Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

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Were you the kind of boy who took yourself to study things on your own, outside the normal course?

Yes, I was. In my last two years my basic interests were in history - in European history and Greek and Roman. Unfortunately, Greek and Roman was also Jim McClelland's main metier for ... how would you call that? And he beat me for the exhibition in it. So I remember that very well. But it was European history that really gripped me most, and I used to go to the public library after school and look up new books that were coming out and that helped greatly. But if you're referring to what I've said already about Italian history, that was really in my university period because I did my thesis for [an] M.A. on the origins of Italian fascism, and I therefore had to do a great deal of reading on Italian history, at least from the unification of Italy in 1870 onwards.

And it was through that, that you saw the setting in which Mussolini had made the decisions that he did, and worked the transformation that he did in Italy.

Yes the ... I think that the decisive turning point in the period of Mussolini's regime in Italy was about 1936. And prior to that, however, when I heard the almost unanimously disparaging remarks about the march on Rome and so on, I often thought that it was all very well if you were English. You had, more or less, a relatively easy and peaceful constitutional transition. But if you'd come from a country that was drivingly poor, and anarchic at the end of the First World War, in which at the Battle of Caparetta they had lost half a million men, it was all very well to be theoretical about that. And suddenly, after eleven governments that couldn't succeed, a government came to power that, whether you laughed at it or not, and the pretensions of the black shirt and so on, nevertheless did restore a degree of ... a high degree of political and social order for a number of years. So my view was the English can laugh as much as they like but they haven't been through this experience, so that was very broadly the theme of the thesis that I wrote.

Which caused your lecturer to argue with you, but also give you an exhibition.

Yes, yes that's right. That's right.

So it must have been well argued?

No, it doesn't follow. It could equally follow that nobody else was any good. [Laughs] But there was somebody who was good. The person who ran second was a girl called Dorothy Davies, who later married Brian Fitzpatrick and she was good and you had to know your way around to be up with her.

Did you subsequently change your mind about Mussolini?

To this extent: once Mussolini was allied with Hitler, well then that was crossing the Rubicon as far as I was concerned. But it didn't happen in a clear sky. The person whom I hold as responsible for the choice that Mussolini ultimately made - every man of course is responsible for his own choice - was Anthony Eden. Anthony Eden ... When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the invasion was quite unjustifiable, but Anthony Eden made a kind of crusading polemic against it to drive Mussolini out of the ranks of civilised Europeans. It was deserved in way. But Mussolini had always been very clear in the danger which Hitler represented and Mussolini had formed, with Britain and with France, an alliance called the Stresa Front and if the Stresa Front had been maintained, I don't think Hitler could have gone to war in the end. And so the ... what I regarded as the ill-judged actions in all of the circumstances of Anthony Eden, pushed Mussolini in the direction of Hitler. Now I'm not exonerating Mussolini for that. After all, you've got to make your decisions in the end and he made the wrong decision. But it's got to be understood in its historical context.

But it was also a decision, as I've understood it, that had some philosophical connotations as well, in that he had some beliefs that were similar to Hitler's.

No, I don't think so. It's a hard question to determine of course, but Communism was always a consistent ideology. Hitlerism, which was based upon the concept of German racial supremacy, in that sense, was a consistent ideology but if you studied the theories of fascism, as I had to for this uncelebrated thesis, you realised it was a bit of a mix. It was the nationalism of an Italian philosopher called Rocco, it was the syndicalism of Sorel. And I have the impression - I can't be sure of this - that Mussolini felt that he had to have an ideology, and these were mixed up to form an ideology. I don't think that there was anything very similar. There was no sense of the racial superiority thing. And in fact, until the very end, really elements in the fascist regime defended the Jews in Italy against Hitler's attempt to pick them all up.

At what stage did you start seeing Communism as a principal threat?

I saw Communism as something to be reprobated from about 1934-35 in an accidental ... through an accidental set of events. Of course, I had known in principle it was a bad thing but it didn't affect me very much. But one day, by the purest accident, I was wandering round a suburban library, and by mistake I picked up a book that turned out to be Malcolm Muggeridge's Winter In Moscow which he published in 1934, and as I told Muggeridge many years later, I said, 'I blame you for everything that's happened to me in my life, because that book changed my life'. So it was about '35, I think, that I suddenly realised that Communism was a problem. The ... I wasn't very clear on the Moscow Trials, which were taking place at the same time. The reporting was pretty scattered. But the Spanish Civil War, in which Russia came in on the side of the Republicans, and then tried to destroy them, in order to take over at the end of the war, that congealed my opposition to it. Until about that time, I had always believed, as a consequence of the Depression and its impact upon people living in Brunswick, that the real problem facing western society was capitalism. I don't like using cliches like that, but you know what I mean. But by 1939, when the Second World War broke out, and when the Communist Party of Australia, like the Communism parties in every part of the world, went over to Hitler's side, I suddenly realised that there was something more. And then that tied up with what was happening in Australia in the union movement. So you could say that around to about '36, '37, '38, I still believed that capitalism, to use a cliche, was the central problem. But with the outbreak of war and the choice made by the Communists throughout the world to go with Hitler, my view, as to priorities, changed. I'm not saying that I modified my view about capitalist philosophies and policies and institutions but I believe that they took second place compared to the problem that Communism represented.

