Industrialisation in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century engendered a wave of populist nationalism across the world. People who had once regarded themselves as having an affinity with a particular region, now thought in terms of their national identity. The idea in popular culture of a set of values that was unique to a particular nation took hold. The British, French, Germans and Americans among others, claimed for themselves characteristics that set them apart, or even above, other nations.
In 1901 the federal government adopted similar public attitudes. Australia was to be the land of promise, an egalitarian utopia – although this only applied to those who were white, preferably of British stock and less generously as regards women. While at the time, people in Australia were somewhat uncertain of what it meant to be Australian, there was a vague notion of an Australian spirit, which it was hoped might transcend parochial rivalries and social differences to unite the country.
Perhaps because an Australian identity was not set in centuries of cultural tradition, it tended to reference such things as the openness of a wide brown land, the struggle against nature to win a living from it and an idea of “mateship”, born of the gold rush era when reef mining, rather than panning for alluvial gold, required a degree of co-operation and mutual respect.
Before Gallipoli and the ANZAC legend these values were eulogised by bush poets. They wrote longingly of a time and society that by Federation had largely disappeared. Australians mostly lived in cities, they recognised and observed class distinctions and followed fashions and prejudices derived from their understanding of English custom.
While the majority of the population was of British descent and looked to Britain as the “mother country”, there were, nonetheless, significant communities of German, French and other nationalities. These groups retained elements of their culture, more out of nostalgia than enmity, and celebrated being part of a broader Australian society with its greater social mobility and opportunities for advancement.
The confluence of these influences is played out in the institution that is “the Great Australian Picnic”. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the annual picnics held at Correy’s Gardens, Cabarita in the period from 1890-1916. These splendid affairs were generally organised by employers and trade associations for the benefit of their workers and families. Some celebrated cultural or sporting events others were benefits held in support of particular causes, which were often accompanied by dances and dinners that stretched into the night.
Between 1900-1910 Correy’s Gardens was arguably Sydney’s most popular picnic spot. Picnickers were brought from the city by chartered steamers to Correy’s wharf or travelled via steam tram from Burwood to Cabarita on a branch of the Enfield to Mortlake line. The grounds included a dance pavilion lit by electric lights, covered picnic tables, a merry-go-round and sporting games facilities. There was also the opportunity to promenade amongst the gardens or be seen doing so.
A picnic at Correy’s was a highlight of Sydney’s social calendar. Newspapers reported in detail who was there, what they said and from their point of view the general atmosphere of the day.
Each year members of the German Association gathered at Correy’s Gardens to celebrate Germany’s national day, Sedantag. The day was named for the Battle of Sedan in September 1871 where Prussian forces won a historic victory.
The French government surrendered and was forced to sign a peace treaty at the Palace of Versailles, ceding the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. The treaty also brought about the unification of the German states and the creation of the German Empire.
The symbolism of insisting the treaty be signed at the epicentre of French civilisation was not lost on the French public. While Sedantag became an expression of German nationalism, it was a lingering provocation to the French, who swore to exact revenge. Indeed, the movement to restore French pride and take back Alsace-Lorraine was known as “Revanchism” (revenge).
It is not surprising then that the German celebrations should have caused offence. Although these had been held at Correy’s Gardens every year since 1889, the political tensions between the great powers of Europe had grown more intense. Kaiser Wilhelm’s clumsy attempts to assert Germany’s position as a world power brought Europe to the brink of war on a number of occasions. The Moroccan Crisis of 1904 was largely a result of the Kaiser’s inept diplomacy. It alarmed both Britain and France and led to the Dual Alliance that committed both countries to come to the aid of the other in the event of German aggression.
The Sedantag picnic in 1905 was well attended by a number of distinguished members from the German community in Sydney and addressed by the Consul General Herr von Buri. His excellency, speaking in German, affirmed the historic ties between the German and Australian people, before comparing the Kaiser to a gardener tending his plants. Whether the analogy was meant as a metaphor for the gardens in which the picnic was held or suggested the Kaiser was interested in extending German interests in the Pacific, was not clear, though von Buri was known for his intelligent carefully crafted speeches.
In July 1907 Alliance Francais countered with their own national celebrations – Fete Nationale (Bastille Day). The French Consul General, M. Pinard addressed the crowd that included diplomats from a number of countries, officials from state and local government, senior army officers and the entire complement of a French frigate visiting Sydney.
Perhaps the final word should go to the Swiss whose picnic in June 1916 was criticised by some members of the public for being “too German”. The reports in the Sunday Times noted that while some of the patriotic songs were sung in German, others were in French with speeches in English and other picnickers conversing in Italian. The Helvetian Association responded to the criticism by pointing out that Switzerland had been neutral since 1815 and while not participating in the hostilities, had offered medical aid to all combatants regardless of nationality. Besides, they said, Switzerland was just as far from Germany as it was from France or Italy.