This year there will be several events marking the centenary of the First World War.
Governor-General Gerry Mateparae noted in his New Year message that “the war to end all wars unleashed a series of bloody conflicts that enveloped the first half of the 20th Century…. millions of lives were lost, and families tragically torn apart.
Unfortunately, Mateparae stops short of criticising the war itself. Instead he implies that participation was somehow in New Zealand’s interest. He writes that “New Zealanders who answered the call of service in that war, and many conflicts since, did so to protect our country in the hope that their families and their children could live in peace.” He says “we should let the lessons learnt so painfully a century ago to inform our appreciation of our families and the freedom we have to raise them in peace.”
On one level Mateparae is right. New Zealanders signing up for World War I probably did think they were protecting our country. And we do need to learn lessons from that war.
But what lessons? The main lesson is that New Zealand should never have joined that war, which had nothing to do with protecting democracy and freedom and all to do with protecting the imperial interests of the British elite.
Steven Eldred-Grigg rightly titles his book on World War I “The Great Wrong War”. He says the war “was by far the worst catastrophe in the history of twentieth century New Zealand.”
Nearly 10 percent of New Zealand’s population went off to fight in the war, and more than half were killed or wounded. Those killed in or because of the war numbered 18,500. Those wounded: 41,000.
Over the next four years of the World War I centenary we should try to get across the message that this was not a just war, and that it was a tragedy of massive proportions for New Zealanders.
We should counter attempts to conflate the First World War battles with the Second World War fight against Nazism. The two wars were quite different, even if there is a connection between them: that is, the humiliation of Germany in the First World War (particularly the imposition of reparations by the victorious powers) gifted the Nazis a nationalist platform and helped them gain power.
Those trying to educate New Zealanders about World War I with an antiwar message will have strong allies in other Western countries. In Britain there is already a “No Glory” campaign supported by various celebrities. They include actors Jude Law and Timothy West, singer Billy Bragg, film director Ken Loach, and MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Jonathan Edwards. The No Glory statement calls the war “a military disaster and a human catastrophe”. The signatories plan “activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused.” They “call on writers, actors, musicians, teachers and campaigners to join with us to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international cooperation.”