The Great War did not arrive unannounced; far from it. Since at least 1907 the socialist movement had been urgently warning of the dangers of a war between the great powers of Europe. France and Germany had already come to the brink of war in 1911 over their rival claims to the colonial possession of Morocco. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were also widely recognised as a proxy war among the great powers supporting the rival Balkan nations. At the root of these deepening conflicts lay competition among the advanced capitalist nations for colonial possessions, markets, territories, raw materials for their industries – things they could secure for themselves only at the expense of their rivals.
Against the danger, the socialists proclaimed international working class solidarity, proposing, in the event of war between the great powers, popular mobilisations demanding a cessation of hostilities, a general strike of the workers of all the belligerent countries, and insurrection against the warmakers. These ideas were close to Harry Holland’s heart; they guided his efforts to organise a campaign of mass defiance of the conscription laws in Australia. “All the energies of the working class… can be most profitably utilised in building up our industrial and political organisations, which shall finally render war impossible, and which organisations, by international affiliations and alliances between the working classes of all nations, are even now the chief guarantee of the peace of the world,” he wrote in 1912.
In a series of articles in the Sydney Sun in 1911 Holland had portrayed the German Social Democratic Party as the greatest obstacle to the rulers’ war plans. “The eyes of all the world— capitalist world and working class world alike— will, be fixed on Germany on January 12, when the Federal elections are to be decided. If the Social-Democrats win a mighty hand of working-class restraint will be laid on those whose interests point in the direction of war. If the Social Democrats lose, it may be that the advocates of war will win courage and assurance from the working-class failure, the dogs of war be unleashed, and the great commercial Powers be permitted to drive the nations to the “bloody arbitrament of war.” Never in the world’s history has a national election been so pregnant with the possibilities of peace and conflict, of progress and disaster.”
Working class solidarity turned to dust at the outbreak of war, however, when the leadership of all the largest parties of the Socialist International, including the German Social Democratic Party, abandoned their many-times-affirmed commitment to working class internationalism. They decided instead to support their ‘own’ rulers in their war, and to turn weapons on their fellow-workers across the border. The gates of the imperialist slaughter were opened wide.
The heavy blow dealt to international solidarity by the betrayal of the Socialist International was felt across the world. While working class resistance to the imperialist war was not shattered instantly in New Zealand as it had been in Europe, there was a period of deep confusion and disarray that lasted almost a year.
On August 5, 1914, the Wellington Evening Post reported the declarations given that day to a crowd of ten to fifteen thousand from the steps of the New Zealand Parliament. First, a telegram from George, R. I. [Rex Imperator – King and Emperor], was read by the Governor, Lord Liverpool, flanked by Members of Parliament and Judges of the Supreme Court. “I desire to express to my people of the overseas Dominions with what appreciation and pride I have received the messages from their respective Governments during the last few days. These spontaneous assurances of their fullest support recall to me the generous self-sacrificing help given by them in the past to the Mother Country.”
There followed a statement from the Prime Minister, William Massey. He was among those colonial leaders who had pledged their Dominions’ full support to the empire even before hostilities began. His Defence Minister, James Allen, had already promised to send an expeditionary force of 8000 troops from New Zealand.
The Evening Post continued: “The Right Honourable W.F. Massey said…The British people must stand together, and he was glad to see that the people not only of New Zealand but of every part of the Empire were unanimous in their loyalty… Keep cool, stand fast, do your duty to your country and your Empire [Loud cheers].”
On the very same page, the Evening Post reported a discussion the previous day in the Arbitration Court. “It appears that the Motherland will soon be… embroiled in a great European war,” the judge noted, “[that] will certainly disorganise the commerce and industries of the Dominion… I feel that it would be unwise, if not improper, in the interests of both employers and workers, to make awards…” The employers’ representative at the Court, Mr Pryor, “appreciated very highly his honour’s remarks… One suggestion was to suspend the Arbitration Court altogether until matters settled down… Special legislation would perhaps be necessary to suspend or vary the existing awards…”
Harry Holland was still in jail. His son Allan, nineteen years old, was present at the patriotic demonstration in Wellington. Allan wrote of his disgust to his wife Stella; his letter provides a snapshot of the frustration, confusion, and bewilderment among class-struggle forces in the early days of the war. “The jingo spirit has taken hold of New Zealand – Wellington especially – and every night crowds parade in the streets singing “Godsave” “Britains never, never, never etc” and every other patriotic song ever written. The processions are usually headed by brass bands, those appearing to date being the Tramway, Jupps (scab) and the Mission…
“Something which will probably disappoint and disgust you happened yesterday. The Watersiders Band held a patriotic demonstration in the Post Office Square and afterwards paraded the streets playing jingo airs! A couple of union officials gave short speeches in the square, and I felt too sick to even interrupt. Bruce (assistant secretary, WWU) said that the watersiders were going to sink all differences until the war was over. Gray (whom Dad beat in the selection for the mayoral candidate) said that we all had to be loyal to the British Empire – the greatest empire on earth and the empire to which we are all proud to belong. He also said that the Government should follow the general rule in older countries of setting all political prisoners free as soon as war is declared, and should let the strike prisoners out of jail. It didn’t matter a hang about the principle or that the men had been unjustly imprisoned. Gray is a Socialist, sure, for doesn’t he belong to the SDP?
