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Focus on Culture

German in Australia

Focus on Culture - German in Australia

Australian Identity

The Australian people have always been characterised by linguistic and cultural diversity, beginning with the extraordinary range of languages and cultures existing within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

European settlement decimated these communities and many of the languages spoken have been lost through the domination of English. English has always been and remains one of many languages used in Australia.

Waves of Migration 

Ongoing waves of migration continues to bring new languages and cultures to these shores to contribute to the current and future wealth of our community.

This section traces a part of the story of the migration of German-speaking people to Victoria and Australia from European settlement to the present. It references how a German-speaking heritage was viewed with suspicion during two world wars, as well as the significant contribution German-speaking people have made and continue to make to the Australian community.

All Australians share the challenge and the responsibility for promoting reconciliation and intercultural understanding across communities and generations.

Arrival of the German Language in Australia

Speakers of German have been visiting and migrating to Australia since the first days of European exploration and settlement of Australia.

Captain Arthur Phillip, who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, was the son of a school teacher born in Frankfurt. Adelaide was named after Queen Adelaide, the Saxony-born consort of King William IV of the United Kingdom and Hanover.

Most of the early German-speaking migrants were from European principalities or empires (e.g. Austro-Hungarian Empire). The political map of Europe has changed many times over the centuries, most recently in in in 1990, when East and West Germany reunited as one country. This peaceful revolution was in stark contrast to the events earlier in the century.

Natural scientist Ludwig Leichhardt arrived in Australia in 1842 to explore the flora, fauna and geology of Australia. Find out more on dual websites constructed between 2013 and 2014 to commemorate the 170th anniversary of his epic journey across Queensland and Northern Australia.

Free settler families from German-speaking countries had been arriving to make a new life in Australia since 1838. Many of those early pioneers arrived with only a few possessions, ingenuity and strong religious beliefs to find a place to call home.

First Wave of German-Speakers to Victoria and Beyond

The Gold Rush of the 1850s brought many adventurers to Victoria to try their luck and German-speakers were amongst these and witnessed the Eureka Stockade. 'Germans' were the third-largest ethnic group on the Victorian goldfields after the British and the Chinese.

Men from the Moravian Church arrived between 1851 and 1919 to found seven mission stations in Australia. The Ebenezer mission station was established near Antwerp in the Wimmera to ‘civilise and Christianise’ the Aborigines of the area.

Early Contributions to the Current and Future Wealth of Victoria

Less than 2% of the population in Victoria between 1855 and 1865 were born in German-speaking Europe. Many migrated to escape religious persecution, others saw opportunity or followed their families.

Some made their way from South Australia or from Melbourne to more rural or remote areas to establish farming communities throughout Victoria. They built homes, churches and schools in their new homeland. All of the early pioneers shared the challenge of adapting to the landscape and climate.

  • Grovedale - near Geelong was formerly known as German Town
  • Pella - in the Southern Mallee in Victoria.

A large number of the early settlers were Wends (Sorbs). They arrived with their own language, but as they spoke German, they were considered to be 'German', whatever that meant, as 'Germany' only became united under the name 'Deutschland'  for the first time in 1871

Traces of Bendigo architects William C. Vahland and Robert Getzschmann can be found throughout Victoria through to New South Wales.

German-speakers were living in 'Marvelous Melbourne'. Significant men such as Ferdinand Mueller, Georg Neumayer, Eugen von Guérard, Ludwig Becker, Karl Damm, William Brahe, conductor and composer Carl Elsässer were making significant contributions to the Australian community. 

Volkhard Wehner researched  the 2000 strong community in Melbourne between the years 1855 and 1865 for his book 'Heimat Melbourne', published in 2010

Melbourne - early arrivals of German-speakers

Ferdinand von Mueller arrived in 1847 and worked as a chemist in Adelaide. He was appointed Government Botanist for Victoria by Governor La Trobe in 1853 to 1896. From 1857 to 1873 von Mueller was the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. He was involved in establishing many gardens in Victoria, including the Ballarat Botanical Gardens, Beechworth Town Hall Gardens, and he laid out Geelong's Botanic Gardens.

