Eighty years ago, New Zealand declared war on Germany. We seem to take it for granted, most of us, that we needed to join the horrific struggle of the second world war. But the the reasoning may not have stacked up, writes historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg.
On 1 September 1939, Hitler ordered his tanks, warplanes and infantry to blitz into Poland. Shells shrieked. Stukas whined. Bombs fell. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. Other states, among them New Zealand, followed suit.
The declaration of war provoked strong feelings in New Zealand. Evelyn Scott, shorthand typist, “went cold inside”. Jean Bell, nurse, felt “helpless and flattened”. Janet Frame, student, had “never felt so shocked, so unreal”. Charles Brasch, poet, was “plunged into” a “black fog-bank”.
The killing of New Zealanders was soon under way. The earliest deaths were Canterbury and Otago travellers on the liner Athenia, torpedoed off Ireland on the first night of the war. Thousands of servicemen, servicewomen and civilians would end up dying in our war with Germany. Thousands of others would lose limbs or other body parts. Tens of thousands would be wounded psychologically. Nancy Ellison, a young Rotorua teacher, would write one day about her feelings when her husband Terry came home from war: “It wasn’t the same Terry I had said goodbye to… He never came back.”
Trauma suffered by former soldiers, airmen and sailors was passed on to lovers, spouses, children, neighbours and workmates. Men who had been in the military were more likely than other men to be depressed, to become alcoholic, and to strike, beat, rape or in other ways attack other people. James K Baxter would publish a poem soon after the war portraying a young soldier who had come home from the fighting.
The boy who volunteered at seventeen
At twenty-three is heavy on the booze.
Strafed in the desert and bombed out in Crete –
With sore dark eyes and hardened by the heat
Entitled now to call himself a man …
Why did we bring this upon ourselves? We seem to take it for granted, most of us, that we needed to join this horrific struggle.
But did we?
The first thing to note is that we were not legally bound to declare war on Germany. All the dominions of the British Commonwealth – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada and Ireland – had complete freedom in foreign policy. All declared war, except Ireland. The Irish prime minister, Eamon de Valera, observed that “whatever sympathies” his people might have for either side in the war, it was their duty to think first of their own country and “consider what its interests should be and what its interests are”. Britain, he added, was like a house on fire. The British were asking the Irish “to set our own house on fire in company with the other house” and “to throw ourselves into the flames”.
The speech that seized the imagination of many New Zealand citizens was very different, made over the radio by the prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage. “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain,” he said, speaking shakily from his sickbed. “Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
Yet the government knew that many citizens, and some members of parliament, were talking about neutrality.
“Let us keep out of the struggle,” they were saying, according to a radio broadcast by another leading government politician, Rex Mason. “If Britain wins without us, well and good; if she loses, it will make no difference to us.” Frederick Frost, a government backbencher, noted that some citizens thought the war no more than “a bare-faced, unashamed capitalistic adventure”. He added his own opinion that when it came to the cause of the struggle “all nations are equally guilty”. Citizens who wanted to stay out of the war for socialist reasons were a minority, but a lot of other people certainly were less than convinced that it was wise to tag along with Britain and France.
Citizens who thought the country should go to war often disagreed, too, about why. “Why are we fighting?” asked John McDonald, education officer in the army. “Everyone has his own beliefs as to what we’re fighting about. And that’s not necessarily the same as what we’re fighting for. We all see our post-war worlds differently.”
Why was the government willing to go to war?
The grounds given can be grouped into two types: hardheaded and softhearted. Hardheaded reasons, in turn, were of two types: safeguarding the economy, and safeguarding the country against armed attack. Softhearted reasons again were of two types: beliefs about freedom and democracy, together with emotions about duty and loyalty.
Safeguarding the economy seemed to necessitate going to war to back the “Motherland.” Britain was the main export market for New Zealand, buying about 70% of all goods shipped out of the country. Exports were important. One out of every three pounds of gross domestic product was earned by exporting. “Great Britain can live without us,” Frank Langstone, a government minister, told a meeting of trade unionists; “we cannot live without her.” New Zealand had to go to war, or so went the argument, in order to allow exporters to make money. Exporters had to make money because, unless food and fibre could be sold overseas, the country would plunge into poverty.
The logic, in other words, was that New Zealand needed to keep in the good books of Britain, or more bluntly curry favour with Britain, in order to safeguard the economy.
