Geographic Origins

The Federal Republic of Germany is in central Europe. It is bordered by Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxemburg, Belgium, the Netherlands, the North Sea, Denmark and the Baltic Sea.             

History of Immigration and Settlement

Germans have been arriving in South Australia since the beginnings of the new colony in 1836. This was before the unification of Germany, achieved by Prussia’s Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck, in 1871. Before that year Germans lived in a patchwork of provinces in central Europe. From 1836 to 1914, German settlers came to South Australia initially from the Prussian provinces of Brandenburg, Silesia and Posen, and later from other states such as Hanover, Mecklenburg and Saxony. They were mostly farmers and tradespeople. After the revolution of 1848, a number of middle-class urban Germans came to South Australia from the city of Berlin and various Prussian provinces.

The Germans were the first organised group of non-English speaking settlers to come to Australia. About 40 German tradesmen arrived between 1836 and 1837 in the employ of the South Australian Company. From 1838 to 1840, 486 Lutherans from Brandenburg arrived in South Australia under the guidance of Pastor Ludwig August Christian Kavel. These ‘Old Lutherans’ fled their homeland because the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III, had decreed in 1817 that all his subjects must use his new worship book and join the Union Church, which he set up by combining the Lutheran and the Reformed Church. Those who did not obey this order could be fined, imprisoned, or have their belongings confiscated. The founder of the South Australian Company, George Fife Angas, lent these ‘Old Lutherans’ the funds both to come to South Australia and to buy land. Angas, who managed to combine business with moral duty to his fellow-men, sold the Germans land at ten times the price he had paid for it at an interest rate of twenty per cent.

The first of these Germans established a community on the banks of the River Torrens. They called it Klemzig in remembrance of the village in Brandenburg that they had come from. Other German settlers were advised by Captain Hahn of their ship, the Zebra, not to take land in Klemzig, because there was not enough land there for them. Captain Hahn negotiated for these settlers to buy land in the Adelaide Hills. These colonists honoured the obliging captain in the naming of their settlement, which they called Hahndorf or ‘Hahn’s Village’.

Two notable German arrivals at this time were the Lutheran missionaries C.G. Teichelmann and C.W. Schürmann, who arrived in South Australia from Dresden in 1838. Teichelmann and Schürmann worked with the Aboriginal people of the Adelaide Plains and tried to make relations between the indigenous people and the new settlers harmonious. In 1840 they published a grammar and vocabulary of the Kaurna language, which today forms the basis of the Kaurna language recovery program.

In 1840 King Friedrich Wilhelm III died, and by the mid-1840s persecution of ‘Old Lutherans’ had gradually ceased. However, a number of them had already organised to leave their homeland before the decree was revoked. In 1841 a group of over 200 Lutherans from Brandenburg and Posen arrived in South Australia under the care of Pastor Gotthard Daniel Fritzsche. The greater number of these settlers founded Bethanien, known as Bethany, in the Barossa Valley. The remaining settlers established a village in the Adelaide Hills called Lobethal, which means ‘Valley of Praise’.

The glowing reports sent back to relatives and friends in Europe by these early settlers set off a process of chain migration. Although religious persecution in Prussia ended in the mid-1840s, Germans who feared the return of harassment continued to come to South Australia throughout the decade. Others came in response to the failure of cereal and potato crops and the long-term depression of the weaving industry. By 1851 almost 7,000 Germans had come to South Australia. About half of these came as religious communities. The other half came in search of land or a higher standard of living.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s approximately 12 German settlements were established in the Barossa Valley. These townships included Langmeil, Lyndoch, Greenock, Nuriootpa, Seppeltsfield and Light’s Pass. In the late 1840s and early 1850s Germans from the Harz mining region were to be found among South Australian mining communities at Glen Osmond, Kapunda and Burra.

