Law in War: Australian law during the Great War

Lawinwar

Law in War

Freedom and Restriction in Australia during the Great War

By Catherine Bond

Published by New South
RRP $34.99 in paperback | ISBN 9781742236483

As Catherine Bond writes in her introduction, ‘law has always been crucial to Australia’s involvement in war…’, providing a framework upon which ‘… all wartime defence, economic and social policies are built.’

Yet she contends it has been overlooked in Australian war history, especially in the official history edited by Charles Bean, its inclusion not supported by the politicians or military hierarchy of the day, references to the law limited to cursory mentions only.

Bond has chosen to enliven this book with the stories of individuals impacted by Australia’s wartime legal regime, the two key architects of which were Sir William Hughes (as Attorney-General and later Prime Minister) and Sir Robert Garran (as Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Dept, and then Solicitor-General).

What Bond reveals is how the law, during the Great War, was used in everyday life as a tool to discriminate, oppress, censor and deprive many Australians of property, liberty and basic human rights.

German-born Australians, regardless of being naturalised, fared badly, despite no evidence of disloyalty.

Bond details the case of Franz Wallach, who became managing director of the Australian Metal Company, but found himself interned as an enemy alien on slim proof.

What we see in this book is the overreach of draconian powers, which deny citizens basic rights in the ‘interests’ of a greater good: winning the war. How little imagination it takes to see the potential for abuse of such power.

My own grandfather jumped through hoops to prove he was not German, but Swiss, but clearly was forced to enlist or face internment. He was, as it turns out, born in Germany but to a Swiss father working temporarily in Altona. He lived in a small village outside Zurich during his younger years before finding his way to England, marrying an English girl and setting off for greener pastures – Australia. My father ditched his German name in favour of an Anglicised name when he married my mother.

What should alarm any reader is how laws were enacted that gave sweeping powers to ministers – and relied on ministerial discretion. We know from recent experience how that works in practice.

This book is a timely reminder of what happens when power is concentrated in the hands of the few, when oversight is curtailed and consequences explained away as necessary for the greater good .


 

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