The myth of William Cooper

December 14, 2018 by Professor Bill Rubinstein
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Week after week, the Australian Jewish media has presented many stories about William Cooper’s protest at the German Consulate in Melbourne over Kristallnacht…writes Bill Rubinstein.

Professor Bill Rubinstein

These accounts have usually included several far-reaching claims about Cooper’s protest, especially that it was the only “private” protest (whatever that means) made anywhere in the world about Kristallnacht, and that literally, everyone else anywhere in the world was silent. These claims are nonsensical and untrue, and the record should be set straight before the Myth of William Cooper marches on and on unchallenged.

The mainstream Australian press at the time published dozens of letters soon after Kristallnacht protesting at the Nazi pogrom of the Jews, while probably every mainstream Australian newspaper condemned Nazi anti-semitism. To cite just a few, the Brisbane Courier-Mail  declared in an editorial (17 November 1938) that “Thousands of people in Australia, as in all other lands where humanitarianism is free to speak, are deploring the new persecution of the Jews in Germany.” Condemnation of the Nazis was not confined to newspapers in the capital cities. For instance, the Cessnock Edge (15 November 1938), urged international punitive action against Germany in the form of sanctions, so long as its anti-Jewish policy lasted. So, too, did many other Australian newspapers. Virtually the entire political left in Australia immediately condemned Nazi Germany. For instance, H.L. Denford, organiser of the Iron Workers’ Union, demanded that “the Federal Government should deport forthwith every Nazi sympathizer in Australia. We should have a pogrom against the Nazis in Australia. This is the only effective retaliatory measure. Protests are useless.” The Australian press was literally swamped with similar statements attacking Hitler and the Nazis.

Also flatly untrue are claims that Cooper’s visit to the German Consulate was the only such deputation of protest in the wake of Kristallnacht. Nineteen days before Cooper’s visit, the Melbourne Argus newspaper reported (18 November 1938) that “two delegations visited the German Consulate yesterday to protest at the treatment of Jews in Germany, but found there was nobody in attendance. The deputations, representing the Australian League for Peace and Democracy and the Spanish Relief Committee [two left-wing groups] arrived punctually at 11:30 a.m. The Consul had been informed  previously of the proposed visit. The deputations left messages for the Consul, with the request that he should forward them to the German Government. The League’s communique protested against ‘the frightful atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews’.”

Remarkably, Cooper’s protest about Kristallnacht was neither the only one made by Aboriginal leaders nor was it the first one. On 1 December 1938, six days before Cooper’s protest, a report was published in the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate which quoted William Ferguson, the leader of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association, as offering words of support for Cooper and his rival Australian Aborigines’ League in their forthcoming protest. William Ferguson (1882-1950) was a major Aboriginal leader who worked with Cooper and others to organise the “National Day of Mourning” for Aborigines in 1938, the first such national protest of its kind. According to one online journal of Aboriginal history, “The significant contribution made by other Aboriginal leaders, in speaking on behalf of the Jewish people in their hour of need, have been buried and are all but forgotten.” (“Forgotten Voices in William Cooper’s Fight,”, 8 September 2017.)

William Cooper

The claims repeatedly made that Cooper’s protest was the only “private” one made anywhere in the world, and that the whole world apart from William Cooper was silent about Kristallnacht are utterly ludicrous and preposterous. According to this strange view of history, not a single person among America’s five million Jews protested over Kristallnacht, and neither did a single non-Jew.

