William Charles, reviewing Peter Monteath’s book on Australian POWs under Hitler, for the Adelaide Review, http://www.adelaidereview.com.au/article/867
Imagine yourself a prisoner of war at one of the teeming number of internment facilities spread the length and breadth of Hitler’s Reich. Upon being interrogated, you find the German officer questioning you speaks with a broad Australian accent and has been educated at the University of Adelaide. Truth always turns out stranger than fiction – the person in question being from a German-Australian family turfed out of South Australia during the 1914 – 1918 war and now settled back in the Fatherland. Even back then, it seems, turning immigrants away had unforeseen consequences.
Such anecdotes litter Peter Monteath’s vastly entertaining and meticulously researched book that describes how, from multiple theatres of war across Europe to the Middle East and North Africa, Australians became interned in the Third Reich labour camps. POWs in Hitler’s Germany have often been, in the popular imagination, those figures from British and American films and comedies, all designed to draw the sting from unpalatable realities and portray the Hun as a blundering fool. Australians were only bit players in these accounts, and yet their fighting role had great influence over the outcome of the war in Europe, especially in Greece and North Africa.
Upon release, those POWs strong, cunning or simply lucky enough to survive arrived back to Australia, in many instances, while the war in the Pacific was still raging. There was no public space for an acknowledgement of their heroism and suffering while larger issues of the day remained to be dealt with. Further, their experiences were to be eclipsed by the fate of those Australians who fell into the hands of the Japanese. Not signatories to the Geneva Convention, the Japanese treatment of POWs was spectacularly awful and became the stuff of far more gruesome legend than those who suffered in the labour camps of the Third Reich. Yet here are extraordinary accounts of the Australians in Europe – their fighting, capture, endurance and survival, despite being put to work in the service of Hitler’s military-industrial complex – down coal mines, in chemical factories, steel works and quarries.
Amidst the horror (and this is not an account of concentration camps, which were another beast altogether), a curious pattern emerges of protocols and procedures followed. Notwithstanding the awful context of the broader European conflict, these pages resound with echoes of a more innocent and respectful time, where officers on both sides were gentlemen and played largely by the rules. How distant all this seems from our contemporary regimes of extraordinary rendition and torture. Flinders University’s Peter Monteath has produced an outstanding book highly recommended for any student of Australian history, or for lovers of true adventure.
Monteath, P.D., 2011. POW: Australian Prisoners of War in Hitler’s Reich, Sydney: PanMacmillan.
Monteath, P.D., 2005. Dear Dr Janzow: Australia’s Lutheran Churches and refugees from Hitler’s Germany, Unley, SA: AUSTRALIAN HUMANITIES PRESS.
Fornasiero, J., Monteath, P.D., & West-Sooby, J., 2004. Encountering Terra Australis: the Australian voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders, Kent Town, SA: WAKEFIELD PRESS.
Monteath, P.D. & Lally, J.I., 2011. ‘Essentially South Australian’: The artist Alexander Schramm. In Germans: Travellers, Settlers and Their Descendants in South Australia. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, pp. 144-165.
Monteath, P.D., 2011. South Australia’s Lutheran Churches and Refugees from Hitler’s Germany. In Germans: Travellers, Settlers and Their Descendants in South Australia. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, pp. 304-325.
Monteath, P.D., 2008. “Mischlinge” in Holocaust Videotestimony. In Testifying to the Holocaust. Sydney, NSW: Australian Association of Jewish Studies, pp. 117-135.
Monteath, P.D., 2006. Drowned or saved? German studies and european studies in Australia. In Tendenzen der internationalen Germanistik. Germany: Asgard-Verlag, pp. 28-41.
Fitzpatrick, M.P. & Monteath, P.D., 2010. Expansions and Contractions: The Internal and External Frontiers of Europe. Australian Journal of Politics and History, 56(3), 329-335.
Monteath, P.D., 2009. World History in Australia: An Historical Overview. Global History Review, 2(2), 167-175.
Monteath, P.D., 2010. The Anthropologist as Cold Warrior: The interesting times of Frederick Rose. Europe’s Expansions and Contractions, 259-279.
Professional and community engagement: Peter Monteath was organizer of the latest conference of the Australasian Association of European Historians, held in Adelaide in July 2009. He is a member of the Australian Historical Association and is on the editorial board of the journal Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, of The Flinders Journal of History and Politics and of The Historical Journal of South Australia. He is a member of the Consultative Committee of the Adelaide Office of the National Archives of Australia.
Expertise for media contact
- History modern Germany, contemporary Germany, the Holocaust, Spanish Civil War, Matthew Flinders
- History – German