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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 1 — September 1939

page 7

September 1939

AT 9.30 p.m. (New Zealand time) on Sunday, 3 September 1939, a British ultimatum expired and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was at war with Germany. The official documents were precisely drawn. It was the government of the United Kingdom alone which gave a dramatic promise of protection to Poland on 31 March 1939 and transformed it into a formal and specific treaty of Mutual Assistance on 25 August. When Sir Nevile Henderson gave Germany final notice that the promise would be honoured, he spoke for the British government alone. Neville Chamberlain's announcement to the House of Commons made it clear that ‘this country’ was at war, not the British Commonwealth. Ample precedent made it clear that these words were to be taken seriously. His Majesty had many governments and their independence had long entered into the field of foreign policy and treaty making. In the famous phrase of 1926, Great Britain and the Dominions were ‘autonomous communities, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs'; and an autonomous community can hardly be deemed to be at war merely as a result of another autonomous community's declaration. For upwards of twenty years treaties had been so negotiated and framed as to emphasise that none of His Majesty's governments was committed unless by its own expressed wish. At the time of the Munich crisis it was made clear by at least three Dominions—Canada, South Africa, and Eire—that only their own parliaments could commit them to war; and by South Africa and Eire the right to remain neutral was firmly stressed.1

Formally, then, Britain stood alone at noon on 3 September, and Germany's abusive reply to a purely British ultimatum was addressed exclusively to His Majesty's government in the United Kingdom. The dominion governments were therefore compelled to take positive action. They must either take their stand beside the United Kingdom or proclaim neutrality. Their legal position was no longer defined by the old-fashioned principle that when the King went to war all his subjects were at war too; nor by the new

1 Keith, in Journal of Comparative Legislation, Vol. XXI, p. 98.

page 8 principles of international law embodied in the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Kellogg Pact. The former had been destroyed by dominion pressure towards nationhood, and the adventures of the dictators had deprived the latter of whatever reality they had possessed.

The members of the Commonwealth, in short, had to decide for themselves, and they did so each according to its established policy and constitutional processes.

Eire, as had been expected, chose neutrality, accepting the friendly assurance conveyed by the German Minister on 31 August. In South Africa there was a sharp parliamentary tussle. General Hertzog, the Prime Minister, proposed neutrality, though he also proposed to honour the engagements with the United Kingdom about the Simonstown base. General Smuts spoke for participation and carried cabinet and parliament with him. The Governor-General refused a dissolution and Smuts formed an administration to carry on war. The decision therefore rested plainly on parliamentary action within the framework of the law. So did that of Canada. When parliament had pronounced, the King's Canadian ministers advised him to declare war on behalf of that Dominion. Mr Mackenzie King, as Prime Minister, later emphasised the freedom and deliberation of the choice. Ours was not an automatic response to some mechanical organisation of Empire. Canada's entry into the war was the deliberate decision of free people by their own representatives in a free Parliament1.’

The result of these proceedings was that Eire remained neutral throughout the war, while South Africa was neutral for three days and Canada for seven days after the United Kingdom had gone to war. In all three cases neutrality was recognised by the United States, which thus by implication gave its weighty approval to the right of the Dominions to independent action in declaring war and making peace.

Australia, whose Prime Minister, Mr R. G. Menzies, was a lawyer, was the only dominion to adhere to the doctrine that the King's declaration of war involved all his subjects. Mr Menzies signed and published in the Commonwealth Gazette a notice ‘for general information’ that war had broken out between Great Britain and Germany, and broadcast the plain statement that ‘Great Britain has declared war, and that, as a result Australia is also at war…. There never was any doubt as to where Great Britain stood. There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands there stand the people of the entire British world2.’ This action was backed by the

1 Speech of 4 Sep 1941, quoted Dawson, Canada 1939–41, p. 204.

2 Quoted Hasluck, Australian War History, The Government and the People, Ch. IV; Elliott and Hall. British Commonwealth at War, p. 21; Round Table, December 1939, p. 191.

page 9 decision of a hurriedly summoned cabinet, but in principle Australia in 1939 proclaimed war merely by informing her people that a state of war existed in Europe. In the formal sense Australia did not declare war on Germany.