In other words, the largest Jewish community in the world, which included such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Bernard Baruch, and Mordecai Kaplan, and comprised hundreds of synagogues and Jewish bodies, had nothing to say about a pogrom in Germany in which 91 Jews were murdered, and neither did any other humanitarian or anti-fascist body in the United States, only William Cooper in Melbourne, Australia. If anyone believes this, I would advise them to look at an online site, “U.S. Condemnation of Kristallnacht,” which includes a newsreel of Rabbi Stephen Wise, the best known American rabbi of his time, condemning Kristallnacht, as well as scenes of the vast anti-Nazi rallies which took place in many American cities. Strong reaction to Kristallnacht began at the very top. Shortly after Kristallnacht, President Franklin Roosevelt recalled America’s Ambassador to Germany in protest, and never replaced him. Roosevelt expressed his shock “that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization.” Shortly after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States in a long, ranting tirade in which the Führer repeatedly cited his hatred of FDR as his main reason.  New York City’s famous Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, whose mother was Jewish and who spoke fluent Yiddish, attacked Hitler and Nazism on this occasion and on many others. In an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York after Kristallnacht, LaGuardia said that he was unable “adequately to describe the brutality of Hitler and his government,” and suggested that at the forthcoming 1939 World’s Fair in New York, there should be “chamber of horrors” featuring a statue of Hitler.

So why have our tunnel-visioned champions of William Cooper denied any of this? The first factor is sheer ignorance: they appear to know little about the detailed history of this period. Most of the points I have cited here can be readily found on Google in half an hour of looking, but apparently even this is beyond our myth makers. The second reason may be even worse: a kind of racism, which makes it impossible to believe that Anglo-Celtic Australians (or virtually anyone else) were horrified by Hitler and his regime, notwithstanding the fact that Australia declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, and remained at war with the Hitler regime for six years.

Of course brave William Cooper deserves great praise for his protest. But so, too, do all the others who protested, and who have been written out of history by some commentators. They all deserve better.

(Bill Rubinstein was a professor of history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and was  President of the Jewish Historical Society of England in 2002-4.)


12 Responses to “The myth of William Cooper”
  1. Barbara Miller says:

    Prof Rubenstein is right to correct the assertion that William Cooper led the “only known private protest worldwide against Kristallnacht.” There were protests by Jews, governments, newspapers and left-wing organisations e.g. trade unions. The book I published in 2012, William Cooper, Gentle Warrior: Standing Up for Australian Aborigines and Persecuted Jews covers these other protests. However, I still made the claim that it was the “only private protest worldwide against Kristallnacht” and I usually don’t write things without substantiation.

    For one thing, Cooper led the Australian Aborigines League in a protest march, not just letter writing. It was the only protest march he ever led despite much campaigning for the rights of Indigenous people. And, as has been noted, this was when Aborigines were not citizens of Australia for another 30 years. I have not seen evidence of any other protest marches in Australia re Kristallnacht though you mention two deputations.

    Secondly, I have done some research into where the information came from originally as it has been repeated consistently in the Jewish and mainstream media and the National Museum of Australia. It originated from David Metzler’s comments when he acted as a guide for Yad Vashem for Albert Dadon and Warren Mundine. Here is an extract from an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald 31 July 2010:

    “This is a story I first discovered not long before launching [Australia Israel Cultural Exchange] AICE on December 2, 2002, as the Melbourne Jewish Museum was about to dedicate a plaque to commemorate the protest of Mr Cooper and his colleagues,” Mr Dadon said.

    Mr Dadon and Warren Mundine, head of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, were on a tour of Yad Vashem when the subject came up again.

    Mr Dadon continued: “Both Warren and I were following our allocated guide, David Metzler, when we heard him say, “You Australians should know that a group of Aboriginal people led by William Cooper held in your country the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht.

    “Warren and I became quite emotional,” Mr Dadon said.

    “I am not sure whether Warren or I suggested that Yad Vashem should house a memorial to William Cooper for his brave act.

    But I do remember telling Warren that AICE would take up the challenge.”

    There was a similar story in the Israel National News by Maayana Miskin, 02/08/10 10:29:
    “Dadon was inspired after visiting Yad Vashem, where a guide mentioned that Cooper’s rally was the only private protest against Germany in the wake of Kristallnacht.”

    This was picked up by J-Wire in 13 December 2010:
    “Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem attending the inauguration of the Chair for the Study of Resistance during the Holocaust…a tribute to William Cooper, a 77-year-old Aboriginal who led a march in 1938 to the German Consulate in Melbourne to protest against Kristallnacht…the only recorded demonstration in history world-wide.”

