The Second World War at home

Page 6 – In dissent

New Zealanders who publicly opposed the war were in a very small minority. They came from two main groups: communists and pacifists.

Early in the war, communists' allegiance to the Soviet Union aligned them with Germany. In 1940 their newspaper, People's Voice, was banned by the government, and books on communism were among those outlawed under New Zealand censorship controls. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the New Zealand Communist Party, along with others in the west, shifted its allegiance and swung in behind the war effort.

Pacifists, however, remained staunchly opposed to the war for the duration of the conflict. Two significant anti-war groups spread their message through the 1930s – the New Zealand Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and the New Zealand Christian Pacifist Society (CPS), started by Ormond Burton and A.C. (Archie) Barrington in Wellington in 1936. Burton was a Methodist minister who had been wounded and decorated for bravery in the First World War. Barrington, a younger man, was also a Methodist. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the two spoke and marched against New Zealand involvement in any conflict. After war was declared, anti-war meetings and parades were banned by the government but Ormond and Barrington continued to speak out. Both were arrested and imprisoned.

When the war began, pacifists were small in number – fewer than 700 belonged to either the CPF or the PPU. Non-Christian peace groups such as the No More War Movement also attracted only a limited following.

When conscription was introduced in July 1940, conscientious objectors could appeal their military service. But the Appeal Boards were made up of older, conventional men, and the government expected them to 'prevent the coward and the slacker from sheltering under a convenient conscience'. In New Zealand, of the 3000 appeals against conscription on conscience grounds, only 600 were allowed. Most of those turned down gave in to the law and served as required, but 800 refused to comply. As lawbreakers, with no right of appeal, they were sentenced to detention – a 'scheme of concentration camps designed to be less comfortable than the army, but less punitive than gaol'. The term of their confinement was an indefinite sentence, while the war lasted.

New Zealand's treatment of its conscientious objectors was notably punitive. In Australia, objectors were directed into civilian work not connected with the war. In Canada, only 300 of the 11,000 conscientious objectors were held in camps and the others worked in industry, fishing and farming. More than half those who appealed their conscription on conscience grounds in Britain were exempted to do non-military work, and those imprisoned were paroled to civilian work after serving their sentence, which was rarely longer than three months.

In New Zealand, in spite of lobbying from supporters, more than 200 'military defaulters' were still in camps or prisons at the end of 1945. In December, the RSA national executive made an unsuccessful attempt to get the government to keep the men detained for 12 months after the end of the war – and disenfranchised for a further 10 years. The last detained conscientious objectors in New Zealand were not released until May 1946, nearly 10 months after the war finished.

Conscientious objector Mervyn Browne spent nearly five years in camps and prison. As conditions in the camps worsened he and a friend escaped to alert others to the changes. His pacifist fiancée, Marjorie Browne, who wrote to him while in detention, recalls that he found a way to tell them about the escape by getting 'a letter out to us somehow'.

How to cite this page

'In dissent', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012