In 1870, Austrian-born Eugene von Guérard was appointed the first Master of the School of Painting at the National Gallery of Victoria. Amongst his pupils were Frederick McGubbin and Tom Roberts. He had arrived in 1852 lured, as were many, by the gold rush.

Other German-speaking migrants established rural settlements in nearby Doncaster / Waldau, Westgarthtown (Thomastown) and Harkaway / Berwick. 

Westgarthtown was a dairy farming settlement established in 1850 by German and Wendish immigrants, the origin of the PURA milk brand. The area is now a historical precinct in Thomastown in the City of Whittlesea supported by a community group called the 'Friends of Westgarthtown'.

Schramm's Cottage in Doncaster (originally Waldau) was built in 1874 and is classified by the National Trust.


War and Peace

Descendants of those pioneering families enlisted in the Australian army to fight for their new homeland in both world wars, some killed overseas.

The 'Germans' swore allegiance to the British King and raised funds for the war effort. However, they were still subjected to unwarranted prejudice based on their language and ethnic heritage.

Original names of towns were changed as a result of the anti-German sentiment resulting from the conflict in Europe during WWI. An example of this is Tarrington near Hamilton. This community was established by German-speaking pioneers in 1853. Originally called Hochkirch, the name was changed in 1918.

The two world wars made life difficult for the German-speaking community to use their language, despite their demonstrated commitment to their new homeland in Australia. The rich and significant contribution by German-speakers was covered up during and after WWI. Bilingual schools were closed. Speakers of the German language was regarded with great suspicion. German-speakers were interned. German-speaking Jewish refugees arriving in Australia were also interned.

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack -  member of the Weimar Bauhaus interned in WWII, fled Germany, deported to Australia, interned, remained and became an art teacher at Geelong Grammar

German-speaking Jews

Many migrants from German-speaking countries in early days of settlement and particularly in post-WWII had a Jewish heritage. The relationship between Germany and the people of Jewish heritage in Australia is complex and varied. In Germany, much has been done to restore trusting relationships and outlaw racial prejudice.  It is now a criminal offence in Germany to use symbols and greetings of the Nazi era, a fact of which Australian exchange students and tourists should be aware. The same symbols and greetings are offensive to the Australian Jewish community.

Wolfgang Sievers (1913-2007) - Came to Australia in 1938, a refugee from Germany. He became the pre-eminent industrial and architectural photographer in Australia. Sievers was active in Australia, Germany and Austria with research into the emigration of war criminals to Australia from 1990 to 1998. In 2007, he donated several hundred photographs from his archive, worth up to A$1 million, to raise money for justice and civil liberties causes. Source

George Dreyfus was born in Wuppertal in Germany in 1928 and escaped to Australia in 1939 and after completing schooling, enrolled as a bassoonist at the Conservatorium. In 1991, Dreyfus was awarded the Australia Council's Don Banks Fellowship and in 1992 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to music. In 2002 he was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz 1. Klasse.

Memories in my Luggage

In 2015, Sabine Nielson took a travelling exhibition around Victoria about German-speaking migrants to Australia, and through that made new connections to migrants. Some of these presented their stories at the launch of the exhibition. Many of stories are on her website including transcripts of talks and video testimonials

Community Service

Citizens of German-speaking heritage or birth demonstrated sustained commitment to public life and served on many school boards, local councils and in parliaments.

