Lutheran Schooling in South Australia

South Australian attitudes towards
Lutheran Schooling during World War I.

The coming of the first World War led many Anglo-Australians to speculate about what was happening in those tightly knit German-speaking communities such as the Barossa Valley, Kapunda and the Adelaide Hills. Ignorance about them led to suspicion and fear which eventually were to prove disastrous for all German-Australians, especially those living in South Australia. When Australia became directly involved in the war, and particularly after the huge losses at Gallipoli, it created enormous ill-feeling and even hatred towards the ‘German’ community, especially its way of life and religious schools, often referred to as German schools. Although a few South Australian parliamentarians and many ordinary South Australians believed this was wrong, it did ultimately result in the banning of German language lessons and church services, closure of German clubs and newspapers, untold harassment of Germans and Australians of German descent and finally the closure of all but one of the Lutheran primary schools.

Most of the Lutheran German immigrants arriving in South Australia during the late 1830s and early 1840s did so as religious refugees. They quickly build their churches and schools and remained largely insulated and isolated from most other settlers as a result of their language, religion and self-contained culture. The majority of later arrivals, who were also mostly Lutheran, came in search of political freedom, a better life and a secure economic future. All were soon respected and admired and many did well achieving leading positions in the South Australian community. A major reason for the acceptance of their religious beliefs, which had originated in Germany, was the fact that it proclaimed the duty of loyalty to the Government and its institutions of the country in which it was practised.

The Lutheran attitude to education had always been that education without religion was no education at all. It genuinely believed that the faith could only be expressed properly in the German language. Therefore education was essentially a means to an end, which was the ability to read the Bible and other religious works, and for the spiritual welfare of the children. Lutherans also believed that religion, and religious schooling, were vital to the maintenance of their heritage and community life, and made the attendance at Sunday school compulsory up to the age of sixteen. These most important traditions were dealt a mortal blow when the use of the German language in schools was banned followed by the closure of their forty-nine Lutheran primary schools on 30 June 1917, including the Bethesda Aboriginal school at Killalpaninna on the Birdsville Track established in the 1870s and run for most of its time by ‘Father’ Vogelsang.

Well before the outbreak of war Lutherans had survived attacks on their religion, heritage and educational beliefs. To guard their independence they had ‘respectfully’ declined financial assistance from the colonial government for both churches and schools. Although some schools had applied, and received government education grants, the majority of the Germans/Lutherans rather did without them. Even so, they were able to establish several churches and schools in a short period of time including the Hahndorf Academy and the large Deutsche Schule in Wakefield Street. Almost every Lutheran church had a school attached to it or near it. In 1876 the South Australian government tried to establish some control and influence over non-government schools. To achieve this it introduced an Education bill prohibiting religious instruction in schools receiving government grants. Early in 1883 the government attempted to introduce even more control over these schools.

The Lutherans' point of view remained unchanged. Church and school could not be separated without doing great harm to the very existence of the Church. In a memorial to the House of Assembly they stated that it was of the utmost importance to keep the supervision of their schools and the appointment of teachers in their own hands. Nothing came of the government’s intentions this time. Seventy-five years after the Lutherans first took up residence in South Australia they still maintained that their religion, and its teaching in the Lutheran schools, gave students a central system of beliefs and a focus to their lives. It taught them hard work, family loyalty, sobriety and piety. Unfortunately it were these very beliefs and values, plus their retention of the German language, that kept the Lutherans apart from the mainstream Anglo-Australians.

Although more apparent than real, it sometimes proved a hindrance to their general assimilation and caused much suspicion and hatred when Germany was at war with England and consequently Australia. Many who lived and worked with German-Australians had little or no doubt about their loyalty. During an early wartime rally at Angaston the Rev J. G. Wright was glad to see so many men who ‘owed their origin to German parentage. He refused to believe that these men were enemies to Britain, but believed that they were brothers proud to claim allegiance to the flag under which they had gained such prosperity’.

No sooner had fighting started or the Lutheran Church was at pains to state that, as far as most German-Australians were concerned, the continuous use of the German language and culture ‘had nothing to do with the political goals of Imperial Germany’. On the contrary, almost every Lutheran community had passed a resolution pledging loyalty to the Crown. Individual Lutheran Churches, and hundreds of its members, made regular payments to the German-Australian branch of the South Australian Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. Many contributed to the South Australian Lutheran War Relief Fund. A. F. Noll, secretary and treasurer of the Quorn subdivision of the Lutheran War Relief, was kept busy until July 1916 when the Fund was discontinued and used for other war purposes. Many of the younger men enlisted while others changed their surnames. One Australian-born, of German parentage, went as far as telling the local newspaper that he was changing his name as it was a disgrace to both his children and himself. Hundreds of Germans applied for naturalisation as early as 1914.

Parliamentarians like John Verran, James Phillips Wilson, Frederick Samuel Wallis and David James had doubts about the loyalty of German-Australians. Wallis wanted to know, among other things, how many persons of German birth, employed in the Public Service, had failed to take out naturalisation papers. Wilson wanted to know if it was the usual practice of the government to appoint foreigners to positions in the Education Department. Both Verran and James repeatedly asked if and when German (Lutheran) schools were going to be closed. Verran was the most outspoken of the parliamentarians. If it had been up to him he would have denied them all rights, privileges and benefits, whatever they may have been. On three separate occasions, 1915, 1916 and 1917 Verran introduced a bill to disfranchise Australians of German background.

