Book Review: Captured Lives, by Peter Monteath

Peer behind the barbed wire drawn around people deemed threats to Australia’s security during the two world wars. Civilians from enemy nations, even if born in Australia, were subjects of suspicion and locked away in internment camps as prisoners-of-war, some shipped from the other side of the world.


Life’s many moments include feeling that you’re in the wrong time and wrong place in history. Things would be better if only there was a correction in time and place. For a real life example, if only officers and crew of German vessel SS Scharzfels, sailing into Port Adelaide on 5 August 1914, had known the day before that war had been declared. They were no longer friendly naval Europeans, but enemies of war, doomed to internment.

Flinders University Professor of History Peter Monteath’s deeply engaging, top read of a general history does well framing Australian wartime internment in the greater context of earlier colonial life as one great big continent-sized prison.

Keep that in mind, alongside ties to mother country England after Federation, and there’s a clarity to the political and racial history of internment over two world wars that he explores. A clarity in which Monteath brilliantly blends the political obligations, decisions and social pressures of the era with a solid collection of 40 text boxes surmising individual internees lives across nationalities in over 30 camps.

It is these lives that shine light on the complexities buried within official government policy applied to seemingly ordinary naturalised Australians. Italian, German and other European immigrants (‘good Aussies’) transformed instantly into ‘enemy aliens’, and saw them interned. It also caught up those who should never have interred as prisoners of war, such as the famous Dunera Boys, Jewish refugees from Nazism in WII, and German Buddhist Monks in WWI.

Of greatest interest is Australia’s willingness to accommodate Britain’s desire it become an internment base for POW’s and civilian enemy aliens from overseas war fronts. Once again, Australia became a continent-size prison, only this time, to multiple European nationalities, Japanese, Formosans (Taiwan) and Chinese.

The great achievement of this history is twofold. It opens a new window on Australia’s preoccupation with its place in the world, reflected by its attitudes to immigration and what degree of flexibility was exercised, even during war. It also offers a vivid insight, thanks to the extensive archives of the National Library of Australia, into the human experience of internment illustrated in numerous photographs and paintings created by internees.

Captured Lives: Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps is easily one of the most engaging, thoughtful and intelligent works of general history. It reads more like an easy-going biographical tale than a strict history. Professor Monteath is to be congratulated on a significant, highly accessible contribution to Australia’s understanding of its past.

Reviewed by David O’Brien
Twitter: @DavidOBupstART

Rating out of 10:  10

Distributed by: NLA Publishing
Released: August 2018
RRP: $39.99

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