Tuesday, 30 September 2014

3 Questions with Steven Loveridge

Steven Loveridge's Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War was released in September. It considers New Zealand's war commitment as emblematic of deeper cultural sentiments and wider social forces which were marshalled in a cultural mobilisation.

What argument or discussion does Calls To Arms set out that is different from the many WWI books currently on the market?

Within New Zealand historiography, military historians have typically studied the war as a military event while social/cultural historians have elected to focus on particular subjects. Both approaches, while fruitful, have left us with a rather fragmented vision of the society that went to war. Calls to Arms seeks to place the military effort in a broader cultural context and offer an overview of New Zealand society’s commitment to the war.

What were the ‘deeper cultural sentiments and larger social forces’ behind NZ involvement in the war? 

Popular memory, and some accounts, of the war have gravitated to notions of grand manipulators deemed culpable for the appalling costs of the conflict. This top-down sense of an imposed project is not a complete fabrication (it can cite all too real instances) but it can distort our comprehension of the relationship between society and commitment to the war. 

New Zealand’s war effort was not only driven and shaped by military and political figures but by various social forces and cultural dynamics. Within Calls to Arms considered examples include study of the continuation of New Zealand’s orientation towards Britain in wartime solidarity, the mobilisation of gendered ideals around masculine and feminine duties and the sanctioning of conscription with a broad consensus on the desirability to equalise sacrifice. Studying the larger forces in play provides fresh insights on the people of 1914-1918 and recognition that New Zealand poured its social, as well as its physical and human, capital into its war effort.

What was it about your research that you found most interesting?

For me the most fascinating aspect of the project was recognising the complexities of New Zealand society at war. Recent research has modified conventional notions of universal responses to the war, revealing a far more complex social consensus which impresses some of the humanity of the subject. Thus I found prohibitionists, who interpreted the struggle to one against vice, being answered by assertions that a war for British liberties included the right to a drink. Still more flexible were a plethora of commentators who presented social elements – Catholics, militant labour, capitalists, Australians, the Irish, Rua Kenana – as being in cahoots with the Kaiser. Such layering of meaning on the war continued in post-war arguments over how various representations of the war years squared with personal comprehensions.

Calls to Arms, p/b, $40.

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