    And I based my research on the Cooper book on these quotes and many similar ones. However, it is not Yad Vashem’s official position.

    Regarding William Cooper not being the first Aboriginal to protest Kristallnacht, it is a matter of how you view it. William Ferguson and William Cooper were good mates and it’s not surprising that Cooper would have told Ferguson of the planned protest by the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and not surprising that Ferguson would support it by a letter to his local paper. But the initiative was Cooper’s.

    William Cooper would be the first to say that while he was the leader of the protest march, it was a team effort and the others with him that day should be recognized more. This is not so easy as I didn’t find a record of who was with him that day but it is likely to be the stalwarts of the AAL and I have named who I could in my book. They are Shadrach James, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Margaret Tucker, Lynch Cooper, and white supporters Helen Baille and Arthur Burdeau. William Cooper died in 1941 and the AAL disbanded. It was revived after the war by Pastor Doug Nichols, Bill and Eric Onus, Caleb and Anne Morgan and Shadrach James Jnr. Whether the latter were in the 1938 protest march is not known. However, they were in the vanguard of Aboriginal advancement in Victoria.

    William Cooper was a humble man and would be very surprised at the honour that has been bestowed on him in recent years and he is certainly due that honour. We should be happy the Jewish and Indigenous community and the Australian community generally honour him and we need more people like him. His grandson, Uncle Boydy (Alf Turner), great-grandson Kevin Russell and supporters Avraham Schwarz, David Jack, Albert Dadon, Robert Schneider and others have done much to promote his legacy as have I. There is no need to tarnish his legacy. Instead, we can celebrate whoever is known to have stood up and been counted at the time.

    Barbara Miller

  2. Doreen Finkelstein says:

    I have been guilty of claiming that William Cooper’s protest was the only one from an Indigenous individual, who was denied citizenship in his own country.
    I thank Prof Rubinstein for pointing out that this may not be the whole truth. Nevertheless, it is a powerful statement about personal accountability, and a wonderful example of Upstanding, as Eli has written.
    Let’s not get bogged down in semantics.

    • Bill Rubinstein says:

      Thanks, Doreen- but the widely made claim is not that he was the only indigenous person to protest at Kristallnacht, but that he was the only person on the face of the earth to make a “private” protest (whatever that means). In other words, not a single one of the 2 million Jews in New York City protested, not a single one of the 500,000 Jews in Mandate Palestine protested, not a single non-Jewish anti-Nazi anywhere. This claim, made repeatedly by at least one prominent rabbi in Melbourne, is unadulterated balderdash and codswallop, based in an almost incredible degree of ignorance. Of course William Cooper deserves credit. So, too, does everyone else who protested- starting, perhaps, with President Roosevelt, who recalled America’s Ambassador to Germany and never replaced him.

  3. Robert Schneider says:

    It is wonderful that Prof. Rubinstein draws to our attention the myriad of protests emanating from Australia – including from the Aboriginal community – against what was happening to the Jews in Europe but what beats me is the article’s headline “The Myth of William Cooper.” William Cooper’s walk of 11 kilometres by a man aged 77, who himself did not enjoy full rights in his country of birth, to the German Consulate to present a letter of protest is by anyone”s book A BRAVE ACT! I have on good authority from Yad Vashem that there is no other record of an indigenous person with no rights in their own country doing what William Cooper did. I don’t know where Prof Rubinstein gains the impression that descendants of William Cooper are portraying him as being the ONLY person from Australia protesting the plight of the Jews? I have known, for some years now, William Cooper’s closest living relative – his grandson Alfred (Uncle Boydie) Turner and I have to say that I have never heard him or any other family member assert that their illustrious forbear was the ONLY person to protest against what was happening to the Jews and I have the feeling that William Cooper himself – he was a real team player in the fight for Aboriginal rights – would have welcomed news of other protests. I don’t know what axe Prof Rubinstein has to grind but to denigrate the brave act of William Cooper seems to me to be small minded and decidedly mean spirited. Long may William Cooper’s and others brave acts of protest inspire us. Prof. Rubinstein could learn from Rabbi Hillel who said “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

