The war that never ended: public history for the present

A critical look at New Zealand's official First World War centennial programme and its lack of engagement with the war's root causes, namely capitalism and white supremacy.

Submitted by Jared on June 17, 2019

A success. That’s the verdict passed by New Zealand’s official First World War commemoration programme (WW100) on their own commemoration programme, released as a final report last month. The stats are indeed impressive: 93 percent of New Zealanders aged 15 years+ engaged in the programme in some way, thanks to the $65 million spent on the centennial. The futility of war was the most-cited emotional response, which is interesting when put alongside the programme’s objective to strengthen ‘national identity’ (read: the nation state) and an ‘enduring commitment to peace, global security and international cooperation (read: current and future wars).

Others have already analysed the report in more detail. Yet I can’t help but think more broadly about the gaps in WW100. What stories did those 93 percent engage with? Whose voices were heard, and whose were not? What did the programme have to say on the deeper themes of the conflict and its causes?

I believe that by not explicitly engaging with the root causes of the First World War—especially capitalism and white supremacy— the WW100 programme missed or muted histories that would otherwise have been available to tell. This not only includes the experiences or events chosen to study, but also how those events are portrayed.

It also affects periodisation. The Final Report was released in May 2019. But when did the First World War end? With the Armistice of November 1918? With the return of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force? Or somewhere else?

A selection of wartime experiences from my book Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 illustrates how the analysis of capitalism and white supremacy points us towards stories that don't end comfortably in late 1918, or fit within the scope of WW100. These are just two of many possible frames of reference. While it may seem like I am distinguishing capitalism and white supremacy from each other and from other social relations, in reality, they form a unity of social experience, and were lived and felt as such.

The struggle for Irish independence, both in New Zealand and abroad, is an obvious example of a narrative that ran through and beyond the official war years. Molly and Timothy Brosnan were immigrants from Ireland, arriving in the decade before the war. Both were staunch Sinn Fein supporters and when Tim was conscripted for military service in March 1917, he quit his job as a navvy and went on the run. In similar terms to many indigenous Māori from the Waikato area, Tim refused to serve who he believed to be the colonizer and oppressor of his native homeland.

Arrested in August 1917 and incarcerated at Rotoaira Prison, as Armistice came and went Tim remained in jail and separated from his wife Molly. When the Religious Advisory Board came around in February 1919 to establish which objectors still in prison were considered genuine and who were not, Tim and 12 others refused to see them. He was classified as a defiant objector and lost all civil rights until 1927. Because of this, Tim’s time after his release was never truly free. He died at Taihape Hospital of pneumonia on 1 October 1929, aged 47, leaving a hole in both the family and the family story.

Feelings against working-class or republican Irish, ‘foreigners’, and fear of the ‘other’ had its roots in the interests and identities of New Zealand’s white settler society. Like a weathervane, the measure of Britishness, whiteness—and therefore acceptance—shifted with economic, cultural and global events. This not only affected how Germany and Germans in New Zealand were perceived before and after August 1914, but also those born in allied or neutral countries.

Arthur Muravleff was a labourer and an aspiring Maxim Gorky from Russia whose writing on working conditions in New Zealand was cut short by the state. Racialised by anonymous informants from 1914 and finally arrested as a suspected spy in December 1917, Arthur was interned and refused release after Armistice despite Russia being an ally during the war. This was partly because of a policy on internees remaining in jail until the return of frontline New Zealand troops, but also because of official attitudes towards the Bolshevik government, the paranoia of the Red Scare, and an ever-present Russophobia.

By March 1920, after more than two years of internment, he’d had enough. In the early morning hours of 17 March, Arthur pried open the floorboards of his Featherston prison cell and escaped.

Even Christensen was a watersider and labourer based in the South Island city of Dunedin. As a watersider Even occupied the frontline of port economies and felt keenly the charge and retreat of capitalism. As a watersider born in Norway, he bore the added weight of wartime hysteria despite his naturalisation, his 35-year residence in Dunedin and the neutral stance of his country of birth. The social construction of race and the enemy within, intensified by wartime conditions, extended to Scandinavians like Even. Hounded by the press and the state, he was among the many naturalized subjects forced to register as an alien (as non-British subjects were called) in 1917.

Upset at his treatment, in June 1919 Even wrote a bitter letter to a friend. That letter was stopped by a postal censor and, as a result, Even’s naturalization was revoked. Unlike the wealth his labour created, he could no longer cross borders freely or obtain a passport; all legal and political rights were forfeited: he could not vote, access any kind of state aid or purchase rural land, and any land he owned became first in line to be taken for public works. He was barred from working in certain jobs or in certain industries, and if he committed any crime there was a much higher chance of his being deported. Despite the petitions of his son, Even died stateless in 1930.

Berthold Matzke was a watersider and member of the Direct Action Group, an anti-capitalist and anti-war collective of Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) based in New Zealand’s vibrant city of Auckland. Prominent during the Great Strike of 1913 that saw class war erupt across many New Zealand ports and cities, Berthold was active on the waterfront despite being blacklisted from the pro-employer unions. His vocal opposition to militarism and his German heritage made him a favourite target of the police, who regarded him as a highly successful agitator.

