Germans first arrived in Melbourne in the late 1830s, although numbers remained small until the late 1840s. Organised immigration of German 'vinedressers' began in the late 1840s at the instigation of merchant William Westgarth (1815-89). The first group arrived in February 1849. By July 1851 some 800 Germans had arrived. They were mostly Lutherans from Prussia and Saxony. Among them were Wends (known also as Sorbs) from Lusatia, an area that had been swallowed up by Prussia and Saxony. Germans settled in Melbourne and nearby suburbs, particularly Collingwood, Richmond, Hawthorn and Northcote, as well as further afield in Westgarthtown, known also as Neu-Mecklenburg (now Thomastown), Waldau (now Doncaster), Greensborough, Germantown (now Grovedale) near Geelong, and Harkaway near Berwick.
Melbourne was also a destination for urban Germans. Some were 'forty-eighters', who left their homelands after the failed revolutions of 1848-49; some came for scientific adventure, bringing with them high levels of training; most were attracted by the Victorian gold rushes. A lively German community developed, encompassing German-language speakers from across Central Europe. The Deutscher Verein von Victoria (German Association of Victoria), consisting mainly of professionals and businessmen, was formed in 1850, and the Melbourne Deutscher Turn Verein in 1860. There were various liedertafels, a German medical benefits society, a German lodge (Teutonia), a German socialist society (Vorwärts), and the Concordia Club, which later became the Tivoli, forerunner of today's Club Tivoli, Deutscher Verein Melbourne. A succession of German-language newspapers appeared, and a network of German schools, many tied to Melbourne's Lutheran congregations. In 1860 Karl Damm opened a German College in East Melbourne; in 1870 Herr Tegthoff opened a bilingual Lyceum in St Kilda. Census records show Melbourne's German-born population rising to a peak of 4329 by 1891.
The achievements of Melbourne's 19th-century Germans, particularly in the arts, sciences and exploration, have been described as 'one of the high points of Australian colonial culture'. Noted figures included Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-96), Victoria's first Government Botanist; Georg von Neumayer (1826-1909), founder of the Melbourne Observatory; Wilhelm von Blandowski (1822-78), Victoria's first Government Zoologist; Ludwig Becker (1806-61), artist and naturalist; Hermann Püttmann (1811-74), writer and publisher; and J.W. Lindt (1845-1926), photographer.
Wilhelm Alexander Brahe (1824-1917), who claimed to have arrived in 1846, noted that his arrival had caused Melbourne's German population to rise 'by 25 per cent, from 4 to 5'. Brahe, a key figure in 19th-century German Melbourne, became Consul for the North German Federation and in 1871 for the newly created German Empire. As the 19th century progressed, Australian-German relations deepened. At the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition Germany was represented by 1080 firms; at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, German firms took up the third largest area after Victoria and Great Britain.
World War I hit hard. Strong waves of anti-German sentiments hit Germans throughout Australia, to the extent that it was thought there could be no future for a German-Australian community. But the war highlighted that many Germans had already been integrated into Australian society. John Monash (1865-1931), sometimes described as Australia's most famous soldier, provides an example. He was the son of Louis Monasch (1831-94), a German Jew who had actively supported German compatriots at the time of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and had named his family home in Richmond Germania; he would hardly be seen as a German.
The interwar years saw a steady decline in Melbourne's German-born population. Hitler's rise to power in Germany led to new waves of German emigration, among them gifted scholars, scientists and artists. The University of Melbourne made efforts to attract a number. Some 4000 German Jews settled in Melbourne; Rabbi Dr Herman Sanger (1909-80) from Berlin became a leader for them. German internees from England, Singapore, Palestine and Iran were also sent by the British to Australia. The best known were the 'Dunera boys', 2500 Germans and Austrians who had been shipped from England to Australia in 1941. Some 900 remained in Australia, many in Melbourne, from where their newsletter continues to be published. Another group of internees was the Templers, a German Christian society that had established settlements in Palestine. In 1941 some 530 Templers were shipped from Palestine to Australia. Most chose to remain in Australia, with more Templers arriving after World War II. Melbourne became the Temple Society of Australia's headquarters. The World War II period enriched Melbourne with noted individuals such as Walter Boas (1904-82), physicist; George Dreyfus (born 1928), composer; Inge King (born 1918), sculptor; Fritz Loewe (1895-1974), meteorologist; Wolfgang Sievers (born 1913), photographer; and Felix Werder (born 1922), composer.
In the period after World War II skilled and semi-skilled German migrants came to Melbourne, as did an array of German firms and subsidiary companies, covering fields such as electrical goods, chemicals, banking and transport. In 1991 Knox, Nunawading, Waverley and Keilor contained the largest populations of German speakers. The 1996 census recorded 20 552 'German-born' in Melbourne, scattered throughout the city.