The logic, however, was flawed.
Firstly, what happened to our export markets would depend partly on whether Britain would be beaten by Germany. And how badly it might be beaten by Germany. Or whether it might beat Germany. And how much its economy might be weakened by beating Germany. Britain would in the end turn out to be on the winning side, but would more or less be bankrupted by war and would need to be bailed out. Clearly, no road ahead could be guessed in September 1939 and a sensible policy would perhaps have been to wait and do nothing. John A Lee, gadfly politician, pointed out that while economic costs from loss of exports might be heavy, they would not be ruinous for New Zealand.
“Cut Britain’s sea communications and Britain starves. To interfere with ours is to dislocate our economy but not to afflict us with hunger.”
Exports were not quite as critical to the economy as most politicians believed anyway. A lot of the true wealth of households was based on goods and services not bought or sold in the market. Homegrown and homemade food, clothing and other goods and services were given or swapped among families and circles of friends or neighbours in a very extensive way. New Zealand also profited from significant “invisible” exports through banking, insurance and shipping.
A last flaw in the economic argument for declaring war was that earnings from a safeguarded export market needed to be offset against costs.
Costs of waging war, as everyone was aware from the beginning, would be very heavy. Money would be spent hand over fist on armed forces and fighting. Money would be lost hand over fist in foregone investment opportunity, lost production of goods and services, smashed or sunk assets, along with damage done to the health and strength of the citizenry. A government trying to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of going to war would need to factor in the possibility that safeguarding the export market might not be enough compensation to citizens for losing immense sums of money in other ways. Also, maybe it would make better sense to take a sharp drop in national income as the cost of keeping citizens healthy, living, and out of the fighting.
Nor was it obvious that declaring war was needed to safeguard the country against armed attack.
The Labour government believed that if Britain lost the war New Zealand would be prey to Germany. “If Britain crashes, what protection will New Zealand have?” railway workers were asked by one of the leaders of Labour, Peter Fraser. The same leader, by then prime minister, in the second year of war told the Labour Party national conference that if Britain was beaten New Zealanders would “lose everything” and end up “nothing more nor less than the slaves of a foreign ruling class.”
Walter Nash, finance minister, went still further, claiming that if Germany won the war “New Zealand would be one of the prizes, and a magnificent one.” Citizens would be driven from their homes and “shipped out of the country”. National Party leaders spoke the same way. William Perry told a crowd that if the enemy were to win the war then New Zealand would “be without doubt one of the prizes” and would “become a German colony”.
Germany, though, was almost powerless in the Pacific. So was Britain. The key naval and air powers in our watery hemisphere were Japan and the United States. A canny policy might have been for New Zealand to stay out of the faraway fight in Europe and give priority to steering a safe course between those two mighty neighbours. The United States and Japan did not want Germany to take colonies in the Pacific.
The Labour left had been saying for some years that geography alone was enough to safeguard the country against any possible enemy. “Our isolation is our best defence,” argued John A Lee. Invasion, he went on to say, was a “laughable prospect”. He was right. Germany had no plans and no ability to invade New Zealand. The Third Reich was not in any way, for the foreseeable future, a military threat. The findings of a government and service defence conference earlier in 1939 was that the only likely enemy on the horizon was Japan.
A straightforward truth, too, was that the war against Germany would be won or lost no matter what was done or not done by New Zealand. We were too small and weak to sway world destiny. New Zealand soldiers when they found themselves arrayed in the field the following year were soon “under no delusions”, as one officer wrote from Egypt. The army sent by the country was “a mere drop in the bucket”. Britain and France would lose or win the war without New Zealand.
Also, by joining the fight New Zealand was putting its own safety at risk. The country, having declared war, went on the hit list for German submarines in a way it would not have been had it stood aside and followed a policy of neutrality. An editorial in the Standard pointed this out. “New Zealand’s Commonwealth membership renders her in this respect more likely to be attacked than if she stood alone.”
The hardheaded reasons for going to war seem, in other words, to have been woolly. What about the softhearted reasons?
A first group of softhearted reasons clustered around concepts of freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy were under threat, or so it was claimed. The only way to safeguard them was by going to war. The Labour government used the two words repeatedly. David Wilson, speaking on behalf of the government to the upper house of parliament, said that the war was “to preserve democracy and freedom” and that it was “a fight between democracy and dictatorship.”
