The New Zealand Legion

Page 1 – Introduction

Dealing with the Depression cartoon

In 1933 there was an unprecedented eruption of protest among urban businessmen and professionals in New Zealand. The most prominent manifestation of this was a radical conservative movement named the New Zealand Legion. Within several months of its founding in February 1933 the Legion had 20,000 members. It captured the attention of major newspapers and prominent politicians, as well as leading business and commercial associations. By mid-1934, though, it was all but defunct.

The Legion arose at a time of great crisis. The world had just entered the fourth year of the Great Depression, with little sign of improvement. In Europe, the fascist jackboot was on the march: Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists had begun to attract attention. Closer to home, unemployed riots had shaken New Zealand’s main cities in 1932, and an increasingly unpopular government seemed incapable of handling the situation.

While historians have sometimes called the Legion a 'fascist' group, the label doesn't fit; its leaders were influenced by classical liberalism and committed to parliamentary methods. It brought together thousands of discontented conservatives with a variety of ideas, both radical and traditional, on how to combat the Depression. Ultimately, it was on the losing side of history, with the Labour Party winning a landslide victory in the 1935 election. Many former Legionnaires subsequently played a role in the newly formed National Party.