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Violence and national mythology in New Zealand

June 16, 2012

“As long as New Zealanders fail to see and accept the role which violence plays in our history, our national mythology, and our national identity, we will continue to be victims of ourselves.” (p.94)

According to Jane and James Ritchie, the development of New Zealand concepts of nationhood are strongly tied to our experience of violence. They write: “The pioneering era did not come to an end until the nation had a [-p.92] secure political structure. The development of a national transport infrastructure wiped out many regional differences. The export of farm products brought economic security. Then came our first great national demonstration of unity, involvement of New Zealanders in the battlefields of World War I. An extraordinary proportion of young New Zealand men were conscripted to fight. Myths of glory were created to recruit them, to sustain them through incompetently led battles, dreadful fighting conditions, and appaling losses, and to justify those losses to those left behind. Throughout New Zealand every little settlement has its war memorial or memorial hall.” (pp.91-92)

Gallipoli and NZ national identity

They continue: “The glorification of this dreadful war reached its peak with the Gallipoli campaign. This was a terrible defeat, the result of gross military mismanagement, poor information, and official stubbornness. The colonial forces took the brunt in trying to win territory for which there was little strategic justification. The bosphorous had no military value and even if there had been some strategy to invade Eurasia, this was surely not the place to start. It has taken seventy-five years for the ‘glory’ of this fiasco to die [this book was written 20 years ago], and even now it is to ‘heroism’ that Anzac Day observances are dedicated, not to reminders of the callous waste of the lives of colonial youth for purposes of National Glory. Of course there were objectors to the fighting on grounds of conscience, but we treated them badly – and buried the evidence of this ill-treatment.

Out of this horror, waste, and carnage came the assertion of nationhood, the name ANZAC, and one of our earliest affiliate ties with Australia. It should have been the point at which we realised that British military authority simply regarded New Zealand sodiers as a commodity. We were used, blatantly and shamelessly. It should have been the point at which, like the Australians, we finally wrenched free into a separate, assertive national identity. Instead, we slipped back into economic and cultural dependence on Britain. But the image of male heroism in violent actions remains. That we are not yet free from this myth is demonstrated by the fact that in 1987 a memorial was built on New Zealand soil to commemorate Kemal Ataturk, the revolutionary leader whose troops destroyed so many of ours at Gallipoli.”  (p.92)

The Depression, WWII, and rugby… forming NZ character

The Ritchies continue: “The economic depression of the 1930s may well be the forge in which the New Zealand character was annealed. Here we see all the positive strengths – the making do, the resourcefulness, the resilience, the dour stubbornness, the hanging on and getting by. But there were also teh domestic upheavals, the marriages that did not survive the brutalising effect that living in the company of men on relief work, making roads, planting forests or just being unemployed, had on many men. When the history of our national character comes to be [-p.93] written, we suspect that for New Zealand it is the 1930s that will reveal the bed-rock.

In World War II a new level of New Zealand identity was constructed, this time, more true to our real selves. Apart from teh Maori Battalion, the New Zealand units do not stand out in the battle records of World War II. They did their job in Greece, Crete, North Africa, Italy, and in the Pacific sector. The battle honours they earned tell one story. Off the battlefield our troops developed a reputation for lack of discipline, pillaging, lawlessness, and a kind of wild opportunism, the real history of which is only now being written. In this war, too, conscientious objectors and internees in prison camps here were treated harshly.

World War II acted as a watershed. It transformed New Zealand into an industrial nation, and began to loosen the economic apron strings which had tied us to Mother England. Britain, in reconstruction, became increasingly involved with Europe, and we were forced, reluctantly and belatedly, to seek other markets and other ties of association.

War is, of course, about winning: And New Zealanders, wherever they are engaged in competition, look for total victory – in war, in sport, in politics, in business. Was it an accident that the highest mountain in the world was conquered by a New Zealander [and Tenzing Norgay, acting as his sherpa!!!] Is the Americas Cup just another yacht race? And the Whitbread Round the Wrold race – do we own it? The international athletic circuit, and especially the Olympics, have from Lovelock onwards been arenas where our tiny little nation foots it with the high and mighty, and wins, quite disproportionately to our size.

On top of the world: Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Mt Everest. Photograph taken by Hillary, 29 May 1953

There is one arena where winning is not enough, where we must win all the time, totally, and for ever, and that is on the rugby field. In 1928 the All Black Invincibles set the model by winning every match of their tour. Ever since there has been an obsession with more than winning – with total annihilation: nothing else is good enough!…In all of this image-making, the national identity is couched in male terms. But some of the most effective demythologised portrayals of the nature of New Zealand have come from literary and artistic works by women. [Lady Barker, Mona Anderson, Eileen Duggan, Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Keri Hulme, Renee, Patricia Grace, Fiona Kidman, Sue McCauley, joy Cowley…]”  (pp.92-93)

Ref: Jane Ritchie and James Ritchie (1993) Violence in New Zealand. Huia Publishers and Daphne Brasell Associates: Wellington

NOTE also: on Radio National, there are a number of lectures and documentaries on NZ nationhood:

Part 1 – That Graced This Site

At Victoria University in Wellington, an unofficial memorial plaque pays tribute to a tree sacrificed to make space for one more car park. While memorials to trees aren’t common in this country, memorials of other kinds certainly are. Every town has a war memorial or two, most have historic markers and commemorative plaques, and a few have statues to famous sons and daughters. It seems there’s a near universal urge in this country to physically record our memories in stone or bronze or marble. But what do we remember with these monuments and why? Who decides who we commemorate? And can we really freeze history just by building a statue to it? (10′37″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis  MP3 | EmbedPart 2 –  Pub, Church, War Memorial

War memorials abound in this country. We love ’em, and they’re every where. As the song says, “New Zealand small towns are all the same; pub, church, war memorial”. And our own Wanganui was once described by an historian as the war memorial capital of the world. Possibly one of our more beautiful memorials stands in and around Oamaru. The North Otago Memorial Oaks were planted to commemorate every soldier from the district who never made it home from the Great War. Justin Gregory stands respectfully with local historian Kathleen Stringer to hear the story of the oaks and the people they commemorate. (14′22″)

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Part 3 – He Loved The People

There are no less than three swimming pools named for the late Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk in this country. And while that’s great, it’s not quite the same thing as, say, the impressive Michael Joseph Savage Memorial at Bastion Point, or the Massey Memorial above Wellington harbour. How -and why – did we move from the impressively ornamental to the useful but mundane? Are we no longer impressed by our politicians? And why did we feel the need to memorialize them in the first place? Justin Gregory travels to Waimate to dip his toe in the pool, and ask a few questions. (14′02″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis  MP3 | EmbedPart 4 – My History, Right Or Wrong

A weakness most monuments share is a tendency to fix one view of history, often a view not everyone shares. The Moutoa Monument in Moutoa Gardens, Wanganui, is a perfect example. Erected by grateful settlers to honour local Maori who died defending the town against the Hau Hau, it uses some pretty strong language to describe what was essentially a ritualized battle between close family members. (13′23″)

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Books that Built New Zealand

Four New Zealand writers and thinkers nominate the locally-grown work that they think has done the most to create our country, to inculcate an idea of ourselves and to nurture a notion of New Zealandness. It could be a novel, it could be a guide to gardening, or even the owner’s manual of a Mark III Zephyr, but, without a doubt, they’ll be the Books That Built New Zealand. (52′47″)

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Becoming New Zealand

George Andrews looks at some of the people and the events that determined the route we followed on our journey towards nationhood. (48′31″)

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