“Roy [Allan’s younger brother, aged 17, who played cornet in the Watersiders’ Band – JR] did not take part in yesterday’s demonstration but attended at a meeting of the Band this morning. He said that most of the band fellows are wild as can be with the part taken by the band, and state that they were misled altogether as to the nature of the affair. The majority were under the impression that the idea was to march to Parliament House and demand the release of the strike prisoners…
“I met with Pat Hickey down town last night and asked him what he thought of it. He couldn’t find words to express an opinion, but said that he could see some of the scars made by the Specials’ batons (under the Union Jack) on the heads of some of the participants in yesterday’s fiasco.”
The Maoriland Worker was being edited in the interim by the British syndicalist Ernest Allen while Harry Holland was in prison. The August 5 issue of the Maoriland Worker had this to say about the European war:
“War, on a scale staggering in its proportions, threatens the human race. Already four of the greatest powers on earth – Russia, Germany, France and Austria – have mobilised their armies; the sword has been drawn in earnest, and murder and rapine commenced. With Austria and Germany on the one side, and Russia and France on the other; the possibility of Great Britain and probably other nations being involved at any moment, well might all lovers of Peace and Progress stand aghast.
“To think that these engines of destruction should be operated for the satisfaction of a dividend-grabbing few, is surely the most scathing indictment of our civilisation. For despite all the tall talk of “patriotism,” “loyalty, “fatherland,” and the like, the propelling force of the whole bloody and damnable conspiracy is DIVIDENDS, DIVIDENDS, DIVIDENDS…
“Would that the workers were organised sufficiently to stop this mad murder-mongering now! Would that they could declare a general strike and paralyse the military demons who are leading them “into the mouth of hell,” as Tennyson put it. Whether our comrades will undertake the task or not it is difficult to say, but if ever such a step ought to be taken now above all others is the time.”
A week later, after Britain had formally entered the war, and as the war hysteria mounted, there was already a note of equivocation in the Maoriland Worker. An article criticising the New Zealand government’s offer of an expeditionary force said in passing, “…So far as the war itself is concerned, now that Britain is involved we confess we are anxious for our race, together with the French and Belgians (upon whom the fight was arrogantly forced) to emerge triumphant…”
Massey amnestied the 1913 Waterfront Strike prisoners on 15 August, and Holland and five of the other nine were released. “They emerge from the cell not only without a stain upon their characters, but with a recognition of their worth and fearlessness engraved deeply upon the hearts of all earnest men and women everywhere. They have suffered merely because they were true to their class” wrote the Worker. The Social Democratic Members of Parliament, Webb and McCombs, invited Harry and Annie Holland, together with the other released prisoners, to a celebration at the Parliament restaurant, which ruffled a few feathers among the government Members.
Holland must have been shocked more than most by the betrayals of the Second International, given his close connections to the European socialist movement, especially the German Social-Democratic Party, through the German immigrants to Australia who had been among his closest collaborators in Sydney. Three years earlier, Holland had organised solidarity with the French anti-militarist leader Gustave Hervé, and had corresponded with him in prison. Hervé had urged the International “to meet any declaration of war, no matter how it originates, with a military strike and with insurrection” and was jailed for two years for ‘provocations to murder’ as well as disobedience and insurrection. In August 1914, Hervé lamented the collapse of “our beautiful dream of an international general strike against the war” – and promptly became one of the most frenzied of the French pro-war chauvinists, changing the name of his newspaper from “La guerre social” to “La Victoire.” His statement of capitulation to the war pressure, which ends with “The country is in danger!” was published in the Maoriland Worker. Later Hervé became a monarchist and a supporter of the fascist Mussolini.
