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Croatian politics in Spearwood, 1920-1945

Though the vast majority of Cockburn Croatians came from the Dalmatia region as they followed family and friends to Spearwood, most Croatian migrants in Western Australia considered themselves Yugoslavs at the time of their immigration. It was not until later that the term ‘Croatian’ came into regular use. 

For many years social life for Croatians in the Cockburn district was heavily influenced by cultural clubs formed under the banner of the Yugoslav Immigrants Association (YIA). By the 1920s, at least 22 different Yugoslav clubs had been formed in Western Australia in association with the YIA, using their newspaper Napredak to spread news and announce events.

Yugoslav club at Spearwood

By the late 1920s there was a sizeable population of Yugoslavs living in Spearwood and the surrounding Cockburn area. Many had moved to Western Australia after the First World War, following friends and family to Spearwood, Osborne Park, and the Swan Valley, while others had been on the goldfields in Kalgoorlie and moved into Cockburn after the war to find more stable work.

As a migrant group the Yugoslavs spent much of their time together and many of them joined their local club as a social outlet. The YIA, as a kind of loose governing body, arranged meetings for all their members across the metropolitan area, and Spearwood featured heavily in the rota of club dances, meetings, and concerts. 

These gatherings were usually held at the Spearwood Agricultural Hall on Rockingham Road or the St Jerome's Catholic church hall further south. Spearwood Yugoslavs also travelled frequently to other centres like Osborne Park and the Swan Valley to attend similar dances and meetings.

Communism and the Yugoslav clubs 

The YIA was a strongly left-leaning organisation formed in the pre-First World War years when Yugoslavs began to migrate in larger numbers to Australia, and was well represented in places like Kalgoorlie where early Yugoslav settlements had grown.

YIA-supported clubs tended to be politically-minded, holding political meetings as part and parcel of their social gatherings. The community members would contribute to discussion and official statements were drafted that would later be sent to the Yugoslavian government and printed in Western Australian newspapers. 

There were definite Communist sympathies expressed in these statements. The links between the cultural clubs and communism were undeniable, tied heavily to the status of most Yugoslav immigrants as workers and farmers, many of whom left their home country due to crippling poverty and little hope of a better future.

Wartime fundraising

Being politically active made the clubs a powerful force for good: during the Second World War they were some of the biggest and most regular fundraisers for local soldiers, as well as for aid for Yugoslav civilians and Russian troops. Every meeting, dance, and dinner included a fundraising drive, and most Yugoslavs gave money regularly to war funds, as well as buying official savings bonds. The strength of Yugoslav unity was unquestionable. What is less clear is how many of the club members were simply attending a dance or a dinner, and how many of the expat Yugoslav community strongly believed in what they were promoting.

Croatian loyalties, Communist politics

Yugoslav politics in the 20th century were complex. Technically a united country, Croatia and Serbia were still individual states at an uneasy truce, and cultural tensions ran high. The official government line was one of unity, modernity, and peace, and for migrant Croatians like those who lived in Spearwood the sentiment may have carried some weight. Far from home, the idea of a culturally united Yugoslavia was a pleasant image to carry around as they struggled to make ends meet under difficult and trying circumstances. 

But politically, they were much further from unity than any official statements demonstrated. YIA clubs were often directly or indirectly critical of the Yugoslav government and its treatment of workers and peasants, and - perhaps fuelled by the distance between them and any retribution - vocal with demands for bettering the lot of the common Yugoslavian people.

Nicholas Marich, Yugoslav Consul

Their opposition came in the form of the official Yugoslav government mouthpiece, the Western Australian Yugoslav Consul. Appointed in 1929, Nicholas Marich was a long-time Spearwood resident who had been an active member of the Yugoslav community since his arrival in the early 1910s. He had begun his West Australian life on the Goldfields at Kalgoorlie, becoming a naturalised citizen and joining the army as a private during WWI. 

When he returned in 1918, he bought land at Spearwood under the soldier settlement scheme, and began a successful market garden there. He was active in the Fruitgrowers and Market Gardeners Association as well as the Spearwood Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL), and before his appointment to the Consulate he was a recognised court interpreter for his countrymen who could not speak English well enough to navigate the legal system.

