Soapbox Speakers

Egon Erwin Kisch – the anti-Nazi journalist.

Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1948) Anti-Nazi Czech journalist and communist.

Before the Second World War, the Australian government, under the United Australia Party (the forerunner of the Liberal Party), was ignorant of the German Nazi government agenda.

In 1934 the Australia Movement Against War and Fascism invited Czechoslovak journalist and communist Egon Kisch to speak in Australia. He had been brought to Australia to counter the speaking tour of the Duke of Gloucester, who was at the time a Fascist sympathiser.

The Australian government tried to stop Kisch from entering the country. The Attorney- General, Robert G Menzies, future Prime Minister and founder of the Liberal Party, had the discretion to give to any arriving non-English speakers a ‘dictation test’ of a European language. The Attorney–General’s department chose Scottish Gaelic. Kisch could speak several European language but not Scottish Gaelic. Having failed the language test he was deemed a prohibited immigrant and sentenced to be deported.

Not to be thwarted, he literally jumped ship, but accidentally crashed onto the wharf breaking his leg. He was captured and hospitalised. 

The High Court of Australia ruled on 19 December 1934 that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language within the meaning of the Immigration Act (1901-25). Kisch was set free and allowed to enter Australia.

On the 18th of November 1934 Egon Kisch was the special guest speaker for the Movement Against War and Fascism. An audience of about 5,000 gathered to hear Mr. Kisch speak on subject of the dangers of Fascist Germany and Italy. The Reverend Albert Rivett had the honour of introducing Mr. Kisch. The Reverent had been an opponent of war during the Bore War and First World War. He began his introduction speech saying, 

“The people of Australia believed the World War was to save democracy, but the harvest they reaped is Fascism. Seventy five percent of the Australian population are working people and if they stand together for their rights they can prevent war and Fascism in whatever guise these scourges of modern civilization are prepared. Fighters for peace are banned from our country and the shame is made even greater by attempting to justify this ban by a test in a foreign language. If Jesus Christ were to come here, to preach peace on earth an goodwill to all man, our police chiefs and politicians would try to stop him, because Egon Kisch was an alien and did not know every European Language, at least, not Gaelic.”

As Egon Kisch took the platform, Reverend Rivett uttered what were to be his last words: “Here comes our guest, whose entry they tried to prohibit, let us rejoice, let him carry on the fight. My time is up. I have finished. I thank you.” Then Reverend Rivett collapsed and died, at the age of 79.

The audience was stunned, and so it was that the first public speech given on the Domain by Egon Kisch was a eulogy for Reverend Albert Rivett.

Kisch later went on to say “I have had three adventurous months. I know the police court, the Quarter sessions Court, the High Court with one judge and the High Court with five judges. But whenever the court let me go I was arrested again. I have learnt to speak English better. Perhaps I do not speak the King’s English but it’s Kisch English anyhow. I did not come here to tell you there is terrorism in Europe. I have been an eye-witness of it. I came here to tell you how to stop war. I was arrested the day the Reichstag was burnt down by Goring and his lieutenants. I saw my friend, Erich Muhsam, the poet, whose works I translated. He was made to walk naked, even in winter, and to lick up the spittle of his captors. All his limbs were broken gradually, and he died.”

The crowd listened in silence.

Kisch exposed Nazi propaganda during his speaking tour of Australia. He left in 1935. War came only four years latter in 1939. Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party, plunged Germany headlong into war.

Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1948), was born on 29 April 1885 in Prague, Austria-Hungary. His opposition to war and fascism sprang from his experience of the Nazis. His speaking tour was a morale booster for the small group of anti-war campaigners who alerted Australian to the threat posed by fascists, and he tried to suggest ways of combating it. His last speech in the Domain was to a crowd of 18,000, a large meeting for its time.

On his return to Europe he reported from the front line of the Spanish Civil war and the German occupied France in 1940. He found refuge in Mexico until he returned to Czechoslovakia. He died in 1948 in Prague and was cremated.

Steve Maxwell.


Egon Erwin Kisch on his platform, warning us about the dangers of Nazi Germany.

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