Inside Story

Distant crimes, nearby perpetrators

Under pressure from Canberra to fill the ships, how many “right-wing undesirables” did officials allow on boats to Australia?

Hamish McDonald Books 10 May 2024 2531 words

“New Australians”: immigration minister Arthur Calwell accepting a gift from Jonas Motiejunas and Konstancija Brundzaite on behalf of the Lithuanian migrants on aboard the HMAS Kanimbla in 1947. Australian National Maritime Museum

War crimes, and what to do about them, are on many minds. Ukraine and Gaza have raised at least the theoretical possibility of trials of Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu. At home, Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation action turned into a de facto war crimes trial. We still wait on prosecutions by the Office of the Special Investigator over alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

As historian Jayne Persian makes clear in her new book, Fascists in Exile, Australia’s record of prosecutions isn’t encouraging. In fact, she opens by describing the only war crime case to have been tried by any state Supreme Court in recent decades.

At its centre was Ivan Polyukhovich, a former port worker living in retirement in Adelaide, who found reporters at his door in 1986 asking for his response to allegations in the Soviet media that he had participated in mass murder of Jews in Ukraine in 1942–43. A visit to their ancestral village by his two stepdaughters had inadvertently tipped off locals that he was still alive and living in Australia.

Crimes committed during the second world war had by then become an uncomfortable topic, largely thanks to the work of ABC radio journalist Mark Aarons. He had produced powerful documentaries showing how numerous perpetrators of horrendous crimes in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe had slipped into Australia in early postwar resettlement schemes.

Aarons argues that authorities were consciously turning a blind eye to past criminality: “Many in Western intelligence came to regard yesterday’s Nazi war criminals and collaborators as today’s potential freedom fighters.” He quotes an official in the US Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps who thought it “a hell of a good opportunity to recruit some high-class informants.”

Aarons titled his second book on the subject War Criminals Welcome: Australia as a Sanctuary for Fugitive War Criminals since 1945. As son of a Communist Party of Australia general secretary who had felt ASIO surveillance all his early life, and of Jewish background himself, his motivation and drive were understandable. But while Britain, the United States and Canada certainly resettled “right-wing undesirables,” including agents of postwar US and British intelligence, Persian finds “very little evidence” that authorities adopted these practices in Australia.

Many undesirables did get through, however, and Persian gives a vivid account of the sheer incompetence that allowed it to happen.

Around twelve million “displaced persons” had fled Central and Eastern Europe ahead of the Red Army at the end of the war in Europe, most of them to Germany and Austria. They included former concentration camp inmates, members of non-German forces aligned with the Nazis, forced labourers and civilians.

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency was formed to care for and, where possible, repatriate them. By 1947 about 1.2 million were still refusing to return to homes under Soviet control, and thus became “political refugees.” A successor to the UNRRA, the International Refugee Organization, took over the job of resettling them.

Some 170,000 of these “DPs” resettled in Australia between 1947 and 1952. The most numerous were the Poles (63,393) and those from the three Baltic nations (34,656), with Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Hungarians and Czechoslovakians each numbering in the many thousands.

Labor’s immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, was keen to attract young, fit, white bodies to help in Australia’s postwar reconstruction. He disingenuously assured the IRO that “our policy has no race prejudice,” but in practice first priority went to the “beautiful Balts” — many of them blonde and blue-eyed to reassure the Australian public.

Although Australia tends to pride itself on the large number of Holocaust survivors who resettled here, the DP scheme tried to exclude Jews. The government had no intention of accepting large numbers because of perceived Jewish “non-assimilability,” says Persian. “We are not anti-Semitic,” Calwell told the IRO, “but we will have to handle this matter carefully.” An instruction to Australian vetting teams in 1949 made the position clear: “The term [Jewish] refers to race and not to religion and the fact that some DPs who are Jewish by race have become Christian by religion is not relevant.”

Australian selection teams usually knew nothing of European languages or histories. Two Australian army intelligence officers arriving to beef up security vetting carried “elementary German phrase books.” One selection officer conducted 138 interviews in one morning. There was constant pressure from Canberra to “fill the ships.”

The DP camps, meanwhile, were hives of forgery — of false identities and nationality, back-stories to support them, and the removal of SS blood-group tattoos. The percentage claiming to have served only as medical orderlies during the war was “ridiculously high.”

The security services were less worried about old Nazis than Soviet spies slipping into Australia amid the DPs. One officer saw Jews in this light: to him they sat on a scale “from deep pink to a bright red.” In this, the prejudice that helped inflame the massacres in occupied Ukraine and elsewhere was echoed, conflating Jews and communism.

