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Kiwi role in Spanish Civil War revealed in new book

24 April 2009

The long-forgotten exploits of some of the extraordinary New Zealanders who took part in the Spanish Civil War are revealed for the first time in a book that will be published by Canterbury University Press in May.

Kiwi Companeros Christchurch launch
At the Christchurch launch of Kiwi Companeros are (from left) CUP author and historian Geoff Rice, editor of Kiwi Companeros Mark Derby, and CUP Publisher Rachel Scott. The launch was held at the Madras Cafe Bookshop.

Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War offers the first account of the role New Zealand and New Zealanders played in the war, which began as a military revolt against the Republican government of Spain in 1936 and ended with the government’s overthrow and the start of the 40-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco in 1939. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict.

Edited by writer and historian Mark Derby with a foreword by the Spanish Ambassador to New Zealand Marcos Gomez, Kiwi Compañeros not only tells the personal stories of New Zealanders and post-war immigrants who took part in the action in Spain but also provides accounts of those who worked for the Spanish cause in New Zealand by raising funds, lobbying politicians and spreading propaganda.

Featuring contributions from some of New Zealand’s leading writers and historians, the book draws on personal letters, recently released military documents and previously unpublished photographs.

Mr Derby, who has worked for Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, the Waitangi Tribunal and as South Pacific correspondent for Portuguese newspaper Jornal Expresso, said the aim of the book is to preserve the long-forgotten stories of Kiwis who took part in what proved to be a brutal foreign war.

“It is a subject which has practically been overlooked and forgotten. There are no other books on New Zealand’s involvement in this conflict and virtually no mention of New Zealand combatants in any other books on the civil war,” he said.

Mr Derby stressed Kiwi Compañeros was not a military history.

“It is a book about a country’s response to a political situation overseas.”

While New Zealand did not officially become involved in the Spanish conflict, a number of New Zealanders volunteered their services as soldiers, doctors, and nurses, or covered the war as journalists. Some left New Zealand to take part in the war while others already based overseas headed to Spain.

Among the stories told are those of a Cromwell surgeon who operated as close as possible to the battlefield; a Christchurch-born academic who risked his life to work as an intelligence agent; a Wellington film-maker and show-jumper who fought for General Francisco Franco’s fascists; and a Wellington pilot who landed his plane with a shattered shoulder then headed to Hollywood to make movies with Errol Flynn.

“Generally speaking those who went to Spain were motivated by anti-fascist beliefs,” said Mr Derby.

“They saw the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and believed it was a dangerous movement that would eventually lead to war. They saw the overthrow of Spain’s legitimately-elected government as a victory for fascism and wanted to stop it.”

The book is based on papers delivered during a 2006 seminar on the war organised by the Trade Union History Project (now the Labour History Project) and supplemented by further research.

Kiwi Compañeros, published in association with the Labour History Project, will be launched in Auckland on 15 May at the Auckland Central Library and in Wellington on 28 May at Unity Books, Willis St.

  • Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War, edited by Mark Derby, published by Canterbury University Press, May 2009, RRP NZ$45.00, Paperback, 304pp, ISBN 978-1-877257-71-1.

For further information please contact:
Stacey Doornenbal
Canterbury University Press    
Tel: +64-3-364 2984