Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 31, 2018

Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps (2018), by Peter Monteath

Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps tells the story of both interned civilians and POWs, from both the World Wars.  As you might expect, the rules, procedures and conditions in WW2 were influenced by the Geneva Conventions updated between the wars, (a history interesting in itself, see Wikipedia) as well as the lessons Australia had learned from rather its indiscriminate system in WW1.

It’s quite widely known that naturalised Germans who had lived in Australia for many years and been model citizens were interned on the grounds of national security during WW1, and that later in the war, internment was also applied to Australian-born people of German heritage, who were actually British subjects (as all Australians were at that time).  The War Precautions Act 1914 was designed to ensure that no assistance of any kind can be rendered to the enemies of the Empire and Regulation 55 allowed the Minister of Defence to issue warrants for the detention of naturalised persons he had reason to believe were ‘disaffected or disloyal.’

From very early in the war, Australian authorities were determined to quash German economic activity in Australia.  This meant that a number of German merchants were interned, nominally with the aim of preventing trade with the enemy and in accordance with Britain’s strategy of economic blockade.  In many cases, those who found themselves behind barbed wire for these alleged reasons suspected that the Australian policy was being used to favour the interests of Australian businesses, happy to see some of their rivals eliminated.

In a similar vein, authorities were deeply suspicious that Germans might be involved in espionage activity in Australian cities.  Where mistrust was strong, levels of internment were higher, so that even men of elevated social standing— whether as leading businessmen or honorary consuls— were subjected to internment.  (p.13)

Although there was only one group of POWs who were actually enemy combatants who were captured in battle (the men of the German cruiser SMS Emden), there were also POWs from German shipping in Australian ports.  Due to the sudden outbreak of war and the tardiness of communications in those days, crews of these 15 ships had no way of knowing, as they entered port flying a German flag, that they had suddenly become the enemy.   So too were German officers and crew on ships not flying German flags but they were also rounded up.  At first officers (but not seamen) were allowed comparative freedom on parole, but from 1915 Australia was complying with directives from Britain and they were all behind barbed wire.  (In some ways, this was preferable to being at large with no employment, no means of support, unable to provide for their families and subject to the understandable hostility of the locals).

Monteath personalises these stories with one-page vignettes about individuals and families.  The accompanying photos bring these people to life and remind the reader that each of these ‘numbers’ was an individual with a past that may or may not have been cause for concern, facing a disconcerting present and an uncertain future.  One example of this was the Bruhn family, interned in family camps at Molonglo and Bourke.  They were deported to Germany in 1919, a place where Franz Bruhn’s wife, Louise Helen had never been and whose language she did not speak because she had met and married her husband in Hong Kong where her father owned a hotel.  Their baby Friedrich Franz was born in camp in Australia, but he was deported to Germany too.

…the most challenging and distressing period of internment was in the first days and weeks.  Apart from the shock of the sudden deprivation of liberty and separation from loved ones, often the physical circumstances were trying.  Transport was cramped and uncomfortable, provisions were meagre, discipline harsh, and the first places of internment were often gaol cells or army barracks not designed to accommodate civilians, let alone when they were deposited there in large numbers.  (p.156)

(Rebecca Huntley’s memoir The Italian Girl offers another perspective, that of her grandmother who ran the family farm alone while her husband was interned.  Belinda Castle’s Hannah and Emil is a fictionalisation of a true story about one of ‘the Dunera Boys’ who had fled the Nazis to Britain and were sent from there to Australia as internees ).

OTOH you have to wonder about those who provocatively sang patriotic German songs such as Die Wacht am Rhein (an anti French song called The Watch on the Rhine) and in the camp at Torrens Island set up a coffee shop called Kaiser Café and celebrated the Kaiser’s birthday.  Monteath quotes those at the Berrima camp who thought such celebrations benefited not only the German and Austrian prisoners, but also the people who came from the surrounding areas to witness it.  Well, I don’t know about that, but it seems to me to be a remarkably tactless thing to do given the rising casualty lists, and it probably didn’t help resolve suspicions about German loyalty.

