Germans were the largest non-British immigrant group to settle in New Zealand in the 19th century. Today, some 200,000 New Zealanders could be of German descent.
Between 1843 and 1914, at least 10,000 Germans arrived. They came mainly from northern Germany – Mecklenburg, Hamburg, Bremen, Hanover, Hessen, Holstein, and West Prussia.
In the 1840s times were difficult for rural labourers in the north of Germany. They were entirely at the mercy of the landowning aristocracy. They could leave the service of their master, but in doing so lost the right to live on the land. For many, emigration was the only answer.
This is how an early German immigrant in Nelson described New Zealand in a letter home, in 1846:
‘At first we had to fight a bitter struggle … but now we are all able to live quite comfortably and we’ve all saved some money too …Things are good here in this colony. Each and everyone is completely free and has full civil rights. … So, dear mother-in-law, don’t worry about us at all, as we are probably the luckiest of your children, as we eat nothing but white bread made from wheat here, and have lots of it.’ 1
In an 1844 letter home, Fedor Kelling wrote that New Zealand was a land where everyone was ‘his own king on his land’, where he could be ‘independent and free’. There was no prince to ‘stand over him and … tell him what to do’. 2
Not all immigrants were rural labourers; many came from the educated middle class. They appreciated New Zealand’s civil rights and its advocacy of freedom of thought and speech, which contrasted with the severe censorship in the German confederation.
Nineteenth-century German immigrants and visitors had a notable influence in many fields. Among them were:
Most Germans settled in English-speaking towns, and the larger cities had German-speaking quarters. Some German immigrants also founded rural communities. Although some of these early settlements still exist, in many cases there is little sign of their origins.
The first group of Germans arrived on the St Pauli in 1843, and founded the village of St Paulidorf in the Moutere valley, near Nelson. Bad flooding forced the abandonment of the village scarcely a year after it began, and now nothing remains but farmland.
In September 1844 a second German group, almost exclusively from Mecklenburg, arrived in Nelson on the Skiold. They settled in a village which they named Ranzau, after their patron, Count Kuno zu Rantzau-Breitenburg. It was renamed Hope in 1914, but Ranzau Road, Ranzau School, and the Ranzau Lutheran Church and cemetery still exist.
Around 1850, some Germans returned to Moutere, this time settling further up the valley. Over the next 20 years, joined by a number of their compatriots, they established settlements at Sarau (now called Upper Moutere), Rosental (Rosedale) and Neudorf.
Germans were among the first to introduce commercial winemaking into New Zealand. They also specialised in growing fruit trees and hops. Areas of Nelson settled by Germans are still known for their orchards, vineyards and horticulture.
In 1860 two groups of Germans arrived from Australia. The first, from South Australia, bought land in the Rangitīkei region. Over the years a large agricultural settlement grew up on the Pukepapa Line, with a German church and school. The St Martin’s Lutheran Church cemetery, established in 1877, is steeped in the history of this locality, which now forms part of the town of Marton.
In the second group were Germans from the Nelson region who had left for Australia, disillusioned with what they had found in New Zealand. Returning, they bought land in the far north and established the settlements of Houhora and Awanui.
Getting used to foreign accents sometimes causes amusing misunderstandings. Around the turn of the century in Pūhoi, so the story goes, a stranger appeared at a public meeting of farmers. When the stranger asked, ‘Who is the chairman here?’, he received the reply, ‘We are all Germans here!’ 1
One of the best-known German-speaking settlements is at Pūhoi, north of Auckland. It was founded in 1863 by people from Staab in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), under the leadership of Martin Krippner. Here traditions and customs of the homeland have been preserved to a greater degree than in other German-speaking communities. Some Egerländer dialect words are still heard (‘kochen’ is a traditional treat made from cheese curd), and Bohemian folk tunes are played at social gatherings. They are usually performed by four to six musicians playing violin, accordion and the dudelsack (a Bohemian version of the bagpipes). Another Bohemian settlement, again led by Krippner, was set up in 1864 in Ōhaupō (south-west of Hamilton).
