Was New Zealand’s participation in the Second World War avoidable?

A Review of Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, with Hugh Eldred-Grigg.

A guest post by Terry Coggan.

World War Two is seen as the good war, even by many on the left who recognize the World War which preceded it as an inter-imperialist war, and condemn the wars of imperialist aggression which followed it, such as those waged against the peoples of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus former Green Party MP Keith Locke, in a newspaper article marking the centenary of the outbreak of the World War One, wrote “Unlike the first war, the second pitted the democratic nations against an expansionist dictatorship, Hitler’s Germany. WW1 was simply a contest between great powers, each in their perceived national interest.”

Well known activist John Minto, opposing the “redevelopment” of the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes at the expense of state house tenants, wrote that it was worth remembering that the area was settled in the aftermath of World War Two, “and street names reflect some of the battles where New Zealanders fought the rise of fascism.”

In a criticism of the central tenets of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s book which were re-stated in a recent article on The Spinoff website, columnist Chris Trotter declared “The first great global conflict of the Twentieth Century may have been a vicious brawl between competing imperial powers…..but the Second World War was the real thing. Adolf Hitler and regime constituted a clear and present danger to human civilization which simply had to be stopped.”

Phoney Wars, a 2017 book by Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Hugh Eldred-Grigg. Available from Otago University Press.

World War Two has been described, accurately, as four wars in one. Three of these did have a just or progressive character. They were, firstly, the war to defend the Soviet Union against the imperialist assault by Germany’s rulers, aimed at overturning the historic gains of the Russian Revolution; secondly, wars for national independence in which subject peoples sought to throw off colonial rule, principally in China, but also in India, Egypt and elsewhere; and thirdly, the struggle by resistance forces in the occupied countries of Europe against the fascist dictatorships imposed by Nazi Germany.

If the New Zealand capitalist state became involved in the these wars, it was inevitably on the reactionary side. Eldred-Grigg cites an example from the colonial world: “The banks of the Nile were a ‘curious’ setting for dominion soldiers to wage what was supposedly a war for freedom and democracy. New Zealand was helping an imperial overlord keep its power in Egypt.”

In Europe, as German forces retreated, the New Zealand Army was part of Anglo-American efforts to stop Communist partisans, who in nearly all countries had led the resistance to the Nazi occupiers, from taking power, as when New Zealand S.O.E. operatives were part of the British intervention on the Monarchist side in the civil war in Greece which broke out in 1944, or when New Zealand troops disarmed partisans of the Yugoslav National Liberation Army in Trieste in 1945.

That New Zealand ended up on the wrong side of these conflicts was not an accident. It flowed from the fact that New Zealand was an imperialist state on one side of an imperialist war. This is is the important thing to grasp about World War Two: at its heart it was continuation of World War One, a clash between rival powers for control of world markets, sources of raw materials and labour power, and fields of investment. The main contenders to be top dog in Western Hemisphere were the burgeoning imperialism of the United States and a resurgent Germany, with the once preeminent but now declining power Britain, with its white settler colonies like New Zealand still for the moment in tow, obliged to attach itself to one or the other of them.

Which one Britain would choose was not pre-determined. In the the years immediately after World War One, the Communist International thought war between Britain and the United States possible, if not likely. So did the military high commands of both states, and had plans of battle drawn up accordingly, as Eldred-Grigg points out. Well into the 1930s, a substantial section of the British ruling class deemed Germany their more logical ally.

In the East, the main antagonist the United States faced was Japan. As early as 1918, Lenin had written that war between these two imperialisms for control of the Pacific Basin was inevitable. And here too which side Britain would ally itself with was not a foregone conclusion. (Although, as Eldred-Grigg shows, as the 1930s progressed, especially after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the New Zealand propertied rulers were actually in advance of their British partners in deciding that Japan posed the more immediate threat to their joint interests in the region.

