The Last Romantic Yearning

Following the lives of five Austrians in New Zealand: a journalist, a geologist, a biologist, an architect and a philosopher

Top Stories | Thomas Kohlwein | October 2012

Ferdinand von Hochstetter in his study ­on board the Novara, an Austrian navy ­frigate that brought him to New Zealand (Photo: Josef Selleny/ Österr. Nationalbibliothek/APA)

Austria and New Zealand, two countries on opposite ends of the world, don’t seem to have much in common. But the lives and work of five Austrians give insight into a little-known fruitful cultural relationship that has endured over two centuries.

One of the most scenic rail routes is located on New Zealand’s South Island. The TranzAlpine service crosses the Southern Alps and carries photographers through beautiful, empty wilderness. But today’s tourist attraction looked very different only 90 years ago, when Austrian journalist Richard A. Bermann followed what he called a "strangely unmotivated rail line." The wilderness of the mountains, the loneliness of an untouched landscape was so different from his native Alps.

On his way to the glaciers, he stopped at Hokitika, a small town that had been settled during the Gold Rush of the late 19th century and by the 1920s was already in decay. The bush was different from any forest he had ever seen, and he was fascinated by how nature was taking it back. Riding south on a post bus, he was surprised how close the glacier was to the ocean and bush, which he recorded as both frightening and fascinating, a place for "the last romantic yearning." With names like Hochstetter Ice Falls and Reischek Glacier featured on his map, however, he was already following the path of two other Austrians, who in the 19th century came to the country as explorers.


Hochstetter and the geological survey

Ferdinand von Hochstetter came to New Zealand on board the Novara, an Austrian navy frigate circumnavigating the world, with a group of scientists chosen to represent Austrian research. During their two-week stay, Hochstetter worked on a geological analysis of the area around Drury, impressing local authorities with his suggestions for coal mining, who asked him to extend his research to the whole province.

For nine months, he travelled around New Zealand’s most remote locations. "Hokitika", as the local Maori tribe called him, gave lectures about his findings and published several articles and maps that extended the knowledge of New Zealand’s natural features. Hochstetter continued his work after he returned to Vienna and remained one of the most important scholars of New Zealand’s nature.

In 1877, another Austrian Andreas Reischek, came to New Zealand as the new preparator of the Canterbury Museum, at the recommendation of Ferdinand von Hochstetter, then manager of Vienna‘s Naturhistorisches Museum. He spent two years working for its founder Julius von Haast and saw the opening of the Great Hall in 1878.

Reischek also wanted to explore what he saw as a vanishing people. After a series of land wars, King Country was the last place of Maori resistance against European settlers. The remote valleys were off-limits to Europeans, but he convinced the local Maori assembly of his good intentions towards them and they let him in.

In one of Mokau Valley’s villages Reischek was welcomed by the local chief, Hemera Te Rerehau, who had been one of two Maori who accompanied the Novara expedition back to Europe. Now, however, he saw them as enemies; European settlement had gone too far, he told Reischek, and he and his tribe were determined to fight for their last remaining land and freedom from foreign rule.


The ‘Dying World’ of the Maori

While his extensive work on New Zealand’s ornithology remains Reischek’s greatest achievement, it has been overshadowed by his thoughtless treatment of Maori culture, including the removal of four mummies from their sacred sites, and shipping them back to the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. They were finally returned to New Zealand in 1984, almost a century later, where a proper funeral took place. His son later published Sterbende Welt. Zwölf Jahre Forscherleben auf Neuseeland, based on his notes and diaries.

For modernist architect Ernst Plischke, New Zealand was place of refuge rather than adventure. He had been close to finishing a project for a metal factory in 1938, when Austria was annexed by Germany, and only a few days later, he lost the contract. A former colleague had intervened against him at the National Socialist Party headquarters, who denied Plischke’s client access to bank financing as long as Plischke worked for him. As a modernist with a Jewish wife, the architect was now persona non grata, excluded from the Nazi sponsored Chamber of Arts. Friends and acquaintances suggested emigration to New Zealand, and so Plischke and his wife Anna embarked in spring 1939.

On arrival in Wellington in early May, they were impressed by the scenery with the young town situated between steep hills. Plischke noticed the modern steel frame buildings at Oriental Bay and saw them as symbol of a young, progressive country where he might find a new professional home. He went to work for the newly formed Government Housing Department, and designed several housing estates, although most of his plans were altered by bureaucracy. In 1942 he designed a monument to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s arrival in New Zealand waters. He then went into private practice with Cedric Firth in 1947, designing many significant buildings including Massey House, a large office building in downtown Wellington, which was completed in 1957 and received international recognition.

In 1963, Plischke was invited to return to Vienna to succeed Holzmeister as head of the Master School of Architecture at Academy of Fine Arts, which he accepted, leaving behind a legacy of community centres, private houses and townships like Nae-Nae and Tamaki.


Popper and The Open Society

As philosopher Karl Popper watched the rise of Nazis from his post in Cambridge, England, he was surprised how little attention the world paid to it. Returning to Vienna in 1936, sensing the precarious political climate, he accepted an offer for a lectureship at University of Canterbury and in 1937 he and his wife left for New Zealand. Here, his doubts about western democracies and their abilities to fight totalitarism only grew: To him New Zealanders were friendly and honest, but endlessly far away from the key developments in Europe. He had the impression that New Zealand "was the best-governed country in the world, and the most easily governed."

His time in New Zealand was one of intense activity. Besides his teaching commitments he advocated a more research-focused university and joined a group of reformers to publish a pamphlet Research and the University. Popper followed European developments closely and prepared to help Austrian refugees in case of Nazi takeover. When this happened in 1938, he began to recompile material he had worked on since 1919 to write his two best-known books: The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. When he eventually left New Zealand for England in 1946, he had significantly enriched its intellectual life through his work at the university and it was this environment that led him to the crucial decision to start working on these two books.

All five established a close connection to New Zealand in a very short time. Bermann used his pen name Arnold Höllriegel to publish Tausend und eine Insel, not only a travelogue but a collection of stories linking local (Maori) culture with global developments. In the 19th century, Hochstetter and Reischek both shaped the knowledge about the country that was settled with their respective works on geology and birds. They came as explorer and adventurer and found their main research interest there.

Cultural enrichment took place on both sides also in the 20th century, when Plischke and Popper shaped a young society’s architecture and scholarship scene. For both, their country of exile was not a wild, exotic place to explore. Here instead they found the freedom to live and continue their work, to build and write, and to deepen their understanding of the world. Places are connected through the people who live and work there, and when New Zealand accepted Austrian refugees from the Nazi regime, it opened a whole new chapter in the relationship of the two countries on opposite ends of the world. From this time on they have shared a common intellectual heritage.


Thomas Kohlwein is editor of a forthcoming anthology "Europa Erlesen Neuseeland", to be published this fall in conjunction with Frankfurt Book Fair’s focus on New Zealand, from 10 to 14 Oct. For more information, see:

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