Monday, May 25, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“CALLS TO ARMS – New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War” by Steven Loveridge (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)

This is probably a very bad way to begin a book review, but I am going to begin it this way anyway.
For me, it is a delight to read a new book, which endorses and confirms something I have long believed.
From the perspective of 2015, we all know (or think we know) that the First World War was bloody, murderous, wasteful of human life, waged on all sides for very mixed motives and, in short, what 1066 and All That would call “a Bad Thing”. The First World War has virtually become the paradigm of the pointless war, and it is the war to which novelists and film-makers still resort when they want to connect the words “futility” and “war”.
But out of this knowledge (or what we think is knowledge) there has grown a set of assumptions, which simply do not hold up to real historical scrutiny. It is assumed that no general population in any belligerent nation could have possibly wished to enter into such a war, and that therefore populations must have been coerced and propagandised by powerful, self-interested political forces into participating. It is further assumed that the post-war pacifist and anti-war representations of the war (from All Quiet on the Western Front onwards) represent what the mass of people were really thinking during the war. Emphasis is laid on those war poets who conveyed the “pity of war”, and on Christian or socialist or humanitarian pacifists, as if their views mirrored those of society at large. So what amounts to a great conspiracy theory has developed. Hapless and unsuspecting soldier boys are pushed off to war by cunning and manipulative politicians. Mr Fat and capitalist war profiteers rub their hands in glee as the lads get killed. And all this against the real wishes of the population.
Now let’s clearly separate a couple of concepts here. Looking back on the war from a century later, it is perfectly valid for us to say that it was wasteful, futile and so forth. It is perfectly understandable that we will laud those pacifists whose views we now endorse. But it is simply unhistorical to assume that the mass of society in any belligerent country was not in favour of the war. Let’s remember that people whom we admire in history are often people who went against what were once massively popular beliefs and assumptions, and therefore against what the mass of society thought. That, after all, is why we often think of them as heroes. Let’s also remember that to see populations as only being coerced and propagandised into war is to rob those populations of what is now commonly called “agency”. So roll on those conspiracy theories, which see people in the past as mere dupes for not believing what we believe.
Steven Loveridge’s admirable Calls to Arms – New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War is a systematic study of what Loveridge (borrowing a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald) often calls the “sentimental equipment” of New Zealanders before and during the First World War. Lamenting the lack of real social histories of New Zealand one hundred years ago, Loveridge’s Introduction politely rejects the notion that New Zealanders were manipulated into support for the war by Machiavellian politicians, as was suggested by Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s profoundly silly and unbalanced book The Great Wrong War [look it up on the index at right]. Rather, says Loveridge, New Zealanders’ general support for the war grew from widespread attitudes and values that were well-entrenched in New Zealand society before a shot was fired. Inter alia, Loveridge’s Introduction notes that Military Boards, which accepted or rejected men’s petitions not to go to war, were run by representatives of local communities, not by the nation’s central government. They very much reflected popular opinion. Likewise, there were three times as many volunteers as conscripts in New Zealand’s armed forces, even after conscription was introduced in 1916. Were they all duped, deceived and propagandised into going? If we assume this, we of course assume that they were infinitely stupider than we are.
In the six chapters that follow, Loveridge examines six levels of New Zealand’s commitment to the war.
First, he refutes the “nationalist” interpretation of the war that has been overplayed by some historians. Unpalatable though it may seem to us now, most New Zealanders in 1914 still thought of themselves as British. They did not have to be persuaded into supporting Britain’s war. A very large part of the non-Maori population then was British by birth, and those who were not were either the children or grandchildren of British immigrants. Britain was still “Home” for many. Trade ties and cultural ties with Britain were dominant. There was still a widespread desire for an “imperial parliament” in London that would represent all the colonies and dominions of the British Empire. Of course there was the widespread belief among New Zealanders that they were more egalitarian than those snooty, class-bound “homeys”; and that New Zealand was what James Belich has called a “Better Britain”. This has often been mistaken for an emergent nationalism (see any work by the late Keith Sinclair for this attitude). This essentially British self-identification was not universal, just as approval of the war was not universal. There were indeed members of the labour movement, Maori separatists, pacifists, Irish nationalists and others who were not fully committed to the war. But the dominant fact is that they were a very small minority in comparison with the mass of the population, no matter how much we may now endorse their attitudes. As for one of the major myths of the war – the Gallipoli myth – Loveridge remarks:“… the conception of the First World War as New Zealand’s national ‘coming of age’ story, marking a distinct break from pre-war habits and arrangements, has serious limitations. To begin with, it is a rerun of earlier ideas of awakening national consciousness…” (p.65). He goes on to note similar claims made for Dominion Day, the 1905 All Blacks tour of Britain, participation in the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee etc. New Zealand did not suddenly become an independent nation in outlook because of the First World War any more than it became divorced from overwhelmingly British sentiment.
