It cannot be stressed just how much the act of fascist terror in Christchurch will alter the course of New Zealand (NZ) history. One has to go back to the Surafend massacre in 1918 Palestine, when the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops slaughtered up to 120 Arab civilians and torched their village, to find as costly an act of violence against civilians directly related to NZ. To find one on NZ soil, one has to go back about 150 years to the long series of colonial land wars of the mid-19th century which raged between British forces and independent tribes from 1843-1872.

The attacks have been made all the more shocking to the mainstream of NZ thought because it is commonly assumed fascism or otherwise hard-line reactionary moves have never managed to gain strong roots. For a self-described fascist to be the culprit of one of the bloodiest moments in NZ history has been an incomprehensible system shock for many, asking questions of what it means to be a New Zealander. But the reality is that the notion of ‘no fascism in NZ, no precedent for these attacks’ is only partially true.

Construction of Al Noor mosque in the 1980s. Source: Radio NZ

It is indeed very much true that during the classical period of fascism in the 1920s-1940s there was never a real equivalent to the likes of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists or even Eric Campbell’s fascist paramilitary New Guard in Australia. However, the doctrine of white supremacy has been a major factor in the governance of NZ, with far right organisations exerting significant influence and posing a direct threat to minority communities. For the former, the organised doctrine of white superiority in NZ began to really take form in the 1860s during the build-up to the Waikato War of 1863.

Alfred Domett, the Premier of NZ at the beginning of the war, was a firm believer that Maori were too savage to ever be equal to ‘civilised men’ a view shared by many at the time. By the end of the 19th century Maori resistors to British rule had been militarily defeated, and pacifist resistance smashed with brutal force. It became commonly accepted among Pakeha (the Maori term for white or European Descent New Zealanders) society that Maori were a ‘dying race’ who were doomed to either entirely die out or be fully assimilated into white society.

The settler colonial state continued its act of othering non-white immigrants into the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Principally this was expressed by ‘leagues’ dedicated to excluding Asian immigrants at the level of civil society, and by ever increasingly restrictive immigration controls at the level of state policy. Eventually these policies coalesced into the ‘White New Zealand Policy’. A short rundown includes:

  • Restrictions in the gum digging industry aimed at curtailing Dalmatian (though sometimes referred to more broadly as Croatian or even Yugoslav) immigration passed in 1898, 1908, and 1910.
  • Poll taxes and restrictions on the number of migrants based on ship tonnage in 1881, 1888, and 1896 (eventually reaching a £100 and just one Chinese immigrant allowed per 200 tonnes).
  • Restrictions on the entry of ‘Assyrian hawkers’ which were functionally aimed at Syrians and Lebanese brought in by the Undesirable Hawkers Prevention Bill 1896.
  • Requirements that non-British immigrants must make their applications in a European language enacted by the Immigration Restriction Act 1899, designed specifically to reduce the immigration of non-white British subjects (especially Indians) in spite of opposition by British officials.
  • Alterations to naturalisation laws to reduce and then end all pathways to naturalisation for Chinese immigrants in 1892 and 1908.

This framework of legislations which made up the ‘White NZ Policy’ was finally formalised by the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920, which created a requirement to apply for permanent residency before arrival, effectively handing the Minister of Customs discretion over every applicant.

This resulted in a near total stop to all non-white immigration for over two decades. It was bolstered by the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931 which reduced continental European immigration (the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919 had already drastically increased immigration barriers to people from the former German and Austro-Hungarian empires). The 1931 Act had the specific effect of making it extremely hard for Jews to immigrate to NZ during the 1930s and was in large part responsible for an extremely small number of Jewish refugees making it to NZ before the outbreak of WWII.

In spite of the incredible barriers to entry already in place before WWI, public support was still in favour of ever tougher restrictions which led to the formation of the White New Zealand League in 1925. This league is more notable than the others here for three reasons. First, it was formed well after the 1920 Act had passed, despite the fact that it was by then near impossible for anyone not of Anglo ancestry to actually move to NZ. The second is the sheer scale of its support. When it sent out a letter to 200 local bodies over 1926 asking them to support its aims for a white only nation, 160 of them (representing some 670,000 people, almost 50% of the populace) replied positively. Third is its explicit support for eugenics and ‘scientific’ arguments for white supremacy. Nothing more clearly states this than the league’s 14 word motto: ‘Your obligations to posterity are great. Your inheritance was a White New Zealand. Keep it so for your childrens’ children, and the Empire.’

This deeply xenophobic atmosphere led to the murder in 1905 of an elderly, disabled Chinese miner Joe Kum Yung in Haining Street, Wellington. The killer Lionel Terry, an ex-military British migrant of a merchant family, had just finished a tour across the length of the North Island promoting his anti-Semitic and Sinophobic verse-cum-manifesto The Shadow. A letter he submitted to The Press the evening of the murder stated he’d committed the murder to promote his manifesto.

New Zealand, in spite of fertile ground for it, never had a traditional fascist movement in the 1930s. There was the NZ Legion, born as a coalition of right-wing forces during the Great Depression, though it did not evolve to become a fully paramilitary organisation. The social credit movement did become quite large, with considerable influence on the Labour Party at the time of the First Labour Government in 1935, and harboured a considerable anti-Semitic underbelly. Social credit remained a serious force in NZ politics (via the formation of the Social Credit Political League in 1954) right through to the 1980s, and until 1972 the party leadership tolerated anti-Semitism without complaint alongside support for white rule in Southern Africa.

The loss of leadership in the Social Credit led to the founding of NZ League of Rights, a cousin to the Australian organisation of the same name. Through the 1970s to 1980s the League of Rights was the largest and most influential force on the far right, forming numerous front groups to act in coalition with more mainstream conservative organisations on issues from homosexual decriminalisation to abortion to promoting sporting contacts with Apartheid South Africa. The League peaked at upwards of a thousand members and paying supporters in the 1980s, with an operating budget estimated at $50,000NZ that allowed them to print publications in the hundreds of thousands of copies.

The League featured prominently in sociologist Paul Spoonley’s 1987 survey of the NZ far right The Politics of Nostalgia. Alongside the League Spoonley identified almost 100 far right organisations formed in NZ from 1954-1987. In the interim 32 years since the The Politics of Nostalgia was published there has not been a similar survey, leaving a further three decades of far right history languishing unwritten. This in spite of the rise of a violent white power street gang movement in the 1990s, from which the group Fourth Reich was created in 1994 – members of which would go on to commit at least three ideologically motivated murders.

Although the fascism in NZ has withdrawn in recent years, it was only 15 years ago that the National Front was run out of Wellington after a spate of assaults against immigrants and vandalism of Jewish graves. And indeed within the last decade prominent white power veteran Kyle Chapman formed the now defunct Right Wing Resistance in Christchurch, which became notorious for conducting street patrols in immigrant neighbourhoods and conducting armed survivalist training in the bush. Even within the last few years, the far right in NZ has either hovered alarmingly close to the political mainstream or struck out with violence from the fringe. The reality of both a historical social basis for such a movement, and the existence of such organisations, is now undeniable.

Tyler West is a historian and archivist with an interest in the history of the radical left, organised labour, fascism, and fringe movements in New Zealand. His 2018 master’s thesis, Left Out? The Extra-Parliamentary Left in Aotearoa/NZ from 1999 to 2008, examines the radical left in NZ during the years of Helen Clark’s Labour Government. He writes for various NZ publications and his blog The Ice Bloc, and can be found on Twitter @ComradeBloc.

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