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Book review – ‘Across the Seas’

6 June 20151 comment
Professor Klaus Neumann, author of 'Across the Seas'

Professor Klaus Neumann, author of ‘Across the Seas’

Klaus Neumann loves telling the story of Egon Kisch, a Jewish Communist and anti-war activist of ethnic German origin who was born in Czechoslovakia.

As a vocal critic of Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany, Kisch’s books were burned in public there.

In 1934 the Australian Government led by Joe Lyons tried to exclude Kisch from visiting Australia on a speaking tour on the basis that he was an “undesirable as an inhabitant of, or visitor to, the Commonwealth”.

In words that strike a familiar tone today, the then Attorney General Robert Menzies pointed out that every civilised country had the right to determine who should or should not be allowed in, and that, since Kisch was a revolutionary and since revolution involved violence, he was not to be permitted entry.

However, on 13 November, Kisch defied Australian authorities when he jumped five metres from the deck of the ocean liner the Strathaird onto Melbourne’s Station Pier, breaking his right leg. The police quickly took charge of Kisch and carried him back on board the Strathaird.

Eventually, the Federal Government attempted to exclude Kisch using the infamous ‘dictation test’ under the Immigration Restriction Act.

This was primarily intended, and used, as a means to exclude non-whites from entering Australia under the White Australia Policy, but it could be, and occasionally was, used to exclude other “undesirables”.

After Kisch demonstrated his fluency in a number of European languages, he was then asked to write the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic. He refused to participate and was deemed to have failed the test. He was then taken into custody.

The matter went before several courts before the High Court ruled that he be free to visit Australia.

Kisch’s legal team were able to demonstrate that Constable Mackay, who had administered the test, although born in Scotland, was not actually able to understand the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic himself.

The story is one of many bizarre, brutal or banal events that pepper Australia’s chequered immigration history and is emblematic of the nation’s difficult relationship with its own demographic development.

In his new book, ‘Across the Seas, Australia’s response to refugees: a history’, Swinburne University historian Professor Neumann places the Australian story in the context of global refugee movements, and international responses to them.

Neumann examines several case studies, including the resettlement of displaced persons from European refugee camps in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the panic generated by the arrival of Vietnamese asylum seekers during the 1977 federal election campaign.

By exploring the ways in which politicians have approached asylum-seeker issues in the past, Neumann says he hopes to inspire more creative thinking about current refugee and asylum-seeker policy.

In this eloquent and informative book, Neumann examines both government policy and public attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers since Federation.

The book is at the same time fascinating; imbued with a deep sense of humanity; and, informed by an awareness that in telling the history of Australia, one tells the story of immigration.

Neumann shows that immigrants – rarely welcomed, almost always the subjects of ill-informed invective – have always been essential to our society and economy.

The book holds a mirror up to civic society in Australia; showing the heroic journeys of refugee and migrants who came here under perilous circumstances, but also the successive surges of racism and resistance that met each of the major waves of migration.

It also puts historical context behind the current daily news reports about asylum seekers and the emerging global refugee debate; arguing that recent policy responses – as well as constitutional and legal initiatives – which have, in themselves, become a hot political issues – are not as unprecedented as you might think.

Across the Seas’ is an impressive and insightful work. Its fastidious research and calmly crafted scholarship makes it an important contribution to a crucial contemporary debate.


Professor Klaus Neumann is a historian based at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research. His 2006 book In the Interest of National Security won the John and Patricia Ward History Prize, while his Refuge Australia: Australia’s Humanitarian Record (2004) won the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2004 Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction.