Karl Hanssen’s Memoirs of his Wartime Experiences in Samoa and New Zealand 1915–1916

by James N. Bade (Volume editor)
©2016 Others 214 Pages
Series: Germanica Pacifica, Volume 15


Karl Hanssen’s memoirs provide an invaluable outsider’s view of life in New Zealand prisons and a unique perspective on German Samoa under New Zealand occupation. In October 1915, Hanssen, manager of the DHPG, a large German copra production company, was sent from Samoa to New Zealand to serve a six-month sentence imposed by a New Zealand military court for bypassing war censorship regulations. He served his sentence in a number of prisons in New Zealand, including two months in the high-security prison, Mt Eden.
Hanssen’s memoirs – in English translation and in the original German – are made available for the first time in this edition, which also features photos from his Samoan album and a comprehensive introduction by Bronwyn Chapman on the historical and political background.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • James N. Bade - Preface
  • Bronwyn Chapman - The Historical and Political Background to Karl Hanssen’s Memoirs
  • 1. Introductory Remarks
  • 2. Samoa under New Zealand Military Occupation
  • 3. Effects of the Occupation on the German community
  • 4. Samoan Perspectives on the Colonial Administrations
  • 5. The New Zealand Internment Experience
  • 6. Imprisonment, Internment and the Authorities
  • 7. Six months’ Imprisonment without Hard Labour – Mt Cook, the Terrace and Mt Eden Gaols
  • 8. Internment as Prisoner of War – Motuihe and Somes Islands
  • 9. New Zealand Responses to the First World War
  • 10. Pro-German bias
  • 11. Mainstream New Zealand
  • 12. The New Zealand Irish
  • 13. Socialists
  • 14. Rua Kenana and Ngai Tuhoe
  • 15. Conclusion
  • 16. Works Cited
  • Karl Hanssen: Wartime Experiences, translated by James Braund, Elizabeth Eltze & Judit Tunde McPherson
  • Karl Hanssen’s Photographs of his Time in Samoa
  • Karl Hanssen: Kriegserlebnisse, transcribed by James Braund, Elizabeth Eltze & Judit Tunde McPherson
  • Editorial Remarks
  • Karl Hanssen: Kriegserlebnisse in Samoa und Neuseeland

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A number of people have been involved in bringing this volume to fruition. I would like to thank first and foremost Marianne Klemm of Hamburg for her support for this unique edition of Karl Hanssen’s memoirs of his time in German Samoa under New Zealand occupation and his incarceration and internment in New Zealand. Marianne Klemm, Karl Hanssen’s granddaughter, made available Karl Hanssen’s memoirs to us along with his photograph collection, and generously contributed to the printing costs of this edition. I would also like to thank the Research Committee of the School of Cultures, Languages, and Linguistics for their support in contributing to the printing costs of this edition. The transcription and translation of Hanssen’s memoirs were undertaken by Faculty of Arts Summer Scholars Elizabeth Eltze and Judit Tunde McPherson in the summer of 2012–2013 and were revised by Dr James Braund in 2015. The Historical and Political Background section is based on Bronwyn Chapman’s M.A. thesis submitted to the University of Auckland in March 2015 entitled “The Background to Karl Hanssen’s Great War Memoirs, 1915–1916”, which I have abridged and edited for the purposes of this edition.

Professor James N. Bade

Director, Research Centre for Germanic Connections with New Zealand and the Pacific

University of Auckland

December 2015

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The Historical and Political Background to Karl Hanssen’s Memoirs

Bronwyn Chapman

1. Introductory Remarks1

At the end of October 1915, as the First World War raged on the battlefields of Europe, Karl Hanssen, manager of the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagengesellschaft (DHPG), a large copra production company, was on his way from Samoa to New Zealand aboard the SS Talune. Along with fourteen other Samoan Germans, he spent the fifteen-day journey in anticipation and uncertainty over what would greet him at his destination. Hanssen had visited New Zealand before on business trips, as a guest of the Union Steam Ship Company, but this time would be very different. Instead of being welcomed by business representatives, he expected to be taken immediately into military detention to serve a six-month sentence imposed by a military court in Samoa for bypassing censorship regulations. After the expiry of this sentence, he would be held indefinitely as a prisoner of war, until the termination of hostilities, which it was then hoped would not be far away.

