AIR New Zealand: A controversial “legacy”
Sep 4, 2020 | Miriam Bell
This year has seen the world taking a fresh look at notable “personalities” from the past and what they represent in a broader, historical context. In New Zealand, statues of colonial figures are being reassessed amidst discussion of how to better address the injustices of the country’s past.
In addition to the colonial era, New Zealand’s post-war policies around immigration and the response of successive governments to the presence of Nazi war criminals in the country have long been the subject of criticism from the Jewish community.
A recent controversy over the legacy of a post-war Austrian émigré, who died on August 9, has brought these issues to the fore again.
Willi Huber immigrated to New Zealand in 1953. He made a name for himself on the ski-fields and is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Canterbury’s Mt Hutt ski area. The mountain features a lasting memorial to him in the form of the Huber’s Run trail, a plaque and a café.
There is more to Huber’s past than his endeavours on the ski-fields, though. At 17, Huber volunteered for the Waffen-SS, where he served as a machine-gunner, earning two Iron Cross medals on the eastern front. After the war, he was held as a prisoner of war for 16 months.
Despite this, Huber has been the subject of several laudatory media stories, including a controversial TVNZ programme in 2017, which was heavily criticised for glossing over and minimising his Nazi past.
Huber denied knowledge of any atrocities by the Waffen-SS and never expressed any remorse for his wartime activities.
Shortly after Huber’s death, Mt. Hutt Ski Area manager James McKenzie told the media the Huber’s Run ski trail would keep his name; “He made a new life and a new start here and tried to put that behind him. We are happy to respect his legacy. The context of what he went through in the war, nobody knows for sure what people did way back then.”
This comment ignited a maelstrom of criticism. Zionist Federation of NZ President Rob Berg started a petition calling for the removal of the “honouring legacy” for Huber from Mt Hutt, while community leaders like NZ Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses wrote impassioned columns asking why New Zealand was intent on honouring the legacy of an unrepentant Nazi.
The Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation contacted the renowned Nazi hunter Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s office in Jerusalem. He said he could “state unequivocally that serving in a Waffen-SS unit on the eastern front, there is no way that Mr Huber could possibly not have been aware of the massive atrocities carried out by the SS… If we add the fact that he volunteered for the SS, and his comments that Hitler was ‘very clever,’ and …‘offered [Austrians] a way out’ of the hardships after World War I, it’s clear that Mr. Huber was an unrepentant Nazi, who doesn’t deserve any sympathy or recognition.”
For the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand’s chief executive, Chris Harris, there’s no doubt that Huber was aware of what was going on in the Waffen-SS. “Even if he didn’t participate in it, he was aware of it. For us that means that he should not be honoured and paid homage to.
“So we would love Mt Hutt to reconsider the renaming of that area… They can say he made a new life and so on. But that wasn’t possible for the millions of victims of the Nazis who never got that chance.”
The Huber controversy has also reignited niggling questions about exactly who was allowed into New Zealand after World War II and the lack of a satisfactory government response to post-war arrivals subsequently identified as war criminals.
Harris says that between 40 and 46 Nazi war criminals are known to have migrated to New Zealand after the war. “They committed horrors, so how did they get in? You have to ask how was Immigration NZ assessing refugees? Were they just saying ‘oh, well you fought on the other side but it’s over now so you can come in’?”
In fact, New Zealand was the only Anglo-Saxon country that chose not to attempt any legal action against alleged Nazi war criminals within its borders, a reality described as “an embarrassment” by Zuroff.
Holocaust & Antisemitism Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand co-founder Sheree Trotter says that it is difficult to explain the government’s lack of response on identified war criminals – especially as it was so out-of-step with allies.
“The specific case of Willi Huber could be explained by a number of factors. Many New Zealanders struggle to face our own colonial past where injustices and crimes were perpetrated by our forebears. It’s easier to take the view that we should just move on. That type of attitude, combined with lack of education and an easy-going-accept-people-at-face-value attitude, could explain how Huber managed to ingratiate himself into the local community.”
In both Harris and Trotter’s view, there is a great need for more research into New Zealand’s relationship with the Holocaust, as well as education on the Holocaust, to better address these issues.