The Guardian 16 February, 2005

The jump that stirred Australia

Bob Briton

In my last year of high school, though I had scarcely a consciously-held political belief in my head, I can still remember a certain name bursting into our Modern History class' consideration of events in Australia in the years leading up to WWII. Into the atmosphere of depression-induced poverty, the Premiers' Plan, the dismissal of the Lang Labor Government, the exploits of the reactionary New Guard, pig iron exports to Japan and so on, there came a breath of moral fresh air.

In November 1934 Egon Kisch, Czech journalist and communist, defied an attempt by the conservative Lyons Federal Government to prevent him landing to address a conference of the Movement Against Fascism and War (MAWAF). He was well qualified to speak on the subject of Fascism. He had been arrested, imprisoned and then deported from Germany where he had been working as a journalist. Kisch was one of the luckier victims rounded up in the days following the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933. Most of the thousands of other communists, socialists and trade unionists rounded up in the well organised sweep would later perish in the Nazi extermination camps.

At first, humility had tempted him to decline the invitation to the Melbourne conference but he was persuaded by MAWAF international secretary Henri Barbusse to make the long sea voyage aboard the Strathaird from Marseilles. He obtained a visa to enter Australia from the British Consulate (such was our country's status at the time!) in Paris where he had based himself. He packed his bags making sure not to include any left-wing political material. These were dark reactionary times. If asked the reason for his visit he would mention the Centenary celebrations in Melbourne to be attended by the Duke of Gloucester.

From the very early days of these preparations, an exchange of documents between British and Australian government spy agencies had been taking place. Kisch had already lectured in the UK in 1933 but had been turned away when he returned later in the year to appear before a peace movement event. A public "counter-trial" was being held to publicise evidence not likely to come before the Nazis' own trial of the communists accused of conspiring to burn down the Reichstag.

The unsubstantiated negative assessment of the British was sufficient for the Australian authorities. Attorney General R. G. Menzies issued the orders to back up his resolve not to let Kisch into Australia. Kisch was prevented from landing in Fremantle and kept aboard the Strathaird (he had intended to catch the train to Melbourne so that he would arrive on time for the MAWAF conference). He was not allowed onshore at Adelaide's Outer Harbour, either.

Jumps ship

It was in Port Melbourne, as the Strathaird was pulling away from the dock that Kisch made a jump that managed to grab the attention of bored high school students nearly 40 years later. He jumped over five and a half metres from the afterdeck onto the pier and broke his leg. The ship moved back to the dock. Detectives ignored his protests against being taken back on board and off to Sydney. The original intention of the Australian authorities was to see Kisch, now crippled with his leg in a cast, kept onboard the P&O ship until it steamed off to New Zealand and back to Europe.

The captive journalist had learned from visitors from the Communist Party of Australia that a legal challenge had been mounted by the International Labour Defence against his detention. His leap was in response to the news that it had failed. In the meantime, the Kisch Reception Committee had transformed itself into the Kisch Defence Committee. A who's who of prominent Australians from literary and artistic backgrounds got behind the cause. The peace movement, normally excluded from the attention of the press, became front page news.

By the time the ship arrived in Sydney, the courts had decided that if the evidence of Mr Kisch's subversive activities in Britain could not be produced, that the visitor would have to be released. Once on shore, freedom was short-lived. The police then took him into custody. Menzies had another plan. An obscure section of the Migration Act allowed the Commonwealth to turn away visitors if they failed a dictation test in any modern European language.

Dictation test

The test had originally been instituted to exclude coloured immigrants. The multi-lingual Kisch was tested in Scottish Gaelic — a language even then in daily use by around only 600 people — and failed. Another guest to the Melbourne conference, a New Zealand communist by the name of Gerald Griffin, was turned away when he failed a test in Dutch! He returned under a false name and spoke at public meetings including one at a blacked out hall where the police had intended to pounce and take the elusive activist into custody. They chased down an impostor instead! Our teacher's recounting of these events was met with extended supportive laughter from my classmates, I recall.

Eventually, Justice Evatt of the High Court ruled that, for the purposes of the dictation test, Scottish Gaelic could not be considered a modern European language. Kisch was free again…at least until the following March when his work in Oz had been done and Menzies had another legal stratagem ready to unsheathe. The success of Kisch's speaking tour exceeded all expectations. From Melbourne to Ipswich and finally to Fremantle he spoke to huge enthusiastic audiences. In Sydney's Domain, 18,000 people thronged the park to hear his warning of the gathering Fascist storm.

Australian Landfall

While he was in Australia, he gathered notes for a book, which could not be published in Australia until 1969 — three years after Prime Minister Menzies had retired. Australian Landfall was published overseas in 1937 and contains what must be one of the most amusing and insightful depictions of the Australian cultural and political scene ever written.

The 70th anniversary of Kisch's visit has renewed a lot of interest in this larger-than-life character. The rest of his travels and work are being discussed. It was news to me that Kisch had written "travelogues" similar to Australian Landfall in the course of his journalistic/political career. His reportage covers visits to the Soviet Union, China, the US, Spain and Mexico, where he found refuge from his Nazi-occupied homeland before returning in 1946. He had written a play about the treason trial of the Austrian-Hungarian Colonel Alfred Redl that became an István Szabó film in the 1980s.

He was a founding member of the Austrian Communist Party and took part in the brave but short-lived revolution in Vienna at the end of WW1. He was from a wealthy German-speaking Jewish family from Prague but broke with tradition early on to learn the Czech language. From his early years he seemed predestined to attach himself to an ideology that extends beyond the narrow confines of national self-interest.

Australian Landfall contains a conversation between Kisch and a newspaper reporter on board the Strathaird. To me, it reveals the difference between Kisch's adult outlook and the one he would have left behind. The reporter leads off the exchange:

"And you come here to agitate against Germany?"

"For Germany. Against the Nazis, into whose hands she has fallen, against National Socialism, which is a danger to world peace."

"You're saying this for reasons of policy, aren't you? You know very well that the Hitler regime suits the German character. We won't mention that we asked this question, if you like."

"On the contrary. I am here to counter the view that the people of Germany want war; to tell how all those with whom I was imprisoned could not be forced to accept fascism — not even by the most horrible tortures; to tell about the resistance and the illegal work performed under incredible dangers. There is hardly another people which could oppose bloody tyranny with such self-denial as the illegal workers in Germany are doing."

Back to index page