They found a champion in Labour Party Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had labeled World War One “an imperialist war”, and spent a year in jail for opposing conscription. Eldred-Grigg quotes Fraser warning the Japanese consul-general in 1940 that “the continued control of South East Asia by the Netherlands and the British Empire was ‘vital’ to New Zealand.”)

It is true that the imperialist powers on one side of the global conflict, Germany, Italy and Japan were fascist or military dictatorships. But these regimes had in part been forced into “leaner and meaner” forms of rule because they lacked, and in fact were trying to acquire, access to the enormous resources and proceeds of Empire which had permitted their Anglo-American rivals to rule with looser reins. But the fact that these dictatorships existed, and did commit monstrous crimes, has obscured the essential fact that World War Two was an inter-imperialist war, and has allowed the imperialist “democracies” to present their drive to head off challenges to their privileged position in the world as a righteous crusade for freedom.

Does Phoney Wars help in setting the historical record straight? To an extent, but its value is ultimately limited by the fact that it remains inside a New Zealand nationalist framework. Eldred-Grigg does a good job exposing the “naked” imperialist motivations of Britain and the United States, alongside those of Germany and Japan, but pretends that the New Zealand capitalists could somehow steer a course between them. But being a junior imperialist doesn’t make you less of an imperialist.

Lenin explained that imperialist war is not a policy that certain states can choose to pursue. It is the inevitable outcome of the workings of the laws of capitalist development that resulted in the world economy being dominated by a relative handful of giant industrial and financial monopolies, locked in a fierce competitive struggle with each other through the different national states they remain based in. To be in the game, smaller imperialist powers like New Zealand must align themselves with a larger power, or blocs of powers. This can present a dilemma, as it does for the New Zealand capitalists today – the United States or China? – but for the early period of their existence the choice was clear-cut.

By the end of the nineteenth century a ruling class of big land-owners, industrialists, merchants and financiers had coalesced in New Zealand, a process documented in Eldred-Grigg’s earlier books such as Southern Gentry and The Rich. This class gained entry to the imperialist club of rich nations, initially as junior partners of Britain, but also with imperialist interests of its own, acquiring colonies and staking out a sphere of influence in the Pacific. (Lenin’s noted this in 1913, writing of New Zealand’s “local imperialism”, and commenting that this was “fully compatible” with a second trend, “participation in the imperialism of Great Britain.”)

The New Zealand capitalist state’s role as associate of British imperialism made its entry into World War One in 1914 inevitable, not out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the motherland, but out of a very concrete concern to protect their joint economic operations, and to claim a share of the spoils of victory. In the years leading up to 1939, the same imperatives were in place for the New Zealand ruling class that made its participation in the war that broke out in September of that year equally inevitable.

The New Zealand rulers cemented their membership in the imperialist club through their involvement in World War One. In a plain demonstration of what that war had been about, New Zealand acquired Samoa and, jointly with Australia and Britain, phosphate-rich Nauru from defeated Germany, and added them to its empire in the Pacific. In Phoney Wars, Eldred-Grigg, as in earlier books, describes the grubby workings of New Zealand imperialism in “their” region, and how this did not substantially change after the Labour Party government took office in 1935. In the case of Nauru he dryly observes “Social democracy was not for export, apparently – or not so long as the government of the dominion sought cheap phosphate.” (He doesn’t mention one sharp reminder to the New Zealand capitalists of why they were fighting the war – imperial Japan taking its turn to attempt to exploit Nauru’s phosphate resources during its brief occupation of the island from 1943-45.)

The world-wide economic crisis and ensuing trade wars of the inter-war years drove New Zealand imperialism into an even closer alignment with its British parent than before 1914. New Zealand’s inclusion in the Imperial Preference system and the Sterling Bloc was reflected in trade figures – by the end of the 1930s half of the country’s imports were from and three-quarters of its exports to Britain. But the links went deeper than that. British capital, through meat processing companies, shipping lines, banks and financial institutions played a major role in the New Zealand economy. But New Zealand capitalists often held stakes in these enterprises, just as they sought British investment in their own industries and financial institutions. It was how they shared in the fruits of Empire.