Little did Hanssen know that would be another three years before the war raging in Europe would come to its bloody close, and even longer before German prisoners would be allowed to return to their homeland. Nor would he spend the next six months in military detention. Instead he would be held alongside criminals in the New Zealand state prison system, administered by the Department of Justice, with two months of his sentence to be served in the country’s most notorious high-security prison, Mt Eden. Meanwhile, in Samoa, the copra business he hoped to return to after the war would be placed in liquidation and lose its stock to Australasian companies.2 He would also never again see the islands that had been his home for over twenty years, and would instead watch from afar as New Zealand was given a mandate to govern Samoa under a civil administration. ← 9 | 10 →

War had reached German Samoa in August 1914, with the arrival of a New Zealand military force, tasked with seizing the colony in the name of Great Britain and her Allies. Hanssen meticulously recorded the subsequent military occupation in his personal diary, which was published in 2011 as Volume 8 of the Germanica Pacifica series.3 This diary, which has proved to be such a valuable contribution to the literature exploring New Zealand’s military occupation of Samoa, was – ironically – responsible for Hanssen’s four-year imprisonment at the hands of the New Zealand authorities. Hanssen had regularly been smuggling correspondence to Germany, and it was the discovery of his diary secreted on a ship en route to Amsterdam that led to his arrest and conviction for bypassing censorship in 1915. The publication of this diary also led to the granddaughter of Karl Hanssen, Marianne Klemm, contacting the Research Centre for German Connections with New Zealand and the Pacific with a manuscript, written by her grandfather, in which he records his experiences of his imprisonment in New Zealand. This document, Karl Hanssen’s Kriegserlebnisse, is truly unique, in that it provides a German prisoner’s perspective of life in New Zealand state prisons during the First World War. Although Hanssen was by no means the only German to be incarcerated in the New Zealand prison system during this period, his appears to be the only surviving account to record these experiences in any detail.4

This section of the edition will draw on Hanssen’s memoirs to explore the historical and political background to the events surrounding his imprisonment. The first part will focus on Hanssen’s description of the military occupation of Samoa, looking at the effects that the change in administration had on the day-to-day life of the islands’ German settlers, as well as the devastating impact on German business. It will also examine native Samoan attitudes towards both the New Zealand administration and the deposed German colonial government. ← 10 | 11 → The second part will concentrate on Hanssen’s experiences as a military prisoner in New Zealand, both in the state prison system and in military-run internment camps, and attempt to answer questions about whether his treatment at the hands of the New Zealand authorities was fair, or in fact legal. The third part will explore the background to Hanssen’s comments on New Zealand responses to the First World War.

2. Samoa under New Zealand Military Occupation

Samoa was colonised relatively late compared to its Pacific neighbours. In 1900, after decades of rivalry between three colonial powers, the islands were partitioned between Germany and the United States, with Britain withdrawing her claim in return for German claims in Tonga and elsewhere, a solution that caused some disquiet and consternation in New Zealand. For some time New Zealand had been harbouring its own colonial aspirations towards Samoa and elsewhere in the Pacific. Some early premiers, such as George Grey, Robert Stout and Julius Vogel, had hoped that a Samoan colony could be a strong economic asset, help to secure the nation’s defences, and be part of a potential New Zealand South Pacific colonial empire.5 In November 1899, at the news of the tripartite agreement, the New Zealand Herald ran an editorial which captured the public mood:

We confess that that was a somewhat bitter pill for us to swallow. Ever since New Zealand became a colony we have had frequent intercourse with the islands of the Pacific, and especially with Samoa. Long before the complications had arisen which have compelled the present settlement, the settlers of New Zealand urged that England should take possession of Samoa. We looked forward to the time when New Zealand would be at the head of an island confederation, of which Samoa would be an important part.6

No wonder then that New Zealand, at the outbreak of the First World War, was so eager to fulfil Britain’s request to seize and occupy German Samoa for the Allies. By sending troops to capture the islands, New Zealand could achieve a dual goal. Having been granted the “consolation prize” of colonies in the Cook Islands and Niue after the disappointment of the 1899 settlement, New Zealand could now secure what would be the jewel in its burgeoning Pacific empire, while also taking the opportunity to prove its loyalty and capability to mother Britain. ← 11 | 12 → However, despite the years spent hoping for such an opportunity, the 1400-strong Advance Party of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) that sailed for Samoa on 15 August was poorly prepared to administer a colony. The initial seizure of government buildings and property was relatively successful, as no resistance was offered by the resident Germans, but the day-to-day running of island affairs proved more difficult. The New Zealanders who took over the roles of German officials lacked relevant experience. The troops themselves were also young and inexperienced, and the military administrator, Colonel Robert Logan, a former sheep farmer, had no field experience or knowledge of native affairs.7 Together they bumbled their way through five years of military administration before being replaced by a civil administration in 1920, making more than a few mistakes and misjudgements along the way.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Deutsch-Samoa Deutsche im Pazifik Einnahme Deutsch-Samoas durch Neuseeland Deutsch-Neuseeländische Beziehungen Neuseeland im 1. Weltkrieg Samoa im 1. Weltkrieg
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 214 pp., 15 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

James N. Bade (Volume editor)

James N. Bade is Professor of German at the University of Auckland and is Director of the Research Centre for New Zealand and the Pacific at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.


Title: Karl Hanssen’s Memoirs of his Wartime Experiences in Samoa and New Zealand 1915–1916
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216 pages