The voiceover of Country Lads, a government propaganda film made by the National Film Unit, told citizens that the purpose of the war was to safeguard “the right to be free”. The National Party weighed in with the same sorts of words. Newspapers parroted the phrase, too. “Never in history has there been such a grim and ruthless challenge to the great institutions of Democracy,” declared an editorial in the Auckland Star.
One glaring weakness in the theory of the war being for freedom and democracy was the politics of Poland. “Poland is a jackal,” wrote John A Lee. The dictatorship in Warsaw was not what anybody would call a bulwark of democracy. Isidor Reifer, a Polish scientist who had come to live and work in New Zealand, defined the dictatorship as “a regime no better than Hitler’s”. The Labour government was aware that fighting on behalf of such a state with its “illiberal landlord rulers” and its oppressed Jewish and other minorities, was “a curious cause” to be undertaken by a social democracy.
A further glaring weakness in the theory was that the chosen target was only one among many dictatorships. One-party police states were thick on the ground in Europe. Why was war not declared on Portugal, or Latvia, or Hungary? Or the Soviet Union? One-party police states were also thick on the ground elsewhere in the world. Brazil was a thuggish dictatorship. Mexico was a thuggish dictatorship. Thailand was a thuggish dictatorship. The Guomindang, or “Nationalist,” state in China was a dictatorship responsible by the end of 1939 for the deaths of millions of its own people, far more than the Nazi state in Germany to that point.
Why not declare war on China, or Brazil, or the Soviet Union? Why single out Germany?
Nor were the British and French colonial empires bulwarks of freedom and democracy. The great majority of people living in those empires had no right to vote, no voice in how they were governed, and when push came to shove were kept in line by armed police or troops. The Bay of Plenty Beacon, like many other conservative voices, claimed that the British Empire “set the example of freedom to all its subjects black or white, brown or yellow”.
British colonial rule during the first 40 years of the century had led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of village people in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. French colonial rule had killed hundreds of thousands in Africa and Southeast Asia. New Zealand had blood on its hands, too. Only ten years before declaring war on Germany, the country had fought a campaign of “pacification” in Samoa, its unwilling colony. Armed police had shot into a crowd of protesters in Apia who were asking for freedom and democracy.
A second group of softhearted reasons for going to war came from a sense of duty and loyalty. Many citizens of English or Scottish or Ulster ancestry wanted to fight alongside their “kith and kin” in the “Motherland”.
The National Party was a stronghold of such feelings. Adam Hamilton, speaking as party leader in parliament, talked about “our own blood brothers” on the other side of the world. Cheviot Dillon Bell was cheered at a National Party conference for saying that “My England right or wrong” should “take precedence today”. A conservative citizen of Mount Eden wrote verse on the subject.
Sons of Empire take their stand,
By the land that gave them birth
Pakeha and Maori from
This England of the southern sea,
In their eager thousands come
Dear Motherland, to fight for thee.
Labour Party leaders seldom wrote or spoke so fulsomely. A lot of them, though, wanted to be loyal to Britain. Fraser talked in a nationwide radio broadcast about “our kinsmen” on the other side of the world, “the men, women, and children of our race and blood”. Nash wrote in a private letter: “Whatever New Zealand can do in its small way to help the Old Country will be done – even though the cost may be heavy.” Nash was English by birth and upbringing. Fraser was a Scot
The mass of citizens – more than four in every five – were born in New Zealand. John Mulgan, novelist and army officer, wrote early in the war that many people he knew “didn’t give a damn for England”. Wage workers seldom spoke about the “Motherland”. Citizens of Irish, German, Scandinavian and Croatian ancestry were not likely to see themselves as kith, let alone kin, to the British. Nor, of course, were many Chinese, Samoans or Māori.
All four groups of reasons for going to war were muddled and contradictory.
Te Puea Herangi, a chief of very high mana, on the outbreak of war wrote privately to Savage warning against “heroics”. It was a time, she suggested, “for cool reasoning.” The government was not reasoning coolly. Why waste lives and money going to war when none of the reasons given for weighing in were convincing – and when New Zealand could not in any meaningful way help or hinder victory?
Should we have stayed out?
Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s most recent book is Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
Photo: From Country Lads