Eldred-Grigg’s books have shown that the New Zealand ruling class was no comprador bourgeoisie. “…the relationship between capitalists in New Zealand and capitalists in Europe or the United States,’ he wrote in The Rich, “was never one of colonial clients and metropolitan patrons. The rich constituted a sort of international cousinhood.” As an example, he notes that the British meat processor firm Thomas Borthwick and Sons ‘was closely connected by friendship with the leading dynasties of the dominion.” And in Phoney Wars he points out that “well-to-do households [in New Zealand] owned shareholdings in big [British] fleets like Shaw Savill, P&O, the New Zealand Shipping Company and the Union Steam Ship Company.” When New Zealand capitalist families travelled to Britain, as they regularly did, it wasn’t just for the culture, or to catch up with friends and relatives; it was to visit the money.

World War Two and its outcome would begin the process whereby the New Zealand capitalists started to unpick their British connections. But in 1939 it would have appeared self-evident to them that their fate was bound up with that of the British Empire. When Prime Minister Savage made his famous, or infamous, utterance, “We range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes we go. Where she stands we stand”, he wasn’t merely engaging in sentiment, he was reflecting the rulers’ very material reality. The judgments by Hugh Eldred-Grigg in the introduction to Phoney Wars that “Ultimately there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to involve itself in the war”, or by Steven Eldred-Grigg in chapter four that “Wellington had the luxury of choosing to go in or stay out”, are mistaken, although not for the reasons that writers like Chris Trotter claim.

One biographical sketch describes Eldred-Grigg as “a socialist by inclination.” A more consistent socialist would pose the question what working people in New Zealand could have done when led into a war that wasn’t their war by a government that they thought was their government. Instead Eldred-Grigg asks what was the best course for “New Zealand”, or “the country”, non-class differentiated entities that in the end can only mean New Zealand capitalism.

The course he suggests is a variant on the idea long promoted by liberal nationalists, that New Zealand should follow an “independent” foreign policy, and even be a force for good in the world. In 1939 according to Eldred-Grigg, if complete neutrality was not possible, this could have taken the form of the “Holyoakian” option, a reference to the cautious and limited involvement in the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s supposedly managed by the New Zealand Prime Minister of the time. He writes “The hypothetical 1930s ‘Holyoake’ would have had to work out what was the least that his government and the country could do to avoid upsetting Britain, and local Anglophiles, without paying too high a price in blood or gold.”

The book does have strengths, however, that make it worth reading. It is important to recall the war crimes committed by the “democracies” in the war as an antidote to their hypocritical cant about fighting against fascist tyranny. These include the hundred of thousands of deaths caused by the incendiary bombing of civilian targets in German and Japanese cities; the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Allies when they knew Japan was on the point of surrendering; and the famine in 1943 in the Indian province of Bengal that killed up to four million people, and that the British Government, which two years earlier had declared in the so-called Atlantic Charter that one of the freedoms it was fighting to achieve for the world was “freedom from want”, did nothing to prevent or alleviate. Eldred-Grigg makes it clear that the New Zealand capitalist state was complicit to one degree or another in all of these atrocities. He also records instances on the battlefields of the Pacific when, in a “racist rage”, New Zealand troops shot Japanese soldiers out of hand rather than taking them prisoner; although for some reason he fails to mention the massacre by New Zealand guards of 48 Japanese POWs in a camp near the North Island town of Featherston in 1943.

Eldred-Grigg also details attacks by the state on civil liberties and workers’ rights. “The government,” he writes, “was waging a war for freedom and democracy by stamping hard on freedom and democracy.” Emergency regulations made all work stoppages illegal. Any worker deemed “subversive” could be sacked from his or her job. Pacifists were jailed for speaking out against the war, or war in general. The offices of Communist Party, which initially opposed the war, were raided and its newspaper banned.