New Zealand acted with almost equal rapidity, but with greater respect for the forms of independent nationhood. Parliament was in session, but was not summoned. Cabinet, however, stood by to await the formal message from Britain which had been the agreed-upon signal for action.1 It arrived a few minutes before midnight on 3 September. On the same day, so the documents stand, the New Zealand Governor-General signed a proclamation that he ‘has it in command from His Majesty the King to declare that a state of war exists between His Majesty and the Goverment of the German Reich’, and that such a state of war had existed since the expiry of the British ultimatum, the issue of which New Zealand had previously approved. The proclamation was countersigned by Peter Fraser as acting Prime Minister. Then, at 1.55 a.m. on 4 September, a vigorously worded cable was despatched to London. His Majesty's Government in New Zealand reported that they had just received news that a state of war existed between the United Kingdom and Germany. They warmly associated themselves with His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, and asked the government to complete the formalities required under international law by notifying the Germans that New Zealand was at war. This was done in due course by the United States Ambassador in Berlin, and the notification presumably acknowledged, but records of these last steps were burnt with the archives of the American Embassy during the war.

New Zealand had declared war as thoroughly as she well could; abroad she had notified her enemies, and at home her own citizens, soldiers and law courts. As in the case of Canada, this was no case of automatic involvement through the mechanics of Empire. New Zealand felt it proper to indicate that she was taking action on her own account. At Westminster Mr Chamberlain noted of the Dominions as a whole that ‘of their own free will and under no form of compulsion these self-governing nations’ had stood beside the Homeland. In Wellington one lone, old-world voice protested against the procedure: When the King is at war, said the Hon. J. A. Hanan in the Legislative Council, so are his subjects, of whom we are a part.2 For the rest, both houses of Parliament approved the ‘action of the Government in advising His Excellency the Governor-General to proclaim on behalf of the Dominion of

1 Though Australia had decided to act on the shortwave broadcast of Chamberlain's statement.—Hasluck, op. cit., Ch. IV.

2 New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 256, p.40.

page 10 New Zealand the existence of a state of war.’ The Leader of the Opposition said expressly that a state of war had been proclaimed ‘between His Majesty's Government of New Zealand and the Government of the German Reich1.’

In the press as in parliament there was agreement on the propriety of what New Zealand had done. Nevertheless, the legal position was worse than obscure. The prerogative of declaring war and peace had not been entrusted by the King to his Governors-General. Only the King could declare war, or some agent specifically authorised by him. The New Zealand proclamation asserted that the King had instructed the Governor to act: but such instructions would be a grave violation of constitutional convention if issued without the advice of His Majesty's New Zealand ministers. The documents therefore require us to believe that after 11.52 p.m. the New Zealand cabinet reached a decision and cabled advice to the King in London in time for the King's instructions to reach the Governor-General before midnight. It seems easier to think that the New Zealand cabinet, secure in its own unanimity and in the obvious consensus of opinion in the country, had acted with commonsense and unlegalistic loyalty.

Cabinet's decision was made, and was approved by both houses of Parliament and by the community as being the only one conceivable. But, if there was no hesitation, there was no rejoicing. In August 1914 New Zealand people went to war with enthusiasm and noisy confidence. In 1939 there were no patriotic songs or cheering crowds in the streets. War was declared late on Sunday evening, a time when New Zealand cities are dead and New Zealanders habitually house-bound. Moreover, schooled during the Munich crisis to an excellent system of broadcasting the news, their ears would be tuned to the domestic radio, not to the spirit of adventure which dwells in excited crowds. Yet there was a deeper cause for quiet. What many New Zealanders had seen during 1914–18 and, even more, what all New Zealanders had been told in the nineteen-thirties, was not likely to encourage jingoism or mafficking. Also, in September 1939 New Zealand for the first time faced a struggle in which the outcome was obviously distant and even uncertain. Sentiment could not disguise the fact that Britain's relative strength was far less than in 1914. It was clear that Italy and Japan might well be added to the enemies of the First World War, while the support of Russia and the United States was at best problematical.