Denunciation of the YIA

In his role as Consul, Marich began to vehemently denounce the YIA-affiliated clubs. Their ‘negligible gang of Communist agitators’ lurking in the background, he said, were responsible for an excessive amount of Communist propagandising in Western Australia. 

Speaking after violent anti-foreigner riots in Kalgoorlie in 1934, Marich stated that the Communist sentiments expressed by the clubs were not representative of the majority of Yugoslavs living in Western Australia at the time. He had, he said, been approached by many of his countrymen asking him to distance them from the actions of a select few.

Outbreak of war

With the looming threat of war in Europe, many Yugoslav minds were turned to their home country. As early as 1938, the Yugoslav club in Spearwood was joining in a chorus of expatriates demanding that their nation stand strong in the face of German aggression, and fight fascism with democracy. 

By 1939 they were formally signing their names to letters being sent to the Yugoslav Prime Minister, throwing their support behind a democratic Yugoslavia and the signing of pacts with other democratic nations to resist fascist aggression.

Nazis invade Yugoslavia

But it became clear that Yugoslavia and her neighbours would not be able to resist German advances, and when Yugoslavia’s regent, Prince Paul, was forced to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler in March 1941, the Yugoslav clubs of Western Australia were appalled. 

Marich added fuel to the fire by refusing to resign in protest of the move. To Yugoslav migrants in Australia, this was tantamount to supporting the Nazi regime, as Marich was now the spokesman for a country nominally allied with the Nazis. Marich announced that he believed the Nazis would respect ‘the independence and integrity of Yugoslavia’.

He was unfortunate in his timing: his statement was released only hours before the military coup that overthrew the Yugoslav regent government, crowned the 17-year-old heir to the throne King Peter, refused to honor the agreement signed with the Nazis, and precipitated the invasion of Yugoslavia by Germany in early April. 

When the news of the coup broke, the YIA howled for Marich’s blood. 

Marich vs the YIA

Augustin Marusich, the secretary of the YIA committee and a violent detractor of Marich, addressed a meeting of 250 Yugoslavs at Spearwood days after the coup, proposing a vote of no-confidence in Marich’s representation of the WA Yugoslav population. His own statement, released after news of the coup, included the following:

“We feel that resistance to the Axis Powers," he declared, "is the overwhelming opinion of the Yugoslav people, supported by the army, which is composed largely of the sons of peasants and workers. We in this State were bitterly disappointed to learn of the agreement with the Axis and we trust that now the people's will will be observed.”

The next week was filled with accusations on both sides: Marich reinforcing his anti-Communist stance, and asserting that 95% of Yugoslavs in Western Australia supported him, Marusich countering with large meetings at various Yugoslav clubs at which Marich was booed, shouted over, and asked vehemently to resign as a representative of Yugoslavs. 

Aliens or allies?

The invasion and subsequent occupation of Yugoslavia had a small silver lining for the 2500 Yugoslavs in Western Australia: until that point they had been considered enemy aliens under wartime restrictions like their Italian neighbours, and had been subject to registration and other forms of control. Once invaded, they became allies and these restrictions were relaxed. 

This was a stark contrast to their position in Australia during the First World War, when as subjects of the Austrian empire they had been considered the enemy, and interned accordingly.

Opposite sides of the fence in Spearwood

That the vast majority of Western Australian Yugoslavs were ethnically Croatian (rather than Serbian) was important to this heated debate. The brand of Communism being touted by the YIA and its clubs and newspapers was inextricably bound up with the freeing of Croatians from the oppression of Serbian rule. 

The United Kingdom of Yugoslavia had only been formed in the aftermath of the First World War, and the ethnic tensions had by no means abated; Croatians still experienced oppression and poverty under a majority Serbian government. 

For the West Australian Croatians of the YIA clubs, battling against Marich (who represented this Serbian supremacy) became another way to assert their own independence in a place where they had very little say in the politics of their home country.
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