By Richard Trembath, Ballarat.

 

‘Masked’, charcoal and paper, 2024, A.M. Lynzaat.

Let’s be precise.  On Sunday 3 December last year, my wife and I were having lunch, next to one of the large windows in our living room.  I looked out and then informed Anne Marie that, if she cared to view the street, she would see a group of about thirty masked men, dressed in black, marching in neat formation along the footpath.  They had a banner which we couldn’t read before they passed out of sight.  Neo-Nazis weren’t fiction.  Later that afternoon our daughter rang, saying the Eureka Stockade celebration had been interrupted by ‘those united patriot front dicks.’[i]  The masked marauders’ sign read: ‘Australia For The White Man’ and underneath that ‘National Socialist Network’.  No swastika was visible, thus avoiding any legal proceedings on that count.  On their return trip past us some were noticeably footsore after their ascent of Ballarat’s not inconsiderable slopes.

This incident which attracted considerable media attention is by no means the only one of its kind in recent years.  For some time, Neo-Nazi sightings have contributed to a sense of a disturbed social environment in this country and others.  An anxious young Victorian in Claire Thomas’s 2021 novel, The Performance, sees disturbance everywhere:

 

 

There were Neo-Nazis on the beach over summer, spitting their hate onto the sand.  And swastikas sprayed on nursing home walls.  And police officers displaying white pride.  And hate speeches in parliament.  And mass shootings inside churches and mosques and schools and concert halls and malls.  And women murdered in their homes.  And people brutalised in cells.[ii]

In this article I discuss contemporary manifestations of National Socialism in Australia highlighting the National Socialist Network.  Minority political groups tend not to disturb the water in this country, so it is tempting to see the Neo-Nazis as desert flowers, blooming rarely and briefly colorful.  The self-described National Socialist groups have been tiny and transitory, and, in my opinion, totally devoid of significant political influence.  Occasional, sometimes serious, acts of violence are another matter.  As for underlying reasons why people, overwhelmingly male, join extreme right groups, I am neither psychologist nor sociologist.  I can hazard some possibilities, but they are probably no better than anybody else’s suggestions.  For brevity’s sake I start the story in the 1960s though many readers would be aware that the New Guard which operated in this country between 1931 and 1935 claimed approximately 50,000 members at one stage of its brief existence.  But their small fry post-war successors have the infinite advantage that their nomenclature, language and uniforms evoke ghastly associations with the mass violence of 1939-1945.

I grew up in the north-western suburbs of Melbourne in a politically conscious household.  In the 1960s and early 1970s there were murmurs and mutterings about extreme groups in the area.  These referred to the Ustase (generally spelt as ‘Ustasha’ in the newspapers of my youth), a nationalist Croatian group dedicated to separation from Yugoslavia which operated under the name of a wartime fascist organisation.  As my family did not come from South-Eastern Europe the activities of this diaspora group did not touch us much.

Dr Moss Cass, Minister for the Media, visits rock station 2JJ, Sydney, 1975 (National Archives of Australia)

But we were touched by other right-wing extremists.  Between 1969 and 1983 Dr Moss Cass was the Labor MHR for Maribyrnong.  From 1974, when eighteen year olds voted for the first time in Federal elections, he was my local member.  Dr Cass was a minister in the Whitlam government and Jewish.  His public endorsement of abortion rights resulted in poorly printed pamphlets calling on us electors in Maribyrnong not to vote for ‘the Jewish abortionist’.  We even managed to have local Nazis attempt to win the seat.  The National Socialist Party of Australia had been founded in 1967 and in 1970 became the first confessed Nazi organisation to run for office in Australia.  At the 1970 Senate election they stood in three states with Kass and Katrina Young their representatives in Victoria.  Their efforts were wasted as the party’s overall vote was a mere 0.43% nationally.  But the Youngs persisted, and in a presage of current encounters between left and right protestors, attracted the ire of radical university students.  In June 1972 Kass Young’s rented house in St Albans was the subject of a break in by ‘a mob’ who caused a severe amount of damage in the process.  Afterwards, Mr. Young stated that:

 

 

Anyone who sets foot on this property from now on will be shot . . .They got nothing of any value anyway.

