Harry Holland’s wartime political default

Gallipoli landing 1915 Photo: Imperial War Museum (Q 112876) At the water’s edge lies an Australian engineer (Sapper R Reynolds), the first to fall during the assault.

In late April 1915 the first major military engagement involving New Zealand troops took place on the shores of Turkey: a bid to open the Dardanelles Strait to allied shipping and deliver the Turkish city of Constantinople (Istanbul today) as a prize to the despotic czar of Russia. The Gallipoli assault was a blood-soaked disaster, abandoned eight months later after a shocking toll of death and injury. This truth was largely concealed from the New Zealand public by war censorship.

New Zealanders return to Gallipoli by picket boat after a rest in Lemnos. Photo: Imperial War Museum IWM (HU 53360)

However, the returning shiploads of bodies and maimed soldiers could not be entirely hidden; after the fearful ‘blooding of the troops’ at Gallipoli, the festive jingoism of previous months gave way to a more sullen and menacing chauvinist campaign against ‘spies,’ ‘shirkers,’ and other scapegoats for the mounting disasters.

New York Times reports sinking of Lusitania in May 1915

On 7 May 1915, two weeks into the Gallipoli carnage, the transatlantic passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of 1200 lives, including some New Zealand citizens. (The ship had secretly been carrying munitions, making it a legitimate military target – a fact which the German Embassy in the United States had made clear in a warning advertisement placed in fifty American newspapers prior to the voyage).

The sinking, described by Massey as a ‘foul and dastardly crime,’ provided the fuel for a massive propaganda campaign against Germany and Germans in the newspapers of New Zealand and the other allies.

Sinking of Lusitania provided opening for ramped-up anti-German propaganda campaign

New Zealanders of German descent were sacked from their jobs, abused and physically assaulted (along with some Flemish and Scandinavians with ‘German-sounding names’) and their businesses trashed in riots that shook several provincial towns. The government had paved the way for such attacks by amending the War Regulations to make it illegal for Germans to Anglicise their names. Formalising the riots into law, the government set up an Enemy Aliens Board to organise citizen spying. German names were obliterated from streets and manufacturers’ brand-names.

In the wake of the Lusitania sinking, the ‘jingo spirit’ described by Holland’s son Allan in August 1914 spread to broader layers of the working class in New Zealand, including sections of the class-struggle leadership. Ernest Allen, the syndicalist from Britain who had edited Maoriland Worker while Holland was in jail, joined the enthusiasm for the war, as did Hiram Hunter, President of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Patrick Webb, the SDP Member of Parliament who later was persecuted for his opposition to Conscription, was already on record in support of the war, proposing that the government levy a special war tax to fund the war effort.

Crowd farewelling NZEF 6th reinforcements leaving on board the ship Willochra. Photo: John Dickie Ref: 1/4-009650-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23145297

The SDP Mayor of Woolston, J J Graham, tried to enlist in the army himself, explaining that his stance was a natural consequence of the SDP’s opposition to conscription. “It is true that the Social Democrats are against war on principle, but I again assert that we are opposed to compulsion from within or without. We are now fighting against the leading conscriptionist Power in the world, and I want to help show that conscription is not necessary in the British Empire.” James McCombs, the other SDP Member of Parliament, regularly spoke at army recruiting meetings, while remaining an opponent of conscription. Dan Sullivan, President of the United Federation of Labour, joined the executive of the Christchurch Patriotic Committee and the local Citizens’ Defence Corps. Sullivan also opposed conscription.

The scapegoating of ‘enemy aliens’ was already a major feature of the War Regulations Act of November 1914. Enemy aliens suspected of being “disaffected and dangerous” could be detained at the discretion of the military authorities. If such ‘enemy aliens’ were charged with interfering with military operations, they could be court-martialled and executed. Compulsory labour schemes were set up to regulate and control the labour of enemy aliens. These laws were later broadened to provide for deportation of British citizens arriving in the country if, in the opinion of the Attorney General, their presence in the country would be ‘injurious to public safety.’

Quarantine station on Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour was used as internment camp for 300 ‘enemy aliens’. Photo: Ref: 1/2-038618-F. Alexander Turnbull Library /records/22800044

Many of the provisions of the War Regulations Act were continuously enlarged as the National Cabinet’s political and military campaigns gathered pace in the years 1915 to 1916.

Censorship of mails and telegrams was established together with increased powers of search and seizure. A ban on selling, printing, delivering or possessing prohibited publications was introduced. Among the titles banned from public circulation were German language publications and some which had military significance, such as Jane’s Fighting Ships, but most were socialist and labour movement newspapers. Included in the first list of prohibited publications were International Socialist Review, the Australian socialist newspaper founded by Harry Holland, as well as Direct Action and Solidarity and “all other printed matter published by the Industrial Workers of the World.”

