Case 1: Prelude to War

The journal Proletariat, published from April 1932 by the newly-formed Melbourne University Labour Club, increasingly focused its attention on the subjects of war and peace and the growing threat of Fascism; in the July 1932 issue a page headed 'Towards Fascism' under the sub-heading 'At the University' carried a photograph of a group watching as a man is pushed sprawling into the University lake, captioned 'The Dialectic of the Fascist'; the June 1933 issue was a special 'Anti-War Number', with a cover graphic of a worker squeezing a British militarist/imperialist; articles included one by Ralph Gibson on Fascism in Melbourne; another article is entitled 'Australia Prepares for War', in which war is pointed to as 'the solution' to the crisis of capitalism in its final stage, noting that only workers can carry out the war preparations, and thus the working class, if it is organized, has in its hands the power to prevent war, and concluding 'The enemy is in our own country'. Despite these assertions, the more general feeling was that wars occurring elsewhere would not again involve Australia, helping account for Australia's lack of defence preparedness planning until after the mid-1930s.

  • Copy of pages from July 1932 issue of Proletariat.
  • 'Anti-War Number' Proletariat, June 1933.
  • Labour Club members in the 1930s, including Lloyd Edmonds (9th from the right) who joined the International Brigade assisting in the unsuccessful resistance to Franco's rebels in Spain.

Many Australians, of course, had first-hand knowledge of European and Asian countries in the 1930s. The Melbourne Herald sent journalist Kenneth Wallace-Crabbe to report on developments in Germany at the end of 1935; he commenced filing stories in April 1936. He also sent back private letters and photographs and compiled a scrapbook of material collected, photographs taken by himself and others, from many parts of Germany.

  • Cutting of Herald, May 1936, article by Kenneth Wallace-Crabbe on 'secret' warplane manufacture.
  • SS and other police patrol the approaches to Hitler's headquarters in Wilhelmstrasse.

Kenneth Wallace-Crabbe Collection

  • Juxtaposed with Wallace-Crabbe's photographs are shots of Melbourne University students skylarking through a mock 'Italo-Abyssinian War' in 1936, at a time when Italy had brought in its air power and the use of poison gas to crush Ethiopian resistance.

Hordern Collection

Unite Against Fascism poster for a May Day Procession March. Illustration shows citizens marching with flags.

The Spanish Civil War, when Franco's rebels returned from Morocco to overturn the Republican Government, invoked a widespread engagement from supporters of either side of the ideological conflict which overlay the war. The Catholic Worker had been founded in 1936 to counter a perceived spread of communist influence in Australian society and the Spanish conflict figured largely in its columns. It proclaimed in its first issue that 'We Fight' both the old capitalism and the new Communism. In its issue of 3 April 1937, it reported on the Spanish debate at the University, when B.A. Santamaria led the affirmative on the question that 'The Spanish Government is the ruin of Spain' and the Public Lecture Theatre rang to the cry, so goes their report, of 'Long Live Christ the King', the battle cry of Catholic Action.

  • In this issue of 8 January 1938 a letter from co-founder Paul McGuire in Spain puts their side of the propaganda war. Rather than Guernica's being the culmination of a series of trial runs in which Franco had invited his allies to bomb his own people, McGuire's letter begins, 'This is posted from Guernica, obviously dynamited by the Reds.'

Catholic Worker Collection

In at least one instance, it was the Union movement that took the initiative on a defence question, when the Port Kembla members of the Waterside Workers' Federation refused to load pig iron to Japan (though iron ore exports were suspended in July 1938, the shipment of other types of iron were allowed). It was Attorney-General Menzies' attempt to overturn this ban that earned him the sobriquet 'Pig Iron Bob' (though this tag would dog him to the grave, and his term as initial wartime Prime Minister was an uneasy one, nevertheless the later war years and the atmosphere of reconstruction would be the crucible in which Menzies astutely forged the formation of the most effective conservative party in Australia thus far).

  • Communist Review, January 1939, and later (undated) Communist Party of Australia cartoon pamphlet.

Communist Party of Australia, Victorian Branch Collection

As the situation in Europe worsened, peace groups such as the Movement Against War and Fascism changed ground. Though the Soviet-oriented International Peace Campaign maintained an ambivalent position during the early stages of the Germany-Russia non-aggression pact even after war was declared, other groups supported the war against Fascism.

  • The publicity for May Day in 1939 already had most of the vanguard of the workers in uniform, bearing national flags as battle standards against Fascism.

(International Bookshop Collection) Postcard reproduction, Merrifield Collection, State Library of Victoria

Prominent industrialists and financiers - such as Essington Lewis (BHP), W.S. Robinson (Collins House group), Colin Fraser (Broken Hill Associated Smelters, and other Collins House companies), Laurence Hartnett (G.M.H.) - of whom University of Melbourne Archives holds collections of personal papers, had clearly seen the advent of war particularly after Lewis's visits to Japan and Germany in 1935, and the potential threat to Australia's ability to defend itself, especially in aviation. From that time, they became increasingly impatient with Government tardiness in putting in place the train of invitation for enterprises to enter the field of aircraft and other manufacturing (which could be perceived as munitions-orientated and needed Government sanction, and which were also capital-intensive and needed the implication of Government orders which would be embodied in the invitation to enter the field).

  • Letter of W.S. Robinson to M.L. Shepherd, Secretary for Defence, 27 February 1936, emphasizing the need for a Cabinet invitation to undertake aircraft manufacture, and W.S. Robinson memorandum to Colin Fraser a year later, 14 February 1937 stating that without a Government initiative, their entry into 'what might be regarded as munitions manufacture...might be misunderstood by both the public and their shareholders.'

[In fact, Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty. Ltd. had been registered on 17 October 1936, major shareholders being BHP, Broken Hill Associated Smelters, Electrolytic Zinc Co., General Motors-Holdens Ltd., ICI and Orient Steam Navigation Co.]

This impatience with the Lyons and Menzies Governments was manifested also in a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction across many industries and unions at the 'Business as Usual' public agenda promulgated by Menzies after the declaration of war.

W.S. Robinson Collection