So when is it right to re-name a national landmark road? We’re all up in arms that Edwin Swales VC Drive, named after our famous Victoria Cross winner for gallantry in World War 2 was re-named as Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu Drive after a controversial Umkhonto we Sizwe operative. But what of Oswald Pirow Street in Cape Town, is there a case to justify this street name change?
Read on for a little more on who Oswald Pirow really was, learn some more on South African “hidden” military history; the Pro Nazi paramilitary organisations who sought to destabilise South Africa and the Union during the Second World War and bring South Africa into a one party ‘Fuhrer’ state run along ‘national socialism’ lines.
In all there were three movements which supported Nazi Germany and embraced its ideology in South Africa, the Ossewabrandwag, the shirts including the ‘Blackshirts’ and the SANP Greyshirts (see Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”) and the ‘global’ Nazi movement – The ‘New Order’ – led by our subject for the day, the well-known South African Nationalist Politician and Public Prosecutor – Oswald Pirow.
In a relatively little known part of South African history, Oswald Pirow was sent on ‘quasi-official’ visits on behalf of the Hertzog government to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. His mission was one of appeasement, to meet with Hitler, Ribbentrop and Goering and try to establish Anglo-German rapprochement as well as assure them of South Africa’s neutrality under the Hertzog government.
Pirow’s solution to easing British and German tension prior to the war, which he proposed to Hitler, was for the British to agree with the Nazi policy of “Drang nach Osten” (meaning yearning or ‘thrust’ towards the East for ‘living space’ as Hitler put it in his book ‘Mein Kamph’) and in return Hitler should allow all the Jewish people living in Germany to leave. In reality this offer would never have happened as it would have required Britain, by way of a parliamentary agreement, to renege on its commitment to Poland as an ally. However, Pirow also had another mission, that of building a South African partnership for a post war Nazi world.
So how is it that these lessor known South African missions and special envoy on ‘quasi official’ visits come about, what was he doing and what made Oswald Pirow tick?
Oswald Pirow was born in Aberdeen (Cape Province, South Africa) on 14th August 1890, and was the grandson of a German missionary and son of a Doctor. Pirow studied law in Potchefstroom, Germany and London, and then practised as an advocate in Pretoria. Oswald spoke perfect German and was insistent that only German was spoken by his family at home in South Africa (it was said by those who knew them that the Pirow family was more German in identity than South African).
He came to fame as a lawyer defending the Communist ring-leaders and instigators of The Rand Revolt in 1922 (see South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922), an odd start for him as he became an ardent hater of anything Communist and would later come up with plans to ‘eradicate’ communism from the planet in its entirety (not just South Africa).
He made several unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament and finally in 1924 he was elected for Zoutpansberg. Smuts defeated him in 1929 in Standerton but he returned to Parliament and in the same year and he was appointed Minister of Justice in General Hertzog’s cabinet. The Hertzog government was in coalition, so it could not fully unleash Nationalist proposals for a Republic (of which Pirow was a keen supporter).
As Justice Minister, typical to form as a fierce anti-communist he passed the first anti-communist legislation in South Africa. In 1933 he was appointed Minister of Railways and Harbours, and from 1933 to 1939 he was Minister of Defence.
In 1936 Pirow attended the Olympic Games in National Socialist (Nazi) Germany and in 1938 again visited Europe, including Spain, Portugal and Germany. These visits confirmed his admiration for this new style of government in Europe and, in particular, for National Socialism (Nazism). A vehement anti-communist – Pirow vowed to legislate communism out of existence, he also became an admirer of Adolf Hitler – especially after meeting him in 1933.
During this tours he also met Benito Mussolini, António de Oliveira Salazar and Francisco Franco and became convinced that a European war was imminent, with a resounding Nazi victory assured. The future Pirow predicted was one of global nazism and it was a future he liked.
The Nationalists were strongly in favour of Nazi Germany, primarily as the antagonists for war in their eyes were the British, and they simply hated the British. This hatred stemmed from the punitive deportation and containment measures used by The British against Boer families along with the destruction of their farmsteads during The 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
Publicly the Nationalists declared neutrality as to Nazi Germany and to the impending war with Germany, whilst covertly their members (and even leaders) in the tens of thousands joined pro Nazi organisations like the Ossawabrandwag and the SANP Grey Shirts, which very publicly nailed their colours to mast strongly in support of Nazi Germany.
When General Jan Smuts committed South Africa to war against Nazi Germany, Pirow found his position in government as a Minister of Parliament and especially as Minister of Defence untenable. He had given his support in 1939 to Hertzog’s neutrality policy and had been on appeasement missions to Nazi Germany in support of them. He then resigned along with Hertzog and took no part in Smuts’ reformatted war-time government.
