by John Schubert
For many of us with German heritage, this year’s commemorations of World War I might create an uneasy tension.
After all, for generations Germany was seen as the spiritual and cultural heartland of Australian Lutherans— notwithstanding the fact that many of our ancestors came from Prussia, or from the many other smaller Germanspeaking states. These states only became ‘Germany’ long after the Lutheran immigration to Australia, and decades before 1914. Such distinctions rarely registered in the public imagination, however, particularly as the Great War branded all things ‘Prussian’ as synonymous with aggressive militarism.
In the stereotypical eyes of popular culture, at least, the land of Luther and the Reformation, of Bach and Goethe, was also the land of the ‘murderous Hun’, led by a war-mongering Kaiser. The war memorials standing sentinel across the country are mute witnesses that condemn the monstrous conflict that took away the innocence of Australian manhood, and left a legacy of grief which has passed down generations.
For those of us with a ‘mixed’ ethnic heritage, this tension can be even more personal. My maternal ancestry is Anglo-Celtic, and I grew up with my mother’s soulful litany of war deaths. Her uncle died on the Somme in September 1918. That auburnhaired boilermaker from Port Adelaide succumbed to his wounds as the hellish trench warfare ground slowly to its inevitable conclusion. The news of his death came to his brother (my grandfather) at the north Wimmera flour mill where he worked. The date was 11 November, and the telegraph boy had pedalled his message of loss through a town resounding to the cries of ‘Armistice’.
Then there was the old digger who lived across the street as my mother was growing up. Every so often, the unending war in his head would prove too much and he would seek consolation in a bottle. Alcohol and the effects of poison gas made a corrosive cocktail, and my grandfather would be called over to restrain him until the doctor arrived to administer a merciful, if temporary, oblivion.