Second, Loveridge does not accept the view that anti-“alien” thought, and specifically wartime anti-German thought, was a creation of powerful propagandists during the war. There was a long-standing tradition, encouraged by “biological racism”, of New Zealanders framing anyone who was “non-British” as alien. Most often these common racist attitudes were directed against Asians and particularly Chinese, but even Australians could be judged as “non-British” when they behaved in ways that New Zealanders saw as loutish. Apparently, according to popular New Zealand mythology, Australians were not as “British” as New Zealanders were. At certain times, there had been the tendency to see Germans in a favourable light, as the North European, Saxon, Protestant cousins of the English, industrious and hard-working unlike those barbarous Southern European Catholics. But well before the First World War, New Zealanders were already seeing Germans in a more negative light as Germany became a trade rival and naval rival to Mother England. Apart from the fact of genuine German atrocities during the war (the ones that Eldred-Grigg pretends didn’t happen), it was no “top-down” manufacturing of stereotypes that led to anti-German feeling in New Zealand between 1914 and 1918. Loveridge notes:
One of the foremost attributes of wartime constructions of Germans is the tendency to present the subject in monolithic terms. Total war had broken out in an age when the notion of ‘racial character’ was a conventional idea. Thus the war was frequently framed as one against a people, race or nation – rather than a regime, army or ideology. Whilst Kaiser and Prussian militarism became focal points of condemnation, and were sometimes tagged as being at the heart of German bellicosity, there was often little effort made to distinguish them from wider German civilisation.” (pp. 86-87)
Loveridge also gives interesting examples of the forces of authority (MPs, police etc.) trying to restrain popular outbursts of anti-German hysteria, such as the smashing of the windows of shops owned by people with German names. Again, we deplore this sort of racism, but it is ahistorical to pretend that it was not the popular attitude, or that it was imposed from above.
Third, Loveridge considers New Zealand’s military ethos. Well before 1914, there was already the attitude that a hardy soldiery represented the best qualities of New Zealand manhood. Such images were not manufactured from above during the First World War. At least since the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, there had developed the view that the “colonial” soldier was hardier and more enduring and more self-reliant and athletic than the British “Home” variety. There were indeed some anti-militarist views aired when New Zealand’s Defence Forces were professionalised in 1909, but then anti-militarists were often those who preferred the idea of a trained and armed civilian militia – they were not necessarily anti-military. And all the while, quasi-military groupings (such as the Boy Scouts), military parades and displays and “sham fights” were very popular. Despite socialists calls for equality of sacrifice and the “conscription of wealth” as well as the conscription of men, the inauguration of conscription in 1916 was a popular measure.
Fourth, the persecution of “slackers” and “shirkers” during the First World War, cruel as we now judge it, was in line with general popular sentiment. Well before the war, there were pseudo-scientific fears about “racial degeneracy” advancing as New Zealand became more urbanised and fewer New Zealanders were in any sense “pioneers”. (By 1911, New Zealand’s town population for the first time exceeded its rural population.) Young men who were not athletic or not of a military cast of mind were easily regarded as lacking the correct racial credentials. The burgeoning (and ultimately sinister) eugenics movement played a big part in promoting such ideas. And (embarrassing though it may seem to some feminists now), so did first-wave feminism, which often endorsed the idea of breeding healthy and war-fit young men. Be it noted that this discourse began long before the First World War and continued long after the war was over in the ethos of Health Camps and the quasi-military nurturing of young children by timetabled feeding a la Truby King. We are appalled by the mistreatment of Conscientious Objectors during the First World War, which Loveridge duly recounts in detail, and we are outraged by the thought of women following non-combatant young men around and forcing white feathers upon them. We are heartened to learn (as Loveridge again documents) that even at the time many people were disgusted by such actions. Even so, as Loveridge’s extensive documentation shows: “harsh sentiments towards objectors were by no means an exceptional feature of the New Zealand government – again, a historiographical focus upon top-down manipulation masks more pervasive forces and patterns”. (p.166) To put it crudely, simply (and unpalatably), most New Zealanders fully approved of harsh treatment for COs and the vilification of “slackers”.
Fifth, Loveridge argues that it was not the First World War that changed the status of New Zealand women; and also that women were as fully complicit in pro-war sentiment as men were. First-wave feminism (gaining the suffrage; gaining first entry into universities and the professions) was in full swing well before the First World War. A detailed statistical survey, quoted by Loveridge, shows that the proportion of women in the workforce did not suddenly grow during the war, despite the absence on overseas war service of so many working men. Women’s participation in the workforce increased gradually during the war and as a continuum with the level of increase both before and after the war. More to the point, even first-wave feminists implicitly accepted the notion of women as being especially equipped for motherhood, as purifiers of the social order, and as mothers of healthy war-ready young men. Women were often to the fore in pro-conscription agitation, in campaigning for the early closing of pubs as an “economy” measure and in harassing “shirkers”. It took a zealous New Zealand woman to found the foreigner-harassing Anti-German League. Another woman-related matter is the way propaganda often presented an idealised image of mothers encouraging young men to go off to war, and being especially solicitous of their wellbeing. Yet, as Loveridge argues, this image too was very much in line with popular sentiment. It was not created by cynical propagandists. After all, the overwhelming majority of actively-serving soldiers were single young men for whom a mother was still the single most important woman in life.
Finally, Loveridge considers the cult of grief – the way war was connected with the religious ideas of duty, service and sacrifice. Again, these ideas were already in the mainstream of New Zealand’s “sentimental equipment” – they were not invented by official wartime publicity. The honouring of wartime duty, service and sacrifice is seen in the 452 popularly and publicly-funded war memorials that were erected in New Zealand after the war was over. Sometimes there were local controversies over what form these memorials should take. Should there, for example, be a “utilitarian” memorial bridge or public building rather than an “ornamental” memorial cenotaph or monument around which mourners could gather on ANZAC Day? In the great majority of cases, local communities chose the latter option. The desire to have a dedicated focus for genuine grief was widespread. Loveridge notes later attempts to pretend that these popular memorials were imposed from above (quoting a gem of dollar-book Freudian smugness, sourced to Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips’ 1990 book The Sorrow and the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials). Writes Loveridge:
Grand manipulation has been… nominated in explaining the shape these ornamental memorials took and the political, and apparently ‘highly phallic’, character of these monuments has been deconstructed. For instance it has been claimed that New Zealand’s war memorials were ‘deliberate and often controversial acts of propaganda and social control’ erected by certain ‘especially influential’ social groups who acted ‘with definite ideological purposes in mind’. ” (p.201)
Again, what amounts to a conspiracy theory has been imposed on history, and the real popular attitudes of the time have been either patronised or ignored.
As you will have deduced from all of the foregoing, I approve thoroughly of Steven Loveridge’s well-argued attempt to set the historical record straight. I emphasise that in showing how New Zealanders, men and women, by and large thought of themselves as British, willingly entered into the First World War, approved of coercive actions against German nationals, approved of hostility towards conscientious objectors and “slackers”, and shared a sense of war as duty and sacrifice – Loveridge is in no way arguing that these are values we should now be prepared to support. He is saying that these attitudes are the historical reality of 1914-18. We should not allow our knowledge of this historical reality to be buried under the Oh! What a Lovely War! or Blackadder Goes Forth versions of the First World War, which, as Loveridge says in his introduction, have become the most commonly accepted versions of the war to those who do not know what history is. As he says eloquently of his book in his Conclusion:
This interpretation of New Zealand society at war straddles the line between academic exercise and cultural commentary. The prevailing contemporary sense of the conflict seems firmly wedded to a mythology of the war grounded in futility, horror, pity and regret. It could fairly be said that this mythology can be traced to events and emotions at the time, that it captures some fundamental realities of the War/wars, and that it often serves the benign purpose of spurring contemplation of the human costs of conflict. An unfortunate consequence of this mythology, however, is that historical realities are distorted and significant context is cropped. In particular, the mythology diminishes our recognition and comprehension of the hope, idealism, resolve and fury New Zealand society poured into its war effort. Indeed many raised within the tradition of the Great War as tragic poetry may be shocked at the assertion that there was a prevalent commitment to the war and that this support can be broadly understood as indicative of conventional social values and attitudes – rather than being pathologised as ‘jingoism’, ‘hysteria’ or grand manipulation.” (p.247)
I’m so glad somebody has said all this.

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