The new tone was apparent in the statements made on 4

1 NZPD, Vol. 256, p. 20. Cf. explicit later statement by F. Jones (Minister of Defence in 1939): ‘it was quite evident when the recent war broke out and Britain declared war, Britain did not declare war for New Zealand. New Zealand followed Great Britain and declared war against Germany on that occasion’.—Report of proceedings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, Wellington, Nov-Dec 1950, Foreign Affairs, 254.

page 11 September by Peter Fraser, who had been deputising for Mr M. J. Savage while the latter was recovering from an operation, and by Savage himself on the following day. ‘Not in anger but in sorrow, not in lightheartedness, but with heavy hearts, not in hatred but with a grave sense of great responsibility to mankind and to the future of humanity, not in malice and revenge, but with a prayer of peace on our lips, the British people today dedicate themselves to the work of overthrowing the oppressor and freeing the peoples of the earth from bondage and slavery to a ruthless and cruel tyranny’. Similarly Savage emphasised that ‘none of us has any hatred for the German people’, that the true enemy was Nazism, ‘militant and insatiable paganism’. ‘To destroy it but not the great nation which it has so cruelly cheated, is the task of those who have taken up arms against Nazism.’ He concluded his speech with words which at once assumed New Zealand's independent nationhood and stressed the link with Britain—‘Both with gratitude for the past, and with confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we are one and all a band of brothers, and we march forward with a union of hearts and wills to a common destiny.’

It is of course impossible to ascribe with confidence any positive feelings to the community as a whole. But, in so far as it was sufficiently definite to find expression, New Zealand opinion thoroughly justified Savage's declaration of unanimity. The pacifists, who alone opposed the war from its first hours, were numerically insignificant. So were the communists, who took some weeks to collect their thoughts and come out in opposition. More important, but intangible and undefinable, was the uneasiness of many thoughtful New Zealanders who had grown up under the shadow of the First World War with its ideals and disillusionment, leading on to the scepticism of the inter-war period. There were many young men and women who were dissatisfied with the main trends of British policy towards the League, towards Mussolini and towards Hitler. They were uncovinced by Chamber-lain's last-minute change of heart in respect to Hitler, and were convinced still less by his claim that all things possible were being done to enlist Russian support. There was, in fact, a substantial current of opinion which was violently opposed to Hitlerism but was uneasy about the leadership and strategy of the struggle against it. This uneasiness, though it coloured New Zealand politics and kept wits alert, offered no immediate alternative policy to those who were neither pacifist nor communist, that is, the vast majority of the community. For many Chamberlain was the peaceful English-man, who had gone to all lengths to avoid war and ultimately led page 12 his people, at last united, into an unavoidable conflict. For most of the minority who seriously questioned either his motives or his methods, he had at least—and at last—taken a stand against the forces of evil which they had long denounced.

There was no more doubt about what New Zealand would do in 1939 than there was in 1914, but what she did was done in a different form and in a different spirit. Also remarkable was the quality of the unanimity. As will be seen, the absence of opposition cannot be explained on the grounds of an uninterrupted docility. Nor was residuary criticism swept away by a storm of patriotic enthusiasm. It had dissolved before the revelation that the world contained aggressive states which were apparently insatiable; and the evolution of domestic politics had forged the basis of national unity. Yet there had been times during the preceding quarter-century when such a measure of general agreement would have appeared unlikely of attainment. The Government's decision on 3 September 1939, inevitable as it was, and New Zealand's subsequent wartime policy, had in fact a dramatic aspect which can only be perceived in an historical perspective.