Our Man Kisch

Australian Workers Film Guide


An entertaining short documentary about the scandalous and unprincipled treatment of Czechoslovakian writer Egon Kisch by the Australian Government when he visited Australia on an anti-fascism speaking trip in 1934.

A veteran of the horrors of World War One and a witness to the growing threat of Nazism in Germany, Kisch was a committed communist and an ardent anti-war campaigner. This was enough to have him banned from entering the United Kingdom for subversive activities, which in turn saw him refused entry into Australia by the conservative Joseph Lyons Government. [1] As chronicled by the film, what followed was a bizarre and cynical series of legal attempts to keep him out of the country, all of which ultimately failed.

As explained in interviews by some of those involved, Kisch was asked to address the Anti-War Congress in Melbourne as a delegate from the World Committee Against War and Fascism. Ralph Gibson, Len Fox and Charles Murray provide Australian and geopolitical context to the rise of fascism and how this impacted on Kisch’s visit. Isolated from world politics, they explain how there was little understanding of fascism in Australia, and some politicians and members of the public believed that Mussolini and Hitler were “doing the right thing” in the pre-war period, since it was seen as a defense against communism.

This was a time of Depression and hardship in Australia, and many public commentators had called for the unemployed to be drafted into the army, which alarmed anti-war campaigners. Gibson describes how Kisch had marks on his hand from being imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis, which was an advance warning of the atrocities that would be later committed in the concentration camps.

The film details how Kisch was denied entry as a communist when he arrived in Fremantle, before setting sail to Melbourne where he was also denied entry, with Attorney General Robert Menzies vowing that he would not set foot on Australian soil. Prevented from coming ashore, supporters boarded the ship and meetings were held with some notable individuals, including Senator Arthur Ray, Tom Gleeson from the Railways Union, local socialist Percy Laidler as well as Katharine Pritchard, author and co-founding member of the Communist Party of Australia. [2] Still denied entry, as the Strathaird was about to depart Port Melbourne, Kisch jumped from the ship to the pier and broke his leg. Denied hospital treatment, Victoria Police promptly put him back on the ship, after which it sailed for Sydney. En route to Sydney, the High Court ruled that Kisch’s exclusion was illegal and he is seen being carried from the ship upon arrival.

Further legal machinations from the government ensued as it used any and all means to have Kisch removed from the country. Using the racist White Australia Policy as a political tool, the government orders Kisch to take a European language dictation test, a method usually used to exclude non-Europeans from Australia. However, since Kisch spoke twelve European languages the government selected Scottish Gaelic, the most obscure European language they could find. Unable to complete the test, Kisch is sent to prison as an illegal immigrant. This sentence is appealed to the High Court, which rules that Scottish Gaelic is not a living European language and therefore the conviction is overturned. Instead of thwarting Kisch, the interviewees explain how the actions of Menzies substantially increased publicity for the anti-war cause.

Unsatisfied with this outcome, Menzies had Kisch arrested and prosecuted once again as a prohibited immigrant, resulting in a prison sentence of three months with hard labour. Again this conviction was appealed to the High Court, which once again overturned the conviction. 

While on bail during these court cases, Kisch continued to speak at public anti-war events to many thousands of people, gaining great public attention. With several more court cases pending, a frustrated Commonwealth offered to drop all legal proceedings against Kisch if he left the country by a determined date. Kisch decided to go, but not before holding a torchlight anti-war procession through the heart of Melbourne that attracted 30,000 people.

Len Fox finishes by talking about the importance of a movement for peace, “They should feel encouraged….that they’re carrying on a tradition which has had victories in the past and which can have victories in the future.” Over contemporary footage of marching anti-nuclear war protestors, the film concludes with voice over from Kisch, “The multitudes are standing shoulder to shoulder. Multitudes of enlightened workers, both manual and mental, struggling against reaction and war. Seize multitudes, strongly united and joyous for the fight of building a new world free from fascism, free from war, free from social tyranny. A new world of freedom and peace.”

In addition to interviews with participants, the film consists of a diverse mix of visuals, including extensive use of photographs, newspaper headlines, cartoons and documents. Archive footage is used throughout, from scenes of the Depression and unemployment, to the Melbourne centenary celebrations, the opening of the Shrine and other footage of a military nature.

[1] Wikipedia (n.d.), Egon Kisch, viewed March 25, 2023 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egon_Kisch>

[2] Wikipedia (n.d.), Katharine Susannah Prichard, viewed March 25, 2023 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Susannah_Prichard>

Special Notes/Achievements

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 20 mins 45 secs

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Film Director: Sue Castrique, George Karpathakis,

Film Producer: Sue Castrique, George Karpathakis,

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