Which declaration undoubtedly explains why the police ‘removed an automatic rifle with a telescopic sight from the property’.[iii]  Six months later Katrina Young stood for Maribyrnong in the 1972 Federal election and received only 148 votes.  The group then faded away having garnered a reasonable amount of publicity in the meantime.

In its early days some saw Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as fascist but I believe that is an exaggeration.  Conservative, racist and grouchy, yes, and imbued with nostalgia for a past white heaven that may never have existed in the first place.  But not uniform wearing street marchers or pseudo-military.  Some of those though who were caught up in Hanson’s wake have had dubious backgrounds and beliefs.  A brilliant essay from John Birmingham, on the ground in his native Ipswich in 1998, looked at how earlier versions of the National Socialist Network found a comfortable niche in One Nation:

These sort of people have always been around, safely corralled into groups such as National Action and the Australian Nationalist Movement where they could do little harm because everyone recognized them for what they were.  They ran a Senate candidate in the 1984 federal election for example, fully expecting to pick up at least 50,000 votes.  What they got was one tenth of one percent of fuck all.  Little wonder they are now signing up as One Nation members and candidates.’ [iv]

In 2002-2003, a group calling themselves the Blackshirts were briefly active across Brunswick and Coburg in Melbourne’s inner north.  (As we were living in Brunswick at the time I do feel that my presence encourages the company of political extremists.)  Despite their gaudy title their chief targets were women who had separated from their male partners, and in the eyes of these misogynists, had unfairly benefitted in the Family Court of Australia.  An inevitable reaction occurred.  A noisy but violent confrontation occurred in March 2003 when one hundred opponents of the Blackshirts confronted the latter at their headquarters.  According to the ABC, a ‘long and loud slanging match then erupted between the two sides’.[v]  Perhaps, the arrival of cooler weather with autumn calmed things down after that.  But I do not make light of this group or their tasteless adoption of the Blackshirt name.  My wife and I knew several women who were severely disturbed by these louts on the footpath shouting abuse.

The COVID pandemic has been the perfect Petri dish for encouraging the growth of conspiracy theorists and libertarian dissent.  Has it also been useful in assisting the birth of several neo-Nazi organisations?  It does seem that their public activities have been more pronounced since the lockdown of 2020, though this latest wave started earlier than that.  One of the earlier escapades of the National Socialist Network was an incident in the Cathedral Range State Park in May 2021.  Network members had gathered in that beautiful region for a rally or squad exercise, and their chief, Thomas Sewell, and colleague, Jacob Hersant, were involved in an unpleasant confrontation with three bushwalkers who filmed the group’s activities.  Assault charges were laid and the two eventually pleaded guilty to violent disorder.  Later, Sewell and Hersant ‘complained in court about being targeted by state and federal police over their white supremacist political beliefs, during a hearing to determine their sentence for an assault while bushwalking with far-right adherents’.[vi]  At their eventual sentencing in October 2023 the presiding magistrate considered that ‘their offending was at the lower end of the spectrum’ and rehabilitation was a strong possibility.  Given their time already served, Sewell and Hersant walked from the court.  Once outside, Hersant allegedly threw the Nazi salute and was charged for this now illegal action.  Memorably he stated:

‘The salute? I heil Hitler every day . . . I don’t care if it offends Jews.[vii]

All of this makes good theatre, of course, a point I shall refer to later.

