The Raging Reporter from Prague
Egon Kisch was a Jewish Communist and anti-war activist of ethnic German (Volksdeutsche) origin born in Czechoslovakia. He had served in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, had deserted and participated in the failed Vienna revolution of 1918. He was also the author of many travel books, a journalist and as the leading proponent of German Language reportage became known to admirers and critics alike as "The Raging Reporter from Prague".
From 1925 onwards Kisch was a speaker and operative of the communist international and a senior figure in the publishing empire of the West European branch of the Comintern run by communist millionaire propagandist Willi Münzenberg. The Cominterns 1934 policy to build popular fronts of all political parties opposing Fascism was to be promoted by Kisch's Australian visit.
Kisch was a vocal critic of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime and as a result had his books banned and burned in Germany. Following the Reichstag fire, Kisch was detained in Spandau before he was expelled from Germany to his native Czechoslovakia.
An alias and an informer
Herr Egon Erwin Kisch, a German novelist, whose writing satirising the Hitler regime caused him to be sent to Nazi concentration camps for political prisoners, will be a visitor here for the Centenary celebrations... He will speak on conditions in Germany during his tour of Victoria.
Inspector Ronald Browne of the Investigation Branch discovered from an informant that the World Committee Against War (one of the many Communist front organisations known as the Münzenberg Trust) was sending a "Ewart Risch" as a speaker to the All Australian Congress of the Movement Against War and Fascism held at the Port Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne on 10-12 November 1934.
When Investigation Branch discovered that "Ewart Risch" was Egon Kisch, known to the British Special Branch as a militant Communist opponent of Adolf Hitler, Victoria Police Commissioner Major-General Sir Thomas Blamey, informed Thomas Paterson, the federal Minister for the Interior. Paterson then made a declaration of exclusion against Kisch under the Immigration Act.
The ship was promptly boarded by representatives of the Federal Government who refused Kisch entry to Australia because he was "undesirable as an inhabitant of, or visitor to, the Commonwealth".
Kisch professed to be deeply hurt and was sure that things would be put right once he was given a chance to explain. He was scrupulous, however, in denying his membership of the Communist Party of Germany.
Leap into history
On 12 November 1934, large groups of Kisch supporters gathered in Melbourne and the Strathaird was surrounded by boatloads of Kisch well wishers. The International Labour Defence (another Münzenberg Trust front) engaged Melbourne barrister Joan Rosanove, who, with a group of Kisch supporters, went aboard the Strathaird and initiated a habeas corpus action.
The Melbourne court hearing the action delayed any immediate decision on Kisch, leaving him in custody aboard the Strathaird as it departed the city.
On 13 November, Kisch defied Australian authorities when he jumped over 5 metres onto Melbourne's Station Pier, breaking his right leg. The Victoria Police quickly took charge of Kisch and carried him back on board the Strathaird.
The next day the issue rose to national prominence when Labor MP for Batman, Frank Brennan rose in the House of Representatives to accuse the Lyons government of cowardice. He asked why Kisch's right to speak in Australia was being restricted just because the Lyons administration disagreed with him.
In response, the Attorney-General Robert Menzies pointed out that every civilized country had the right to determine who should or should not be allowed in, and that since Kisch was a revolutionary and that revolution involved violence, he was not to be permitted entry.
Kisch's legal supporters act
As the Strathaird made its way up the New South Wales south coast to Sydney, supporters of Kisch took his case before High Court Judge Evatt, who found that the Federal Government had incorrectly excluded Kisch from Australia because they had failed to list the advice received from the British Government in their order. Evatt released Kisch and ordered that he be free to visit as long as he respected the laws of Australia.
The Government uses the language test
The Strathaird arrived in Sydney Harbour on 16 November 1934. The Federal Government now attempted to exclude Kisch using the Immigration Restriction Act. The Act allowed for a dictation test for prospective immigrants in any European language, and was usually the means to exclude non-whites from entering Australia under the unofficial White Australia policy. Kisch demonstrated his fluency in a number of European languages, and he was then asked to write the Lord's Prayer in Scottish Gaelic. Kisch refused to participate. He was deemed to have failed the test and was taken into custody, this time by the New South Wales police, who released him on AU£200 bail.
A literary reception
Kisch attended a Fellowship of Australian Writers luncheon in honour of poet laureate John Masefield, along with Albert Piddington, Kenneth Slessor and Norman Lindsay. Controversy ensued when three government ministers and several writers mounted objections.
The Movement Against War and Fascism organized a Kisch reception committee including Katharine Susannah Prichard, Vance and Nettie Palmer, E. J. Brady and Louis Esson. This group formed the nucleus of what later became the Writers League, drawing on the example of Egon Kisch's own journalistic dedication to reportage. The reception committee organized concerts featuring performances from Greek, Italian, Yugoslav, Jewish, Russian and Aboriginal artists with the theme of international opposition to Fascism.
The High Court rules
Egon Kisch's legal team was headed by Christian Jollie Smith, who secured a writ of habeas corpus for Kisch and briefed Albert Piddington and Maurice Blackburn, who took his case to the full bench of the High Court, which on 19 December 1934 ruled that he be free to visit Australia. Kisch's legal team were able to demonstrate that the dictation test was administered unfairly. It was also found that Constable Mackay, who administered the test, although born in Scotland, was not actually able to write the Lord's Prayer in Scottish Gaelic himself. As a consequence, Kisch had been asked to write a nonsensical sentence which Mackay could not correctly translate. The High Court ruled that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language within the meaning of the Immigration Restriction Act. Kisch was now free to visit and speak in Australia. Or so it seemed.
