George William Edward Ernest von Zedlitz, first professor of modern languages at Victoria College, Wellington, New Zealand, was born near Neukirch, Germany, on 10 March 1871, the only child of an Englishwoman, Mary Bethia Wolff, and her husband, Baron Sigismund von Zedlitz und Neukirch, a soldier and head of an old Silesian family. The marriage was unhappy and brief: George von Zedlitz was four when he saw his father for the last time.
Looked after by his mother and her relatives, he attended a variety of schools in three different countries, finally spending some years at Wellington College, Berkshire. In 1899 he won an open scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, where he took honours in classical moderations and literae humaniores. He failed to gain the expected first, but cut a figure in the Oxford Union Society, showing the brilliance as a speaker which characterised his subsequent career. Zedlitz tacitly renounced German citizenship by refraining from returning to Germany to undertake his year's military service. He never revisited Germany. On graduating MA he taught for several years at preparatory schools before spending five years teaching Latin and Greek as an assistant master at Loretto School in Scotland.
In 1897 his mother died and he felt free to move. In 1901 he was appointed to a chair at Victoria College. He knew French, Italian and German well, although his only formal university qualifications were in Greek and Latin. Before he left Britain William Pember Reeves, agent general for New Zealand in the United Kingdom, told him, 'You are the best of a poor lot of applicants. You should have seen some of the others.'
On 22 March 1902 he arrived in Wellington to join the four foundation professors and in the first year had nearly 40 pupils in French and German. To the young college he brought not only urbanity, wit and oratorical gifts but also, in a remarkable sense, the civilised mind of Europe – his inheritance from family and upbringing. He had an enthusiasm for teaching, for his students, and for the life of the college. He found congenial colleagues and, from 1908, he worked with a number of them in the University Reform movement, which criticised the complexity of the government of the federal University of New Zealand and argued for greater academic involvement in the control of its affairs. With Thomas Hunter and T. H. Laby he published the pamphlet University reform in New Zealand (1911). To the reform movement Zedlitz brought a broad intellectual grasp of the issues at stake and considerable powers of advocacy. The immediate results, two professors being added to each college council, were meagre. Zedlitz, however, had identified himself with New Zealand and with New Zealand's future. The movement had also led him into conflict with a number of powerful persons.
Marriage, too, had linked him with his new home. On 4 January 1905 at Lower Hutt he married Alice Maud Fitzherbert, member of a distinguished Wellington family. They settled in the Hutt Valley and had three children.
The outbreak of the First World War placed George von Zedlitz in a delicate situation; subsequent events were to shatter his career at Victoria. The war began as one between Germany and Russia and on its outbreak in 1914, before Britain was involved, Zedlitz went to the German consul in Wellington and offered his services in a non-combatant role. Shortly after, Britain came into the war and there was no question of his serving Germany in any capacity: his loyalty to his adopted country was absolute. He felt, none the less, that because of his formal lack of British citizenship he should offer his resignation to the Victoria College Council. The council, honourably, refused to accept it.
In the following months widespread anti-German feeling developed. It was alleged that Zedlitz had sought to fight for Germany against Britain, that he was a German agent, that he was in radio contact with Germany or with German ships. The New Zealand losses at Gallipoli aroused feelings even more. New Zealanders of German descent were dismissed from public employment. The council resisted a clumsy attempt by the government to influence them to dismiss Zedlitz and declined once again to accept his resignation. They were given no choice when the government passed the Alien Enemy Teachers Act 1915, which had one overriding object: to force Zedlitz from his position. Defeated by patriotism of the worst sort, the council could do little but vote Zedlitz a year's salary, express its regret at the mode in which his work for the college had been cut short, and publish a pamphlet setting out for the record the events which had led it to lose his services.
Zedlitz's hopes of regaining his chair at the end of the war were dashed when a motion to reappoint him, moved on council by Thomas Hunter, was defeated. There had been changes in the membership of the council; it seems clear, as well, that forces in the government were ready to intervene once more to prevent his reinstatement.
To make a living in 1920 he started the University Tutorial School, initially on the corner of Lambton Quay and Bowen Street, subsequently on The Terrace, and continued with this until a few years before his death. The grind of pushing less able students through examinations hardly accorded with the high ideals of education he had espoused so eloquently in earlier days, but his zest for teaching remained undimmed. In the wider sphere of adult education, in Workers' Educational Association summer schools especially, his wide-roving and paradoxical mind made an indelible impression. His association with Victoria University College remained close. In 1936 he was made professor emeritus, and also elected to the Senate of the University of New Zealand, on which he served for five years.
As his years increased so did the respect and affection in which he was held. Widely known in Wellington as 'Von' or 'Old Von', he was called upon for a variety of services: to translate an obscure language, to speak to a student club, to judge a literary competition. He was an early success in the new field of broadcasting. A keen gardener and alpine tramper, he was a tall man who stooped in old age.
George von Zedlitz died in Lower Hutt on 24 May 1949, shortly before Victoria University College celebrated its first 50 years, during which he had been so significant a figure. He was survived by his wife, Alice, and two daughters. He left an autobiographical memoir which was edited by his son-in-law, David Hall, and published in 1963 as The search for a country. There is a fine portrait of him by Christopher Perkins at Victoria University of Wellington, where a building has been named for him.