All this didn’t go completely unnoticed in Australia. Newspapers reported DPs making anti-Semitic remarks, threats and boasts about wartime killings. The national returned services league was concerned. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry worried the new arrivals would team up with “native Fascists.” (One its activists, Sam Goldbloom, slipped into the Bonegilla migrant camp in the guise of a plumber and in one shower block took photos of left armpit scarring, indicating removal of SS tattoos.) These stories were dismissed by Calwell.

Coalition ministers also refused to take action after the change in government in 1949, insisting there was no threat to Australia. Half a decade later, attorney-general Garfield Barwick said it was “time to close the chapter on war crimes” and let resettled individuals “turn their backs on past bitternesses and make a new life.”

It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that prime minister Bob Hawke, a noted friend of Israel, and his attorney-general Lionel Bowen took up the issue, fuelled by the efforts of Aarons and others. The deputy secretary of Bowen’s department, Andrew Menzies, reported that “more likely than not a significant number of serious war criminals had got into Australia.”

But time had expired under Australian law to follow the US example of reversing naturalisation on grounds of falsified identity and then simply deporting suspects. So Australia’s war crimes law was changed to allow prosecution for crimes committed elsewhere.

A new Special Investigations Unit, with a peak of fifty-two lawyers and historians, was given access to Aarons’ compendious archives along with lists sent by Soviet Union prosecutors and the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Eventually, they opened 841 files. But in most cases the prosecution threshold for both documentation and eyewitness accounts was too high in most cases. In the end, only twenty-seven were substantiated, and only three, all coincidentally living in Adelaide, were charged.

The evidence against Polyukhovich was strong. An impressive number of witnesses said he had been in a police auxiliary unit that machine-gunned more than 700 Jewish men, woman and children in a mass grave. He and two others had then forced a mother clutching a six-month-old child and her teenager into the grave and executed all three of them. Excavations led by Australian archaeologist Richard Wright found human remains with injuries and in positions that corroborated these accounts.

A day before his committal hearing on thirteen charges was due to start, Polyukhovich was discovered with a gunshot wound to the chest, later found to be self-inflicted. When he was eventually committed for trial in the SA Supreme Court on two charges, including mass murder, the case foundered on the question of whether he was the man in police uniform doing the shooting. The jury found him not guilty.

Of the two other prosecutions in Adelaide, one failed at the committal stage and the other was dropped after committal because of the accused’s poor health. The Special Investigations Unit wound up in 1992.

The process was at least “cathartic” for survivors, says Persian, and showed how war crimes trials could serve the “cause of truth.” She quotes the American historian of Latvian descent, Richards Plavnieks: “The crimes at issue are beyond punishment, the perpetrators beyond rehabilitation, and the victims beyond any fitting compensation. In the long term, then, the best that could realistically be hoped for was the discovery, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge about what happened. For the most part, that is what happened.”

Persian’s carefully documented account (fifty-two of its 182 pages are footnotes) is less successful in pursuing its second theme, promised in its title, that fascism was transplanted to Australia. For the most part, the DPs who came to Australia were small fry caught up in the paramilitaries organised by the Germans after capturing territories from the Soviet Union in 1941. She does not show any great penetration of fascist ideology in the interwar period, with the exception of minority groups like the Iron Guard in Rumania, the Arrow Cross in Hungary and the Iron Wolf in Lithuania.

But anti-Semitism was nevertheless rife in the captured lands, as elsewhere, and had needed little encouraging during the war. In Ukraine, it was heightened by the prominence of Jews in the Soviet leadership — men including Lazar Kaganovich, who imposed the farm collectivisation and grain quotas that caused the death of millions of Ukrainians by famine in 1932–33.

Joining a police auxiliary unit or Waffen-SS battalion was generally not an ideological choice, except that it was anti-Soviet. It paid, and the alternative was deportation to work in German factories or fortification projects. Once in, a refusal to join an “action” against Jews or others could bring summary execution: Persian instances two cases in Ukraine. But many were willing anyway. Most of Lithuania’s 350,000 Jews died within six months of German occupation, helped by local militias attached to the German death squad, the Einsatzgruppen.

Still, Persian insists that “fascist ideation” not only survived the war’s end but was “transnational and transcultural” in Australia. She picks out developments in two DP communities to back this argument.

One is the Hungarist Movement, which did indeed have a number of former Arrow Cross figures among its leaders and raised money by selling stamps with the images of Hitler and his allied Hungarian leader. One of those figures, Laszlo Megay, won leadership of Hungarian Society in New South Wales and then the federal council of Hungarian associations. But the result was a split in the community, with many moving to a moderate new body.