Prime Minister Lyons intervenes
In December 1934 the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons contacted the British Government and received the following written advice: Position is that Egon Kisch was refused leave to land in the United Kingdom in September 1933 on account of his known subversive activities stop permission to enter the United Kingdom would now not be granted to him stop Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs stop
The government then made a second Immigration Act declaration, overcoming the technical shortcoming which Evatt had found in the first, and on 21 January 1935 the Central Sydney Police Court convicted Kisch of being a prohibited immigrant and sentenced him to three months imprisonment with hard labour. However, Kisch was released on bail when his lawyer took an appeal to High Court Justice Evatt, who again ruled that Kisch be set free. Evatt pointed out that, under the law, the minister had no power to rule on immigration matters after a person had entered Australia and he set up a hearing of the Full Bench of the High Court for March.
Kisch was free to move about and speak. He became a popular figure, addressing meetings, rallies and crowds in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, warning of the dangers of the Nazi regime. On 17 February 1935, he addressed an estimated 18,000-strong audience in Sydney's Domain:
I have had three adventurous months since I last saw you. I know the Police Court, the Quarter Sessions Court, the High Court with one judge and the High Court with five judges. But whenever the court let me go I was arrested again. I have learnt to speak English better. Perhaps I do not speak King's English but it's Kisch English anyhow. I did not come here to tell there is terrorism in Europe. I come here to tell you how to stop it. I have been an eye-witness. I was arrested the day the Reichstag was burnt down by Göring and his lieutenants. I saw my friend, Erich Mühsam, the poet, whose works I translated, made to walk naked, even in winter, and to lick up the spittle of his captors. All his limbs were broken gradually, and he died.
The Government does a deal
Facing the dilemma that further persecution and legal wrangling simply promoted Kisch’s cause, the Lyons Government proposed a compromise. On 26 February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported:
- Provided that Egon Irwin Kisch, the Czechoslovakian author, gives certain undertakings to the authorities, the Federal Ministry is willing to recommend His Excellency the Governor-General to remit the sentence of imprisonment for three months with hard labour imposed on him in Sydney ... there is no desire on the part of the Ministry to compel him to serve a term of imprisonment if he is willing to leave immediately.
Ultimately, the Lyons government agreed to cut its losses and offered to remit Kisch's sentence, stop all legal proceedings and pay Kisch AU£450 for his costs in exchange for an agreed exit date of 11 March 1935. Having achieved notoriety above and beyond anyone's expectations, and public exposure of his warnings of Adolf Hitler and the dangers of fascism, Kisch accepted their offer and departed Sydney on the Orient Liner Ormonde bound for Marseille.
The Lyons Government introduced a new law, in response to their humiliation whereby a person charged as a prohibited immigrant became ineligible for bail.
The dictation test was used again controversially in 1936 to exclude Mabel Freer, a white British woman born in India. She was tested in Italian, but it emerged that the substantive reason for Freer's exclusion was that she was an unmarried woman travelling abroad. Interior Minister Thomas Paterson resigned from the Lyons Cabinet following the controversy. The test was not abolished until 1958.
The RMS Strathaird was requestioned for war service on the outbreak of the Second World War, endured the war and returned to civilian service.
The White Australia policy was dismantled in a series of reforms begun by Gough Whitlam's Australian Labor Party government in 1973, and completed by Malcolm Fraser's Liberal government's review of immigration law in 1978.
Kisch detailed his antipodean adventures in his 1937 book Australian Landfall. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1946. Following his death in 1948 he was acknowledged as a hero of the German Democratic Republic.
The Kisch Welcome Committee developed into a literary appreciation society known as the Writers League.
Maurice Blackburn was expelled from the ALP over his membership of the Movement Against War and Fascism and its links to the Communist Party. As a consequence he was defeated in his electorate of Bourke. However his Wife Doris Blackburn successfully contested Bourke and served as an independent after her husband's death.
The Comintern policy of creating a united front against fascism in Australia was successfully resisted by Australia's mainstream political parties. The Australian Labor Party opposed links and cooperation with the Communist Party which remained isolated and marginalized.
Robert Menzies later distanced himself from the Kisch affair, claiming the debacle had been initiated by Thomas Paterson and that his own involvement had just been a mistake. In 1951 Christian Jollie Smith worked with H. V. Evatt to prevent an attempt by Menzies (now Prime Minister) to ban the Communist Party in Australia.
Willy Münzenberg was murdered outside Paris by the NKVD in June 1940.
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- Cochrane, Peter (2008). The big Jump: Egon Kisch in Australia. Commonwealth History Project: The National Centre for History Education. http://hyperhistory.org/index.php?option=displaypage&Itemid=730&op=page.
- Nicholls, Glenn (2007). From the dictation test to the character test. Swinburne University of Technology: Institute for Social Research. http://www.apo.org.au/commentary/dictation-test-character-test.
- Rasmussen, Carolyn (2006). KISCH, EGON ERWIN (1885-1948). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition,: Australian National University. http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A150043b.htm.
- Mommsen, Hans "The Reichstag Fire and Its Political Consequences" pages 129-222 from Republic to Reich The Making of the Nazi Revolution edited by Hajo Holborn, New York: Pantheon Books, 1972: originally published as "Der Reichstagsbrand und seine politischen Folgen" pages 351-413 from Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Volume 12, 1964.
- Macintyre, Stewart (1998). The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality. Allen & Unwin. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=2JG01HuwZsYC&pg=PA269&lpg=PA269&dq=Movement+Against+War+and+Fascism&source=web&ots=0AqD2LISNQ&sig=4HwkiRZO4JPRhURdgiYP_-fyYAc&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA273,M1.
- Zogbaum, Heidi (2004). KISCH IN AUSTRALIA THE UNTOLD STORY. Scribe Publications. http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/ras/article/viewFile/387/410.