Henry Bolte (Victorian Liberal Premier 1955-1972) was the son of German migrants and grew up in Skipton near Ballarat.  During his leadership significant state infrastructure projects were funded including offshore oil and gas fields in Gippsland, the West Gate Bridge over the lower Yarra River, a new international airport for Melbourne at Tullamarine and two new universities: Monash Universtiy and La Trobe University. Source

John Brumby (Victorian Labor Premier 2007-2010 ) had a German grandmother. Whilst Premier, he held a reception in his offices to honour the German National Day in October and made a speech outlining the contribution of German-speaking communities to Victoria over time. The Ambassador of Germany commented in his speech, that this was the first government - state or federal - who had hosted such an occasion.

German Australia - Damals und Heute

German-speakers settled throughout Australia. Dave Nutting, a Victorian teacher of German, personally researched, designed and constructed a website. It as an excellent overview of German Australia and used as a reference on this site.

Dave notes that on the first census in 1861, there were 26,872 'German-born' living in NSW, QLD, VIC and SA. This rose to 45,000 in 1891. The effect of two world wars reduced this number to '14,567' in 1947.

The next wave of migrants arrived under the Australian Government immigration program of the 1950s and 1960s. The numbers of German-born rose to '109,315 in 1961.

Descendants of all the German-born people live in Australia today. Dave noted that some estimates suggest more than 10% of Australia's population are of German descent. Source

In 1901, German-born were the the third largest group born overseas after the United Kingdom and Ireland, and followed by China and New Zealand.

In the 2006 Census, there were 106, 530 German-born citizens in Australia, the 9th largest group after United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, Italy, Vietnam, India, Philippines and Greece. South Africa was the 10th largest group.

German-Speakers Living in Australia Today

The 2016 Census reported that there was a total of 124,300 people born in Germany (D). , In 2006, there were 137,025 people born in Germany (D), Austria (A) and Switzerland (CH) combined. with 90,184 of those living in captical cities and 45,531 living in regional Australia.  

In Victoria, 26,823 D-A-CH-born people were living in Melbourne, and 8425 living in regional Victoria. Source: ABS

Visit the Victorian Multicultural Commission website for further information about D-A-CH and multicultural Victoria.

German is a Language Spoken Widely in the Community

It is highly likely you will meet a speaker of German in the Victorian (and Australian) community, if you are not one yourself.

German-speakers live, work and speak German throughout Victoria and beyond, some as a first language, others as a new language.

There is tangible evidence of the frequent use of the German today in educational, work, religious, social and community settings.

German in Schools

There are 120,000 students learning German in Australian schools. German continues to demonstrate strong retention rates until Year 12 in schools throughout Victoria.

German is taught in government, Independent and Catholic schools in Victoria.

Bilingual schools for German and English operated in Victoria in the early 1900s until they were closed or prevented from using German after the beginning of the First World War. Speakers of German were regarded with great suspicion during both wars. In 1982 a bilingual program was established at Bayswater South Primary School with the advocacy of Michael Clyne.

German is taught at Community Schools out of school hours and at the Victorian School of Languages.

The demand for German language programs by the current wave of German-speakers moving to Victoria led to the founding of a bilingual school in North Fitzroy - the Deutsche Schule Melbourne, an innovative German program at Toorak Primary School - Spatzenschule, and German-speaking playgroups e.g. in Williamstown. This wave is made up of young professionals either working here temporarily for branches of German companies, or new migrants looking to make a new life in Australia.

Scholarships and Exchanges for School Students

A range of scholarships and awards are available for learners of German, as well as exchange programs.

The AGTV has coordinated the BayerischerJugendring (BJR) Exchange Program since 1988, involving around 50 Victorian students on a 10-week reciprocal exchange with Bavaria each year.

In Victoria, there are more than 60+ sister-school programs in addition to a number of commercial exchange programs.

German and Australian companies have sponsored scholarships for senior students to go to Germany through SAGSE since 1967. More than 2000 Australians have been awarded this unique opportunity to have all expenses paid to live with a German family for 10 weeks and a trip to Berlin for the scholarship group. Sixteen scholarships were awarded to Victorian students in 2010.