Prussia became increasingly militaristic in the years after the defeat of the revolution of 1848. Lawyers, academics, musicians and master craftsmen left Europe in these years. Some of them settled in Adelaide. 1848 also marked the arrival of the first of a small group of Catholic Germans and Poles who settled near Sevenhill in the Clare Valley district. In the 1850s a number of Germans came to South Australia from the German-populated provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in Denmark. They left Europe in response to disputes between Prussia and Denmark concerning control of these provinces. Impending war between France and Prussia in the late 1860s prompted a further wave of German immigrants. Many left Prussia to escape the possibility of conscription.

German settlers were the first to recognise the urgent need for the colony to produce its own grain and vegetable crops. Consequently they helped push back the frontiers of agricultural lands and establish many country towns throughout South Australia. During the 1860s, German wheat farmers planted crops in the Mid-North, Murray Flats and Yorke Peninsula regions. Soon afterwards they were established at Quorn and Appila in the north, and at Mount Gambier in the South-East. By the 1890s there were Germans in Loxton in the Riverland. In 1900 they were farming in the Eyre Peninsula region.

German South Australians have made other major contributions to the colony. Prominent German South Australian pioneers include Johann Menge, Ulrich Hübbe, Carl Muecke, Richard Schomburgk, and Friedrich Basedow.

Johann Menge, a mineralogist, arrived in South Australia in 1837. He made valuable preliminary investigations into the colony’s resources and foresaw the Barossa Valley’s successful wine industry.

Ulrich Hübbe, a barrister from Hamburg, popularised Hanseatic land transfer laws in the 1850s. This system played a significant role in the development of the South Australian Real Property Act of 1857–1858. It is known as the Torrens Title System and has been adopted world-wide.

Dr Carl Muecke, a doctor of philosophy from the University of Jena, advocated education policies that were revolutionary for the 1860s. He also pioneered agricultural science in the colony.

Dr Richard Schomburgk was Director of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens from 1865 to 1891. Dr Schomburgk is seen as the main creator of the Gardens, although he did not found them.

Friedrich Basedow was a South Australian parliamentarian who believed in ‘progressive’ education. Basedow was Minister for Education in 1881 and played a leading role in establishing Roseworthy Agricultural College. He also founded Australische Zeitung, Australia’s largest German newspaper of the time.

Other prominent colonial German South Australians include F.E.H.W. Krichauff, who was responsible for setting up the colony’s Forest Board in 1875; Theo Scherk, who led the foundation of the School of Mines, now the University of South Australia; Johann Gramp and Benno Seppelt, who established and developed the wine industry in the Barossa Valley; Carl Linger, who wrote the ‘Song of Australia’; and the famous landscape artist, Sir Hans Heysen. The prominence of German South Australians was indicated by nearly 70 towns that bore German names.

From the foundation of the colony until the turn of the century, German South Australians came predominantly from the regions we now call north-western, north-eastern, eastern and central Germany. Because all occupational groups were represented, German villages and settlements in South Australia were self-contained. All services required by the community could be provided by Germans. Sadly, the closed nature of German settlements and jingoistic Allied propaganda caused the public to regard German South Australians with suspicion and hostility at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

During the First World War, Australia supported Great Britain, France and Russia against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. A prevailing anti-German feeling in Australia, inspired by misplaced patriotism, led to the internment of some German Australians and the harassment of others. Many German Australians changed their names in a bid to escape the persecution. In South Australia 300 Germans were arrested and interned on Torrens Island under the War Precautions Act between October 1914 and August 1915. This was despite the fact that many German Australians contributed to the war effort and died on European battlefields. German place names in South Australia were changed. Some have reverted to their original names, preserving part of South Australia’s rich German heritage; others have remained unchanged since the First World War.

Following the First World War, only a limited number of German migrants arrived in South Australia. Canada and America were preferred destinations for migrants during these years. Those who did arrive were mainly skilled professionals, brought out by German companies. Others settled in the areas surrounding Adelaide, working as farmers, vignerons, orchardists or dairymen.

In the late 1930s German refugees, fleeing Europe for religious and political reasons, began to arrive in South Australia. During the Second World War many German South Australians were arrested, interned or harassed once again. Many Germans fleeing to Britain or resident there were also interned in Australia, as Britain had neither the space nor the facilities to house all of her enemy aliens. Many of these were Jewish refugees who had fled Germany before the outbreak of war. In South Australia, Loveday Internment Camp served as the main destination for such people. On their release from internment some were given the opportunity to settle in Australia rather than return to Europe.