WW2 brought different difficulties.  There were indeed Germans (and a few Australians) who were fanatical Nazi sympathisers and there was every reason to intern such people, but what was most unfortunate was that, at least for the time, they were interned with German Jews such as the ‘the Dunera Boys‘ who had fled to Britain and were sent from there to Australia as internees.  As time went by and some of the internees and POWs were allowed to work outside the camps, Italians made a huge contribution to farm work but the Germans were not trusted as much.  And as I know from reading books like Anita Heiss’s Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, Japanese POWs were so ashamed of their surrender that they were often suicidal about their imprisonment and many of them died in the Cowra Breakout, the largest and most lethal of all POW escapes of the war.

The book includes recommendations for further reading, extensive references at the back of the book and a list of sources.  There are also many illustrations, including photos and reproductions of documents and posters.

This is a most interesting book that has a special resonance given Australia’s current system of mandatory detention of refugees.  Food for thought…

Peter Monteath is Professor of History at Flinders University in Adelaide but although the book is obviously meticulously researched , it is written in a user-friendly style and it’s engaging for a general reader such as myself.  Monteath is also one of the historians who wrote one of my favourite history books, Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders.

Update 14/8/18 Janine at The Resident Judge reviewed it too. 

Author: Peter Monteath
Title: Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9780642279248
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing via Scott Eathorne from Quikmark Media



  1. I wrote a couple of years ago about my great great etc uncle, a German born Australian businessman with Australian wife and children who was interned during WWI and subsequently deported. He was sure he was interned for business reasons but I’m pretty sure he also celebrated the Kaiser’s birthday.


    • Well, that’s the sort of thing that makes it tricky, IMO. I mean, I understand a lingering fondness for country of origin, I feel it myself. But there are certain attitudes it’s best to keep under the radar, and there are times when it’s even more important. I’ve seen commentary about Australian jingoism in WW1 but IMO it’s not jingoism to be wary of someone overtly supporting the other side, and to prefer to do business elsewhere. It’s the question of assumptions about tacit support for the other side that is more difficult to deal with, and whereas the first situation is a customer’s choice, the second is less clear cut.
      There was one vignette which covered this issue: an internee was accused of all kinds of things, and there was a subsequent enquiry after the war. But frustratingly, Monteath doesn’t say what the outcome was.
      But what this book raises is the interesting question of having ‘an enemy’. Even though Australia is currently involved in wars, I suspect that most of us don’t have a clear idea of who ‘the enemy’ is, not in the way that everybody knew that it was Germany in WW1 & 2.


      • No, I certainly don’t think of Muslims now and I never thought of communists back then as my ‘enemy’. Of course scoundrels (ie patriots) need enemies to define themselves against. It really annoys me now that I’m meant to consider Iranians as my enemy because I guess of the threat Israel wishes us to believe they pose when they could easily be an ordinary middle class world citizen, like Korea say.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, it just shows you how the whole concept of war has changed in our lifetimes.
          I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after what happened to Iraq, the ‘axis of evil’ countries are setting up defences against the US. Having nuclear weapons is perhaps the only viable defence.


  2. […] Other reviews:  See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers:… […]


  3. […] Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, by Peter Monteath […]


  4. […] Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, by Peter Monteath […]


  5. […] Peter Monteath is also the author of another very interesting book: Captured Lives, Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps. So often we have a skimpy knowledge of our domestic war-time history because it doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative.  Monteath’s book is a comprehensive survey of internment from both World Wars, showing that the reasons for and effects of internment policies were much more nuanced than I had realised.  The internees weren’t all harmless old Germans peacefully growing grapes in the Barossa!  See my review here. […]


  6. That looks like a very interesting book. Thanks for drawing our attention to it, Lisa.


    • Monteath is a very good historian!


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