German at University

Around 2000 students are enrolled in German Studies in 12 Australian universities Australia wide; an additional 3 universities offer German language courses. German has excellent retention rates at this level.

Every Australian university has partner instituitions in either/or Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. RMIT University has a successful industry experience program, where almost all of the companies are in German-speaking countries.

In addition to those here on formal study, there are many students from Germans completing voluntary internships to gain international experience for all manner of tertiary degrees, or life experience. Some are at the Goethe-Institut in Melbourne, to whom the AGTV offers their thanks for the work they do supporting the teaching and learning of German in Victoria.

Scholarships at University

There are tertiary exchange programs for both German and Australian students. Around German students from Germany are studying in Australia and 400 Australians studying full time in Germany. The German government fund Australian undergradutate and post-graduate students and post-doctorate academics from across disciplines to study or research in Germany through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). There are 1500+ alumni of the DAAD program in Australia.

Scholarships are also available for Austria and Switzerland.

Australian recipients of a prestigious von Humboldt fellowship or award to work or research in Germany have an Alumni in Australia.

Other Scholarships

Engaging the Linguistic Wealth of Older Australians

A team from Monash University led by Professor Michael Clyne (not long before his death in 2010) and Professor Colette Browning (Faculty of Medicine) embarked on an ARC Linkage project to connect older speakers of German and Chinese with younger learners of these languages  for the benefits intergenerational exchange can bring for both age-groups. The wealth of speakers of languages other than English living in our local communities are a resource for teachers and students.

Networks of Speakers of German


German in Business, Research and Development

There are over 640 German companies active in Australia providing up to 100,000 jobs down under (counting suppliers). Some 145 of these companies are based in Victoria.

There are only two Victorian government business offices in Europe: one in Germany and the other in the United Kingdom.



Lutheran congregations and churches are found throughout Australia, evidence of the presence and spread of German-speakers, most founded by early pioneers.

Services in German are still conducted today in a handful of churches.

  • Lutheran Churches of Australia
  • Dreifaltigkeitskirche - in East Melbourne, active since the first wave of migration in the 1850s
  • St. John's Lutheran Parish - German-speaking congregation founded in 1960 by immigrants from German-speaking countries who settled in the South-East of Melbourne (Springvale, Oakleigh and Greater Dandenong) because they were employed by two large German factories in Clayton.

Other German-speaking Christian communities

Community Groups, Societies and Clubs

The German-speaking community, like most migrant communities, support each other through formal and informal groups. The current wave of professional migrants are connected online (Deutsche in Melbourne) and through other contacts. These lead to personal contacts, networks and informal Stammtische. German-speaking clubs and societies have existed since the beginning of European settlement. New groups continue to emerge to foster connections to aspects of German-speaking Europe, whose members may or may not speak German.


Aged Care Services for the German-Speaking Community

Demand for carers with German-speaking skills will increase as the population ages.

Specialised care for the aged who speak German is available in Victoria.

German-Speaking Diplomacy in Australia

German Government Promotion of German Language and Culture

The Goethe-Institut was opened in Melbourne in 1972. Goethe-Institut Australia offices Sydney and Melbourne coordinate programs throughout Australia.

This includes offering language courses and scholarships, media library, the provision of language advisers for education departments, resource centres for schools, organising and funding or sponsoring cultural events.

German Tourists in Australia

Germans are great travelers throughout the world. More than 160,00 tourists from Germany visited Australia in 2010. For information about German tourists in Australia.

Germany is a significant target market for Tourism Australia. Visit the 'Research' section and look at the 'Visitor Arrival Data' on the Tourism Australia website.

Contribution and Influence of German-speakers to Australia

Search for German, Austrian, Swiss references on these sites.

Department of Foreign Affairs Country Briefs and Fact Sheets

Find out how the Australian government describes Australia's relationship with German-speaking Europe.

Countries where Standard German is as an official language

A list of countries where German is recognised as a minority language is found on the right-hand side toolbar of this link:




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