Early Austrian visitors
Some 19th-century Austrians spent time in New Zealand, making their mark, then returning to Austria. The collector and naturalist Andreas Reischek lived in New Zealand for 12 years, and the geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter stayed just over a year, helping establish the study of geology.
The explorer and scientist Julius von Haast hoped to create a pantheon in the Southern Alps by naming peaks and other geographical features after the great scientists of his age. He gave the name of his friend, Ferdinand von Hochstetter, to the grandest icefall in the alps, and to a shapely peak at the head of the Tasman Glacier.
Though Hochstetter spent only a year in New Zealand, in that time he helped establish the study of the country’s geology. Another peak in the central alps bears the name of the Austrian naval ship, the Novara, on which Hochstetter came to New Zealand.
There were around 250 Austrian nationals, most of them Jewish, among the refugees from Nazism who arrived in New Zealand in the late 1930s. The philosopher Karl Popper returned to Europe once the war was over and became internationally renowned. While at Canterbury University College he wrote a seminal book, The open society and its enemies.
Ernst Plischke was obliged to leave Vienna in 1939 because of his political activities and his marriage to a Jewish woman. During more than 20 years in New Zealand, he played a key role in introducing modern architecture. Gisela Taglicht returned to Austria in the 1960s, after influencing the development of rhythmic dance and gymnastics in New Zealand.
Some Austrian refugees from Nazism remained. Plischke’s stepson, Henry Lang, became a prominent public servant and businessman. Herbert Roth had a distinguished career as a librarian and historian of trade unionism.
Apart from these individual contributions, the refugees from Austria, mostly cultured and well educated, helped introduce restaurants, cafés, theatre and music into New Zealand. Wellington was a particular beneficiary of their influence, as they helped to transform the city they had found shabby and grim.
After the Second World War
After the Second World War a few more Austrians came as displaced persons. The number of Austrians in New Zealand increased from 454 in 1951 to 714 in 1956. Two hundred tradesmen contributed to this rise – they came to build the 500 prefabricated houses that the government purchased from an Austrian firm to speed up the state-housing programme. Many of these men settled. ‘We were so skilful and so good looking they asked us to stay,’ quipped Otto Tiefenbacher, later a mainstay of the Austrian Society in Wellington.
The number of Austrians increased to just over 1,000 by 1966, reaching 1,290 by 2013. Most of these later arrivals came for lifestyle reasons.
One later 20th-century arrival, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an eccentric and renowned painter and architect, divided his time, from 1975 until he died in 2000, between Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, and Vienna.
Enough Austrians settled in New Zealand for clubs to emerge in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. The Auckland and Wellington clubs have survived and maintain ties with similar groups in Australia.