South Africa’s ‘New Order’
By September 1940, with Nazi Germany on the ascendancy having invaded most of Western Europe, Pirow launched the South African version of the “New Order” within the breakaway National Party – the Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP), backing a Nazi style dictatorship.
His new political grouping took its name from his 1940 ‘New Order in South Africa’ pamphlet in which Pirow embraced the ideology of Nazi globalisation.
To understand what the concept of the “New Order” was – the New Order (German: Neuordnung) was the political order which Nazi Germany wanted to impose on the conquered areas under its dominion.
The establishment of the New Order was publicly proclaimed by Adolf Hitler and entailed the creation of a pan-German racial state structured according to Nazi ideology to ensure the supremacy of an Aryan-Nordic master race, massive territorial expansion into Eastern Europe through its colonization with German settlers, the physical annihilation of the Jews and others considered to be “unworthy of life”, and the extermination, expulsion, or enslavement of most of the Slavic peoples and others regarded as “racially inferior”.
Hitler’s New Order for Africa
Hitler’s ‘New Order’ plan involved global expansion, it focussed primarily on Eastern Europe (‘living space’) however it also extend to Asia, India, South America and North America in ‘post war’ fascist dominated world. Like any plan for globalisation, Africa also played a role in the New Order.
Hitler’s overall intentions for the future organisation of Africa was based on a plan which divided the continent into three big parts. The northern third of Africa was to be assigned to Germany’s Axis partner – Italy. The central part of Africa would fall under German rule. The remaining southern sector would be controlled by a pro-Nazi Afrikaner state built along racial grounds.
Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had communicated this plan with South African leaders sympathetic to Nazism, and a key channel for this communication were his meetings with Oswald Pirow whilst he was on his ‘quasi official’ South African State visits to Nazi Germany on behalf of the Hertzog government.
Ribbentrop informed the Afrikaner Nationalist leaders that once Germany had won the war, Germany was to reclaim its former colony of German South-West Africa (now Namibia), then a mandate would be given to an Afrikaner Nationalist led South Africa as a sort of ‘war compensation’ which would include the territorial acquisitions of the British protectorates of Swaziland, Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and the colony of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
On the division of French African colonies between the Spanish and Italian governments Hitler refused to provide any official promises during the war, fearful of losing the support of Vichy France
Decline of Pirow’s New Order
Dr D.F. Malan, leader of the National Party initially tolerated the actions of Oswald Pirow’s South African adaption of the 3rd Reich’s ‘New Order’ however very soon Malan came to realise what the extreme ideology of The New Order was about and he immediately saw it as a divisive influence on the Afrikaner nationalist movement.
Fearful of a split in Afrikaner nationalism over support for extreme Nazism and for Hitler’s plans for the African ‘new order’, at the Nationalists Transvaal party congress of August 1941, Malan forced through a motion ending the New Order’s propaganda activities, particularly their insistence on a one-party state on a ‘Führer’ principle.
To understand more about the National Party and its associations to pro Nazi movements do follow this link “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag
Although restricted by DF Malan, the New Order continued to exist and Pirow and 17 of his New Order supporters continued to be associated with the HNP and continued to attend their caucus meetings.
The New Order finally broke from the HNP altogether in 1942 after both D.F. Malan and J.G. Strijdom publicly rejected the Nazis.
Partnership with Sir Oswald Mosley
With the outcome of the war firmly against Nazi Germany, Oswald Pirow’s political career within the Afrikaner Nationalists was effectively over, he returned to legal practice, and during this time became a friend of Sir Oswald Mosley.
Mosley was ex-British MP and an infamous British Nazi, he led the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a Neo-nazi British organisation following the edicts of the ‘New Order’ in the United Kingdom.
Mosley was imprisoned at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1940 for his extreme views in support of the enemy (Nazi Germany) and the BUF was outlawed. He was released in 1943.
Oswald Pirow and Mosley, having similar political views decided to collaborate together and they developed an idea for the division of Africa into exclusively black and white areas.
The two met after Pirow read a copy of Mosley’s book ‘The Alternative’ and by 1947 they were in discussion over founding an anti-communist group to be known as the “enemies of the Soviet Union” (although this plan never reached fruition).
The two Oswalds co-operation started in earnest when Pirow visited Mosley in London in April 1948 and spent the weekend at his house. In collaboration with Mosley, Oswald Pirow started writing articles for the Union Movement journals and The European, some of which were reprinted in German magazine Nation Europa.
