New Zealand declares war: Ian McGibbon recalls a major step in New Zealand's path to independence.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

Eighty years ago, on 3 September 1939, New Zealand declared war on Germany, the first time New Zealand had exercised this most essential right of statehood. The declaration, which was conveyed to the authorities in Berlin by the US embassy, belied its legal status as subordinate to the United Kingdom as part of the British Commonwealth.

The German invasion of Poland on 1 September precipitated this dramatic step. In a falsehood that fooled no one, the Germans claimed that they were responding to a Polish attack on one of their radio stations; they produced 'evidence' in the form of a corpse in Polish uniform (in reality a prisoner).

Following Hitler's occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, France and the United Kingdom had pledged support for Poland if attacked. They had thereafter watched with anxiety as Hitler ratcheted up the pressure on Warsaw over the Polish Corridor, territory awarded to Poland in the Versailles settlement to provide access to the Baltic Sea.

The British government responded to German's onslaught by issuing an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of German forces immediately. At 11 am UK time (9.30 p.m. in New Zealand), British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on radio that, no reply having been received from the German government, the United Kingdom, in consequence, was now at war with Germany. The British stance, quickly followed by France, shocked Hitler, who had assumed that the British and French would stand aside once again rather than go to war.

New Zealand's decision to go to war was fully in accord with its status since 1907 as a Dominion. The position of Dominions in relation to the British government had been thrashed out at the 1926 Imperial Conference in London. The Commonwealth leaders had agreed on a formula that was encompassed in the Balfour Declaration, which stated that Britain and the Dominions were 'autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations'. This formula had been codified in the British Parliament's Statute of Westminster in 1931.

However, New Zealand did not ratify the statute. Nor did Australia (until 1942). Legally both dominions remained in a subordinate position vis-a-vis the United Kingdom in foreign affairs. Australian leader...

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