How old were you when you went to university?

I was fifteen when I went to university. I couldn't sit for my first exams until I was sixteen. I don't know exactly what year that was.

And yet, during this period that you were at university in the thirties, you were in fact very intellectually confident, weren't you? Was that something ... You were forming opinions that you held quite, you know, clearly and working out where you stood on matters. Was that confidence in one so young supported by any other connection in the university?

Oh yes, you could very easily say that what you regard as confidence was an excessive regard for my own opinions. But it was part of an environment. I belonged to a Catholic organisation called the Campion Society. It was [made up of] a university graduates and undergraduates. There were only about thirty in it. But it's the subject ... They were, in general, people of pretty of high IQs. I was the youngest and the meanest intellectually of them. It was that environment that gradually, over a period, gave me a certain confidence - not confidence, an attitude if you like, and we needed it. When I went to the university, the Labor Club, which was really the university branch of the Communist Party, really was in the ascendant throughout the Melbourne University, and it had first class minds belonging to it, who later some of them became judges. One of them became a supreme court judge and so on. They were very formidable people and as you encountered them, you realised that either you kept quiet or you entered the lists, and you really had to develop a feeling that you could handle it.

What made you join the Campion Society?

Oh, because I was asked to. My history teacher at St. Kevin's was a man named Frank Maher, and he was one of the best teachers I ever had, and as I came to leaving St. Kevin's, he asked me whether I would join, and I said, 'Yes'. I remember it very well, because the first two meetings I went to I slept through both of them.

But you would have joined the Campion Society rather than, perhaps, think of joining the Labor Club?

I would never, at that time, have had any temptation to join the Labor Club. My sympathies were always Labor, but the Labor Club was Communist and I was anti-Communist.

And you already knew that by the time you got to university?

Oh yes, yes. I think that what made me understand that was not only what Muggeridge had written in Winter in Moscow, but the experience of the Spanish Civil War, which was really, I think, as intense, perhaps more intense, than the political ramifications of the Vietnam War.

That of course came later, and I suppose what I was interested in was that, I guess, the sort of way in which things get shaped, because you came up to the university, you know, very young and ... and before those events, and before you'd read Muggeridge and you went into the Campion Society.

Yes, but that had nothing to do with politics. That was about your religious background. You studied politics and economics and philosophy. When I say studied, that's a pretentious word, but it was all in the background of the relevance of those to your religious faith.

So the Spanish Civil War was very important to you?


And of course, it was the Spanish Civil War that formed the focus for the fact that Communism became increasingly fashionable as a way of ...

That's right, yes.

... thinking then, because there were all the heroes of the civil war.

That's right.

Now, what was your experience of that? How did you learn about it, and how did you form your views about it?

Well, I suppose that my views about the Spanish Civil War were formed about ... formed around two central themes. One was the anti-religious persecution by the republicans in general, and not only the Communists and the anarchists in the republican forces. And the atrocities, on both sides, were simply quite frightening. And I'm not saying that the anti-Communists didn't indulge in atrocities, they did. There is a book called Blood of Spain, I think, that has a study - and it's about twenty years since I've read it - of about 500 villages and towns in Spain, and how they divided and the divisions in Spain were things that you couldn't imagine in Australia. But the atrocities against Catholics, and I was a Catholic, was one thing. The other thing was that, as I studied political institutions and became aware of Communism, I could see that if the republicans won in Spain, the republicans would be swept aside, as the Social Democrats were in Russia in 1917, and the Communists would come to power, and if that happened, not only would the problem of religious and civic persecution be continued, but the Communists, having control of the eastern Mediterranean, would have control of the Straits of Gibraltar as well, and that would have made it impossible to win the Second World War, which wasn't envisaged at the time. So my reasons for seeing the interpretation that I actually took of the Spanish Civil War, was, if you like, on the one hand ideological, on the other hand strategic.

These ideas that you were forming, how did you express them?