    • Bill Rubinstein says:

      Mr Schneider is talking nonsense. I know nothing about the descendants of William Cooper, and know nothing about what they assert. That William Cooper made the ONLY protest about Kristallnacht has been widely claimed in recent months by communal leaders and rabbis, and especially by one rabbi. The ONLY protest on the face of the earth. This assertion is absurd and preposterous. As I document, he did not make the only protest to the German Consulate in Melbourne, and he did not make the only protest by an Aborigine- William Ferguson, another Aboriginal leader, protested before him. It is likely that EVERY mainstream newspaper in the English-speaking world condemned what the Nazis did on Kristallnacht, and there were countless organized protests in America, where Roosevelt recalled the US Ambassador. Mr Schneider should explain why William Cooper should be honoured when all the other protesters should be ignored, written out of history, and forgotten.

      • Robert Schneider says:

        The only nonsensical issue here is Prof. Rubinstein’s seeming obsession in attempting to denigrate William Cooper’s brave act in walking 11km at the age of 77 to deliver the protest letter. The professor has also chosen to ignore my previous comment that according to authoritative sources at Yad Vashem, William Cooper’s act of bravery – and it was an act of bravery whether Prof. Rubinstein likes it or not – was, according to Yad Vashem’s records, the only act of protest they were aware of by an indigenous person bereft of full rights in his country of birth! To Prof. Rubinstein’s credit, he highlights that there were many – not enough and sadly not effective – protests against the Nazi tyranny but that doesn’t diminish in any way what William Cooper did. I suggest that Prof. Rubinstein gives credit where credit is due and that if others “stretch the truth” as he seems to believe, then he should address those people directly instead of besmirching the memory and fine deeds of William Cooper – an upright man, generous in spirit and in deed.

        • Bill Rubinstein says:

          If Mr Schneider will turn to google, and then type in William Ferguson Germany pogrom Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, or something similar, he will see with his own eyes that the claim that William Cooper was the ONLY indigenous person to protest at Kristallnacht is untrue. Why does he wish to deny William Ferguson credit for his actions?

          • Robert Schneider says:

            I am not one of those who believes or propogates that William Cooper’s protest was the only one and as I suggested in a previous comment, Prof. Rubinstein should take issue directly with those who are perhaps naive in thinking that William Cooper’s protest was the only one. It would have been more appropriate to have chosen a different header for the article in the first place as there is no myth with regard to what William Cooper did but rather with those who believe that his was the only protest which of course it was not.

  4. Eli Rabinowitz says:

    The William Cooper story needs to be told and taught in our schools, just like that of Hirsh Glik, and in the context of Kristallnacht in Dec 1938, all Australians should be proud of his actions – A TRUE UPSTANDER!

    • Bill Rubinstein says:

      You might explain why you think that William Cooper should be remembered, but everyone else who spoke out after Kristallnacht should be forgotten.

      • Bob Selinger says:

        Hi Bill
        We honour William Cooper because he stood up for Jews who were being persecuted in a country where they had had civil rights and he and his people had none for 200 years. We honour him because we realise that it took another thirty years or so for his people to get the vote and then five more to be counted as Australians. I guess to some extent we honour him because we feel guilty.

        We don’t ignore other people who also protested but we focus on one good man who, as we say, had “the courage to care.” I think you are being a little unfair to criticise those who focus just on Cooper. It is ever thus when we want to understand the past. It’s Anne Frank but not the other one and half million other children of the Holocaust; it’s Albert Einstein but not Rosalind Franklin.
        More heat than light in this discussion. Off to a talk on Cooper in Sydney this evening.

  5. Adrian Jackson says:

    Excellent and interesting read.

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