Bavarian String Band formed by German detainees on Matiu/Somes Island. Photo: Ref: 1/2-112230-F. Alexander Turnbull Library /records/23103973

Further publications were added to the list in the period after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the Russian Revolution of 1917, including the book The Black Prophet, a novel about the Irish famine by William Carleton, Green Ray, an Irish nationalist publication produced in Dunedin, and Novi Svijet (New World), a Yugoslav publication produced in Auckland. Most of the Yugoslav immigrants in New Zealand originated from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Slovenia and Croatia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Yugoslavs were therefore deemed ‘enemy aliens’ despite the fact that they were engaged in a liberation struggle against that empire and were mainly hostile towards it. Sending remittances to their families in Dalmatia now became illegal.

Dalmatian internees on Matiu/Somes Island. Ref: 1/2-091248-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22354824

False rumours and hysterical petitions accusing Yugoslavs of disloyal acts began to circulate. The Massey government set in motion a plan to intern all Yugoslavs in the remote far north; this was abandoned after protests. However, Yugoslavs, whether naturalised or not, were required to register with the police, from where they were assigned to compulsory labour camps where they fulfilled tasks such as draining swamps, where they could easily be segregated from other workers.

Some Yugoslav workers were interned, usually for failing to report to police, along with hundreds of immigrants from Germany, on Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour and Motuihe Island near Auckland.

All newspapers had to be approved by the censor before publication. Newspapers were forbidden from indicating where their content had been altered or deleted by the censor. The censorship was extended to cinema. The Minister of Customs was empowered to confiscate any book or publication imported into New Zealand where he deemed that the sale or distribution of the book would be ‘injurious to the public interest in respect of the present war”

The definition of ‘seditious utterance’ was broadened to include making statements with ‘seditious intention,’  ‘seditious tendency’ and ‘seditious conspiracy.’  Some of the forms of sedition specified were “To excite disaffection against His Majesty or the Government of the United Kingdom, or of New Zealand, or any other part of His Majesty’s dominions,…to excite, procure or encourage violence, lawlessness, or disorder,…to discourage the prosecution of the present war to a victorious conclusion,” and, significantly, “to excite or encourage opposition to laws … relative to compulsory military training or service during the present war”.

It became a form of sedition, then, simply to argue against military conscription.

The fact that socialists and the labour movement were the target of these “regulations” became even clearer with the clause defining as sedition “to insult, annoy, offend or discredit, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere, the subjects, or any class or classes of the subjects, of any State which is in alliance with His Majesty…” [my emphasis – JR].

Along with restrictions on ‘utterances’ came restrictions on freedom of association. The Commissioner of Police was empowered to prohibit ‘meetings having reference to the war.” Freedom of movement was also curtailed. Any person over the age of fifteen who sought to travel overseas was required to obtain written permission to leave the country from the Minister of Internal Affairs  Passports were introduced at this time; they were required for any person arriving in New Zealand (other than from Australia).

Through such measures the capitalist class in New Zealand built up its own machinery of state, which had been relatively weak up to that point. The course towards separation from Australia, begun with the decision to reject joining the Commonwealth of Australia in 1899, was consummated. The single labour market straddling the Tasman Sea came to an end, and the deep bonds of trans-Tasman working class solidarity, born in the Maritime Strike of 1890 and sustained for twenty-five years since, were substantially weakened.

This usurpation of power in the name of the war effort did not go entirely unchallenged. As the Fusion government pressed its anti-worker assault on all fronts in 1915, the labour movement, bewildered and dumbstruck since August 1914, gradually found its voice again.

“We seem to be getting to that perilous stage where Government by regulation and Order-in-Council takes the place of Parliamentary Government,” wrote the Maoriland Worker in September 1915. “[A] military officer may seize any person who was so culpably negligent as to have been born outside of Japan, or Servia, or Russia, or France, England etc, and make a prisoner of him (or her), deny him (or her) any information as to what he or she is suspected of having done, deny him (or her) the hitherto boasted British right to a trial by a jury of his (or her) peers, and keep him (or her) a prisoner as long as the war, or even longer. All that is necessary is that the military officer shall assure himself that he has ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the alien to be seized is “disaffected” or “dangerous.”

“No one has a right to enact a liberty-destroying law of that sort behind the back of Parliament, and anyhow it is too great and too dangerous a power to place in the hands of any military officer… The …regulations referring to printed matter, also constitute a grave danger…”

The Worker went on to point out the hypocrisy of the clauses concerning ‘advocating violence’:  “Every speaker at a pro-war meeting advocates violence, as does every pro-war newspaper!”