World War Two is often portrayed as a popular as well as a just war. Eldred-Grigg provides evidence from ‘the home front” to show this was not true, especially among the working class, with awareness of who had paid the highest price in life and limb for “victory” in the last war still fresh in the collective memory. He quotes contemporary observers commenting on widespread moods of “cynicism” and “dull resentment.” The Maori Battalion later won a deserved reputation for courage on the battlefield, yet it “was not a striking testament of Maori support for the war against the Axis. Waikato, Tuhoe, Taranaki and various other tribes questioned the war as they had from the beginning, and an overwhelming majority of iwi members wanted to stay out of the army.”

The most serious challenge to the government’s prosecution of the war is described in a section of the book entitled “Mutiny.” Thousands of troops were allowed home on furlough after the end of the fighting in North Africa in 1943. But when the government tried to send them back, many, supported by their communities, refused to go, and the troopships had to leave for Europe half-empty.

Workers at home too began to resist the regimen of punishingly long hours and speed-up on the job that the bosses and the government had imposed on them. The first significant sign of this was a strike by coal miners at Huntly in 1942, followed by a walk-out of meat workers at Westfield in 1943 (not actually referred to by Eldred-Grigg). The government imprisoned 213 Westfield workers in Mt. Eden, but were forced to release them after the Auckland Trades Council, on the motion of Watersiders leader Jock Barnes, threatened to call a general strike. In 1944 and 1945 there was something of a strike wave. Eldred-Grigg records that” Strikes, lockouts, and other rows between workers and employers took up many more working days during those years than earlier in the war: strikes climbed from a low yearly rate of 15,000 working days to a new high of nearly 53,000 working days.”

But having taken note of all these events, which showed that there were limits beyond which the rulers could not push their war drive, it must be recognized that the majority of workers in New Zealand did not fundamentally question that the war needed to be fought, even if this was a confused expression of their hatred for fascism. One illustration of this was the fact that on the whole they submitted to conscription after it was introduced in 1940, without enthusiasm certainly, but also without any serious opposition.

The Socialist Workers Party in World War II , by James P. Cannon. Available from Pathfinder Press.


What could revolutionary socialists have done, faced with the reality that their stance against the war represented only a minority current in the workers’ movement, and that following the example of the Bolsheviks in Russia in World War One of turning the war into a civil war to overturn capitalist rule was not on the immediate agenda? The best answer to this question can be found in the record from these years of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, which found itself in much the same objective circumstances. This record can studied in the books The Socialist Workers Party in World War Two and Socialism on Trial published by Pathfinder Press. The Party combined intransigent political opposition to the war and a propaganda offensive to expose the capitalist rulers’ true war aims (which landed eighteen of its leaders in Roosevelt’s jails), with total support of any attempt by workers, in the workplace, in politics, and inside the armed forces, to fight for their class interests, and to preserve and value their class independence in the face of enormous pressure to join “the war effort.” It further insisted that the war to rid the world of the evils of fascism could only finally be won if it was waged by the working class and its allies.

Cartoon from Communist Party of New Zealand newspaper Peoples Voice, May 16 1945, captioned “Back Beast”

The supposed revolutionary current in the New Zealand workers’ movement, the Communist Party, followed a directly opposite course. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 it abandoned its previous opposition to the war and became among the most bellicose of the war boosters. The Stalinist party sponsored joint production committees of bosses and workers in factories, and actively campaigned against workers taking strike action. Its newspaper, People’s Voice, rivaled the capitalist dailies in displays of national chauvinism, to the extent of featuring racist caricatures of the Japanese “enemy”.

Imperialism always presents justifications for its wars, and the one put forward by the victors in World War Two can seem more plausible than others; than, for instance, the easily exposed lie that the second war against Iraq was necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction. Yet if we let the imperialist rulers and their apologists get away with perpetuating the World–War-Two-as-a-good-war myth, we grant that there can be such a thing as a just imperialist war, and make it more likely that their pretext for their next one will be accepted.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s