NZ Labour and Hitler friendly?

WAS THERE BIAS? Massey University historian James Watson.
WAS THERE BIAS? Massey University historian James Watson.

If New Zealand had been able to sit Hitler down for a cup of tea, World War II might not have happened.

As debatable as this may sound, new research suggests this was the stance of New Zealand's Labour Government towards Nazi Germany even after Poland was invaded in 1939.

Though it has been commonly assumed that New Zealand vocally opposed the Nazi expansion and urged Britain to confront Hitler's regime, two historians are arguing this is not true.

New Zealand continued to push for negotiations with Hitler even as Britain declared war. And we were cosying up to Germany in 1937, signing a special trade agreement they say.

Massey University head of history, philosophy and classics James Watson said he and New Zealand Defence Force historian John Crawford began their research after discovering discrepancies in the history books.

They stumbled across correspondence between key New Zealand ministers in 1939, pushing for continued negotiations.

"I thought, 'here we are, Poland's just been conquered, what's New Zealand doing advocating relations with Hitler? What's going on?'

"We explored further, and came up with so much more of this."

As commonly thought, New Zealand did have an independent foreign policy from Britain with regard to Nazi Germany but ours was to push for further talks, he said.

New Zealand was behind Britain initially, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to negotiate with Hitler and signed the Munich peace agreement in 1938.

But after Hitler dishonoured the agreement and invaded Poland, Britain was talking war while New Zealand continued to push for peace negotiations.

Finally, in 1940, New Zealand and Australia sent telegrams to Britain saying they would follow her "to the end", in whatever decision was made. Meanwhile, Kiwi troops were fighting Germans who could have been wearing wool from NZ, sold under the prior trade agreement Dr. Watson said.

"I often wondered whether any New Zealander who encountered a German soldier in Greece ever reflected that the uniforms worn by Germans were made from New Zealand wool."

When Peter Fraser became Prime Minister in 1940, he took a staunch anti-Hitler position.

Dr Watson thinks this might be why the period beforehand has been glossed over by historians.

An historical bias towards Labour could also be the reason, he said.

The research will be published in the British Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History later this year.

Manawatu Standard