Egon Irwin Kisch was a giant of European journalism and a legendary figure in Australia because of his leap from a ship.
The Trades Hall has recently acquired this reminder of the history of Kisch’s time in Australia. This rather battered ribbon was produced as part of the massive public campaign to allow Kisch and Gerald Griffin, New Zealand delegate to the Australian Congress Against War and Fascism, to land in Australia to attend the congress in Melbourne in 1934.
Griffin had been banned from Australia 3 days before Kisch arrived in Fremantle on board the Strathaird.
Kisch was one of a group on intellectuals organised by Willi Muenzenberg and Otto Katz to campaign around the world against the threat of Nazism and Fascism. The Movement Against War and Fascism organised the conference. This stood Kisch in a poor light to the United Australia Party government lead by Joe Lyons and Robert Menzies.
Griffin’s story is not so well known but is outlined in On the Pacific Front: the Adventures of Egon Kisch in Australia by Julian Smith (Sydney: Australian Book Services, 1936)
Griffin had arrived in Sydney on the SS Marama on 2nd November 1934. The government at the time could use a dictation test to exclude those they had already deemed undesirable, so they administered the test on Griffin in Dutch. He failed and was deported. Griffin wasn’t easily deterred and returned on board the SS Wanganella on the 9th and vanished into Sydney before the authorities to could lay hands on him.
It seems that the Griffin was not actually a communist party member at the time, but he certainly was a man opposed to the conformity and conservatism that was allowing fascism and Nazism to develop around the world. He was a student of many things, and according to Smith’s book he was usually to be found in second hand bookshops. Kisch himself said that he felt Griffin had read even more German books than he had!
He began as dry speaker but wit advice and help from Kisch as they toured around Australia. Between November 1934 and April 1935 Griffin spoke at hundreds of meetings to up to 200,000 people from Cairns to Port Phillip.
He boarded ship for New Zealand with a load of the second hand books he had collected and part of the now famous Anti War firm of Kisch and Griffin.
Kisch’s past was much better known, and his rise to fame is set out in the first volume of Claud Cockburn’s autobiography In Time of Trouble (and again in I Claud, the distillation of the 3 volumes). Cockburn was a giant amongst journalists, and worked closely with anti-fascist organisations and the communist parties of Europe. He knew Katz and Kisch. Kisch was a native of Prague, and loved the place, and the people their loved him, which perhaps saved him from an unfortunate fate at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen not long after the visit to Australia. His book, The Rushing Reporter sold a million copies. Kisch himself noted that as a central European Jew, he was lucky to have gone through life without being tortured even once.” He had been imprisoned after the Reichstag fire, when prominent anti-Nazis were rounded up, but he was Czech citizen and merely deported.
His fame came from the story of Colonel Redl, who may well have been the most famous double agent/spy of the 20th century, although this may be just because he was one who was eventually caught and other more successful spies got away with it. Redl, just before the outbreak of World War One, was simultaneously the chief of counter-espionage for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, AND chief of the Russian spy agency operating against the Austro-Hungarians.
As Cockburn puts it, his start on this ladder was as a middle class officer trying to keep up with the aristocrats, thus needed money, was spotted by an international spy ring, lured into trouble, trapped and blackmailed. And he was homosexual, which was probably a part of the blackmail.
He then made his own way by getting the Russians to buy him out of the Brussels spy school by promising to make it worth their while because of the secrets he could provide. He then kept this up with the people on each side of the spy divide, promising the Austrians more for more cash and the Russians the same until he had climbed right to the top of both organisations. He did this by ruthlessly betraying people he knew on each side to earn the trust of his superiors. Eventually he was a member of the inner council of the General Staff of the Austro-Hungarian empire and in 1913 he sold to the Russians the Austro-Hungarian order of battle in the event of a war on the eastern front.
His downfall came as direct result of this, not by his own actions but by a strange twist of bureaucracy.