The other is the Ustase, the broad name for Croatian groups aligned with the wartime regime installed by Hitler and Mussolini between 1941 and 1945. The main targets for its ethnic cleansing were Serbs. Some of its leaders had Jewish backgrounds, but under Nazi prompting it did persecute Croatia’s small Jewish population. At war’s end, the British army had handed back most of its surrendered forces to Tito’s communist partisans, who executed them en masse when they crossed into Slovenia at Bleiburg. Its leader, Ante Pavelic, escaped via Austria to Argentina on the “ratline” run by Croatian priests in the Vatican, and ran an independence movement in exile until his death in 1959.

Many of the Croats who came to Australia in the early postwar years did indeed revere Pavelic, who had headed the first semblance of an independent Croatian state in more than eight centuries. His portrait is still on the walls of their community clubs around Australia. But from the late 1950s came another wave of Croatian immigrants, jumping the border into Italy or allowed out of Yugoslavia as guest workers generating remittances. They and their children pursued a less nostalgic nationalism while building the good life in their new country.

A minority did join military training camps in the bush and some attempted violent action, but outside against Yugoslavia rather than inside against Australia. They joined two armed incursions, one in 1963 and another in 1972, both foiled by Yugoslav forces. For the most part, though, young Croatian Australians mounted noisy, non-violent demonstrations outside Yugoslav diplomatic missions and agencies.

Persian is reluctant to put aside the once-familiar trope of Croatians as violent bomb-throwers and fascists. “One group who apparently had no intention of keeping within ‘the laws of their country’ were far-right Croatians,” she states at one point. A new terrorist phase opened in the early 1960s, “an ultra-violent ‘demonstration’ of Croatian ‘existence’,” she writes. “Between 1963 and 1972 it has been calculated that the Ustasha engaged in at least sixty-five incidents of significant violence on Australian soil,” she goes on, before hastily adding “although this figure is debatable, as we shall see.”

Indeed, that last qualification is needed. As Persian acknowledges, the third volume of the official history of ASIO revealed that the security service believed “at least some” of those incidents were “false flag” attacks by Yugoslav security agents. My own book on the largest “terrorism” case, the Croatian Six bombing conspiracy of 1979, which Persian cites, helped raised the doubts that led to the current judicial review of the convictions by the NSW Supreme Court.

On the question of whether Croatian separatists were fascist as well as nationalist, Persian could have sought out first-hand accounts rather than questionable book sources. Fabian Lovokovic, for example, a member of the Ustase youth wing in the war and much-cited by her as a prominent postwar Pavelic acolyte, died in Sydney as recently as 2022, aged ninety-five, and was lucid and approachable to the end.

Still, all it takes is for a few teenagers at a football match to give a stiff-arm salute for reporters, fanning out to Croatian clubs and noting portraits of Pavelic still on the walls, or finding a screenprinter turning out t-shirts with the Ustase emblem, to inform us that Croatian fascism and anti-Semitism is still alive.

As for joining up with “native fascists,” several of the big-noters among the DPs did mingle with the tiny Australian national socialist groups, with little benefit to either party. Others found favour with stridently anti-communist individuals in the mainstream political parties, with the wartime Slovenian propagandist Ljenko Urbancic moving into the NSW Liberal Party through its ethnic council and helping found the enduring right-wing faction known as the “Uglies.”

Liberal MPs William Wentworth and Douglas Darby lent their names to the strident Captive Nations Council, but B.A. Santamaria, Frank Knopfelmacher and other influential anti-communist figures steered well clear of its dubious characters. Even Darby’s wife Esme, who headed the Australian Housewives’ Association, was concerned about “nasty slogans” at Captive Nations events.

It was all pretty marginal, even if often offensive. Fascists in Exile suggests deep-dyed adherents to national socialism pining to return and restore it in old homelands. For many DPs, content to settle in as “New Australians,” the book title could seem like a broad-brush slur. But for Persian the threat remains. Far-right and ultranationalist DP organisation continues apace, renewed by younger generations, she says. Ante Pavelic is still venerated in clubs around the country, and fascist activity in the form of anti-vax and other demonstrations draws in young members of ethnic groups. “DP groups are thus continuing to contribute to an ongoing (and increasing) normalisation of fascist views in the public sphere.” Really? •

Fascists in Exile: Post-War Displaced Persons in Australia
By Jayne Persian | Routledge | $79.99 | 182 pages

Article has been amended to acknowledge that the author made reference to “false flag” violence by Yugoslav security operatives.