Egon Kisch: 1930s queue jumper

Egon Kisch was a Czechoslovak journalist the Australian government unsuccessfully tried to prevent entering Australia in 1934. His original plan was to disembark in Perth and catch a train to Melbourne in time to give a speech at an anti-war congress in Melbourne. He was prevented from landing in Fremantle, Adelaide and Melbourne prior to jumping from the ship onto the pier at Port Melbourne and breaking his leg. The ship was recalled and he was put back on board to travel to Sydney where he was engaged in all sorts of legal fights with the Australian Government led by Attorney General Robert Menzies.

The Kisch story really is a great Australian story and has been told on a number of occasions, perhaps most notably by Nicholas Hasluck in Our Man K which I recall fondly from 15 or so years back. I also read with interest some of Kisch’s Australian Landfall which remained unpublished until 1969, a victim of spiteful censorship by Menzies.

Heidi Zogbaum has written a fine account of the Kisch visit and has managed to highlight once again, as if it were still necessary to do so (Obviously – Yes), that great Australian solipsism. It is all about us! The late Sir Terry Pratchett had the continent of Fourecks actively repelling visitors. There may be a grain of truth in that and someone at DIBP is probably scouring Sir Terry’s book for a few clues.

Certainly the Kisch story in most tellings starts from the moment the undesirable European communist tries to enter Australia, either on two feet at Fremantle or by the five metre leap to the pier at Port Melbourne. From here we get some Keystone Lawyer antics and a bit of lese majeste against Bob Menzies who, judging from comments made by Enid Lyons, was already well on his way to that pompous Laird of the Cinque Ports manner he affected later in life. Jolly good fun, and apparently some of the legal issues are still noteworthy today according to Nicholas Hasluck.

Heidi Zogbaum seeks to position Kisch’s Australian visit more generally within the larger Kisch biography and within the main currents of European history in the 1930’s. The picture that emerges is more complex than anyone in Australia understood at the time, and even up to 2004 when Kisch in Australia was published. 

Egon Kisch was a middleclass liberal Jew from Prague who worked as a journalist prior to the First World War in which he saw active service in Serbia where fellow soldiers were killed by Austrian weapons. His experience of the stupidity of war converted him to pacifism and via that to a form of revolutionary socialist pacifism after the war. He was a participant in the failed post war revolution in Vienna.

Kisch had achieved some fame as a journalist prior to WWI by reporting on the death of Colonel Redl, a Russian double agent who happened to be in charge of Austria-Hungary’s counter espionage services. As Austria-Hungary’s war plans were passed on to the Serbians Kisch saw first hand the effects of Redl’s betrayal.

After the war he spent most of his time in Berlin where he gained further notoriety as a journalist – Die rasende Reporter (rasende has been variously translated as roving, raving, rushing and raging) – who helped to develop a more contemporary reportage style of journalism. Kisch published books based on his travels to the USSR, the USA and to eastern Asia. His book about his antipodean adventures, Australian landfall, sits within this body of work. It was one of the most widely read books about Australia amongst pre WWII Europeans, thus avenging him on his Australian tormentors.

The rise of Hitler meant that Kisch (a communist, Jewish reporter) was in danger when the Nazis came to power. The Reichstag fire on February 28 provided the pretext for Hitler to imprison and kill many of his political enemies and Kisch was one of those arrested in the well coordinated raids after the fire. He spent time in a Nazi prison before he was released as an enemy alien and expelled from Germany.

Hitler planned a show trial in September to convince the world that his Communists and Socialist enemies were behind the fire. During this period the communist agent / cultural commissar Willi Munzenberg and his senior editor Otto Katz set about collecting testimony from as many people as possible who had been in Berlin at the time of the fire with a view to providing evidence of Hitler’s guilt. Munzenberg had escaped from Berlin by not returning home on the night of the fire but rather driving to France.

A major piece of evidence was the existence of “secret” tunnels from the Chancellery to the Reichstag. Several of the communists charged with starting the fire also had strong verified testimonies that they were nowhere near the Reichstag at the time.

At the end of July the Brown Book was published and quickly translated into a number of different languages. The Nazis had already announced that foreign lawyers would not be allowed to attend the show trial and that cross examinations would not be permitted. The defendants were to be executed shortly after the trial.

Given the many planned abuses of judicial practice, as well as the obvious frame up, Munzenberg and Katz decided to run a public counter trial outside Germany at which evidence from witnesses could be heard. Initially the counter trial was planned for Amsterdam but after Nazi pressure it was moved to London. The UK government was not happy about this slight to Germany but as they prided themselves on their “tolerance” there was little they could openly do to stop the event. Behind the scenes the government and the security services tried to sabotage the trial by various means including leaning on the Law Society whose rooms were to be used and restricting the entry into the UK of key witnesses.

Egon Kisch had visited the UK in June to lecture on Nazi Germany and he was expected back for the counter trial as a major witness. British intelligence simply blocked his entry for the counter trial and intended to refuse him entry on any subsequent attempt to enter the UK. This was all quite arbitrary as others refused entry at the same time subsequently had visas issued after pressure from lawyers and parliamentarians.

The counter trial was a great propaganda coup against the Nazis and they were unable to convict and judicially murder the communists they had arrested for the Reichstag fire in the face of the counter trial evidence and publicity.

Despite the fact that Kisch was on a black list for entry to the UK this list had not been provided to the Paris Embassy by early October when he arrived to get his Visa stamped for Australia. So when he arrived in Fremantle his status was that he was arbitrarily banned from the UK for alleged communist subversion (which was not a specific crime) but he was not supposed to know that.

In fact, the UK ban on Kisch was due to his status as a significant anti-Nazi agitator at a time when the UK government still thought that it may be able to deal with Herr Hitler. Keeping Kisch from appearing as a star witness at the counter trial was a UK sop to Nazi protests about the trial taking place in London.

The Strathaird was leaving Port Melbourne dock after Kisch had once more been refused entry to Australia. It was then that he jumped five metres to the wharf and broke his leg. Cue four months of Kisch in Australia.

Heidi Zogbaum does a great job of providing the back story to Kisch’s Australian adventure and showing that the European geopolitical circumstances of his anti-fascist visit to Australia were way beyond the comprehension of the Australian government of the day. Kisch himself is a fascinating and engaging figure who was present and engaged with some the major events of the 20th century, and he was always interested in the people and the situations he found himself. I guess that level of interest is what is expected of great reporters.

Links

The Age   Patka & Zogbaum 2004

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/11/07/1099781244332.html?from=storyrhs

Dictionary of Biography

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kisch-egon-erwin-10755

The man who set a trap to catch himself (Colonel Redl)

http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/49700884#pstart2025039

History of responses to the Reichstag fire

http://monthlyreview.org/2009/03/01/the-reichstag-fire-trial-1933-2008-the-production-of-law-and-history/

Trades Hall History Banner

http://www.tradeshall.com.au/index.php/biographies/63-egon-kisch-s-visit-to-australia

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About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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One Response to Egon Kisch: 1930s queue jumper

  1. Pingback: Darkness at Noon | Greg Tangey

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