Book Review: Phoney Wars – New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_phoney_warsThis book is intended to be a maverick account of the Second World War, a kind of anti-military historian view. As a chronicle of dissent in New Zealand during World War Two it might have some value. However, I think that the writers get the tone wrong, if indeed, Hugh Eldred-Grigg is also one of the authors. He certainly writes the introduction, which states what the book is not about – not what it is about.

The younger Eldred-Grigg states: ‘our rejection of New Zealand’s participation in the war is not prompted by some juvenile contrarianism that draws satisfaction from puncturing common conceptions…’.

While it may not be juvenile, I certainly believe that the book is based on contrarianism, rather than principle. I also don’t find it very well researched for something that claims to be a history. Hugh Eldred-Grigg adds a note on method, in which he claims that conventional sources, what historians call primary sources, have weaknesses that he can offset. This is how he justifies the use of literary texts to supplement the main source, which are contemporary newspaper articles. Although the concentration on secondary sources, i.e. previously published sources, may be standard in political science, it does not work in a detailed history.

This is obvious from certain errors of fact and interpretation in the first chapter, which examines the prelude to the war in the 1930s. This period has now been covered very extensively, and in great detail with regard to political history. The obvious errors include referring to Henry Cornish, the Solicitor-General, as a government minister. The Solicitor-General is a civil servant, whereas the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister. This seems to have been an example where a printed publication was not relied upon. A more general problem is the habit of referring to contemporary writers and commentators with their perceived political affiliation. This might be alright if it was always accurate. However, using an obvious example, they state that A.N. Field wrote for Social Credit, whatever that connotes. In literal terms, Field wrote for Sir Henry Kelliher’s publication; and he also wrote many anti-Semitic letters to friends.

One of the other misinterpretations involves the financing of war. The authors claim that printing money was involved to finance the war in the First World War, if not the second. In fact, this is not logically possible. There was no New Zealand currency extant in 1914, the legal currency was sterling; and only the trading banks could actually print money. But later in the text the authors refer to the War Expenses Account in the 1940s. The detail comes from contemporary newspaper articles, as do the figures on the sale of War bonds to the public. It is difficult to see how the press articles shed more light on the subject than departmental records would; nor does it solve the question of exactly how the war was funded, and how much currency was created by the central bank.

The book has two basic premises: one is that there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war with Germany or Japan; the second is that, since New Zealand could not make a substantive difference to the outcome, it shouldn’t have really bothered at all. And a third, perhaps, is that historians should acknowledge the cost to German and Japanese citizens. This was illustrated among the contemporary cartoon and artworks reproduced in the book, which were the highlights of the book for me.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

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