With armistice called on November 11, 1918 and with the Paris Peace Conference underway in 1919, Australians would have felt justified in imposing on Germany and its allies a crippling level of debt in order to recoup its losses in manpower and materials. Yet not all Australians felt this way. One such Australian was a Senator in the federal Australian parliament from New South Wales, Albert “Jupp” Gardiner, a member of the Australian Labor Party and a former carpenter and gold miner.
During a debate on war reparations in June of 1919, Gardiner made a number of comments which remarkable for the time in which they were made and for the sentiment that they express. Not one to unduly blame Germany for its actions, Gardiner instead issued a very level-headed, reasoned argument for leniency towards the former enemy by warning of the consequences of seeking revenge. What therefore follows is from the Commonwealth of Australia’s Hansard records for the Senate, dated Thursday, 26th of June 1919.
“Senator GARDINER - It was a matter of circumstances, and now, in the calm light of peace, this comparison which I have instituted should be vividly kept in mind, particularly by those who were anxious that we should do more than we did. They used to taunt our party with Mr. Fisher's (Andrew Fisher, Prime Minister of Australia, September 1914 – October 1915) statement that we would stand by the Empire in this momentous struggle to the last man and the last shilling. I say that literally we adhered to the pledge. We stripped ourselves of our manhood to such an extent that we would have been powerless had we been attacked.
So far as the last shilling is concerned, not only did we spend it, but we borrowed money upon which we shall have to pay an annual interest bill of from £20,000,000 to £30,000,000. I have gone to the trouble of putting these facts and figures before honourable senators because I think that they should be placed upon record. At the outbreak of the war it looked as if nothing could prevent the foe from winning. At that time Germany appeared to be a world conquering force, whose objective was domination…
Now we are confronted with the Peace proposals, and I know that there will be much diversity of opinion as to what should be done. "The culprit must be punished," will be the thought that will instinctively rise to the mind of every man. If the culprit could be centred in one man or even in a number of individuals there is no doubt that civilization would insist upon their punishment. But an enduring peace cannot be obtained unless it is based upon justice. Without justice we shall be sowing the seeds of future discord. Of course it may be argued that no consideration should be extended to men who were guilty of the acts of which our enemy were guilty.
But the people who will govern Germany and Austria in the future will not be those who created this war. When it is urged that they indorsed the war my reply is that the first duty of citizenship is to offer one's life if necessary in the defence of his country. In the hour of danger the first duty of a citizen is to fight for the country in which he lives. If we accept that maxim none of us can punish the German soldiery for fighting for their country. We may insist upon reparation being made for the wrong which has been done, but with sentiments like those in our hearts we cannot say that the men who answered the call in Germany were doing other than their duty to their own nation.
These truths must be kept in mind in the peace that is now being forced upon the world whether by the strong arm of the military power or by wise counsels at the council table. I believe that Peace has been signed, and that the German people will, if they have agreed to certain proposals, carry them out. We have only to look back to the occasion when Germany conquered France in 1870 and 1871. I suppose that the most powerful German statesman at that time was Bismarck. Bismarck was forced by the pressure of public opinion in Germany to assent to an unjust peace, a peace that took much territory from France. He himself pointed out the dangers attendant on a peace that would leave France with a lasting grievance, and that, I believe, was one of the Teal causes of the present war. Probably that was the germ - a nation proud in arms as France was, being humiliated by cession of territory - that was responsible for this awful world conflict. Let us beware that history does not repeat itself. Let us beware that in the hour of out triumph, we do not seek to impose upon Germany an unjust peace that will leave a lasting grievance in the minds of the conquered (Source).”
These sentiments were obviously not shared by many others, and the reparations imposed upon Germany by the allied powers have often been cited as one of the principal causes for the rise of National Socialism. Yet the fact that an Australian politician was prepared to argue that an unjust peace would lead to more conflict is evidence of a maturity in thinking that surpassed many of Gardiner’s contemporaries. He knew that those that started the war would not be burdened with the consequences of it, that future generations would have to assume that responsibility and, depending on the conditions imposed on Germany, that they might resent their treatment at the hands of the victors.
Amid the great amount of literature and correspondence on Australia’s reaction to the First World War, Gardiner’s comments still strike me as some of the most honest and well considered of all of Australia’s political class at the time. They are a credit to the man that expressed them, and I hope that they might receive more recognition in this of all years.