Between the wars, during the Second World War and in the years immediately following, several persons were labelled by the Australian Security Services as 'the most dangerous man in the Commonwealth'. While only one of them could have been 'the most dangerous', several were dangerous indeed in various ways, while others were baffling enigmas.
Some were also scoundrels in financial and personal relationships, involved in tax evasion, usury, perjury, pornography, corruption, drug running, bribery, assault – a whole catalogue of torts, crimes and sins. Others were fairly decent men unable to realise the harm they could have been causing. Several showed interesting psychiatric symptoms. Many were British citizens, if not Australian born. Some were aliens whose activities were either notorious or fascinatingly mysterious. They were possibly worthy citizens of their own countries, but these were countries with which Australia was – or was soon to be – at war.
This book examines the activities and characters of a representative selection of these persons.
Most of these stories have not been examined adequately; some have not been noticed at all. Selection has necessarily been subjective. Dr J. H. Becker, the founder of the Nazi Party in Australia and its leader for four years, has not been included because, although he was organiser of the Gestapo information collection in Australia and dangerous to the relatives of Germans, he was too closely watched and had too many enemies to be a serious threat to the security of Australia. Several other notorious Nazis could well have been included, but they do not have the mysterious quality of those in this book, as they were too conspicuous. Inevitably, some names recur in several chapters, for those engaged in activities detrimental to Australia were to some extent interlinked, and those who were trying to protect Australia covered many cases.
The business of the Security organisations was and is to keep the Government informed concerning potential threats to national security. They did not have the power of arrest. If, in the course of their investigations and possibly using methods that would have been illegal in police work, they stumbled across evidence of drug running, prostitution rackets, bribery, blackmail or assault, it was not their business to inform the police.
There is a wealth of dramatic, tragic and sometimes comical material in the repositories of National Archives Australia, particularly in the records of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, the Commonwealth Security Service and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. It is baffling that authors, even academics, venture to write accounts of complicated and controversial history by talking to the children and grandchildren of the people involved without checking with original records. Or they look at a few files in a single series and think that these tell the whole story in a balanced form. The truth is elusive, but one approaches it more closely by reading a hundred files, with a healthy dose of scepticism, than by reading two or three, or even none.
In each file, names occur that could lead to other files, not yet transferred to Archives. An application may then be submitted through Archives to ASIO, stating the reason why a file might have been kept on such persons and the reason for the request. After several months, Archives will report that ASIO says that there never was such a file, or that they cannot locate it, or that it has been destroyed, or that it has been reclassified for public release and handed over to Archives. After several more months, Archives will give notice that it has been screened for privacy considerations and is available for perusal. The newly-released material may lead to another set of names, so the whole process starts again and may take another six months. After five or ten years, the researcher may have gained a fair idea of the facts. It is not a task for the impatient, superficial or faint-hearted.
Nothing that it is feasible to check should be left unchecked. People forget; people make mistakes; people tell lies, sometimes for no apparent reason. Dates and places of birth and marriage may be checked through Registry Office records on microfilm, microfiche or CD, sometimes online. The date of death may be harder to find. Then, depending on the locality, it may be possible to check naturalisation records, passenger lists, electoral rolls, old telephone books, Post Office Directories, old newspapers and various business records. Some of this information is readily available and just takes time and perseverance; some costs a lot of money and is only occasionally worth the time and money.
As this book is intended for general reading, endnotes have been kept to a minimum. For serious students who might wish to obtain further information, or verify what is written, a short bibliography and an indication of sources has been given for each chapter, although this is only a fraction of the material consulted. Some crucial ASIO dossiers were still being screened at the time of writing. Although many pages have been withheld, and others have tantalising expungements, there is a lifetime's work there for young academics with insightful and sceptical minds.