More New Zealanders attended Anzac Day ceremonies in the early 21st century. Being at Gallipoli on 25 April became a rite of passage for many young Kiwis. Each generation of New Zealanders redefines the day to suit the mood of the times, and the last 50 years has seen much redefinition.

A pretext for protest

Anzac Day was caught up in the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, especially around issues of peace and women's rights. In 1967, Christchurch members of the left-wing Progressive Youth Movement laid a wreath in protest against the Vietnam War. They were later convicted of disorderly behaviour, but a pattern had been set. Similar incidents at subsequent Anzac Days were widely publicised.

Anti-war protests on Anzac Day largely died out in the mid-1970s with the end of the Vietnam War. New controversy erupted in 1978 when a women's group laid a wreath in memory of women killed and raped in war. Gay activists, anti-nuclear and peace protestors, and Maori activists, also laid wreathes at Anzac Day services during the 1980s.

The day had become more than a commemoration of New Zealand war dead and war service; it was being used to make statements about war and society. Many returned servicemen were puzzled or angry, but such activities gave the day fresh relevance. Increasingly Anzac Day was seen as an appropriate day on which to debate issues of defence and war. In the 1980s, former servicemen and politicians used the day to speak out against New Zealand’s new anti-nuclear policy.

Renaissance of remembrance: the 1980s

Anzac Day underwent a renaissance and more young people attended the services. The growing cultural nationalism of the 1980s found expression in a day that had always been an opportunity to mark what some saw as the foundation of a distinct New Zealand identity.

Other events, such as the ANZUS crisis spawned by the anti-nuclear policy, also linked the concepts of national identity and war. Books, plays and documentaries reinforced this association in the public mind.

Milestone commemorations 

The 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1990 attracted immense interest. This was also the year in which New Zealand marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. As a result, many New Zealanders pondered questions of national identity. An official delegation led by the governor-general and including a Gallipoli veteran attended an emotional service at Gallipoli on 25 April.

There was even more interest in the 90th anniversary of the landings. In 2005, thousands of New Zealanders went to Gallipoli. They gathered in the chill evening of 24 April, shared the dawn service with the Australians and then attended a distinctively New Zealand ceremony at Chunuk Bair later in the morning. Politicians and representatives of New Zealand's armed forces were there.

The 2005 ceremonies were carried live on New Zealand television. In subsequent years, Māori Television devoted Anzac Day to documentaries and panel discussions, and relayed commemorative events from home and abroad.

25 April 2015 was the apex of New Zealand’s commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. Once again, dignitaries and backpackers gathered at Ari Burnu / Anzac Cove, where visitor capacity had been increased. At home, the high point was the huge attendance at a dawn service in the new Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington, which had been created by digging the Arras Tunnel for State Highway One.

In 2019, armed police attended Anzac Day ceremonies in the aftermath of the 15 March terrorist attack. The usual Anzac Day events could not be held in 2020 because of restrictions imposed to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Instead, New Zealanders were encouraged to Stand at Dawn at their front gates holding a candle, torch or poppy in memory of those who had served or were still serving. 

Modern Anzac Day

Rituals on Anzac Day follow the form developed many years ago. There is still a dawn service; veterans and serving personnel continue to gather at memorials and in Returned Services' Association clubrooms; politicians and local dignitaries still attend ceremonies. Shops and hotels remain closed until 1 p.m.

In recent years, the number of young people in the crowds has been noticeable. Many wear medals won by their grandparents or great-grandparents. Bright Williams, New Zealand’s last First World War veteran, died in 2003, and the number of surviving Second World War veterans dwindles each year.

Anzac Day enjoys unusual reverence in a country where emotional public rituals are otherwise largely absent, at least among Pākehā. The day still has a traditional commemorative function, but it has also become an opportunity to talk about what it means to be a New Zealander.

See Children of Gallipoli, 2001 from NZ On Screen:

 

How to cite this page

'Modern Anzac Day', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/modern-anzac-day, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 9-Jul-2020