For his anti-capitalist politics Berthold was interned, denied his freedom despite being dangerously unwell, and died of pneumonia at Featherston Camp on 16 June 1919. His wife Florence, who remained in Auckland during his jail time, was ‘lucky’ enough to make it to the funeral. She eventually commissioned a headstone for him. But the couple had no offspring to maintain it, and so it took some time for my family and I to find it when we searched last April. Once we found it, we cleaned it up and left flowers—a small gesture acknowledging his wartime experience.

As I explore more thoroughly in Dead Letters, structures and powers of state surveillance, coupled with extended wartime legislation, continued to impact on the lives of many well beyond 1918 and 1919. Sedition and firearm laws, and the introduction of the passport, are just two examples.

The WW100 programme covered aspects of this in a feature on censorship and an online entry called ‘Policing the war effort’. However, in these and other features, I felt the WW100 programme only ever scratched the surface.

In exploring the April 1916 police raid on Māori prophet Rua Kēnana and his community at Maungapōhatu, where was the analysis of colonization and white supremacy? In highlighting anti-German hysteria, where was the analysis of whiteness and the construction of race? In writing about war weariness and the cost of living, where was the analysis of class and gender relations?

Where, in short, was capitalism?

Indeed, throughout the long years of the centennial programme, I kept waiting for the official narratives to go deeper—to ask why.

The programme’s treatment of Armistice and the class struggles that erupted across Europe throughout 1918 is a prime example. As I wrote for Overland, I searched the programme resources in vain for any reference to how and why Armistice came about. There was a notable silence on the strikes, mutinies and class struggles of the masses of working men and women who contributed to the war’s end.

There was also nothing on the riotous NZEF troops of 14 November 1918, whose direct action in France forced the hand of their ‘superiors’, or the mutinous troops at Featherson Camp two weeks later. The WW100 feature on the Sling Camp riots of March 1919—the most serious breakdown of discipline in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the European theatre—dedicated a single paragraph to the actual riot and, with little analysis, repeated the typical causal narrative of demobilisation.

Yes, frustration around demobilisation was a major factor, but not the only one. Class was ever present. As Dave Lamb notes, the widespread mutinies across the Allied forces broke out too soon after armistice for delay in demobilisation to be the sole cause. ‘Antagonism towards officers, hatred of arbitrary discipline, and a revolt against bad conditions and uncertainty about the prospect of being sent to Russia all combined with the delay, confusion and uncertainty about demobilisation.’

The militant self-activity of working people—whether they were soldiers, industrial workers, or both—was a deeply entrenched concern for the New Zealand government throughout the war. Yet this fact is absent from both the Armistice and Sling Camp riot accounts.

The Surafend Massacre of December 1918 is the other timely example. How might the WW100 feature on Surafend have differed if the event had been analysed within the framework of white supremacy? Considering it was a highly racialized act of terror that saw New Zealand and other Allied troops kill at least 40 Palestinian Arabs, there is no mention of racism or white supremacy in the feature. It notes ‘long-standing grievances against the Arabs’ and then seemingly blames the previous actions of the victims themselves: ‘soldiers had been required to treat all Arabs with sensitivity so as to maintain their allegiance in the war’ and only post-armistice could the ANZACs show their true colours. Despite recent research on the massacre, we also learn nothing about the victims. They remain the nameless collateral of our ANZAC’s ‘dark thoughts.’

Perhaps I’m being far too critical of the WW100 programme and the small pool of public historians who worked on WW100-related events. As Douglas Hay reminds us, the writing of history ‘is deeply conditioned not only by our personal political and moral histories, but also by the times in which we live, and where we live.’ And also, I would add, where we work.

I feel the silences described above stem from a wider issue for official public history. That is the idea of neutrality and the political choice of ‘not being political’, of taking ‘the middle ground’, or not taking any ground at all. As a result, like the colourful lights flickering across the surface of Wellington’s Carillion, we catch glimpses and shadows, but never full illumination.

Perhaps official histories by and for the state are complicated by the capitalist and white supremacist nature of the state itself. However, I believe official public historians have a role to play. And in these times and in this place, I think we should question whether neutrality and the middle ground is tenable. Because the middle ground is being swept away by the flash floods and wild fires of climate change; or occupied by racist and ill-informed rhetoric.

Sadly, as the 15 March 2019 terror attack on Muslims in Christchurch shows, the same horrific causes of the First World War continue to harm in the present. It’s a sober reminder that we’re not talking in the abstract.

Whatever comes our way next, whether it is the New Zealand Wars or this year’s commemoration of Māori encounters with Captain Cook and the Endeavour, I ask that we strive towards a bold and brave public history—histories that can grapple with all the complexities and uncomfortableness of the past. Histories that gets at the root of an issue, in the original meaning of the word ‘radical.’ In short, I want us to ask why.

Because my biggest fear, more than just producing bad or incomplete histories, is that despite our best intentions, we end up normalising the harm caused by capitalism and white supremacy both in the past, and in the present.

Jared Davidson is a labour historian and archivist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He’s the author of three books, including his latest, Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920. This paper was first presented at the PHANZA Conference in April 2019: many thanks to Ross Webb for his feedback.