Massey and Ward, leaders of Fusion government, talk to New Zealand troops, Etaples, France. Photo: Ref: 1/2-013717-G. Alexander Turnbull Library. natlib.govt.nz/records/22882725

“Independent Labour” MP John Payne supported the Fusion, and attempted to persuade the Social Democratic Party and United Labour Party parliamentarians to accept an offer of representation in the Fusion Cabinet. Holland debated Payne publicly on the question in September 1915. As Payne said in his opening remarks, “it is a question that goes right to the root of the Labour question – or rather, right to the root of the question of a Labour Party.”

Payne opened the debate, outlining a strategy of reformist manoeuvring to get ‘Labour’ into power, especially by supporting the Liberal Party against Reform within the National Cabinet.

Holland forcefully rejected this strategy, along with the claim of the wartime cabinet to be ‘national’ in character.

“It is most emphatically not a National Cabinet that is in existence in New Zealand today. If it were, it would stand for the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution and exchange, and its foundation principle would be to run this country for the common good, and in the interests of the whole of the people. If it were a National Cabinet in the real sense, its first act would have been the nationalisation of the food supplies of New Zealand, to protect the people from the food exploiters. (Applause). It would have set its face right against the bogus Unions, and the deplorable system of victimisation that operates on the waterfronts of this country even at this moment. While we are talking about war and patriotism, it is a fact that among those who are victimised, apparently with the approval of the Fusion Cabinet, are men whose sons are fighting at the Dardanelles.”

Holland ridiculed the idea of Labour joining this cabinet. “…And when they had parcelled out the jobs amongst themselves, they came at last to Labour – Labour, that constitutes 85 per cent of the population – and said: “We will give you one-thirteenth of the representation in the National Cabinet!” Unlucky thirteen! (Laughter)…

“ls it not a fact, that political parties all the time represent economic class interests, and the Massey Party now a part of the National Cabinet represents the land monopolists of New Zealand, while the Liberals (also now a part of the National Cabinet) represents the money capitalists; but Labour represents the throbbing energy of the workers that builds the wealth of this country and makes it fit for white man and black man to live in in comfort. (Applause).

“The SDP – the national political party of Labour – was the result of the 1913 Unity Congress. It has consistently re-affirmed the political independence of Labour ever since; it did so at its July Conference of this year; and when the Labour members refused to enter the National Cabinet they were acting in accordance with the decisions of the various Labour conferences.”

He examined the record of this cabinet in its first few weeks of existence.

“The Fusion introduced an Industrial Conscription law… They have made it possible to use the military law in New Zealand to compel men, if necessary, to leave their occupations and go to any other occupation the Government may decide upon. This is apparently the outcome of a resolution passed at the Farmers’ Union Conference. Had Labour been included in the Cabinet its representative would have been committed to that measure, for how could a Minister of the Crown fight outside against what his Cabinet had carried in secret? He would have to obey the Cabinet or get out of it. Now, take the fourth week in the history of this National Cabinet: They propose to enact into law the National Registration Bill, which is just one further step towards that complete Prussianising of New Zealand – that conscription which the Dominion has told us is bound to be enacted unless the Military Authorities wish otherwise.

“Labour would have to repudiate such a principle from one end of the Dominion to the other, and – war or no war – the day that introduces Prussian Conscription in its worst form in New Zealand is going to find the whole of the industrial workers up in arms against it. (Applause). If there is any one thing more brutal than another in its contradictory frankness at this moment, it is the fact that we have been told that our men are fighting abroad to crush Prussian Militarism; and yet every move of the Fusion Cabinet is toward bringing the same system of militarism into New Zealand. (Applause)”

Harry Holland’s election speeches and propaganda attacked the government for the hypocrisy of the justifications they put forward for fighting this war, decried the unequal economic sacrifices it demanded from the working class, both economically and in life and limb, and declared irreconcilable hatred for conscription. But they didn’t directly address the character of the war itself. Like many in the international socialist movement who had advocated mass pressure to prevent the war, Holland was disarmed when war broke out in 1914 despite the apparent strength of the European Socialist parties. Lacking from Holland’s perspective up to August 1914 was a clear understanding that war was a necessary product of capitalism, and that the task was not to attempt to prevent war, but to take advantage of the war crisis to advance the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This was an idea that he had to conquer in 1915.

On the other hand, within the labour movement, opposition to military conscription straddled almost all shades of opinion on the war, from the most pro-Imperial jingoes like Dan Sullivan through to those like Holland who maintained a principled, if muted, hatred of the war.  Since 1909 the Federation of Labour had led active campaigns against compulsory military training; the discussion on conscription at the 1913 Unity Conference took a further step towards unifying the labour movement on the question. After August 1914 the price of this unity was an unspoken agreement not to resolve the contradictory opinions on the nature of the war itself.

Throughout the years of unrestrained patriotic chauvinism, while most of the anti-militarists of yesterday were capitulating to the pressure of militarism, Holland remained opposed to the war, and looked forward to the day when it would lead to revolutionary explosions. He had to express this opposition indirectly, because any openly stated opposition to the war would almost certainly bring on sedition charges against himself and attempts to shut down the Maoriland Worker under the War Regulations Act.