Well, oh, in quite a number of ways. Your existence at the university at that time was a permanent civil war of meetings and counter meetings. But in 1936, with a few friends, I started a paper called The Catholic Worker and this, you know, I expected it to last one issue, but in fact it took on, and by the time I left it, it had a circulation, a monthly circulation, of 70,000, which was pretty big. That was the medium largely through which the views of my friends in the Campion Society, and myself, were expressed.

What was the first issue like?

Terrible. [Laughs] It was very amateurish. I've got a copy of it as a matter of fact. It looks awfully produced, and I remember the editorial, which I wrote, was called Why We Fight and I tried to explain why I thought, in 1936, that the Communist probably was secondary to the Catholic ... to the capitalist problem. And a lot of people who think that the difficulties I had with the moment with economic rationalism are of late development only have to go back to that editorial to discover that they go back to '36.

What was it that you were attacking in the editorial?

Well, what I said was, in that editorial was, that there was no doubt that Communism ... Communism affected everybody from my position, with a real challenge. But that the real challenge that was faced by young Catholics at the time, when still about thirty per cent of Australians were unemployed, was the capitalist problem, which had brought about the Depression and that's what we should concentrate our minds on. And of course, a lot of people have said since then that I've been inconsistent, that I changed, but I simply went where the priorities seemed to me to be.

In relation to the Spanish Civil War, did you have any occasion to express your views strongly about that?

Oh yes, we did that, to a lesser extent in the The Catholic Worker, but there was a great deal of public debate at the university about that and that came to a head with a thing that was thereafter known as the Great Spanish Debate. I think it was in 1937, in the Melbourne University's Public Lecture Theatre. I really don't remember how that was constructed at the time, but there was said to be 1,200 people there that night. It much have been remodelled. It couldn't hold more than three or four hundred now. But that was extremely passionate I can tell you. And there were three of us - Kevin Kelly, who later became ambassador to Portugal, Stan Ingwersen, who became a doctor, and myself - were the team on the one side. And there was Nettie Palmer, Doctor Gerald O'Day, and who was the other one? There was a third one. I forget who the third one's name was. It aroused great enthusiasm on both sides, I can tell you, and it finished up by the Left, who were given the hoses by the students of Ormond College, turning the hoses on us and drowning us almost. But I think we won the debate, even if we didn't win the fight.

People still talk about that, who were there, and Manning Clark wrote about it, didn't he?

Yes, he did.

Were you surprised when you ... when you saw his comments on it, to know just how much you'd influenced someone of his general position?

I don't think I influenced him very greatly. [Laughs] But he said, I think in that quotation that you're referring to, that that night represented the dividing point in his life. He had to decide which way he went. And I think he went the wrong way, so I wasn't very effective.

But he was very much persuaded by you. He said he was swayed in the night.

Yes, he said he was swayed, but he never swayed enough.

[Laughs] And so, we're coming up fast with you in this position, towards the Second World War. For you, what was the next major development in your life?

Well, the next major development was that the Campion Society had proved very effective in arousing strong Catholic intellectual life that communicated itself to the Catholic masses who were working class. But I think that the Spanish Civil War created the ground for that, because it led to a great popular sense of popular revulsion and so on. This led the Catholic bishops, who had received a memorandum from the senior members of the Campion Society - and I remind you I was the youngest, I was not counted among them at all, I didn't even know they were presenting a memorandum - urging that a secretariat, a Catholic secretariat should be formed, to try to spread the Campion work and the Campion idea throughout Australia. So there was a synod of the Catholic bishops in 1937. They accepted the memorandum, decided to put aside the money to finance it and then they had to get two people to run it. Well, the obvious first choice was Frank Maher, the person who'd brought me into the Campion Society. I was barely conscious that this was going on, except I knew it was going on, but it was outside my experience. And I thought that the second person would be a person whose name I've mentioned, Kevin Kelly. Kevin Kelly was actually recommended by the senior Campions to Archbishop Mannix as the second man, but his mother was a widow and she looked after railway gates in Hawthorn or Tooronga and so Kelly took the view that his duty was to look after her, and he couldn't risk his job in the public service, and he continued with that. And so for some strange reason, Archbishop Mannix mentioned my name. I'd only met him once. And they accepted it. I don't think they accepted it with great enthusiasm. But one day - it was on the day that I signed the solicitor's roll, having just got my law degree - I got a phone call to go up to the cathedral to meet Archbishop Mannix, which I did, and he asked me if I'd take the second job. I'd never dreamt, so I said ... I said, 'Yes', because I would have said yes to anything that he said. And then, as I walked downstairs I had the terrible thought that I had to go home and tell my father, whose great ambition was his son should be a lawyer, so I thought of the speech I'd make, and I pointed out that it was only for two years and then I discovered that my father was enthusiastic, because he would do anything Archbishop Mannix wanted, so he caused no difficulty at all. But unfortunately the two years were extended. That would have made it 1940, and this is 1997.

