Becoming German in Melbourne: A Study of Second Generation Ethnic Identities

A PhD Research Project by Cathrin Bernhardt

Research is an ongoing part of what we do — both during the development of an exhibition and afterwards. The Museum was fortunate to have Cathrin Bernhardt from La Trobe University working on a research project that also relates to our Identity exhibition. Here she outlines her research project.

My name is Cathrin Bernhardt and I did my PhD in Anthropology at La Trobe University in Bundoora. The research for my PhD thesis was on adult children of German migrants, the second generation of Germans, and whether the children of German migrants in Australia ‘feel’ or ‘become’ German. In so doing, I conducted an ethnographic study on when, how and why second-generation Germans in Melbourne connect with their ethnic background. At the centre of my thesis were the questions: What are the dimensions of contemporary white ethnicity? When, how and why does ethnic identification emerge for the people I talked to? Which social structural relations shape the experiences of the respondents?

There has been extensive historical research on German migration to Australia (for example Borrie 1954; Vondra 1981; Harmstorf and Cigler 1985; Voigt 1987; Jürgensen and Corkhill 1988; Jupp 1988 and 2001; Foster and Seitz 1991; Christa 1995; Jürgensen 1995; Kaplan 1995; Price 1999; Sauer 1999; Clyne and Kipp 2002), but only a few ethnographic studies about the Germans in Australia today. Even though the recent ethnographic study (Everke c2007) on the construction of cultural identity among German migrants in Melbourne gives an excellent overview on how German identity is formed and lived in the first generation, there is an absence of research on ethnic identity formation of the adult children of German migrants in a transnational social space. Through the respondents’ biographical narratives my thesis explored the dynamics of ethnic identity over the life course and indicated that the structural relations (e.g. migration policies in place) in the host society and ancestral homeland were important factors in examining the different ways respondents identified with their German background.

Second generation German Australian at an annual German Easter Camp, Victoria
Second generation German Australian at an annual German Easter Camp, Victoria
Image: Cathrin Bernhardt
Source: Cathrin Bernhardt

The evidence collected during my PhD fieldwork in Melbourne in 2010-12, was based on qualitative empirical evidence obtained through a mix of methods. The focus was on semi-structured interviews, as the key themes of my research were known. These interviews lasted between 1-3 hours and were conducted with 30 second-generation Germans between the ages of 18 and 60 years who were either born in Australia or migrated here before the age of five years. Some of them had one local-born parent or one parent with other, mostly European, ethnic background. I met these participants through German organisations and the so-called snowballing method. The sample was split into 15 female and 15 male participants. At the time of the interview all respondents were living in Melbourne. Furthermore, I observed various events that were connected with Germans in Melbourne and participated in an annual Easter camp organised by first to third generation Germans.

The discussion of the participants’ narratives was organised around five chapters that analysed dimensions such as the foundations, content, and affect of their ethnic identity, as well as the participants’ sense of belonging and ways of consuming identity. Symbolic ethnicity, a concept associated with second and subsequent generations of white, European immigrants that highlights ethnicity in form of cultural loss through straight-line assimilation or a nostalgic allegiance, was not the best way of describing these ‘white’ ethnics. Rather, it was clear that most respondents internalised everyday family practices that (re)produced their German background. These practices took place in the form of rituals that deepened their sense of ethnic identity.

Ethnicity for second-generation Germans I interviewed was thus both symbolic and deep. The deep structures of their ethnicity were similar to what Bourdieu terms ‘habitus’. They were dispositions that were durable, acquired during childhood, and expressed through schemes of perception, thought and practice. When and how interviewees identified with their German background was contextual and situational, and strongly related to their life course.

It has also been a wonderful and enriching experience to explore the personal stories of other second-generation migrants in Victoria through the exhibition development and to see similarities and differences in their identity formation and sense of belonging compared to the participants of my study.

Reference list

Borrie, WD (1954), Italians and Germans in Australia: a study of assimilation, Cheshire, Melbourne.

Christa, CM (1995), 'The German Templers in Australia' in M Jürgensen (ed.), German-Australian Cultural Relations Since 1945, Peter Lang, Bern, pp. 130-139.

Clyne, M and Kipp, S (2002), 'Australia's changing language demography', in People and Place vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 29-35.

Everke Buchanan, S (2007), 'The Construction of Cultural Identity: Germans in Melbourne', in Reihe: Zeithorizonte Perspektiven Europäischer Ethnologie, Bd. 11.

Foster, L and Seitz, A (1991), 'Official attitudes to Germans during World War II: some Australian and Canadian comparisons', Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 14, no.4 (October), pp. 474-492.

Harmstorf, I and Cigler, M (1985), The Germans in Australia, AE Press, Melbourne.

Jupp, J (1988 and 2001), The Australian People : an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh.

Jürgensen, M (1995), German-Australian Cultural Relations Since 1945, Peter Lang, Bern.

Jürgensen, M and Corkhill, A (1988), The German Presence in Queensland Over the Last 150 Years, Proceeding of an International Symposium. August 24-26, 1987. Department of German, University of Queensland, St. Lucia.

Kaplan, G (1995), 'From 'Enemy Alien' to Assisted Immigrant: Australian Public Opinion of German and Germany in the Australian Print Media, 1945 to 1956', in M Jürgensen (ed.), German-Australian Cultural Relations since 1945, Peter Lang, Bern, pp. 78-100.

Price, CH (1999), 'Australian Population: Ethnic Origins', People and Place, vol. 7, no.4, pp. 12-16.

Sauer, A (1999), 'Model Workers or Hardened Nazis? The Australian Debate about Admitting German Migrants, 1950-1952', Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 422-437.

Voigt, JH (1987), Australia-Germany. Two Hundred Years off Contacts, Relations and Connections, Inter Nationes, Bonn.

Vondra, J (1981), German Settlers in Australia, Cavalier Press, Melbourne.

My identity is human

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