Thursday, January 27, 2005

Kisch in Australia, by Heidi Zogbaum

A fun book on Australian censorship, Menzies style. Heidi Zogbaum barely manages to suppress her laughter as she describes the farcical situation of trying to use the immigration act to stop anti-war speaker, communist and Czech writer Egon Erwin Kisch from landing in Australia.

Menzies was attorney-general in 1934. On the basis of dodgy UK intelligence (a British agent named 'snuffbox' had written a report stating that Kisch was not welcome in England, but the reasons were never substantiated, despite Australian requests for more info), Menzies determined that Kisch could and would not be admitted to Australia.

The immigration act could not really be used to bar visitors because they were just that, visitors. Menzies tried and failed. Repeatedly. He ended up with egg on his face, on numerous occasions.

Interesting to note, most Australians were not with Menzies on this scare campaign. They protested in droves, demanding their right to make up their own mind on Kisch. They felt like they were being treated like children.

There are many interesting parallels to today, most notably, the use of the immigration act and scare campaigns used against foreigners. This line from Menzies, beating his chest and declaring that Kisch would never be allowed in the country, reverberate to our own day.

Mr Menzies avowed that Kisch would, 'not set foot on the soil of the Australian commonwealth'. He later had to eat his words. One thinks of Mr Howard, promising what could not be delivered to the Australian people. Refugees from the Tampa now live in Australia, despite Howard vowing they would never land.

You can't help but admire the Australians of the 1930s, determined to push aside Menzies' censorship and have a chance to listen to this foreign anti-war speaker. To illustrate how silly the censorship laws of that period were, here is a good quote. The author refers to how Kisch's book on Australia, titled Australian Landfall, never got an Australian release - until the 1960's that is, that decadent period so maligned by Nationals leader John Anderson.

'However, if appealing to Australian readers was part of Kisch's intention, it back fired. The Lyons government tightened censorship on books , and farce was never far away. In 1936, a journalist working for the Bulletin tried to discover which titles were on the list of banned materials, only to find out that the list itself was banned.'

The happy outcome of this book is that it demonstrates, ironically, how well our democratic system works. The courts decided repeatedly against the government. If Australia had been some horrid dictatorship, then Kisch would probably have had his head chopped off.

Last words to the author:

'But, despite his intentions, Kisch had demonstrated that the rule of law in Australia was intact; indeed, he had been the beneficiary of it. What had happened to him was spectacular. Ordinary Australians had stood up for him in their thousands, openly disapproving of the actions of their government, and telling the attorney-general so in no uncertain terms. Kisch should have been intensely grateful to Australia that he did not disappear into a dungeon or end up doing hard labour, cutting stone in a quarry, as the attorney-general had intended. It is strange to observe how, even at a distance, Kisch could not see how lucky he had been that his misfortune happened to him in Australia.'

Sorry, last words to me! Heidi Zogbaum is not being over the top here when she describes the attorney-general intending hard labour for Kisch. When Menzies had won his first rounds in the courts, Kisch had indeed been sentenced to six months hard labour. Of course this is ironic, seeing Menzies wanted to keep him out of the country, whereas his sentence ensured he would stay in Australia for six months.

Bonus Features: There are excerpts at the back of the book from Kisch's memoir of his time in Australia, Australian Landfall.

No comments: