Into the sunlight? Martin Sutton

Out of the Shadow of War: The German Connection with New Zealand in the Twentieth Century
ed James Bade
Oxford University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 019 558363 9

This book is a companion volume to The German Connection: New Zealand and German-speaking Europe in the 19th Century (1993). It takes the same format as that of its predecessor, with many – 31 in all – different contributors writing a total of 36 chapters. As the Preface indicates, the book covers three main historical themes: “the two world wars, the huge contribution of the refugees from Nazi Europe, and the distinctive impact of the wave of German immigration since the 1970s”.

The contents though are divided into five distinct parts: the shadow cast by the two world wars on New Zealand-German relations during the first half of this century (and by German is meant German-speaking, more specifically German and Austrian – the Swiss do not figure in this volume); the German connection in the visual arts, music and literature; the academic world; the business and professional world; and finally, bringing us up to date, the present-day German connection.

The title is well chosen, as this volume traces the change in relations that has taken place between German-speaking Europe and New Zealand over the last century, relations that have “moved steadily out of the shadow of war into the sunlight”. Since the 1970s the previously one-directional flow of cultural influence from Northern to Southern hemisphere, with which the greater part of the book is concerned, seems to be correcting itself as the flow begins to move back in the opposite direction.

It is to the credit of its editor and especially his editorial assistant, James Braund, that a book with such a wide range of subject matter and with so many different authors – the majority being academics – has such uniformity of purpose. This uniformity has its downside though. The back-cover blurb claims that the book, like its predecessor, is “full of interest for the general reader and the researcher alike”. This can perhaps be excused as advertising hyperbole. Because of the condensed nature of the individual items (two contributors allude to the “space constraints” imposed on them), the writers have little chance to develop the treatment of their topics beyond the level of blandly factual historical documentation. Especially in parts 2, 3 and 4, the text’s impetus collapses into a sequence of chapters that read like entries in a dictionary of biography. Bill Sewell’s description of Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum’s judgments being written “with economy and precision, rather than with flair” is an apt description of the overall style of this book.

There are also biographical anomalies that the attentive reader might puzzle over. Why does the hero Count Felix von Luckner, whose human qualities are repeatedly extolled in Chapter 4, become an unsympathetic and threatening bully in his treatment of his fellow crew-member Riethmaier in Chapter 29?  Why is the Auckland University “head of department”, who in Chapter 18 was viewed by his colleague Werner Droescher as a representative of the “patriarchal system […that] was ultimately bad for the development of young colleagues and students”, not identified at this point as Professor John Asher, whose positive achievements as one of the two “founding fathers” of German studies in New Zealand are profusely praised in Chapter 36? And Droescher’s own fascinating life and personality are sadly blurred by a disjointed, inexplicably reverse-chronological biography in the chapter devoted to him.

There is one notable difference from the earlier volume: the poorer quality of production makes both the text and the black-and-white illustrations less accessible to the reader; the illustrations especially are sometimes too small to render features – both facial and geographical – clearly visible.

All this is not to deny that, while not being exactly “full of interest”, the book does contain much new and useful information. James Braund’s chapter on “Literary points of contact” provides some especially valuable insights into the interconnections between the literary cultures of Germany and New Zealand. Particularly revealing is the section on the debt owed by the novelist (dare one say “pirate”?) Gerhard Köpf to the work of Maurice Shadbolt.

“Space constraints” prevent the reviewer from going further! Suffice it to say that Out of the Shadow of War reveals a lot about a significant period in this country’s history and about the lives of talented people who travelled so far from Europe and who, against all sorts of odds, made their own particular contributions to New Zealand’s history and culture. The book’s timely appearance also provides a wider historical backdrop against which to view a novel like Maurice Gee’s Live Bodies, which has as its protagonist an Austrian Jewish immigrant.

Martin Sutton is an Auckland writer and sculptor who has had a life-long interest in German history and culture.

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