In 1947 there were only 1,098 German-born South Australians. However, large numbers of German migrants arrived in South Australia following the Second World War. Some of these were volksdeutsche, German cultural and ethnic groups who had lived in Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia or the Balkans for centuries, but were expelled from these countries in the post-war period. They came to Australia from 1947 as Displaced Persons (DPs). Other Germans arrived as assisted migrants after 1952, following an agreement between the West German and Australian Governments. These later arrivals were generally semi-skilled or skilled workers, but the men were often employed as labourers and the women as domestics.

A small group of German immigrants arrived in post war Australia under the Employment of Scientific and Technical Enemy Aliens scheme, ESTEA, from 1947 until 1952. The scheme was a government initiative to import German scientists and specialists into the country, at cost to the government, with the aim of advancing the state of Australian science and industry. Similar operations were undertaken in Britain and America. Seven ESTEA scheme immigrants were employed in South Australia in the manufacturing industry.

Germans have continued to settle in South Australia, although in smaller numbers.  German-born migrants who arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s were often affluent or highly skilled. Sometimes they came in response to anxiety over European nuclear policies and world political issues. They have also come to South Australia because of the prospect of greater opportunities and a more relaxed lifestyle.

Community Activities

Colonial German settlers brought traditions to South Australia which maintained their Deutschtum or German identity. The most fundamental traditions were embodied in the Lutheran Church. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity. Throughout the nineteenth century close-knit congregational life was a powerful force in preserving the German language and cultural traditions. Often the church was the first permanent building in a new settlement, and it was also frequently used as a school. The pastor had full authority over his flock. He was the guardian of both traditional religious practices and German values in the new land. His congregation fulfilled their religious duties by preserving and living according to the traditional values of piety and hard work, and by becoming elders, lay readers or choir members. Women made altar cloths, decorated the church and presided over social gatherings. Each family contributed in money or kind to the upkeep of the church and pastor.

Baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals were important events in the life of German Lutherans. They reminded the flock that their passage through life was in God’s hands, and carefully kept records in family Bibles and church registers emphasised this. Social gatherings in the home after church and to mark great occasions complemented the religious ritual and strengthened the bonds within a congregation. Harvest Thanksgiving Festivals, Mission Festivals, weddings and baptisms provided a welcome respite from the relentless grind of hard work and isolated life on scattered farms. They provided an opportunity for renewed awareness of their German heritage and the reaffirmation of German cultural and folk traditions.

Cultural Traditions

Education was held in high esteem by German South Australians. Germans had established Lutheran day schools in every settlement long before the government made free, compulsory education available to children in 1875. This was largely so that all Lutherans could read the Bible for themselves and be full members of their congregations. Lutheran day schools reinforced the values of hard work, piety and family devotion. They taught both the English and German languages.

German settlers also worked to preserve the important role of music in their traditional culture. Liedertafel, choirs, sang at community functions, weddings and family gatherings. Choristers had a place of honour in German communities. Virtually every town with a significant German population could boast its own brass band, which played hymns and favourite folk tunes at church, civic functions and informal gatherings.

Sporting traditions maintained by early German South Australians included gymnastics, rifle shooting and Kegeln, a game similar to skittles. Card games such as skat were also popular.

An exclusive German Club was formed in Adelaide in 1854. It provided members with the opportunity to converse in German and maintain an interest in German music, literature, pastimes and national days. This club ceased to exist in 1907.

The South Australian German Association was founded on 2 March 1886, on the initiative of Messrs H. Harold, F. Trost and H. Holtz. Seventy men attended the Association’s first meeting. The aims of the Association, set down in a constitution in 1887, were to promote science, German literature, debate on all subjects, and to advance ‘reforms that will in any way ... increase the happiness and welfare of the human family’. The German Club: South Australian German Association is located in Flinders Street, Adelaide and embodies many special interest groups. In July 2018 it was announced that the German Club was putting its Flinders Street headquarters up for sale. This was in order to cover debts and to ensure the long-term future of the South Australian German Association and keeping a 132-year tradition of German culture alive. On the 1 February 2019 the German Club in Flinders Street closed its door for the final time. A new venue for the club has yet to be confirmed.

