In the 1930s Australia played host to the Nazi Party, with branches in most capital cities. At the centre of the Nazi story in Australia was Arnold von Skerst. The editor of Australia’s Nazi propaganda newspaper, Die Brücke, von Skerst was to meet a tragic end in 1948 following his release from wartime internment. Drawing on Archives records, Dr Emily Turner-Graham looks at a largely unheard of political presence in Australia, and the astonishing tale of one man at its centre.
On the morning of Christmas Eve 1948, the caretaker of an apartment block in Randwick smelt gas coming out of one of the flats. He called the local police. They arrived, and shortly before 8am found Arnold von Skerst lying on a mattress in his kitchen with his head in a gas stove.
Von Skerst was born in 1888 in Riga, Latvia, into a family of good social standing. The young Arnold was well educated, and attended the Imperial Alexander Lyceum of St Petersburg, a school restricted to the children of nobility.
After working in Russia and China, von Skerst arrived in Sydney in 1932, and in 1934 was appointed editor of Die Brücke (The Bridge). He attended meetings of the NSW branch of the Nazi Party from its first gathering in April 1934.
A committed Nazi?
By making himself such a prominent pro-Nazi advocate, von Skerst brought himself to the attention of the Australian Security Services during the 1930s. However, he claimed that he only edited Die Brücke to make money and was not ideologically committed to its Nazi message. In this, von Skerst was a complex figure.
Certainly there is no question that von Skerst was an active member of the Nazi community in Australia. In addition, the apparently contradictory claims in his wartime tribunal statement (and during his internment) do seem to undermine his claims of innocence.
Von Skerst argued that becoming a Nazi in Australia enhanced his potential for employment in the eyes of the German–Australian community:
In the German community in this country, I would not only improve my prospects, but perhaps have a good chance of employment if I became a Nazi.
He assumed this supposed mask with an impressive appearance of truth. In 1937 he became secretary of the Nazi Party in Australia. He was also responsible for gathering articles from Australian newspapers on Germany or Germans and – most damningly – on Australia’s defence, and sending them back to Germany.
The reach of Nazism in Australia
So how accurate was von Skerst’s assessment of the German–Australian community between the wars? Was Australia a budding hot-bed of Nazi sedition, in which the only way for a German to get ahead was to pledge allegiance to the Nazi cause?
The first Nazi political cell was formed in Adelaide in 1932 by Johannes Becker, a German doctor who was living permanently in Tanunda, South Australia. However, it could not be said that German–Australians joined the Nazi Party in droves. Membership lists never numbered more than 200.
Yet, it is not simply by direct party membership numbers that the spread of Nazi ideas in Australia should be assessed. The Nazi Party made good use of ‘front’ organisations – off-shoots of the Party itself or sympathetic non-Party groups – which often possessed a much larger membership and provided an excellent opportunity through which to disseminate information.
So in Australia, instead of a vast contingent of official Nazi Party members, the 1930s saw the development of Party-associated organisations such as the German Labor Front, Hitler Youth and League of German Girls.
The demise of von Skerst
The outbreak of World War II saw the end of Die Brücke and the internment of von Skerst. Yet Die Brücke’s message had had a modicum of success and a National Socialist German identity prevailed, at least for some German–Australians who were held in Australian internment camps.
Following his release from the internment camp at Tatura in 1946 and the unfavourable media coverage he had received while imprisoned, von Skerst was shunned. He had difficulty finding work, and his selection to appear on a radio quiz show to raise government loans created public outcry and nearly ended in his deportation. His attempt to become a naturalised Australian citizen was predictably unsuccessful.
The hopelessness of a possible future in Australia became increasingly clear to von Skerst. Coupled with the departure of his fourth wife, it all became too much to bear and on Christmas Eve 1948, he committed suicide.
In laying down one stone of what was to become a Nazi empire, the complex, problematic, but ultimately highly significant historical role of Arnold von Skerst, as revealed through Archives records, is evident.
View Archives records relating to this article:
- Arnold von Skerst, Commonwealth Investigation Service, Victoria, 1933–49
- Arnold von Skerst, Commonwealth Investigation Service, New South Wales, 1940–49
- Dossier of Arnold von Skerst, Investigation Branch, Melbourne and Canberra, 1939–41
- Arnold von Skerst, Prisoners of War and Internees Information Bureau, 1939–45
- Arnold von Skerst, Service and Casualty form, Prisoners of War and Internees Information Bureau, 1939–45
- Arnold von Skerst, alien control, Department of Immigration, 1946–49
- Die Bruecke, Military Police Intelligence Section, NSW Police, 1939–40
- Nazi activities in South Australia during World War, Investigation Branch, South Australia, 1939–1945
This is an abridged version of an article published by Circa: the journal of professional historians, number 1, 2010. Reproduced with permission.
Dr Turner-Graham’s book Never Forget You Are a German: Die Brücke, Deutschtum and National Socialism in interwar Australia will be published later this year by the Peter Lang Publishing Group.