Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Central and South-eastern Europeans

by  John Wilson

Immigrants to New Zealand from Central and South-east Europe include Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and people from the Balkans (Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians).

Immigration history

Relatively small numbers of Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and people from the Balkans (Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians) have settled in New Zealand.

Early arrivals

A few itinerants from Central and South-east Europe almost certainly arrived during the gold rushes of the 1860s, but their numbers remained few throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire

Until 1918 much of Central Europe and the Balkans was within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, the empire was divided into a number of nation states. The imperial capital Vienna became the capital of the German-speaking republic of Austria. Those who identified themselves as Austrian in New Zealand censuses before 1918 were almost all Dalmatians, but would have included small numbers of other nationalities such as Austrians, Hungarians and Czechs. When Austrians were counted separately in 1921, there were just 208. More than half had been in New Zealand since the 19th century.

Refugees and displaced persons

The number of Central and South-eastern Europeans increased substantially in the years before and after the Second World War. Refugees from Nazism came before the war; almost all of the approximately 1,100 refugees were Jewish or had Jewish connections. But the influences they brought to New Zealand were often less to do with their ethnicity or faith than with their country of origin.

The Second World War and the establishment of Communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Balkans disrupted the lives of millions. New Zealand, cooperating with the International Refugee Organisation, admitted some of these displaced persons. They came predominantly from Central and South-east Europe, and numbered between 4,000 and 5,000.

The number of Central European immigrants increased after the Hungarian uprising against Communism in 1956, and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But it was not until the fall of the Eastern European Communist governments in the early 1990s and during the wars in the Balkans that immigration from Central and South-east Europe increased significantly again.


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.

Alpine pantheon

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.

Austrian refugees

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.

Cultural contributions

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.

Czechs, Slovaks and Slovenes

The Czechoslovak Republic

The Czechoslovak Republic was formed in 1918 out of the former Austro-Hungarian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia. A group which settled in Pūhoi near Auckland in the 19th century identified itself as Bohemian after anti-German hysteria took hold in New Zealand during the First World War. However, these ‘Bohemians’ were in fact ‘Sudetenland’ Germans and not ethnically Czech.

Among other 19th-century arrivals from territories that became part of Czechoslovakia were the cabinetmaker Anton Seuffert, a German-speaking Bohemian, and the artist Gottfried Lindauer, a Czech who trained in Vienna.

A cabinet fit for a queen

New Zealand’s best 19th-century cabinetmaker and inlayer, Anton Seuffert, was born in Bohemia and arrived in Auckland in the late 1850s. In 1861–62, about the time he became a naturalised New Zealander, Seuffert made a writing cabinet inlaid with New Zealand woods, which was valued at 300 guineas. The citizens of Auckland bought the cabinet and gave it to Queen Victoria. It is still in use in Buckingham Palace.

Czech refugees and displaced persons

The number of New Zealand residents who were born in Czechoslovakia shrank from 118 in 1921 to 72 in 1936. After this the number started to grow again. Notable among approximately 120 Czech refugees from Nazism in the late 1930s was Fred Turnovsky. He succeeded in business, but is better remembered for fostering music in a country which lacked the cultural life he had enjoyed in Prague.

After the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, between 300 and 400 Czechs came to New Zealand – a tiny fraction of the 240,000 who left their homeland at that time. Their number rose from 166 in 1945 to 548 in 1956. The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 led to another exodus of about 240,000, but fewer than 200 came to New Zealand. The number of Czechoslovakian-born people in New Zealand peaked at 663 in 1976. After the fall of Communism, Czechs did not come in the same numbers as people from other former Communist states.

Czech clubs in New Zealand did not flourish for long, mainly because of divisions among people who had left Czechoslovakia at different times and for different reasons.

Slovaks and Slovenes

Slovaks went to the United States in large numbers, but relatively few came to Australia and even fewer to New Zealand. Some who were recorded in earlier censuses as Czechoslovakian-born were Slovaks. In 2013 they numbered only 333.

Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then an independent state when Yugoslavia itself broke up. Slovenes have come to New Zealand in very small numbers. By 2013 there were just 204.

