SHOULD NEW ZEALAND have declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939? This is the startling question posed by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, one of New Zealand’s more interesting historians, in an essay posted on The Spinoff. I say “startling” because, while many would argue that New Zealand should have stayed out of World War I, the number suggesting we should have stayed out of the fight against fascism is vanishingly small.
The first great global conflict of the Twentieth Century may have been a vicious brawl between competing imperial powers, tricked out in the bunting of King and Country and, later, as a noble crusade “to make the world safe for Democracy”, but the Second World War was the real thing. Adolf Hitler and his regime constituted a clear and present danger to human civilisation which simply had to be stopped.
Eldred-Grigg’s revisionism should not, however, be dismissed out of hand. Nothing is lost by holding the icons of our history up to the light and scrutinizing them closely for flaws and blemishes. Such scrutiny becomes an urgent necessity when the accusation is made that the historical icon in question depicts a lie. Let us then take a closer look at Eldred-Grigg’s argument.
His case against New Zealand’s participation in the war is presented in two parts. The first suggests that the “hard-headed” strategic and economic arguments for joining the fight against Hitler simply do not stack up. Great Britain, he says, was simply too far away to offer the slightest strategic protection, and Nazi Germany too far away to pose a credible threat. Our export trade, he implies, would have prospered regardless of which nation emerged victorious.
The second line of attack is directed at what Eldred-Grigg calls the “soft-hearted” reasons for ranging ourselves alongside the “Mother Country”. Poland, he suggests, wasn’t worth fighting for – being little better than Nazi Germany in terms of its politics. Likewise, the Mother Country, herself. Great Britain remained an imperial power whose hands, vis-à-vis the promotion of freedom and democracy, were still far from clean. “[B]eliefs about freedom and democracy, together with emotions about duty and loyalty”, Eldred-Grigg suggests, were an insufficient justification for plunging New Zealand into someone else’s war.
But, Eldred-Griggs revisionism is wrong on all counts.
Strategically-speaking, Great Britain was not that far away at all. In 1939, the Royal Navy was still capable of considerable force projection – even as far as the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, if Britain had been defeated by Germany, and the Royal Navy had fallen into the hands of theKriegsmarine, how long does Eldred-Grigg think it would have taken the Fuhrer’s reflagged battleships to come a-calling?
As for New Zealand’s economic situation on 3rd September 1939 – well, it was parlous. The Labour Finance Minister had earlier that year visited Britain seeking the continued co-operation of the Bank of England and the City of London in extending New Zealand’s lines of credit. This they were most reluctant to do. Labour’s social welfare reforms and her state house construction programme did not meet with the British bankers’ approval. Had war not broken out in September 1939, it is almost certain that British capital would have put a suffocating financial squeeze on the errant left-wing government of its far-flung economic colony.
The outbreak of war radically shifted the pieces on the economic board in New Zealand’s favour. Michael Joseph Savage’s famous declaration: “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”, wasn’t simply a “soft-hearted” acknowledgement of “duty and loyalty”. It was also a hard-headed decision to do what was required to keep the workers’ government in office.
The weakness of Eldred-Grigg’s argument lies precisely in its refusal to acknowledge the political context in which the decision to go to war was taken. Does he really suppose that a left-wing New Zealand government which refused to join Canada, Australia and South Africa at Britain’s side could have endured in office for more than a few days? Has he forgotten that, as Mickey Savage was committing New Zealand to a war against fascism, the Soviet Union was preparing to roll across the Polish border in fulfilment of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact? Can he not see that the National Party and the newspapers would have accused the Labour Party, with ample justification, of taking up a position indistinguishable from that of the Moscow-aligned Communist Party? An historian of Eldred-Grigg’s standing must, surely, acknowledge that Savage, Nash, and the prime-Minister-in-waiting, Peter Fraser, would not have been able to convince their own Labour caucus – let alone the broader New Zealand electorate – that such a position was even remotely tenable?
A decision to remain neutral in September 1939 would have produced only one thing – a crushing victory for the right of New Zealand politics. All of Labour’s work between 1935 and 1939 would have been undone. The state housing programme would have been abandoned, and what the National Party leader, Sid Holland, described as the “applied lunacy” of the Social Security legislation would have been swept away.
That is the price the New Zealand working-class – whose interests Eldred-Grigg has long and honourably championed – would have had to pay. Not for peace, because peace was never on the agenda; but for the utter foolishness of those who thought they could stay out of the most important moral struggle in human history.
And therein lies the clinching argument. Staying out of the war fails not only on the hard-headed grounds of preserving New Zealand’s strategic and economic interests; and not just on the soft-hearted grounds of duty and loyalty to the nation that had given New Zealand birth; but, ultimately, on the grounds of the damage it would have inflicted on New Zealand’s soul – for want of a better word.
No possible outcome of the war could have left us unsullied in the eyes of the civilised world. Had Britain accepted Hitler’s generous surrender terms in 1940, we would have fallen under the sway of the very worst elements in British – and New Zealand – society. Why? Because a British Empire in thrall to Nazi Germany would have been a fascist empire. And, if Britain had won the war without us? What would we be then? Certainly not the widely respected “social laboratory of the world” whose Prime Minister spoke up successfully for the rights of small nations at the San Francisco Conference which gave birth to the United Nations. No, New Zealand would have found itself lumped in with the likes of Eamon De Valera’s Ireland, and Juan Peron’s Argentina: countries not-so-secretly regretful that Hitler had been defeated.
How would Stevan Eldred-Grigg feel, I wonder, writing the history of a nation like that?