Lutheran schools though, supported the patriotic effort as much as they possibly could. At the New Mecklenburg, Langmeil and Bethany Lutheran schools, teachers A. Schulz, J. Schulz and A. Hensel respectively made arrangements for the celebration of Empire Day in May 1915. The flag was saluted, cheers given for the King and senior classes were given the task of writing a composition on the greatness of the British Empire. Australia Day, celebrated with great enthusiasm on 30 July 1915, attracted large crowds, including members of Lutheran schools. Unfortunately most of these efforts fell on deaf ears. As the vast majority of Australians only experienced the war from distant letters from the front and newspaper reports, many soon found more excitement in the harassing or physical attacking of Australians with a German name or background.

Some of the first victims of the dislike of anything German were, among others, Hermann Robert Homburg, the Attorney-General of South Australia. Born in South Australia, but of German parents, Homburg had always been held in high esteem. In 1914 though, his office was raided by soldiers with fixed bayonets. Under such circumstances it is easy to understand that he resigned his position as early as January 1915. After Homburg’s resignation, it was publicly stated that he had been a source of strength to the Ministry and his retirement would be much regretted. His brother Robert, a lawyer and member of the House of Assembly for Burra Burra also resigned in the face of ‘gross slanders’ about his loyalty. George Dankel, member for the Federal seat of Boothby had to resign in September 1916.

Apart from the loss of able politicians there were other incidents, which would be repeated many times during the war, such as when Pastor Th. Nickel of Eudunda, President of the Lutheran Church, was arrested on some trumped-up charge. He was only released after the strenuous efforts of his local member of parliament, Patrick MacMahon Glynn. As it turned out he was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Others were interned for lengthy periods in concentration camps such as Torrens Island, often reducing their families to a subsistence level of existence. Many were not released until the end of the war.

Much of the anti-German hysteria was created by the patriotic press and publicists who endeavoured to give the idea that all Germans in Australia were agents of the Kaiser's government. The best example of this was the weekly The Mail, published in Adelaide. The press ‘systematically poisoned the minds’ of its readers with ‘misrepresentations and insinuations’. The Barossa Valley newspapers, such as The Barossa News, were more restrained in their way of reporting. Their news was mainly matter of fact, with very little editorial comment. Reading the monthly Australian Lutheran it is hard to believe how little, and how moderate, their reporting of events was.

The same could not always be said of The Kapunda Herald. Because of the often ‘senseless xenophobia fostered by unscrupulous propagandists’ life soon became a hell for most Lutherans and all Germans. Many were dismissed from their jobs or made the continuation of it impossible. Charles Fisher, for instance, had his Hawker’s licence, which he had held for twenty years, taken away from him for no reason at all. The All-British League was against the employment of Germans in the Civil Service and also objected against Germans being able to vote. Outside South Australia matters were just as bad. In November 1914 the Melbourne wharf labourers decided against working with Germans, followed a month later by the Fremantle Lumpers Union making a similar decision. No wonder some committed suicide because of the hopelessness of their situation.

After the landing at Gallipoli, and the horrifying losses suffered by Australians at the hands of the Turks, followed later by the sinking of the Lusitania, a ‘vicious torrent of war-hate and rabid Teutonophobia broke loose’. During May 1915 all German clubs in Australia were forced to close. The German club at Broken Hill had already been set alight and burnt to the ground during New Years' day. This was soon followed with the refusal of the Sydney wharf labourers to work with Germans. A year later more evidence of this hatred was shown in Kalgoorlie where the Miners Union instructed its members not to work with enemy subjects.

In South Australia some 28,000 Lutherans, most of them born and bred Australians, were subjected to inhumane conditions never experienced before or later on such a scale in Australia. Apart from the burning of private property, looting and other acts of destruction, there was the burning down of Lutheran churches at Edithburg and Netherby. In Quorn the church doors were painted over because the pastor conducted the Lutheran service in German. Although the Premier had defended the German-Australians during a speech at Mount Gambier early in 1915, the Teachers Union was of a very much different opinion about Germans and the teaching of the German language in South Australian schools. It ‘strongly resented’ the fact that no English was taught at the Lutheran schools and in 1915 tabled a formal motion that ‘it is highly essential to the welfare of both State and children, that the Lutheran schools of South Australia be closed’.

The Lutherans themselves tried many times to refute the malicious rumours. They were at pains to point out that their loyalty dated from the days of first settlement and not just from August 1914. They also stressed that they had always prayed in both church and school for the British Sovereigns and the Australian government, never for the government of Germany. Neither had they ever permitted German officials to interfere with their affairs. However, during war or any other national crisis, the truth is often ignored. Both parliamentarians and the Education Department were well aware that English was taught at these schools, but mostly kept quiet about it.

In parliament some members behaved in a manner which showed their dislike of Germans was just as much as that of many of their constituents. When Wilson admitted during question time in the Legislative Council, that a German teacher had been arrested, interned, but later released and reinstated by the Education Department, many members called ‘shame’! By the end of that year the ill-feeling and hatred had influenced the South Australian parliamentarians enough to pass the ‘Enemy Contracts Annulment Act’ followed a little later by the ‘Education Act 1915’. This last act, introduced in the House of Assembly, by the Treasurer and member for Torrens, Crawford Vaughan on 8 September, was really a consolidating and amending bill. It dealt with all aspects of education, including private schools. During its debate Verran kept interrupting time and again with such questions as, ‘What are you going to do with the Lutherans, or Why not shut up the German schools altogether?’


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