People from the Balkans


The largest immigrant group from the Balkans were the Dalmatians. After them came people born in Romania. Before the Second World War a high proportion of the small number of Romanian-born were probably ethnically Greek. Among the pre-war arrivals, Harry Jacks, who had fled anti-Semitism in Romania, became a notable plant pathologist and forester.

In 1946 there were only 46 Romanians living in New Zealand. By 1956 the number had leapt to 714. The increase was mainly due to the arrival of people displaced by the 1947 Communist takeover in Romania. Some were ethnically Greek.

Small numbers trickled in through the remainder of the 20th century. After the fall of Communism in Romania in 1989, there was a noticeable increase – most came to escape the insecurity of a country in turmoil. By 2013 there were 2,232 Romanian-born residents. Auckland was the major centre for the Romanian community.

Many of the Romanians who came were highly qualified. The major problem they faced, in common with other immigrant groups of the 1990s and early 2000s, was finding jobs that matched their qualifications and experience.

Gypsies in New Zealand

The Romani people, also known as gypsies, should not be confused with the Romanian people, although Romania is one of the Eastern European Romani strongholds. The term 'Romanian' means citizens of Rome and derives from the Latin origin of their language. Romani derives from the word 'rom', which means 'man' or 'husband' in their language. There are no reliable records of gypsies coming to New Zealand and retaining their identity. But in his book Swagger country (1976), Jim Henderson mentions a group of immigrants before the First World War who would camp ‘in true Romany fashion’ on the western fringe of Christchurch, then after a few days of peaceful seclusion, move on. They were not seen after the war, and may have found the wartime suspicion toward foreigners more than they could take.


There were very few Bulgarians in New Zealand until some arrived as displaced persons after the Second World War. From eight in the 1951 census, the number rose to 172 in 1956. There were almost twice as many males as females in the group. The number of Bulgarians was then almost static for several decades, with just enough new arrivals to keep the number around 150. After the fall of Bulgaria’s Communist government, the number increased significantly, to 768 in 2013.


Like the Bulgarians, very few Albanians were living in New Zealand prior to the Second World War. Those who arrived as displaced persons after the war were also predominantly male. They had escaped when the Communists took over Albania, and along with the Romanians who fled when the Soviet Army invaded Romania, were staunchly anti-Communist. The Albanian New Zealand Civic League was one of the country’s most stridently anti-Communist organisations.

In 2013 there were just 90 people born in Albania living in New Zealand. From 2000 the community in Auckland maintained a website, primarily to help Albanian immigrants who face difficulties because they do not speak English, or for other reasons.

One Albanian couple brought their children to New Zealand in the 1990s to spare them growing up in an atmosphere poisoned by hatred between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. They were relieved to have left a strife-torn homeland, but afraid they would never see their extended families again.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Central or South-eastern Europe.


  • 1951 census: 2
  • 2001 census: 63
  • 2006 census: 108
  • 2013 census: 90


  • 1921 census: 208
  • 1951 census: 454
  • 1976 census: 1,087
  • 2001 census: 1,203
  • 2006 census: 1,338
  • 2013 census: 1,290


  • 1921 census: 5
  • 1951 census: 8
  • 1976 census: 161
  • 2001 census: 504
  • 2006 census: 741
  • 2013 census: 768


  • 1921 census: 118
  • 1951 census: 357
  • 1976 census: 663

Czech Republic

  • 2001 census: 663
  • 2006 census: 894
  • 2013 census: 1,284


  • 2013 census: 1,065


  • 2001 census: 141
  • 2006 census: 264
  • 2013 census: 333


  • 1921 census: 24
  • 1951 census: 58
  • 1976 census: 647
  • 2001 census: 918
  • 2006 census: 2,283
  • 2013 census: 2,232

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Austrian: 993 (2006); 1,029 (2013)
  • Romanian: 1,554 (2006); 1,455 (2013)
  • Czech Republic: 753 (2006); 1,083 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Central and South-eastern Europeans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Māehe 2015