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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skerst, Arnold Oscar Hermann Gregory von (1888–1948)

by John Perkins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Arnold Oscar Hermann Gregory von Skerst (1888-1948), Nazi propagandist and language teacher, was born on 10 December 1888 in Riga, Latvia, Russia, son of Baltic German parents Hermann Nicolaus von Skerst, chief of customs district, and his wife Alwine Antome Ella, née Herrmann. Brought up a Lutheran, he was educated by English governesses, at the Drei-König-Schule, Dresden, Germany, and at the Imperial Alexander Lyceum, St Petersburg. He joined the Ministry of Finance in 1912, working as a diplomatic courier, and in October 1914 was in charge of the first shipment (in British warships) of Russian gold to the Bank of England. In 1917 he married Anne Kaiser with Russian Orthodox rites and in September was sent to the embassy in Washington by the Kerensky government. Returning to Russia in 1918 he worked for various 'White' governments. Eventually captured at Vladivostok by the Red Army, he was, inexplicably, allowed to go to China.

At Shanghai von Skerst worked briefly for the Russo-Adriatic Bank (1920-21) until dismissed for overdrawing his account. Within six months he had been dismissed from the Far Eastern Insurance Co. Ltd at Harbin, Manchuria, for misappropriating funds. He worked for the Chinese Eastern Railway from 1922 and, taking Soviet citizenship, remained as foreign affairs officer when the railway was taken over in 1924 by a joint Soviet-Chinese administration. In 1928 he accompanied a Soviet-Chinese mission to western Europe, travelling via Moscow on a Soviet passport. He had divorced his wife in 1926; in 1928 he married Olga Gorlov (d.1930) at Harbin and adopted her son.

Resigning in 1930, von Skerst went to Germany, became a Roman Catholic and on 30 January next year was naturalized. In May he arrived in Melbourne as agent of a Berlin oil company, but the venture collapsed with the July banking crisis in Germany. Stranded in a strange country, he formed the Australia North China Trading Co., reached Shanghai barely ahead of the Japanese army and promptly returned to Sydney. Fluent in Russian, German, English, French, Italian, Polish and Spanish, with some Japanese, he eked out a living teaching foreign languages. He also broadcasted and cut travelogue discs for Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd. He was 6 ft (183 cm) tall, with fair hair, blue eyes, thick spectacles and a military appearance.

In 1933 von Skerst joined the National Socialist German Workers Party, becoming propaganda leader of the Sydney 'Stronghold'. Next year he was appointed editor of Die Brücke, a bilingual weekly, subsidized by Nazi Germany, and on 29 April married Florence Marjory Heyns, manageress of the corset department of Winn's Oxford Street store, in the Syrian Orthodox Church. He joined the Concordia Club and became Australian correspondent of the Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro (German News Office) in Berlin, representative of the Ostasiatische Rundschau (Far Eastern Review) in Hamburg and from 1937 secretary of the German-Australian Chamber of Commerce.

Interned on the outbreak of war in 1939, von Skerst renounced his German citizenship with the invasion of Russia in June 1941 and in 1945 applied to the Soviet embassy in Canberra for the restitution of his Soviet passport. From July 1941 he collaborated with military intelligence, compiling numerous reports on Nazi activities in this country. Released in March 1946 and helped by Quakers, he worked as a kitchen hand. His applications for naturalization and for a position with the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research were rejected on security grounds.

His wife had divorced him after being briefly interned in 1942; on 10 November 1948 von Skerst married Hazel Josephine Salmon, aged 26. Newspaper interest in von Skerst was aroused by his selection for a radio quiz programme and there was a demand for his deportation. On Christmas Eve 1948, he turned on the gas oven in his flat at Randwick and committed suicide.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Perkins and J. Tampke, The Dr. Goebbels of Australia? (manuscript, University of New South Wales, 1986)
  • Arnold von Skerst: CRS A367 item 46/6/205 and C67248, CRS A435 item 1946/4/3584 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

John Perkins, 'Skerst, Arnold Oscar Hermann Gregory von (1888–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • von Skerst, Arnold Oscar Hermann Gregory

10 December 1888
Riga, Latvia


24 December 1948
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence