Wednesday, February 4, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Canada's Role in the Outbreak of the Second World War

World War Wednesdays: Canada's Role in the Outbreak of the Second World War
    Most of us know at least a little bit about the role that Canada played in the Second World War. We have family members and community members who were involved, and even if we don't always tune into the media regarding these topics, every Remembrance Day we reflect on the sacrifices made by our great country. My hope for this blog is that we can become better acquainted with what the generation before us really experienced during the war, and how these experiences fit in with those of the rest of the world.
     Following the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929 the world experienced a time of economic hardship commonly known as the Great Depression, and Canada was no exception to the widespread suffering. Population growth in the 1930s reached its lowest point since the 1880s, the number of immigrants dropped to less than 12,000 by 1935 (consisting mostly of those from preferred countries only), and by 1933, 30% of the labour force was unemployed. Understandably, Canadians looked to their leadership during such hard times, and the people began to see the weaknesses in Canadian politics. In an effort to alleviate the effects of the Depression, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King utilized some of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's programming ideas of the New Deal in order to create a social safety net: welfare. As a result of focussing on solving its domestic problems, Canada turned away from Europe and the issues that continues there after the First World War. Mackenzie King adopted another American concept, that of Isolationism, which meant that Canada would not become involved in foreign issues.
Unemployed men line up for free food during the Depression
     Even after 1935, the growing power and aggressive policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan were not of great interest to the Canadian government. Canada remained neutral when civil war erupted in Spain, and even Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were not accepted (stay tuned for subsequent blogs regarding this).
     Two distinct phases are evident in regard to Canada's attitude towards another war. From the mid-1920s to 1937, people generally felt that war must be avoided at all costs. The First World War had been a devastating and drawn-out conflict which claimed the lives of almost an entire generation of young men, and the effects of the Depression left the country in no shape to be entering another such conflict. The technology developed in the First World War meant that new conflict would be devastating and costly. It was also popularly thought that Italy and especially Germany had been poorly treated in the postwar Treaty of Versailles, which crippled the country with reparation payments and loss of territory. It is also important to note that a fear of communism was particularly strong, a sentiment shared not only by the Germans. From 1937-1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted negotiations with Hitler, which proved to Britain, Canada, and other sympathetic nations that negotiation rather than force could resolve the claims which were creating tension.
The famous photo of Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler
     By 1937, however, Mackenzie King recognized that war was possible. He also knew that he would be under strong pressure to back Britain in a future conflict should the country take any action.  As a result, some Canadian rearmament was undertaken after 1937, but King mainly focussed on avoiding war.
     Canada's neutrality was not the only thing threatened during this time. King's position as Prime Minister became under fire as it was clear that English and French Canada had very different views regarding war. Francophones wanted neutrality, since they had no connections to any European countries, and felt that Canada's involvement would be sticking its nose in where it had no business being. English-speaking Imperialists stood behind Britain and were willing to fight Germany. However, all of Canada was relieved by the policies commonly known as Appeasement in 1938, which allowed Hitler to have his claims of previously lost land areas on the grounds that he would be satisfied, making war unnecessary.
Neville Chamberlain famously waves Hitler's signature, proclaiming 'Peace in Our Time" and the end of German hostility
     While events such as this are now reflected on as having been horrifyingly na├»ve, they are reflective of the lengths that the world was willing to go in order to avoid the turmoil of another war. Unfortunately, hindsight and evidence tell us that this was just playing into Hitler's plan, as he felt that Germany's claims for power and restoration could only be won through war. On September 1st, 1939, Hitler's army attacked Poland. As part of Britain's pledge to defend Poland in the event of attack, Britain, and subsequently France, declared war on Germany on September 3rd. Mackenzie King called Parliament on September 8th and delivered a speech in favor of war. The Conservatives supported him, and on September 10th, the Parliament of Canada voted to declare war on Germany.
     The events that followed established a new Canadian identity on the world stage amidst the uncertainty and horror of the early days of war. Next week's post will pick up from here, and explore Canada's contributions and unique initiatives throughout the conflict.

As mentioned last week, I would like to hear more from readers! Have something you'd like to be discussed in a blog post? Always wondered about the how or why of a Canadian historical event? Send me your questions via commenting on this post, the blog itself, or the Backus-Page House Facebook page! I'll be posting a Q&A once I've gathered some questions.
                       Thanks for reading!

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