Historical revisionism, Kirstie Ross

Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780947522230

The first Anzac Day during WWII shows us some of the multifarious, sometimes conflicting views of the war and by extension, the dominion’s commitment to it.

Six days before what was to be its 25th anniversary, “Granny” wrote a critical letter to the editor of the Christchurch Press on the topic of war. Current events incited subversive words from this correspondent. “Granny” was so disillusioned with the international conflict – which seemed to diminish the efforts of past servicemen – that she demanded:

that this Anzac Day be kept in silence – no marching through the streets by our present-day soldiers – no lofty high-brow speeches that mean so little. Our Anzacs’ sacrifices have been in vain. Let us pull down the curtains and bow our heads in shame.

In other quarters, however, the conflict caused little if any moral consternation. In fact, the dominion’s annual day of war remembrance had much rhetorical potential in mobilising citizens in the necessary fight to safeguard civilisation being waged overseas. On the eve of Anzac Day 1940, for example, words written by a group of prominent male leaders to boost national support for the war were printed in the New Zealand Herald. Unlike Granny’s letter, this message invoked the Great War positively: “Memories of the determination, courage and sacrifice which to-morrow’s anniversary calls forth,” they decreed, “serve as both an inspiration and a challenge in this present grave hour of crisis.”

The collision and clash of ideas, ideologies and opinions in war-time New Zealand society such as those touched on above is central to Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War. Its authors, Stevan Eldred-Grigg and son Hugh, are particularly interested in how the war exposed and exacerbated long-standing social and political differences, and how these differences played out in terms of support or opposition.

From the outset, the book’s authors declare that “contrary to the propaganda of the time – and subsequent memory – going to war did not unite New Zealanders; it divided them, often bitterly” (back cover). In particular, they contend that New Zealand citizens “disagreed over whether or not we should fight, what we were fighting for and why, who was fighting, who was paying, and who was dying” (ibid).

The Eldred-Griggs present their case in six chronological chapters, although as it unfolds, the narrative tends to break out of this chronological structure. The book begins with an overview of pre-war New Zealand society and tensions within it. Not surprisingly, given Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s oeuvre, class and political ideology are the dominant categories of analysis. It was also refreshing to see New Zealand’s political and economic interests in the Pacific Islands and peoples considered here, as well as elsewhere in the book. Usually, in histories of WWII, the islands are little more than exotic bases for foreign forces.

Four subsequent chapters are framed by the arcs of military campaigns in both European/North African and Pacific theatres. The final chapter considers the aftermath of WWII and whether or not New Zealand’s participation was justified or necessary to its eventual outcome.

It is Phoney Wars’ revisionism that distinguishes it from other interpretations of WWII. Rather than emphasise its disruptiveness, the Eldred-Griggs provocatively suggest that the war was “a ‘normal’ event” in New Zealand history. They see it as an episode in the ongoing national story of social, political and cultural conflict. In this respect, it picks up where Eldred-Grigg senior’s 2010 book The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WWI began.

However, with a focus on “what life was like during the war years for ordinary people living under the New Zealand flag” (back cover), Phoney Wars ostensibly covers the same terrain as The Home Front by Nancy Taylor. Described as a “carefully documented evidential account of what that life was all about [during the war]”, The Home Front was the last title in the 48-volume “Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War” series.

Taylor’s social history, published in 1986, is the standard and most comprehensive reference work in this field. Until the publication of Phoney Wars, no historian since Taylor has attempted an historical overview of the home front, although the government has continued to sponsor the production of war histories, often collecting oral histories in order to draw out personal accounts of war in relation to better known but less personal campaign narratives. (One of these, by Megan Hutching, covers WWII at home.) Specific aspects of the 1939-1945 conflict have enduring appeal for military, social, cultural, family and diplomatic historians, as well as museums, film and television producers.

So, what does this book offer that is distinct from its 30-year-old predecessor? To begin with, its concision. Phoney Wars covers the war in a mere 427 pages, including endnotes, a bibliography and index (compared to Taylor’s 1330). As such, it is a feat in distillation, a tour de force in the synthesis of printed sources – primary, secondary and theses. Negligible use is made of archival material.

Like Taylor, the Eldred-Griggs rely heavily on contemporary newspapers. Curiously, while they are “wary” of the accuracy of these sources, this material is cited unreflectively and extensively, often to hammer home a point. Because this research has been confined to digitised newspapers, alternative and distinctive perspectives circulated in un-digitised periodicals, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and New Zealand Farmer for example, are absent. Unfortunately, their use of fiction and poetry as a foil to conventional sources fails to deliver any new or unexpected insights.

But, overall, the book’s key distinguishing feature is the authors’ imposition of a set of objectives which underpin and also overwhelm the content. Because of the largely negative impact these objectives have on the authors’ use of evidence, the book’s tone and its historiographical usefulness, I want to quote these here in some detail. 

The first of the authors’ objectives is to “unpack and question the assumption that the Axis [Germany, Italy and Japan] was ‘bad’ and that the Allies ‘good’. ” The authors describe this as the “values debate”. The second is to show that “New Zealand need not have involved itself in the war on the scale it did. The Second World War was essentially an external event for the people of New Zealand”. This is the so-called “interests debate”. The third is to demonstrate that these two “debates … played out among New Zealanders throughout the whole length of the war”.

As a reader, I wanted to see how the authors connected these high level geo-political and moral concerns to lived experience (and vice versa), especially given that they are “primarily interested … in the effect of the war on New Zealand”. I was also keen to discover whether these objectives allowed the pair to prove their claim that WWII was a “phoney war”, one for which “there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war against Germany and Italy, or later against Japan”.

The authors, I feel, are more interested in telling history off, rather than judiciously assessing it. This has the effect of devaluing the experiences of those who lived through the war. Geo-political and personal scales of action and experience are juxtaposed, but never integrated into a seamless story. In the hands of the authors, New Zealanders are reduced to homogenous groups at the mercy of the decisions made by “Wellington”, “London”, “Tokyo”, and so on. Moreover, these groups do not interact in complex ways. Citizens are presented antagonistically in relation to the “the state” and to one another, except in the section about sex.

And what of the motivations of “Wellington”, “London” and “Tokyo”? The consultation of a wider repertoire of sources, where decision-making is documented, would have allowed the authors to properly explore the constraints and factors that lay behind the extent of New Zealand’s involvement in the war, or to back up their assertion that the country could have remained neutral.

Does Phoney Wars bring new or useful historiographical perspectives to the home front? The authors’ intention is to revise orthodox historiographical approaches to this subject – to “thaw” them, as they put it. However, the Eldred-Griggs appear to be interested only in their own ideas and do not refer to current historiographical debate. This is a lost opportunity, particularly when scholars such as Deborah Montgomerie, Alison Parr, and Rachael Bell have opened up fresh historiographical views for readers to grapple with.

Kirstie Ross is a Wellington-based curator and historian. Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War, co-authored with Kate Hunter, was reviewed in NZB, Spring 2015.

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