Revolutionary barricade in Paris during Commune of 1871.

Holland began by publishing in the Maoriland Worker over four weeks in March 1915 a study of the 1871 Paris Commune, the first government of the working class in history, which was later produced as a pamphlet. Holland’s articles featured prominently the manifestos of solidarity sent between the workers of France and Germany on the last occasion when their capitalist masters were at war, and commended the seizure of power by the Parisian working class, even in the unfavourable circumstances that presented themselves in 1871, as the only way out of the crisis. The implication could not have been clearer.

Holland followed this up with a series of eighteen articles entitled “Back of the War,” published from January to August 1916, a detailed history of the growth of the working class movement in Germany up to 1914. “There are two Germanys – just as there are two Englands, two Frances, two Americas. There is the Germany of Goethe and Schiller, and Fichte, of philosophy, science and letters, of Marx and Lassalle and Liebknecht and Bebel, of the working men who raise the Red Flag of Human Brotherhood; and there is the Germany of the Kings and Emperors, of the Junkers and the jingoes, of the despots and the militarists. Whatever share of the responsibility for the present world war is to be debited to Germany, it does not belong to the first Germany, but to the second – the Germany of the Ruling Class,” Holland wrote.

“It is true that the foundation reason for the war is economic. Every student knows that all modern wars find their causes in the great struggle of the national capitalists for markets – markets to provide a profitable outlet for the surplus products of Labour. In all countries the working men are beginning to more clearly see that this is so. They are systematically robbed of the things they produce, and when the surplus assumes a magnitude that threatens to culminate in a crisis, markets must be found. In order to secure those markets wars are often necessary; and it is a peculiar fact that the workers whose stolen goods are to be marketed are always called upon to do the fighting to secure the markets…

“There is no doubt whatever in my mind that in Germany more than in any other country was the existing social disorder threatened. Because this was so, all my reading of German working-class history leads me to the conclusion that next to (and indeed growing out, of) the great foundation cause – the economic cause – the desire to deal a crushing blow to the advancing hosts of Social Democracy would be an influence that would cause the German Ruling Class to hail the opportunity to hurl the nation headlong to war. The Kaiser’s party would undoubtedly prefer defeat at the hands of other capitalist countries – even though it should mean the loss of millions of lives – to the peaceable victory of Social Democracy.”

Of the German SPD’s betrayal of August 1914, he wrote, “Their failure was no worse than our own. Their leading politicians who joined in the war-madness, who pitiably tossed their life principles into the national melting pot, were in no wise different from our own. Certainly they have made shameful enough surrender; certainly they have their men who rant and rave in stupid paroxysms of a superficial patriotism. But the German Socialist movement has never presented the gesticulating spectacle of a Hughes [William Hughes, Australian Labor Party leader and Prime Minister at the time], or the hysterical travesty of a Tillett [Ben Tillett of London, formerly class-struggle unionist now supporter of the war], or the audacious treachery of a Pearce [George Pearce, deputy leader of Labor Party under Hughes, promoter of Conscription in Australia]. Shameful as the surrender of their international principles has been, it dwarfs before the surrender of working class ideals by our Australian Labour Party—which, being the governing power, was under no necessity whatever to make the surrender.”

This still left the question of the working class stance towards the Allies’ war unanswered. The pressure to dodge the question of the predatory character of the war was immense, as were the perils of speaking openly and directly. When Holland was standing as a candidate in the Grey by-election campaign in 1918, the local press speculated openly that he would be arrested before the polling-day. A provocateur at one of his meetings asked, “Will the candidate frankly state his attitude toward, and personal opinion of, the present war? Does the candidate desire a victory for the Allies and the breaking of the military power of Germany? If he does not desire the victory of the Allies, will he discuss the alternative thereto, and indicate what course he would recommend to be pursued?”1

Holland refused to answer. He explained later, “When a man connected with promotion of mining companies rose in my Reefton meeting and put very cleverly worded questions which were obviously framed to trap me, I told him I was not walking into a spider’s parlour of that kind.”

. For Harry Holland, who had already been jailed three times for speaking the truth in times of class conflict, the threat of the War Regulations and sedition charges was not the greatest part of this pressure. A far more important consideration was that he did not want to split the all-inclusive mass party he was making such great efforts to assemble.

Thus Holland sacrificed political clarity in the interests of the unity of the labour movement, just at the moment when a sharp break with the pro-War chauvinists in the labour movement was most urgently needed.



  1. These questions were reported in the Inangahua Herald newspaper, which is no longer retrievable. They were quoted in Parliament by Reform MP Thomas Field. Holland disputed that this was the exact wording of the questions.

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