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“Do you mind working for a German?” asked the blond thirty something man with a piercing blue stare. I was at a job interview. It happened a few years ago in Australia, thousands of miles away from Europe and over half-a-century after the end of the Second World War.

It was an unexpected question in the context of a Sydney suburb, but not entirely. I am Polish and the history of Polish–German/Germanic relationships is full of wars and battles stretching over a thousand years. Consciously or not, people carry historical knowledge as part of their identity, and this legacy affects how various communities and individuals have interacted with each other over the years.

I recalled my unconventional interview question while reading Sydney University Press’s new book Migration and Cultural Contact: Germany and Australia and, by the time I finished, I was no longer sure whether my background mattered in the context of the history of German presence in Australia.

Contacts between Germany and Australia go back to the earliest colonial times. Germans came to Australia with the First Fleet, and were highly regarded as hard-working citizens. Whether rural settlers, entrepreneurs, missionaries, scientists or explorers, they contributed significantly to Australian society.

But the position of German migrants has not always been unproblematic as John Williams writes in chapter six of the book. During the First World War, many Australians of German background were considered to be ‘enemy aliens’, often forced to change their name and at times persecuted.

While the animosities caused by the Second World War were short-lived, it is only in the past two decades that more people have claimed to have a German background than can be accounted for in the immigration data. The rise in the popularity of German heritage has been seen on the one hand in the context of the multicultural policy of 1973 but on the other hand, it has been linked with events back in Germany: the unification and the fall of the Berlin Wall – something of which all Germans can be proud.

Perhaps it is the distancing effect of the flow of time. While acknowledgement and recognition of the past forms an important part of our collective memory, should it affect how we treat individuals of different backgrounds in the present?

And, yes, I got that job and I didn’t mind working for a German boss.

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