagoguedly appealed to the self-employed, small capitalist’s economic fear and hatred of both the working class (and their unions) and big capital. As in Europe, too, however, Australia’s big capitalists were not fooled by the ‘anti-capital’, ‘socialist’ rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘national socialism’. They backed Hitler to the hilt whilst, in Australia, the business travellers to Nazi Germany, including a CSR sugar magnate, a large flour-miller and big miners, liked the business prosperity they saw flowing from a subdued labour force.
Few and ill-organised Australia’s “Nazi dreamers” may have been but they were far from the eccentric, harmless, if noisy, “lone wolves” they often come across as in Bird’s history. They were the carriers of a lethal political virus which, although it did not take off in Australia needs but the right mix in its capitalist host of economic austerity, right wing extremism, racial scapegoating and imperialist dynamic to make totalitarianism an option. For the labouring classes, complacency over the potential ruthlessness of the capitalist ruling class should never be an option.