Franco in Waiouru
A number of Kiwis journeyed to Spain to help defeat the attempts by Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini to overthrow that country's democratically elected government, and a handful of young men sacrificed their lives in the fight against fascism in Iberia. Despite this fact, there is no public memorial to the New Zealanders who served in Spain, and the Kiwi role in the conflict is not noted at either the Auckland War Memorial museum or the National Army Museum at Waiouru.
I visited the National Army Museum a couple of weeks ago, during a research trip to the snowy central plateau of Te Ika a Maui. I was impressed by the museum's design - an elegantly brutalist concrete bunker surrounded by a moat seemed entirely appropriate - and by the thorough and balanced treatment it gave to the nineteenth century wars between Maori and Pakeha. I was disappointed, though, by the museum curators' reticence about a conflict that was an important precursor to World War Two.
Does it make sense for the curators to explain the anti-fascist motivations of many of the men who volunteered to fight Hitler, without mentioning that these sentiments had in many cases first been aroused by Hitler's treatment of the Spanish people? Is it reasonable for the museum to tell the story of the Nazi air raids which devastated Britain in the early forties, without also telling the story of Guernica, and explaining that Hitler had perfected the art of terror bombing in Spain 1937 and 1938? Is the museum's presentation of the New Zealand Home Guard that prepared to wage a guerilla war against Japanese invaders not incomplete, without an acknowledgement that the force's training was largely based on lessons learned by the anti-fascist forces in Spain?
It seems that the museum in Waiouru doesn't neglect the Spanish war entirely, though. Anybody who visits the homepage of the institution's website will be greeted by a series of pop-up quotes about war from famous leaders. The quotes they tend to consist of the sort of cliches that generals and politicians use to garnish their speeches with gravitas. Franklin D Roosevelt, for instance, tells visitors to the website that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'. The curators at Waiouru don't seem to mind that Roosevelt was talking about the Great Depression, not war.
What I find remarkable is the National Army Museum's decision to take one of the pop-up quotes on its homepage from the man who brought fascism to Spain. The museum's homepage quotes Franco as saying 'men, not commodities, are the dearest material in war'.
The words themselves are, of course, unobjectionable. Even fascists say sensible things sometimes. It would be possible, I'm sure, for the museum at Waiouru to find some sage words from Hitler or Mussolini to put on its website. I doubt, though, whether the museum would consider it appropriate to present these figures as founts of wisdom on its homepage. Why is Franco any more palatable than the men who helped him to power?
Franco's own practice makes a mockery of the words attributed to him on the website of the National Army Museum. Many of his troops were Africans attracted to the fascist banner by the lure of wages, not by ideology. Franco regarded them with contempt, and had no compunction about sending them charging at the guns of Republican armies without proper artillery or air support. Franco also regarded the anti-fascist soldiers his armies captured as expendable: during and after the war, he shot tens of thousands of them and buried them in mass graves which are only now being excavated.
If the National Army Museum's failure to tell the story of the fight against fascism in Spain was a mistake, its decision to trumpet the wisdom of the leader of fascist Spain on its website is nothing short of an insult to the men and women Mark Derby commemorates in Kiwi Companeros.