Australia’s forgotten WWI prisoners

By Jessica Campion 5 July 2011
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A photographer recorded the little-known experience of Australia’s German prisoners

THE HUGE LOSS OF life and atrocities of battles are tragic outcomes of WWI. But there was also a lighter side of life being played out by a most unlikely bunch, in the most unlikely of places – German prisoners of war held in Australian camps.

The life and times of these German internees would have remained a story untold if it were not for Bavarian photographer Paul Dubotzki.

When nearly 7000 Germans and Austrians were interned in Australia during WWI, for crimes only of family descent, Paul Dubotzki was among them. During five years of confinement in Australia, the young apprentice photographer documented inmate life. 

Gerhard Fischer, associate professor of German Studies at the University of New South Wales, says the Dubotzki photographs tell a new Australian war story.

“The collection tells a worthwhile story that puts the Anzac story into a different light. WWI is key thing in Australian historical consciousness; we know about Gallipoli and France but not about Australia itself – and it is not a pretty story,” Gerhard says. “The great majority of men were normal German-Australians who had made Australia their home and were part of a large, well-integrated community, and their lives were destroyed – their businesses were stopped, families had to go into hiding, they had to change their names; it was the end of the German-Australian community. [It was] all for no good reason except of the war hysteria.”

Life of an innocent inmate – Torrens Island camp

In 1915 while on a photographic expedition in Adelaide, Paul was captured and sent to Torrens Island camp in South Australia. The impromptu prison quickly became notorious for its appalling living conditions and abusive Australian guards.

Paul’s first pictures focused on the mistreatment of inmates and were used as evidence in a Defence Department inquiry into the camp’s operation, which saw inmates transferred to camps in NSW.

Paul was moved to Holsworthy in Sydney’s south west, and later to more elite camps at Trial Bay on the mid-north coast, and Berrima gaol in the Southern Highlands – a site granted heritage protection earlier this year.

In these later camps, Paul concentrated his lens on the camp community and culture that developed around him. His insightful snapshots show fellow inmates making the best of their situation. To pass the time and bolster spirits, they performed theatrical plays, musical events, small business endeavours, and sporting contests – all under their barbed wire big top.

The largely unlucky band of prisoners, their crimes only the names they answered to and the language they spoke, acted as both subject and muse for the young photographer. They came from all walks of life; some had even lived in Australia for decades before the war. Among the inmates was beer baron Edmund Resch and budding illustrator Kurt Wiese who would go on to pen the pictures in the original Bambi book.

Record of Australia’ history in WWI

In 1919, Paul was repatriated to Germany and died 43 years later. In 2007, 87 years after the final repatriation of internees back to Germany, Paul’s photographic collection was discovered in the safe keeping of his daughters.

Nadine Helmi, German heritage researcher and curator of a current exhibition displaying more than 200 of Paul’s photographs, was responsible for tracking down the historic collection.

“The photos give the details to a period in history; they lay a mystery to rest,” Nadine says. “From the photographs you can see these men made an extraordinary life in the camps. A lot of these men were really educated and they reflected what was held dear in German culture with their theatres, brilliant orchestras, and sporting feats.”

Historic Houses Trust exhibition