Ben Tillett, the London dockworker unionist who had toured Australia and New Zealand, and who along with Tom Mann had been one of Holland’s closest international collaborators in supporting working class politics in Australia, also abandoned the idea of a general strike to oppose war, and became an enthusiastic supporter of the imperialist war.
The slogan that Hervé had used as the title for his anti-militarist book of 1910, “My country, right or wrong” became one of the foremost slogans of the war drive. The Worker pointed out, “Your country – if New Zealand is it – means your Government – and Government (under the class state) means capitalism – and so you are for Ward (or Massey) right or wrong, and capitalism right or wrong.” Nevertheless, the idea put forward by the class-collaborationist and pro-war wing of the labour movement, that “if a country is worth reforming, it’s worth defending,” had roots going back to the early Lib-Lab years of the 1890s and beyond. A clear political lead was desperately needed; the Maoriland Worker now equivocated.
Massey pressed his advantage in the patriotic atmosphere. In November he rushed a War Regulations Act through parliament in semi-secrecy. A major attack on labour solidarity and democratic rights, tantamount to martial law in some respects, it met with little opposition. The original Act passed with hardly a mention in any newspaper before or after; subsequent amendments were reported in brief articles as public notices. The Maoriland Worker first mentioned it the following year.
Harry Holland had little time to adjust to life outside prison, take back the reins of editorship of the Maoriland Worker, and orient himself politically in the new, suffocating atmosphere of patriotism, before another turn of events demanded his full attention. On 12 September, an explosion ripped through the Ralph coal mine in Huntly, in the Waikato region south of Auckland, killing 43 miners. Holland rushed to Huntly to report for the Maoriland Worker on a Commission of Inquiry into the explosion. His report was published as a pamphlet by the Worker Press.
The Commission found that the explosion had been caused by an accumulation of gas being ignited by the flame of a miner’s lamp. It found that the company had been negligent in failing to test regularly for gas, report accidents, or fence off old workings, and in allowing the continued use of naked flame lamps after gas had been detected. It described the inspections by the scab union officials as ‘infrequent and valueless.’
Holland concluded the pamphlet by outlining the case for a further inquiry into the victimisations at Huntly and other mines and workplaces, citing this as a major contributing factor in the disaster. Listing the long series of victimisations of unionists, including those responsible for safety checks, he wrote, “The time came when no man dared to speak in the bogus ‘union’ against the company’s interests. When the fear of victimisation had made protest impossible, the danger zone was reached. The explosion came. Forty-three lives were sacrificed.
Holland quoted the resolution passed by a meeting to protest the original victimisations at the time of the Waihi strike in 1912, which had said, ‘We hold that the Government is equally responsible with the Taupiri Coal Mines directors should any trouble eventuate as a result of the aforesaid victimisations.’
“The crowning trouble that eventuated was the explosion.”
Holland’s call for a new inquest into victimisations got little response – unlike his similar call at the conclusion of the Waihi strike less than two years earlier. Much had changed since that time: the working class was now in retreat, and the capitalist class was mobilising the country for war.
Immediately on his return from Huntly, Holland entered the political fray as the SDP candidate for Wellington North , one of nine SDP candidates in the first general election contested by the Social Democratic Party in December 1914. His election meetings addressed enthusiastic audiences of hundreds on “The Huntly Massacre and the Massey Government,” “The Raid on the Public Trust” and “The Abrogation of the Shipping Laws,” but very little about the war. The remnant of the United Labour Party stood five candidates (including three who were already Members of Parliament) separately from the Social Democratic Party. The SDP adjusted its slate to avoid competing with those candidates. Holland received 1,600 votes, losing to Police Minister Herdman. In his concession speech Holland vowed to ‘drive the enemies of Labour into one camp, where it would fight them for the right to govern New Zealand.” SDP Members of Parliament Webb and McCombs were re-elected, as were two ULP candidates and “Independent Labour” MP John Payne.
The outcome of the election was a shock to Massey, who had expected to ride the patriotic wave into Parliament with an increased majority. That never happened; in fact neither Reform nor Liberal parties received enough votes to govern alone. After some months of stalemate, a new coalition took shape under Massey’s leadership in March 1915, with the Liberal Party of Joseph Ward joining this ‘Fusion’ government, also called the ‘National Cabinet.’ Ward became deputy and Finance Minister. The political alignment Holland had anticipated three months earlier, where the enemies of Labour formed ‘one camp,’ came to pass even sooner than he expected.
Events moved swiftly after that.