In addition to writing for far right wing publications, the two Oswalds came up with what were known as the Mosley-Pirow Proposals, which advocated the extension of the South African National Party’s Apartheid ideology and concept to include the entire continent of Africa. The idea they came up with was that two-thirds of sub saharan Africa would be advocated for ‘Black States’ and one-third would be for ‘White states’. Where the two of them differed on their concept of ‘Eurafrica’ (which they coined) is that Pirow felt that ‘sweated labour’ would need to be forced whereas Mosley felt that unskilled Labour, needed in the ‘white states,’ was to be traded for from the ‘black states’ in return for technical assistance at some ‘later stage’.
The relationship with Pirow and Mosley started to break down after their ‘Eurafrica proposals’ were launched. Pirow came to realise that virtually nobody took Mosley seriously, people generally dismissed both him and his economic and political treatise out of hand as an extreme oddity.
The Treason Trial
Very famously Pirow, now back in South Africa and back in his legal guise, acted as the public prosecutor on behalf of the Nationalist State during the Treason Trial of 1956. The Treason Trial was a trial in which 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason in South Africa in 1956. The main trial lasted until 1961, when all of the defendants were found not guilty. During the trials, Oliver Tambo left the country and was exiled. Some of the defendants, including Nelson Mandela were later convicted in the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
Following the Treason Trial Pirow largely lived in retirement, publishing several books, especially on JB Hertzog of who he was an admirer, he also wrote books on wildlife and adventure books for boys. He died of heart failure. He was cremated and his ashes are kept at his Valhalla Farm residence near Pilgrim’s Rest.
Influence on Apartheid
Oswald Pirow’s influence in South African politics and Apartheid is far-reaching. The Tomlinson Commission – which investigated the validity of the idea Apartheid was not a new creation, and its findings were based in part on findings made by the Native Economic Commission in 1932 and on preparatory work done by Oswald Pirow.
Very little is known in South Africa today of the frustration and disillusionment returning South African combatants from World War 2 felt and the motivation behind their eventual mass protests against Apartheid policies in the 1950’s (known as the ‘Torch’ Commando rallies – attracting tens of thousands of war veterans – see The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!).
Effectively the returning South African statute force veterans had gone to war to rid the world of Nazism, only to come home and in a few short years find significant “home grown” Nazi’s in government or playing a key role in public prosecution (as was the case with Pirow) when the National Party narrowly beat Smuts’ United Party into power in 1948.
The likes of famous World War 2 heroes like Adolph “Sailor” Malan would have none of it and they took to the streets in the first mass protests against Apartheid and the Nationalist government who had only come into power a couple of years before hand and where already removing the cape coloured vote from the register – see Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!.
The Torch Commando and veteran protests where ultimately suppressed by The National Party (including Sailor Malan) and the Nationalists where free to promote their heroes – Oswald Pirow had the foreshore road in Cape Town named after him as well as a South African navy strike craft – the SAS Oswald Pirow – much to the disillusionment of many of South Africa’s war veterans, the disenfranchised voters and the South African Jewish community.
Since 1994, proposals were to put forward to re-name the strike craft and Cape Town’s foreshore road.
The SAS Oswald Pirow was re-named the SAS Rene Sethren after a famous Navy stocker Rene Sethren who was on board a South African minesweeper in World War 2. In June 1941 his ship was escorting a convoy to Tobruk when they came under heavy attack from enemy planes. He took over an anti-aircraft gun and did not stop firing until the attack was over. He was wounded 27 times during the attack and fortunately survived, he received his gallantry decoration from King George V.
It was also discovered that although Dr Christiaan Barnard had performed the world’s first heart transplant nothing in the way of Cape Town’s streets honoured this, since 2011 most Captonians now know this landmark road which was ‘Oswald Pirow Street’ as ‘Christiaan Barnard Street’.
There is an argument that says we should not be re-naming things in the interests of preserving history, with all its spots, however world over institutions named after Nazis have been re-named and/or scrubbed of anything glorifying this history. Munich – the birthplace of Nazism is virtually clean of any old references, such is its blight to the entire human race caused by this ideology, and in this respect South Africa has acted no differently.
What is surprising is that even during the 70’s and the 80’s, the National Party were unapologetic in the glorification of individuals so closely associated to National Socialist ideology and Nazism, no matter how hurtful to the vast majority of South Africans, well after the horrors of this ideology had been exposed and universally condemned (even in South Africa).
Pirow was allowed to continue as the State Prosecutor and advise Apartheid policy, his controversial plans for the Nazification of Southern Africa were just glazed over and conveniently swept under the rug – the modern South African generation would grow up fairly oblivious of Oswald Pirow’s really dark past.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.
Feature photo copyright the German Federal Archives copyright. ‘Very Deeply Dyed in Black’ Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945 by Graham Macklin. NSDAP Office of Colonial Policy Brian Bunting’s 1964 book, The Rise of the South African Reich. Ribbontrop’s proposals to South Africa, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, 1974 edition.
Published by New York: Crest, 1962, New York (1962