Mark Aarons, Sanctuary: Nazi Refugees in Australia

William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne,
1989 pp. 385 illustrated

Drew Cottle

Bourgeois Australia has rarely exposed its guilty secrets. One such secret was the safe haven given to Nazi fugitives after the Second World War. Until Mark Aarons revealed this travesty in an ABC radio documentary the guilty lived quietly with their Nazi secrets.

Sanctuary examines how and why fascists and Nazi collaborators were allowed to migrate to and settle in Australia along with the thousands of European refugees, in the immediate post-war years. By 1948, as Aarons explains, the governments of the United States of America and Great Britain secretly agreed to end their efforts to bring the practitioners of Nazi terror to justice. Ways of escape for these war criminals became part of Cold War’s real politik. Through the intelligence channels of the U.S.A and Britain, Klaus Barbie, Mengele and other prominent Nazi torturers were found new identities in South America. Scores of lesser known Nazi collaborators and fascists became new citizens of the United States, England, Canada, South Africa and Australia.

As the Aarons study makes clear the secret political police in Australia, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (AS.I.O.), possessed an abundance of archival evidence of these fugitives’ war-time activities. AS.I.O. knew that they had imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands in the name of fascism. Many influential Ministers in successive Menzies governments were also privy to these guilty secrets yet like AS.I.O. they chose to use such information to their political advantage.

Aarons carefully documents the war-time “careers” of Ljenko Urbancic, Laszlo Megay and Jaroslav Stetskio and other Nazi collaborators. The barbarities for which they could be held responsible are painstakingly examined. Their collective guilt cannot be dismissed as propaganda.

Sanctuary as a scholarly work does possess serious shortcomings. Too little attention is given to the longstanding complicity between AS.I.O., and leading Liberal Ministers from Holt to Greenwood to deploy these servants of Nazism as ethnic community leaders in their domestic war against communism. The phalanx of “Captive nations” organisations which arose in the early 1950’s were largely under the captive leadership of former Nazis who owed their “respectability” to the silence of AS.I.O. and “understanding” anti-Communist politicians and senior public servants.

The extent of such complicity, even duplicity, can be gauged by the open military training undertaken by the Croatian fascist front, the Ustashi near Wadonga in 1963. Not only did the Ustashi members have the use of Citizens Military Forces armoured cars but also sported Army issue Owen sub-machine guns. Their political leaders, Srecko Rover and Ljenko Urbancic found support at the highest levels of government to carry out such training displays. It is perhaps doubly ironic if not perverse that with the political malaise and fragmentation from which contemporary Yugoslavia suffers, Urbancic can pose before his Kurrajong fort as an honorary consul for Slovenia (see The Sydney Morning Herald, 17th July, 1990, page 1). Can his Nazi past be so easily overlooked?

The other weakness concerns the failure to examine the relationship between the Nazi “ethnic leaders”, AS.I.O., the National Civic Council and the Democratic Labor Party. It is simplistic to assume that BA. Santamaria and the DLP leadership knew nothing of these ethnic leaders’ war activities. Their fervent anti-communism and anti-semitism may have been welcomed by the clerico-fascists. But would the cautious Santamaria with his strong conections with AS.I.O. not be aware of the Nazi leadership of “Captive Nations”? Moreover, Aarons tells us nothing about the way these war criminals exercised their influence over their compatriots in the trade unions. For example, it would be of some historical importance to know what pressure these Nazis were able to exert over migrant workers in the Federated Ironworkers’ Association to maintain the long career of its leading right-wing official, Laurie Short.

Sanctuary lays bare the unhealed wounds of Europe under fascism and the calculated secrecy of Australian anti-communism. Should the atrocities of a fascist past be brought to bear against their aged perpetrators in the present? How is social justice advanced? How is the memory of the Nazi genocide kept alive? These are vital social issues which cannot be ignored. If all must be forgotten nothing can be forgiven. Critics of the present war crimes legislation have complained of the vast expenses involved in such proceedings; the violation of the accused’s civil liberties; the unreliable nature of Soviet and other communist evidence; and its specific application to Central and Eastern Europe. Aaron’s final chapter addresses these problems fairly and succinctly. His concluding remarks are apposite. Such vexatious uncertainties would never have come to pass had A.S.I.O., anti-communist politicians and their bureaucratic minions denied amnesty to fleeing Nazis. The ordeal of Ivan Polyukhovich in Adelaide would never have occurred.

Australia is, as John Pilger reminds us, “a secret country”. An unspoken guilt still governs its refusal to recognise Aboriginal landrights and self-determination. A similar guilt pervades the complicity to shelter Nazi criminals. Until these and other guilty secrets are justly addressed we remain a grotesque unworthy place of moral torment and decay. Is the cleansing liberation of truth about our past, recent and distant, such an unwelcome confrontation?