Remembering the one man who spoke against Nazis

Remembering the one man who spoke against Nazis

One Christian, Aboriginal man in the 1930s was the only person in the world who led an official non-government protest against the initial attacks upon Jews by Germany’s Nazi party. William Cooper is one of the Indigenous Australians whose contribution to our nation and society should be celebrated during the annual NAIDOC  (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week, held between July 5 and 12. NAIDOC Week is a very significant event in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders calendar, as it rejoices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, people, achievements and legacies.

Honoured in the Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust atrocities — William Cooper didn’t just publicly oppose how a majority group was oppressing a minority in Germany. He also was an advocate for his own people, including being instrumental in establishing NAIDOC Week.

William grew up in the early 1900s in NSW. He was taught to read and write by missionaries who ran a school for aboriginal children. From the Bible he learned that all people are created by God. William also learned the words of Jesus:”Treat other people the way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:31) He became a Christian and accepted these truths. As he grew older, he realised that Aboriginal people were not being treated this way. Before the 1960s, Australia’s indigenous people were not Australian citizens, despite being born in Australia and their ancestors having lived here for generations. They were not allowed to vote or counted in census figures. In short, they did not have the same rights as white people.  They were like nobodies in their own country.

Speaking out

Founder of the Australian Aborigines League, William wrote letters to government leaders protesting the inequality he saw around him. He also gathered more than 1800 signatures on a petition to England’s King George V and VI, calling for the improving of rights for Aboriginals.

The Australian Government did not forward this petition, due to laws and attitudes not regarding any Aboriginal person as an Australian citizen.

Birth of NAIDOC Week

But William didn’t give up. As a member of the Australian Workers Union, he had many friends within that organisation that helped him in his cause. One of his biggest achievements was persuading some church leaders to recognise an Aboriginal Sunday starting in 1940 (on the day before Australia Day).

This became National Aborigines Day, which was changed to July. It became a celebration of aboriginal culture… which we now know as NAIDOC Week!

The only protest in the world

People around the world were shocked when on 9 November 1938, Nazis in Germany terrorised Jewish people. They burned synagogues and smashed homes and businesses; 91 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported to concentration camps. But William Cooper knew that he needed to protest the injustice that was happening. As someone who had experienced oppression himself, he spoke passionately against it and led a deputation to the German consulate in Melbourne.

The resolution they left there voiced “on behalf of the Aborigines of Australia, a strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany”.  It asked that this persecution be brought to an end.

This was the only known non-government protest worldwide against the initial Nazi attack on the Jews. In recent years, Jewish communities in Israel and Australia have honoured William, whose Christian beliefs led him to action on behalf of those who were oppressed.

What a legacy! What a challenge! How active are we in speaking up for those who are unable to speak for themselves?

Sally Smith, DIDUNO Network

For more stories about impact of Christians upon Australia’s history, visit the DIDUNO website. 

For more information about NAIDOC WEEK, click here.


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5 thoughts on “Remembering the one man who spoke against Nazis”

  1. William Cooper was an excellent article for NAIDOC Week. He is an outstanding Australian hero, one of whom every Australian should be aware. William was the uncle of Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls. I read a biography, researched and written by Nancy Cato called “Mr Maloga”. It is the story of Daniel and Janet Matthews, who because of their loving concern for the disposed and degraded Aboriginal people in the Echuca area, started the Maloga Mission Station on the Murray River for the Yorta Yorta people . As a boy William Cooper was schooled by the Matthews, and in a letter, shortly before he died, had written: .. had Daniel Matthews “lived and worked till now, we would have had Aboriginal doctors, lawyers, mechanical engineers and other professional people”, such was his appreciation and loving respect for the Matthews. It was from their teachings and life-style that Cooper became a committed follower of the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures.
    Attwood and Markus, in ‘Thinking Black’ said “Matthews would have introduced Cooper and others to the precepts of British Liberal democracy, especially those regarding the rights and privileges of British citizens” (of which Cooper felt Aborigines should be included). This all helped to empower Cooper in his passionate struggle to speak out against dispossession and denial of civil rights for Aboriginal people.
    Thank God for people like Daniel and Janet Matthews who become the bridge between two different cultures.Their story is also one that should be recognised.

  2. It is simply untrue that Aborigines were not considered citizens.

    Quote: Citizenship
    A further common myth is that the 1967 referendum gave citizenship to the Aboriginal people. This is incorrect. Between 1788 and 1949, everyone born in Australia (or any other part of the British Empire) acquired the legal status of “British subject” (“subject” was the term used for British nationality at that time). In 1949, under new legislation every person born in Australia, regardless of race or colour, became simultaneously a British subject and Australian citizen. Subsequent changes in legislation meant that Australians are no longer British subjects.

    Eligibility for Australian citizenship has changed over the years. Citizenship laws, however, have never differentiated between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal persons.

  3. Thank you June, and David Ayliffe, via Brigid’s Miss Eagles Network – for bringing this website Insights from UCA to my attention today.
    I had the honour of being the only Jew On the delegation that went with Uncle Boydie (grandson of William Cooper) to Yad Vashem – and yes, we were able to bring the story of Uncle William to Israel’s attention. At the age of nearly 88 years, Uncle Boydie still gives talks about his grandfather – and last week he joined me by teleconference to present at at Monash University. Feel free to be in touch via for more information. Happy NAIDOC 2016!

  4. Obviously the writer has not done her research or she would recognise the names of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl……..

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