The Russians sent him a part payment for this theft to a post office in Vienna. His own men (note he was chief of spying) intercepted this document which had a large sum inside. The inner council meeting asked Redl if this cash may not be a sign of the payments to whoever it was who was responsible for all the leaks of secrets from their agency. Redl of course could only agree that this might be the case. They did not suspect him at this time. So they set up a watch on the post office, leaving the funds in the parcel.
Redl could, at this point, simply waited until the watch was called off, or forever, because he knew perfectly well what was going on. However his love life brought about disaster.
His friend at the time was a stable boy whom Redl had financed into an expensive cavalry regiment. The lad was madly in love with an actress and informed Redl that he would see no more of him unless he saw his way clear to buying one of the new model Daimlers and then taking him, the stable boy, on a lovely trip through Switzerland an the Riviera.
Without the Russian payment, Redl could not afford this, so he took a chance.
Just before the Post office closed at 5.00pm on a Saturday he took a taxi and asked for the package addressed to Opera Ball 13. The package was handed over and the clerk at the same time rang the bell notifying the 2 detectives on watch that their vigil might be about to bear fruit.
Even so Redl almost got away with it because the two were bored stiff with waiting and were keen to head off on their night out. They had taken off their trousers and were ironing them in preparation. They made it out in time to get the number of the taxi and luckily encountered it a short time later. They traced its route and found in the back seat a small leather sheath from a paper knife.
They found that the taxi had dropped the passenger at the Hotel Herrenhof. When they told the man on reception that they were looking for a spy, he laughed. Why? He informed the detectives that this was the residence of the chief spy catcher Colonel Redl.
They then asked the receptionist to ask each guest about the leather sheath. When Redl came down, all ready for his trip, he said “Yes that’s mine, now where did I…?” Then he saw the detectives watching.
Redl apparently then walked about Vienna all evening and when he returned to the hotel a military commission was waiting. They handed him a revolver. Next morning he shot himself.
The military issued a communiqué stating he had died of a heart attack.
Now we finally get to Kisch. That day of the “heart attack” was a Sunday. Kisch and his team representing the newspaper he was editor of – Bohemia – were to play an association football match against Dresden. Kischs’ team was favourite, but they lost. Why? Because their goalkeeper failed to turn up. That evening Kisch in his misery interviewed the missing goalkeeper to demand an explanation, which turned out to be that he, as a locksmith, had had to attend a job. Kisch assumed that he had been too drunk, but the explanation was much better than that. The people who searched Redls’ apartment needed a skilled locksmith to be able to get into all Redls’ secret hiding places.
The football was forgotten and the next issue of Bohemia carried an amazing tale. Because of censorship it was worded in this fashion:
“It is entirely untrue that Colonel Redl, who died a perfectly natural death of a heart attack on Sunday morning, was in fact….”. The facts, all denied, followed.
Leap forward to 1934 and Kisch is now an author of over 20 books and has travelled the world and looked and written brilliantly about much of it. His work The American Paradise forecast the storm that w the stock market crash ushering in the Great Depression, an idea that at the time he wrote it was heresy as the US star was rising.
His arrival in Melbourne saw him again denied entry, but he leapt from the ship and broke his leg. He was then bundled back on board. This action proved the trigger for the mass movement in support of his right to enter Australia and speak. Various ALP politicians such as Maurice Blackburn, and prominent writers such as Vance Palmer and Katherine Susannah Pritchard supported him.
He failed the dictation test, as did Griffin, but the language he had to understand was Scots Gaelic, one of the very few European languages he was unfamiliar with!
The case was taken to the High Court, with Justice Evatt, sitting alone, ruling the test and prohibition order were illegal. So he was free to move about Australia and spoke at huge rallies with Griffin
Kisch article in Australian Dictionary of Biography
Egon Kisch. Australian Landfall. Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1969. First published in 1937 by Secker and Warburg
Julian Smith. On the Pacific Front: the Adventures of Egon Kisch in Australia. Sydney: Australian Book Services Ltd, 1937
Claud Cockburn. I Claud: the autobiography of Claud Cockburn. Middlesex: Penguin, 1967