The German and Australian Middle Classes


Some would say that it’s drawing a very long bow, but I keep on comparing the Australian middle class of the 2000s with the German middle class of the 1930s. As we all know, the moral bottom dropped out of Germany from about 1933.

In both instances, Germany and Australia, it’s a case of cultural myopia – the inability to see distant things clearly – like detention camps, wrongful imprisonment and deportation and the gradual erosion of civil liberties.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

For instance, torture by the state is now up for discussion (for an essay on torture, read James Meek in The Age Review of Saturday, 21 May).
The late head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, a senior bureaucrat, wants the anti-terror laws extended indefinitely. And the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has predictably supported this proposal. He said, ‘There is a clear need for this power’ – but neglected to give any evidence. These laws allow for the interrogation and renewable detention of ‘suspects’, without trial. The doctrine of habeas corpus is a quaint relic of the past. ASIO will be an arm of government policy “ as was the KGB in the USSR and the STASI in East Germany.

Any discussion of assisted suicide by phone, fax or email is now illegal, carrying a penalty of $110,000 for individuals and $550,000 for organisations. One of the witnesses at a recent Senate enquiry wanted a gaol sentence of up to ten years. (It is not assisted euthanasia, which is the issue – it is censorship.) These are but two examples of the curtailing of civil liberties. We still have to watch the activities of officers of the Department of Immigration. Are they going to be Australia’s ubiquitous secret police, as they demand to see your identification papers? And ‘unsound character’ is likely to be a crime.

I find the presence of detention camps in Australia highly unnerving. When, in Germany, Dachau concentration camp was opened in March 1933, as a way of detaining political dissidents, few Germans objected – except a handful of liberals and Jews. Under the Nazi regime, the economy was growing stronger and living standards were rising. Dachau was ‘politics’ – a suitable place for trouble-makers. In any event, the inmates were adequately looked after.

The capacity to turn away from ‘politics’ – to live a myopic life, to dig in the garden, or play with one’s children and let the world go by – is profound. What happens behind the razor wire fence has nothing to do with me.

Another German example is interesting – and instructive. Under the unloved, but liberal, Weimar republic, one Franz Gurtner was appointed Minister for Justice; but he held that position in the Nazi government until his death in 1941. Apparently, Gurtner had little trouble in going from a democratic, liberal regime to a brutal, authoritarian one. The same applied to the economist, Hjalmar Schacht, who for a time was Minister for Economic Affairs in Hitler’s government. (Admittedly, Schacht resigned in 1939, after a disagreement with Hitler.) It is, then, quite easy for politicians and public servants alike – and the populace at large – to develop moral blindness or self-deception. We are all capable of it.

Despite the activities of the Nazi hooligans – the SS in particular – the change to Nazi authoritarian rule was gradual, and to the bulk of the German middle class, acceptable. Hitler and the Nazis may have had their bad points, but the economy was improving and the unemployment rate was declining. There was every good reason why Jewish judges should be retired early, and the Minister for Justice should know what he was doing. In any event, my family and I have no use for the courts.

There are, of course, many and dramatic differences between the German middle class of the 1930s and the Australian middle class of the 2000s. Australia was not defeated in a cataclysmic war; nor did it experience hyperinflation and an economic collapse.

But there are similarities. The detention camp is one – and the erosion of liberties is another. Both societies faced what they perceived as ‘the enemy within’ – for the Germans, it was the Jews and Gypsies; for the Australians, it is the terrorists and for many, the Moslems. The terrorist – with his black beard and glittering eye – is the Communist of the 50s and 60s, and the Jew of the 30s.

And the ALP will go the same way as the Social Democrats did in Germany – they will wring their hands, huff and puff and capitulate.

There is a new factor, born of technology and corporations, which makes for moral ambiguity – and which pervades the life of the middle class. That is language of business and corporations.

Don Watson has done a lot of work on this, and his books are highly recommended. As an example of moral fudging, clothed in Orwellian newspeak, consider this extract from GSL’s ad for a general manager to supervise Baxter and Villawood Detention Camps. (GSL is the privately run corporation, which administers prisons – now called ‘corrective centres’ – for the Victorian and South Australian governments, and detention camps for the Department of Immigration.)

Essential for this challenging position are high level management and leadership skills and a demonstrated capacity to perform effectively under pressure and in the face of conflicting demands. There is a strong focus on team building in what is often an unpredictable and stressful environment. Flexibility, cross-cultural awareness, sensitivity and resilience are essential criteria, as is maintaining an organizational that is capable of ensuring strict compliance with our contractual obligations.

Such language doesn’t only deaden the mind, it deadens the spirit and makes unpleasantness and cruelty acceptable.

I’ve got no idea what language was used for job applicants in Nazi concentration and death camps; but there is the commonplace story about the officer who gassed Jews by day, and who cuddled his children and listened to Mozart and Bach by night.

I live in Williamstown, Victoria. Every day, I exercise the dog and take it down to Newport Park, where there is a huge chimney at the power station. If one day, the chimney was spouting black, evil-smelling smoke, would I do anything?

There is a shadow falling across Australia.

RJ Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich

J Fest: Speer – the Final Verdict

D Watson: Death Sentence

V Klemperer: I Shall Bear Witness (1092)

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.