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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bergmann, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm (Willy) (1899–1987)

by Christine Winter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm (Willy) Bergmann (1899-1987), Lutheran missionary, was born on 10 November 1899 at Ostkilver, Westphalia, Germany, one of eleven children of Johann Heinrich Bergmann, farmer, and his wife Katharina Karoline Luise, née Ackermann. The devout family belonged to a Lutheran free-church. After eight years of schooling at the Volksschule, Willy returned home to become a farmer but in 1921, fulfilling a childhood desire, he entered the Lutheran seminary at Neuendettelsau, Bavaria, which prepared missionaries for the Neuendettelsauer mission in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. A year later he was joined by his younger brother, Gustav, who was also to become a missionary in New Guinea. After six years’ study, completed with honours, and a year learning linguistics and tropical medicine, Wilhelm left for Queensland, where he was ordained on 11 November 1928.

One of the first German missionaries permitted to enter New Guinea since World War I, Bergmann arrived at Finschhafen in December. On 14 October 1930 at nearby Sattelberg, he married his German fiancée Marie Luise Auguste Guetebier (d.1974), a nurse. Next year the first of their seven children was born and the Bergmanns began forty years’ mission work in the populous New Guinea Highlands. They built their bush-material home and set up a small farm at Kambaidam, a temporary mission station founded to enable further extension of the mission inland. In 1933 they established a more convenient station at Onerunka, near Kainantu.

In August-October 1929 Bergmann had accompanied his fellow-missionary Georg Pilhofer on a trip inland to visit indigenous evangelists (then called `helpers’) already stationed through the Eastern Highlands. From that year, with colleagues and New Guinean carriers, he made annual visitation tours, which led to exploration of areas previously unseen by European missionaries and to contact with tens of thousands of highlanders. Such expeditions, notably one led by Wilhelm Flierl, eldest son of Johann Flierl, in 1930 and a second with Pilhofer in 1933, extended his knowledge of the Eastern Highlands. Following explorations by the Leahy brothers and Jim Taylor, and the consequent interest in the area shown by Father William Ross and other Catholic missionaries, Lutheran officials decided on further expansion. In May-June 1934 a 43-day journey through the Chimbu and into the Western Highlands was jointly undertaken by the Finschhafen mission and its sister mission at Madang. Bergmann was part of a team of six missionaries and 110 New Guinean carriers and elders. Later that year the Bergmanns founded Ega station in the Chimbu and built an airstrip there.

Responding to pressure from the German vice-consul, Dr Walter Hellenthal, many of the Lutheran missionaries decided in 1936 to found a Nazi stronghold at Finschhafen. Bergmann applied for party membership but was rejected as the clergy were not eligible. The Finschhafen stronghold list, intercepted by the Australian Administration, became the basis for the internment, at the outbreak of World War II, of Bergmann and fifteen other members of the Lutheran Mission Finschhafen. Arrested in New Guinea on 21 September 1939, they arrived in Sydney on 9 October. They were taken to Tatura, Victoria, and placed in camp No.1, for single men. Luise Bergmann and her five children were evacuated in December 1941 and cared for by Lutherans at Tanunda, South Australia, until she, with other women of the LMF, managed to have themselves interned by insisting that they held `the same beliefs as their husbands’. On 18 December 1942 the Bergmann family were reunited in Tatura 3, where their youngest child was born. Both camps were dominated by Nazis. Bergmann’s camp dossier stated that his English was good, and that he was pro-Nazi. The family was at first listed for deportation to Germany but after a change in policy they were released from internment on 11 October 1946.

Next year Bergmann was one of the earliest German Lutherans allowed back to New Guinea. He and Luise continued their work at Ega station until 1968. That year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Friedrich-Alexander-University at Erlangen, West Germany. Bergmann had written grammars of local languages, translated the Bible into Kuman, and contributed articles to the mission press. In retirement, living with a daughter at Mutdapilly, Queensland, he completed his autobiography `Vierzig Jahre in Neuguinea’ (ten volumes in typed manuscript form) as well as a four-volume anthropological monograph, self-published in German and English: The Kamanuku (1971). Survived by four daughters and two sons, he died on 13 July 1987 at Mutdapilly and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Fontius, Mission-Gemeinde-Kirche in Neuguinea, Bayern und bei Karl Steck (1975)
  • H. Wagner and H. Reiner (eds), The Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea (1986)
  • R. Radford, Highlanders and Foreigners in the Upper Ramu (1987)
  • C. Winter, `The Long Arm of the Third Reich’, Journal of Pacific History, vol 38, no 1, 2003, p 85
  • Lutheran (Adelaide), 17 Aug 1987, p 22
  • German consulate (Sydney), registration form
  • series A6126, item 91 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Lutheran Mission correspondence (Mission archives, Adelaide and Neuendettelsau, Germany).

Citation details

Christine Winter, 'Bergmann, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm (Willy) (1899–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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