Wednesday, February 11, 2015

World War Wednesdays: The Darker Side of Canada's War

World War Wednesdays: The Darker Side of Canada's War

Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in Berlin, with Swastikas in the distance
     When we left off last week, Canada had just entered the turbulent storm of the Second World War despite seemingly all efforts do avoid doing so. For all Canadians, this time meant widespread uncertainty and fear. The people knew very well what being at war meant for the country, having just experienced what they had thought was "The Great War", and were certainly not eager to relive such terrible memories. Before we get into the events of the war itself, it is important to also consider some of the situations which were also occurring during the outset of the war, both inside and outside of Canada.
(Apologies in advance if this post ends up being lengthier than usual, I just completed a massive research paper on the topic and I'm trying to make it sound as interesting as I find it!)
     When we returned two weeks ago, we focussed on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. This event ties into this week's post, and I will soon explain how. In the meantime, consider this image of William Lyon Mackenzie King in Berlin, watching the Olympic Opening Ceremonies (second from the left, in the light suit):


     William Lyon Mackenzie King was and still remains Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister, and was in office during some of the country's most difficult times including the Great Depression and the Second World War. He is most often remembered as being highly spiritual, having held séances to channel his dear departed mother, and owned a succession of small dogs all named 'Pat'. While all of this may be true to some degree, history allows us to know so much more about King. He kept a diary for the duration of his entire adult life, ranging from his time as a university undergraduate to his death in 1950. As a result, we know a great deal about him as a person, and for historians this is a fascinating concept (made even better by the fact that the entire diary collection is digitized on the National Library and Archives website). Thus, there is a large amount of insight into his own personal feelings about the major historical events which he experienced, and this is highly useful for understanding his major decisions and policies.
   A bit of background on King is important for explaining his actions later on. He was born in the Canadian city of Berlin, Ontario (which was later changed to Kitchener), which is a significant fact and reoccurring theme. After attending the University of Toronto in the 1890s, he became the Minister of Labour. From there he established a strong political presence which led to his becoming Prime Minister; a surprising feat considering his lack of charm and typical physical characteristics for popularity. However, he compensated for this by forming a strong belief system and consistently reinforcing it, ultimately proving people wrong on their judgement of his appearance.
King in 1899

     This quality would be put to the test during the late 1930s when the political climate in Europe became increasingly tumultuous. In June of 1937, King embarked on a "diplomatic mission" to meet with Adolf Hitler himself in Berlin, bringing with him a number of personal qualities which he shared with the Fascist leader, including musical preferences, a love of dogs, a strong bond with his mother, and an affection for solitude. Having spent time in the German city in his younger days, he was very fond of it, and reflected in his diary:
     "Seeing where I lived 37 years ago, the association with Berlin, etc., is all most remarkable. My thoughts went back to the earliest days in Berlin, Ont."

    When he met with Hitler, King presented him with a book depicting his childhood home in Berlin, Ontario, and told him all about the connections which he had with Germany. Hitler's feelings about the encounter are unknown, but King felt that it went very well:
     "My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow-men, and his country, and would make any sacrifice for their good." (Diary, June 29, 1937) Hitler appeared to be "a man of deep sincerity and a genuine patriot." (Diary, June 29, 1937) King saw similarities between himself and Hitler, writing, "As I talked with him, I could not but think of Joan of Arc. He is distinctly a mystic .... He is a teetotaller and also a vegetarian; is unmarried, abstemist in all his habits and ways." (Diary, June 29, 1937)

     The important thing to take away from this event is that King ultimately praised Hitler's policies at the time (1937) and greatly admired him as a leader.

     Through an examination of Canadian immigration policy during the time , it can be said that King employed some of these shared beliefs in his own country's policies. When Jews began fleeing Europe to escape persecution, Canada's immigration policy regarding those of Jewish origin was that they belonged to a "Special Permit" group, which consisted of those people with the least desirable racial characteristics, making them least likely to fit into Canadian society and therefore a threat to Canadian culture. This policy was not changed due to the circumstances in Europe, and King even advocated for and defended it.
The SS St. Louis in Havana harbour

     This fact is exemplified in the case of the 1939 St. Louis Incident. On the morning of 13th May, the SS St. Louis departed for Havana, Cuba, from Hamburg, Germany with 937 Jewish refugees on board. It was the last chance for many of them to escape the concentration camps, and the plan was for them to live in Cuba until their names reached the quota list to enter the U.S. Previously, on 5th May, the Cuban president had closed the loophole allowing them to enter Cuba based on anti-Semitic sentiment, refusing to allow the passengers to disembark, and when the ship arrived anyway it was forced to remain in Havana's harbour as many groups tried to change the president's mind. At that time, the Germans used the case as leverage to prove that no nation wanted the Jews, therefore making it hypocritical for Germany to be criticized for the same thing.

     On 7th June, King was in Washington, and his response to the plight of the refugees was similar to that of America when he said that he was "emphatically opposed to the admission of the St. Louis passengers". Ultimately, the ship was denied from all ports and was forced to return to Hamburg. France, the UK, Belgium and Holland stepped in just before its return to admit shares of the refugees, but in the end only 240 of the 937 passengers survived the Holocaust. This tragic event put King's race-based immigration policy to the test and failed considerably on a moral level.

    As Canadians, it is difficult to imagine that something like this could be attributed to our famously kind and accepting nation, and we do not like to reflect upon this darker time in our history. Personally, I feel that events like this are crucial for showing us how far we have come as a nation since that time. I think that the best possible outcome of the St. Louis Crisis is that we can reflect on it today in 2015 and feel disbelief that it could ever have happened in the Canada we know. The best that we can do as people living in the legacy of these events is read about them, discuss them, never forget them, and continue to use them as lessons for the future.

     If you're still with me, I'd like to thank you so much! This is such an amazing outlet for me to share the things that I find interesting and/or am currently working on. I'm so lucky to be able to study what I love every day and be to able to share it with people who are also interested.
             Until next week,
            Delany Leitch

No comments: