By Christine Salins
PS News Books
Edited by Peter Monteath. Wakefield Press, $34.95, softcover, 472 pages.
It was a book waiting to be written. So much has been written about the influence of Chinese and Italian migrants and more recently other cultures on the Australian way of life, but until now the contribution of the German-born community has gone largely unnoticed in single book form.
And yet the mark that German people have left is widely evident, particularly in South Australia where you’ll see tangible reminders everywhere, from the streetscapes of Hahndorf and the Barossa Valley, to the architecture of Adelaide, the food and wine, and the names of streets, towns and people.
As Peter Monteath says in his introduction to the book, “In Adelaide and beyond, a German heritage is omnipresent.”
Often, however, “the Germans” are regarded as a single group in the State’s history, whereas the truth is much more complex.
South Australia’s early German settlers are mostly remembered as pious farmers who fled religious persecution in Europe and established rural villages in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills.
But although they spoke a common language, they were divided by differences of country, culture and class.
There were farmers from Silesia and Brandenburg, missionaries from Dresden, liberals from Berlin, merchants from Hamburg, miners from the Harz mountains, and erudite graduates from some of the world’s best universities.
They brought an extraordinary variety of knowledge and talents with them, and were destined to make a difference in many fields. The experiences of their descendants and more recent arrivals have been no less varied.
In the past decade, a number of conferences have been held at the University of Adelaide looking at the contributions of Germans to the history of South Australia and, more broadly, Australia.
This book is a collection of essays resulting from those conferences, with some 21 contributors exploring the origins, experiences and contributions of Germans in South Australia over 175 years.
The authors cover topics as diverse as natural science; early Lutheran missionaries and their work with Aborigines; explorer and Botanic Gardens director Richard Schomburgk; viticulture and women in the Barossa; Lutheran churches hiding Jewish refugees, and more.
There is also the story of the artistic Heysens, a German-Australian success story personified.
The book is partly a celebration of German contributions, partly critical assessment. Barbara Poniewierski, for example, doesn’t mince words in her account of National Socialism in South Australia, claiming that only 21 native-born South Australians were interned during the Second World War out of an estimated 20,000 ethnic Germans in the State.
“It is a very small number from which to generate so much resentment and self-pity,” she concludes.
It mustn’t be forgotten that during both wars, countless Australians of German descent exhibited their loyalty through armed service, often directed against the land of their origins, and many of them paying the ultimate price. Reference is made to that in the book too.
Germans is a scholarly book and probably not one for light reading at bedtime. Despite the extensive editing that Monteath refers to in his acknowledgements, many of the chapters still read like academic papers.
Angela Heuzenroeder’s chapter on the Barossa Cookbook, for example, provides a fascinating culinary perspective but it begins awkwardly and would have benefited from the editing out of sentences such as “This chapter will examine the Barossa cookbook...” and “It will also describe the way editions of the book conveyed...” Better to let the words speak for themselves.
To find out more about Christine Salins click here.