The 1860s gold rush also attracted Germans – even in 1878 there were 621 in Westland Province. And 5% of the population of the provincial capital Hokitika, which had gained its wealth from the gold rush, were Germans.
During the 1870s, Premier Julius Vogel’s assisted immigration and public works scheme recruited workers from northern Europe as well as Great Britain. This resulted in new German settlements in Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Wellington, Canterbury, Westland, Otago and Southland.
A number of German families who came to Hawke’s Bay settled in Norsewood. In the Wellington region, the towns of Halcombe, Rongotea and Carterton had a large concentration of German immigrants. A further group, predominantly from West Prussia, were given work in Taranaki, and made their home around Inglewood. A settlement of timber workers sprang up in the 1870s near Waimate, South Canterbury, which bore the name ‘Germantown’. In 1878 Germantown had 53 residents, but after a bad forest fire that year, most settlers moved to Christchurch. Those who stayed turned to sheep farming.
In 1874 the government started preparations for a special settlement in Jackson Bay, South Westland, which was supposed to open up thick bush-covered land for farming. Forest workers were recruited from Pomerania in northern Germany, as they were said to be used to this sort of territory. They settled mainly in the Smoothwater River valley, south of Jackson Bay, where they felled trees and cleared land for farming. But the land was too damp and the climate too wet to justify continuing with the scheme. When the money for the project ran out in 1878, most Germans moved to Otago.
German immigrants working on railway construction established two settlements south of Dunedin, at Allanton and Waihola. They had arrived in Dunedin in 1872 on the Palmerston. As the construction work moved further south, many shifted with it to Southland. In 1875 some of them founded a ‘Germantown’ in the area of McNab–Whiterigg, north-east of Gore. This settlement no longer exists, but some descendants still farm in the area.
Germans continued to arrive, in smaller groups, right up to the outbreak of war in 1914, which stopped their immigration altogether. During the First World War many Germans were interned as enemy aliens on Somes Island and Motuihe Island. The only notable figure to overcome the anti-German hysteria of the time was Count Felix von Luckner. He became something of a folk hero after escaping with a crew of 10 from Motuihe Island in 1917.
Germans were again interned on Somes Island during the Second World War.
In the 1930s, a significant number of refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria arrived. Many came as children and later had a great influence, particularly on New Zealand’s cultural life. Among this group, most of them Jewish, were musicians, doctors, academics, educationalists and patrons of the arts. Germany’s loss was undoubtedly New Zealand’s gain.
Relations between Germany and New Zealand since the Second World War have been cordial, highlighted by three visits to New Zealand by German presidents, in 1978, 1993 and 2001.
The 1990s saw the largest influx of German immigrants, exceeding even the immigration drive of the 1870s. In the early 2000s, Germans represented the largest group of newly arrived immigrants from continental Europe. However, whereas early settlers came predominantly from the lower echelons of society, modern-day German immigrants tend to come from the upper middle class. Many come for ecological reasons, and are active in environmental circles. Others come as tourists and decide to settle, as they see New Zealand as less restricting both professionally and educationally. Recent arrivals do have one thing in common with their 19th-century counterparts – the pursuit of happiness and individual freedom.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Germany.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Bade, James N., ed. The German connection: New Zealand and German-speaking Europe in the nineteenth century. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Bade, James N., ed., with James Braund. Out of the shadow of war: the German connection with New Zealand in the twentieth century. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bade, James N., and others. Von Mecklenburg nach Neuseeland. Neubrandenburg: Regionalmuseum Neubrandenburg, 2002.
Bönisch-Brednich, Brigitte. Keeping a low profile: an oral history of German immigration to New Zealand. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002.
Haworth, Jennifer, and Arno Gasteiger. ‘Faith and brotherhood: Bohemians of Pūhoi.’ New Zealand Geographic 21 (Jan–Mar 1994): 73–88.
Williams, Judith. Puhoi remembers. Warkworth: J. Williams, 1981.