Sports and pastimes are popular among members of the German Association. Shooting is particularly popular. The present Schutzengruppe, Falkenauge, was established in 1964. Members practise throughout the year and have friendly shooting competitions with other shooting groups, including the Enzian Shooting Group of the Austrian Club of South Australia. Other groups are also affiliated with the German Association. These include Tennisgruppe, a tennis club; Tischtennisgruppe, a table tennis group; Damengymnastikgruppe, a women’s gymnastics club; Wandergruppe, a bushwalking group; Schachgruppe, a chess club; Skatgruppe, a card-players club; and Briefmarkengruppe, for stamp-collectors. There is also Berliners, social, carnival and pensioner groups.

The annual Schützenfest, shooting festival, held in January, is the highlight of the German Association’s year. The first Schützenfest under the auspices of the association was run in 1889, however various other Schützenfests had been held in Hahndorf, Lobethal and the Barossa since the 1850s. In later years Schutzenfest was held in the parklands of Adelaide but in 2017 moved to the German Club in Flinders Street.

In Germany, these are important celebrations and are held each year in almost every town. The event consists of competitions to find the King and Queen Markspeople, and a social gathering. In South Australia the Schützenfest is organised by the German Association. Brass bands play, stalls sell traditional delicacies such as bockwurst, a sausage, or sauerkraut, pickled cabbage, and imported German beers. Sideshows and fairground rides add to the carnival atmosphere.

Another main event of the year is the Oktoberfest. In the northern hemisphere autumn, which begins in September, is the season of harvesting and preparing for the bitterly cold winter. Traditionally this month is devoted to hard work. Gradually an agricultural festival evolved to celebrate the end of the harvest and give thanks for good crops. This is the Oktoberfest. In South Australia the Oktoberfest is celebrated at several venues.

‘Oktoberfest in the Gardens’, celebrated in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, was launched in 2000. The Adelaide event is held each October in the Rymill Pavilion at the Wayville Showgrounds.

The inaugural Adelaide Hills Oktoberfest was held at Newenham Estate, Mount Barker, on 27 October 2018.

Due to the potential sale of their clubrooms the German Association hosted the event ‘The Last Schutzenfest’ on 19 October 2018.

The Oktoberfest is celebrated with traditional German food, drink, music and dance.

Organisations and Media

  • S.A. German Association Inc.: publishes Das Band a bi- monthly newsletter
  • Adelaider Liedertafel 1858
  • Club of Donauschwaben in S.A.
  • Die Brucke, The Bridge, Association of German-speaking organisations in Australia and New Zealand
  • Enzian Community Club of S.A. Inc.
  • German Australian Society of Port Augusta Inc.
  • German Club of Elizabeth Inc.
  • German-speaking Association of Whyalla Inc.
  • Goethe Society
  • S.A. German Association of Mount Gambier Inc.
  • School for the German Language
  • Tanunda Liedertafel Inc., choral society
  • Neue Australische Post, newspaper
  • Die Woche in Australien, newspaper
  • German Radio Association Inc., 5EBI-FM


The 1981 census recorded 14,755 German-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 14,664. 62,328 people said that they were of German descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 14,348 German-born South Australians. 21,841 people said that their mothers were born in Germany, and 22,771 that their fathers were.

The 1996 census recorded 13,489 German-born South Australians and states that almost 90 per cent of German-born in the State have been in Australia since before 1981. The second generation figures totalled 16,818.

The 2001 census recorded 12,660 German-born South Australians, while 106,827 people stated that they were of German descent.

The 2006 census recorded 11,970 German-born South Australians, while 115,513 people said that they were of German descent.

The 2011 census recorded 11,409 German-born South Australians, while 124,625 people said that they were of German descent.

The 2016 census recorded 10,118 German-born South Australians, while 129,920 people said that they were of German descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

Migration Museum

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