And you're still in that role?

No, it's a totally different role now because ever since 1957 we ... In 1957, through other reasons, my associates and I ceased our connection with the Catholic bishops and have gone ahead on our own.

But it was the start of where you are now?

It was the start. Yes. Yes.

What about yourself? Did you have a backward look at the law?

No, it sounds crazy, doesn't it? Because I had a living to make, I knew that possibly I would marry one day and so on, I was just stupid. But simply because he said, 'Will you do it?' I said, 'Yes'. You really have to understand the man to know that.

Now when did you first meet Archbishop Mannix?

I had met him formally, you know, just to shake his hand, on one occasion, I forget which year. It was in the thirties. I was at the university. It was at a Campion Society annual gathering. But I can't emphasise enough that I was the youngest and nobody took any notice. But then I ... when we started The Catholic Worker - before we started it - because we were using the Catholic name I felt I had to ask him did he have an objection. So in 1936 I went up to the cathedral with one friend, talked to him about it, and he kept us talking there for an hour and three-quarters. I remember it very well, and [it was] then I met him. That was the beginning.

And what did you think of him at the time?

What I thought of him?

Then. When you first met him.

I thought of him then exactly the same as I thought of him on November 6, 1963, when I was with him the night he died. I thought, without any doubt, he was the greatest man I've ever met and I haven't met any greater. That's all I can say.

What was it about him that formed that conclusion?

Well, it's very difficult to ... you know, to analyse that. First of all, by the middle thirties, he was a legend. He had been engaged in the great public conflict with Billy Hughes over the conscription issue. He'd become a great leader, even of the Left, in Australia. Lloyd Ross's father - I forget his name - he was one of the strongest left-wingers in Australia, but he had an enormous appreciation of Mannix. So he had a history behind him. The Australian Government under Billy Hughes had tried to get him expelled from Australia. He'd been arrested by the British when he tried to visit Ireland in 1921. And then, when the Campion Society was formed, he was one of its strongest protagonists. So I had every reason for thinking well of him. But as I got to know him, I discovered that he was completely lucid in the sense that that word 'lucid' is really meant, in his intellectual mechanisms. You know, he went to the heart of a matter right away. He knew what you were talking about. I never knew him to make up his ... and I got to know him very well indeed - to make up his mind out of any emotional passion or anything like that. I never knew him to be ungenerous. In other words, I thought he was pretty good.

Why do you think he liked you?

[Laughs] If you don't mind my saying, it's a silly question. I don't know the answer to that.

He never told you?


Well some people do, some people do in fact say to you ...

No, he wouldn't be as ...

'I appreciate this about you', or you know ...

No, oh no, never. But he didn't have to. I mean you don't say that to the person you're closest to, do you? And we were both pretty close to each other.

And that was from the very first encounter?

Oh well, it really ... my impression of him started before the first encounter, because he was a legend. You know, he had addressed a hundred thousand people in the old Richmond Racecourse in 1917. You've got to be pretty hot stuff to do that. So in every Catholic home of the time, he really was a legend. Remember, it was ... the Catholic community at that time was [of] Irish Catholic background. I didn't belong to that, but I always felt at home in it and so my instincts were that way.

I suppose what I'm after is not for you to say something about your relationship that's self-flattering, but rather to try and describe, because you see, you can tell us what it was about him that you admired, and why it was so essential for you to, you know, go with what he ... what he wanted of you at that moment, and that your father supported. I guess what I'm really trying to say, was that out of all the people that he could have clicked with and worked so effectively with, he chose to do that with you, and there must have been some connection there.

I don't think he chose it. I don't think he chose it. I think it grew. I think it evolved. I think it was quite possible that he would have found out many of my Achilles' heels, at any time from '38 onwards. He could easily have done that, and gradually moved himself aside, sidelined himself and sidelined me in doing that. But it just broke that way. We seemed ... we seemed to have some sort of chemistry, if you like, together. But what I can't tell you why he went that way, but I can tell you why I did: simply because that in addition to his great capacities for ecclesiastical and political and intellectual leadership, I found out a generosity and purity of spirit, that ... I never knew him to be unjust to anybody. And to me, who later on grew to see that not all bishops were the same, that really was the sort of leaven of my life. I don't think ... I'm not describing him very well, but somebody ...

I think you're doing pretty well. Bob Santamaria: Do you?

Do you?

[end of tape]

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