When German troops went into battle against New Zealanders in France in World War 1 each German soldier had engraved on the buckle of his belt words to the effect “God is with us”.
On the other side of the trenches parsons and chaplains of various Christian denominations held prayer services for troops and prayed to God with them before battles.
Which side was God really on? Neither. Which side could justify going to war? Neither.
This was very different to the Second World War when the rise of fascism across Europe (Spain, Germany and Italy) meant a combined war effort to stop the Nazis was needed. The Italian leader Benito Mussolini summed it up well when he said that fascism was the combination of state power and corporate power.
It was a serious threat to humanity and we could justify going to war.
But the First World War was none of this. It was an imperialist war, a clash of empires. After a century or so of carving up the world among themselves like a giant monopoly game the European powers were greedy, envious and suspicious of each other. Germany wanted parts of North Africa which were also wanted by the French. Austria took over Bosnia. Britain was expanding its empire rapidly and resented Germany’s growing naval strength. Italy wanted Tripoli. And on it went.
When it came to war the imperial powers of Britain, France and Russia in the Triple Entente were ranged against the Triple Alliance of Italy, Austria and Germany. Multiple secret pacts were signed between the governments of these countries in the preceding years, all with the aim of protecting and extending each country’s share of the world pie.
Today, nearly 100 years on, we are still told our soldiers were fighting and dying to defend freedom. There is no nice way to say it. It’s a big lie. These soldiers died not for freedom or independence but for the empty rhetoric of empire builders. Needless to say it wasn’t the power-hungry politicians or their wealthy backers who fought the war. It was left to working-class soldiers on both sides to fight and die in their hundreds of thousands. Two of my great- uncles, one from Napier and one from a farm near Waharoa, are buried in Belgium and Northern France respectively.
And yet on Wednesday this week thousands of school children and young New Zealanders will attend Anzac Day services to be told the big lie again. Their forebears in the First World War died for the freedom they enjoy today. This is repugnant. It disrespects those who died and insults young New Zealanders. Our kids deserve better than this tripe.
There is another important lesson for our children. New Zealand governments have always been keen war participants. The very first parliament elected (only wealthy, white, male landowners could vote) in 1854 lamented that it could not send troops to fight for the British empire in the Crimea.
But as soon as they could, we were into it. In the First World War our government conscripted soldiers to fight, unlike Australia, and we sent more soldiers to battle per head of population than any other country.
In the entire history of human warfare no country has proportionately sent a greater number of troops a greater distance to fight a war than this little country of ours did in 1914. This should be a source of shame.
Coupled with this, of all the countries who fought, we were the harshest in our treatment of conscientious objectors.
The standard steps to get a population to support war were used by politicians and their backers. Dehumanise the enemy, claim that freedom and independence are at stake, make fervent calls to patriotism and deride those who oppose the war.
On the one hand we like to think we are peace-loving people but too often we have been more than eager warmongers. Like a wayward teenager, we’ve been easily led.
On average every 10 years since World War 1 we have sent combat troops to war, the latest sent by Helen Clark to help the Americans in Afghanistan.
Most of these wars, and wars in general, are fought for control of resources and markets.
This is the reason up to one million Iraqi civilians have been killed over the past four years. This is the reason Caesar invaded Britain, Japan invaded Russia, Hitler invaded Poland, China invaded Tibet and colonial troops invaded the Waikato and Taranaki.
Another war for control of resources is being planned right now. It’s the US plan to attack Iran.
I received an email in the last few days from a small group planning to attend the dawn service here in Auckland on Anzac Day. They plan a silent vigil with a banner which says “Honour the dead – no more wars”.
That’s a better message for our children on Anzac Day.