Book Reviews

Did Australia let Japanese and German war criminals go free?

A very worthy addition to our understanding of Australia’s reaction to the Second World War.

It is no surprise to older folks that war throws up reprehensible behaviour, but that governments collude, condone and ignore that behaviour is still a surprise. In his book Traitorsauthor Frank Walker exposes the depth of  Australian governments’ betrayal of its soldiers and people.

Frank Walker outlines how the Australian government, in collusion with its British and American allies turned its back on war criminals from Second World War.

He also examines the stories of those who actively betrayed their country, with special reference to Errol Flynn, who may have been a Nazi spy. Or not. He was certainly anti-Semitic and had friends in the Nazi party. 

The Duke of Windsor is also mentioned and his alleged agreement with Hitler to be restored to the throne when the Nazis defeated Britain. And there were lesser known men, such as the few prisoners of war who joined the British Free Forces, organised by the Germans to help in the takeover of Britain. They kept this aspect of their service very quiet on their return to Australia.

Big companies profit from the war in the supply of munitions, uniforms, food, medicines, communication equipment. Some of these big companies were well established by the start of the war, others made their profit during the war. These companies, and there are many of them, are household names. I was surprised to read of IBM, Coca-Cola, Ford and Standard Oil being among those companies. Walker also recounts the story of the Port Kembla wharfies who stood up to ‘Pig Iron Bob’.

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We are familiar with the Nuremberg Trials and the pursuit of war criminals by the Simon Weisenthal Center to this day. Walker outlines how lax successive Australian governments have been in assisting internationally in tracking down those wanted for war crimes. Investigations by Four Corners, subsequent reviews in 2010 and 2014, underlined the district lack of will of the Australian government to bring war criminals to justice.

A number of scientists, doctors and others were quietly welcomed in the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand for their scientific knowledge and the role of propaganda against Russia in the Cold War. Their expertise was very valuable in the Arms and Space races.

Walker retells the story of Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkel as an introduction to Japanese war atrocities. Walker admits there are just too many to recount in detail given the Thai-Burma Railway, the Sandakan Death March, beheadings, starvation and torture of the camps for civilians and military personnel. Despite clear evidence of atrocities, very few Japanese war criminals went to trial.

137 executions were actually carried out by Australian military courts. In 1957, the last of those serving long term sentences, including life, were released. The Australian government was very keen that Emperor Hirohito should be convicted for war crimes along with other politicians, generals, industrialists and bankers. General McArthur, and the US, feared the backlash and Hirohito did not face trial. Seven high ranking officers, including the infamous Tojo, were hung in 1948. The last war criminal in Japan was released in 1958.

Walker makes interesting observations on the education of young Germans and Japanese about their recent past. In Germany, where war criminals have been relentlessly pursued, young Germans are educated about the concentration camps. In Japan, where war criminals have been more leniently treated, that history is brushed over. Walker also comments on the sensitivities still raised by Japanese politicians visiting shrines and cenotaphs in Australia and overseas.

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This is a very readable book written in everyday language. It is, however, most scholarly in its research with a table of contents, footnotes, an index and thorough bibliography.

It is a very worthy addition to our understanding of Australia’s reaction to the Second World War.

Traitors by Frank Walker (published by Hachette Australia) is available from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.

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