Anti-German riots, Johannesburg (First World War)


[During the Great (First World) War] anti-German feeling in Johannesburg had grown more intense as the war continued. Early in 1915 there was a demand for severe measures against enemy subjects, many of whom were still trading in the town, but some had married local girls and there were those who felt that stern measures would inflict unwarranted hardship on these women and their children. Nevertheless, a petition bearing some 1 600 signatures was presented to the Mayor with a request that he convene a public meeting at which citizens could protest against the existing state of affairs and the release from internment of a number of enemy subjects, but as martial law was in force at the time the Mayor forwarded the petition to General Smuts, who refused to sanction the meeting in the interests of public order.

The organisers of the petition then referred the matter to the British and Patriotic Traders and Consumers Alliance that had been formed for the purpose of boycotting businesses owned by Germans and their allies. There the issue rested until the sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915, led to an outbreak of serious rioting in the town.

The trouble began on the afternoon of the 11th of May when a German flag, displayed by the socialist War on War League on a table outside the Town Hall, was set on fire. On the following morning another German flag was burnt in similar circumstances. By then an angry and rapidly swelling crowd was milling around. Speeches were made and at about 2 p.m. the mob surged down Pritchard Street to the corner of Joubert Street where a number of men burst into the Anglo-Austrian Cafe and smashed the marble-topped tables and crockery and glassware which were embossed with the Austrian arms. Two tea-room cinemas in Pitchard Street were also wrecked before the , which now numbered several thousands and appeared to be led by men with lists of alleged enemy firms, set off on a systematic tour of destruction.

Despite appeals to the mob by senior police officers a number of premises, including those of the German Club, Gundelfinger's, Anghern and Piel, Baerecke and Kleudgen, the A.E.G. electrical works, the Norman and Bristol hotels, Buttner's Beer Hall and the stores of Rolfes, Nebel and Company were gutted or severely damaged by fire; the windows of several other establishments were smashed and the interiors wrecked, while many more concerns such as Wehrley's jewellery and fancy goods shop in Palace Buildings were stripped of fittings and stocks which were thrown into the street and consumed by huge bonfires. Nor did the rioters confine their attention to business premises. Mr. Piel's house in Bezuiden­ hout Valley was stripped of its contents and badly damaged and so was Mr. Hans Rosendorff's residence in Princess Place, Parktown. Fortunately, the police managed to turn back a mob that was marching on 'Northwards', the home of Sir George Albu.

During the first 24 hours of rioting the Fire Brigade answered seventy-two calls and had some 6 000 feet [1 800 m] of its delivery hose damaged for its trouble. The police, in turn, were faced with an impossible task. The original crowd had broken up into several mobs whose numbers were continually swelled with the result that properties in different parts of the town were being attacked simultaneously. Further­more the police made no baton charges, nor did they attempt to resort to the use of fire-arms, for they were attempting to carry out their duties as best they could in a highly charged political atmosphere which necessitated their acting with the utmost restraint.

Nevertheless, sixty-eight arrests were made for looting and when rioting again began on the 12th of May the Ministers of Justice and Lands as well as the Secretary of Justice came to Johannesburg to devise methods for the restoration of law and order. The ministers issued a statement warning those who persisted in taking matters into their own hands that the Government would not neglect its duty and they also announced that they realised that the question of the treatment of enemy subjects 'has been completely changed by recent events which necessitate the immediate reconsideration of the whole question'.

Tension was allayed to a great extent when the Police Band marched through the streets playing patriotic airs. Much in the manner of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, it led the way to the Union Ground where the Chief Magistrate of Johannesburg and the Deputy Commissioner of Police for the Witwaters­rand addressed a vast crowd that watched the Kaiser being burnt in effigy. Three days later the Authorities wisely allowed a large public meeting to be held in the Town Hall. The gathering, however, overflowed into the Selborne Hall and the adjoining streets where the crowd was harangued in support of the main speakers inside who were demanding drastic action against trading by enemy subjects.

Six days later the Authorities began rounding up German and Austrian men. 250 were interned at Pietermaritzburg, but immediately after the riots others had left for Lourenco Marques [Maputo] where they remained for the duration of the war.

Although there was no repetition of the May riots, rowdyism broke out from time to time during the ensuing three years. In September, 1915, three shots were fired during a political meeting at New­ lands and it is believed that they were aimed at a group which included General Smuts. Later in the year soldiers broke up a meeting' in the Masonic Hall which was being addressed by S. P. Bunting of the War on War League.

In August, 1917, a police dance was held at the German School in Twist Street which had been renamed the Hospital Hill School. Two British and one Italian flag that had formed part of the decorations were left up and the next day these were torn down and burnt by some of the pupils. When an account of what had happened leaked out, a party of boys from another school smashed some of the windows. The School Board then closed the German School and ordered the expulsion of the pupils responsible for the burning of the flags. In October the school was reopened, but an hour later it was closed again. Two days later it again reopened, but at midday it was once more closed, this time for the duration of the war.

On the 13th of April, 1918, the National Party held a meeting in the Town Hall at which Dr. D. F. Malan was the main speaker. Again there was trouble when a Union Jack was removed from behind the platform and a rumour spread that it had been torn down. A crowd smashed the windows of the National Party Club in Plein Street and set fire to a motor-cycle that was standing outside. The next evening there was a demonstration by returned soldiers who wrecked the interiors of two tearoom­ cinemas which they thought were owned by Germans.

(Shorten, 1970:273-274).