The impact of the Second World War on Maori
‘We will lose some of the most promising of our young leaders,’ wrote Sir Apirana Ngata during the war. ‘We have lost a few already. But we will gain the respect of our Pakeha brothers and the future of our race as a component and respected part of the New Zealand people will be less precarious.’ Ngata’s son Henare, an officer in the Maori Battalion, wrote:
I doubt if Maori people can point to any specific benefit and advantage which can be attributed to the participation of their men in World War Two. But in a wider sense, the fact that Maori took an active part in the war produced a number of positive things. Maori have a higher profile in New Zealand life. The Treaty of Waitangi has been given a status unthought of pre-war. Maori is no longer a declining population, nor a dying race. Can it be claimed that these changes took place because Maori men went to World War Two? Probably not. But can it be said that these changes would have taken place if the Allies lost the war?
Of the more than 3600 men who served voluntarily with the Maori Battalion:
- In all, 649 were killed or died on active service
- A total of 1712 were wounded
- In all, 267 were taken prisoner or reported as missing
This casualty rate was almost 50% higher than the average for the New Zealand infantry battalions.
The Second World War was a significant event in terms of Maori–Pakeha relations. The contribution and reputation of the Maori Battalion was a source of great pride to the wider New Zealand community. It was seen by many as a positive step forward for race relations in this country. Apirana Ngata had argued that Maori participation in the First World War was the price of citizenship – after the Second World War it was clear that Maori had paid in full.
The war also created employment opportunities in the cities, and Maori made the most of these. In 1936 a little over 11% of Maori lived in urban areas; by 1951 the figure was closer to 23%. Urbanisation during and after the Second World War posed new challenges for Maori, who had to adjust to life in the city away from the support of their whanau. It also brought Maori and non-Maori into closer contact, helping to shape modern New Zealand society.