Some might be tempted to say ‘they’re not Fuhrers, they’re just naughty boys’ yet a later event shows that there is a nastier side to these Nazi poster boys.  Sewell and Hersant had form before the Cathedral Ranges incident.  When, on 1 March 2021, these two arrived at the offices of Channel Nine in a vain bid to speak to people connected to A Current Affair, Hersant told the security guard to ‘dance, monkey, dance.’  After the security guard objected to this language Sewell struck and kicked him.  Almost two years later, he received a community corrections order.[viii]

Why do these movements flourish, albeit briefly?  Given their predominantly male membership toxic masculinity is often seen as a factor.  However, one problem here is defining ‘toxic masculinity’ without falling for the fallacy of a circular argument.  Thus: Question – What is toxic masculinity?  Answer – Errgh, it’s when males are, well, toxic.  Which doesn’t get us far.  If toxic masculinity has any malign presence I would point rather to its involvement in a range of such misogynist activities as the Brunswick Blackshirts described above, Andrew Tate and his digital followers, and, worst of all, those men guilty of violence towards women, an issue on everybody’s minds in Ballarat currently.  Other causes that have been suggested for attracting recruits have been: limited education, impeded career opportunities, family dislocation – a list of the usual psychological suspects.  Without research into the backgrounds of neo-Nazis, research that for obvious reasons would not be easy to do, it is difficult to make any judgments except about their behaviour.

As with their predecessors, the National Socialist Network are public and performative in at least two senses.  Some of their performances are clearly prepared well ahead of time, stage plays in a public space.  Others might be more spontaneous, or at least are framed to look like incidental encounters with people they really don’t like. [ix]  A judicious combination therefore of the impulsive and the carefully planned.  They abuse, confront and challenge.  Their responses to actual or potential legal proceedings vary from ‘we wuz provoked’ (the colour of their skin pushed our buttons?) to the considerably more blatant – ‘I don’t give a stuff.’  They are not incinerating stores, especially those selling tobacco.  They are not hijacking cars or carrying out home invasions.  Yet, people have been frightened and assaulted, sometimes in situations where they would not expect it, as happened to five members of Grandmas for Refugees at Chirnside Park shopping centre in February 2024.  A neo-Nazi abused their looks, their age, their views and then topped it off with an antisemitic tirade.  I don’t know if this man was a member of the National Socialist Network, but Thomas Sewell later endorsed his actions.[x]

The police union in Victoria would like the state government to follow up its outlawing of Nazi insignia and gestures with a ban on Neo-Nazi demonstrations and marches.  That may happen if aggression in public continues, it may not.  What most concerns me though is the potential of what I call the rogue asteroid effect by which some obsessed member of the Network or the Front, or whatever is their latest designation breaking from orbit and really causing damage.   Of course, it has already happened.  Think Brenton Tarrant and the Christchurch mosques.

 

 

[i] I don’t know where she gets the language from.  And she got the wrong group.

[ii] Claire Thomas, The Performance, Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2021, p. 242.

[iii] ‘Mob goes on rampage at Nazi Party House’, Age, 12 June 1972.

[iv] John Birmingham, ‘Pimp Daddy’s Local Member’ in Peter Craven (ed.), The Best Australian Essays 1998, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 14-22.

[v] ABC News, 29 March 2003.

[vi] ‘Neo-Nazis unhappy about being targeted by police, ‘Age, 26 September 2023.

[vii] Age, 9 December 2023.

[viii] ABC News, 12 January 2023, Guardian Australia, 12 January 2023.

[ix] Which apparently includes transwomen on the evidence of their turning up at the same demonstration as rogue MP, Moira Deeming.

[x] Daily Mail online, 24 February 2024.

Cover image: Florian Olivio via Unsplash

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Richard Trembath
Richard Trembath

Dr. Richard Trembath has taught history at Victorian universities for many years.  He is the author of several books, mostly in conjunction with colleagues.  These include All Care and Responsibility: A History of Nursing in Victoria with Donna Hellier; A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53Divine Discontent – The Brotherhood of St Laurence: A History (with Colin Holden);Witnesses to War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting (with Fay Anderson).  His most recent book is Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service Since 1945(with Noah Riseman) which was published in April 2016. Richard’s current research interests are the history of military veterans’ organisations and the social history of contemporary medicine.