Retracing the Steps of Mackenzie King in Nazi-Era Berlin
In 1937, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King travelled to Nazi Germany in an attempt to prevent a war that, to many observers, seemed inevitable. The men King communed with, including Adolf Hitler, had assured him of the Nazi regime’s peaceful intentions, and King not only found their pledges sincere, but even hoped for personal friendships with many of the regime officials.
Four Days in Hitler’s Germany addresses how King truly believed that any threat to peace would come only from those individuals who intended to thwart the Nazi agenda, which as King saw it, was concerned primarily with justifiable German territorial and diplomatic readjustments. In this post, author Robert Teigrob shares how walking the city streets of Berlin led him to write his new book.
For the last decade I have taught a summer course in Berlin. For a historian, the city is an endless trove of commemorative spaces, architectural motifs, and museum collections that attest to some of humanity’s darkest, as well as noblest, impulses. It is a built environment perpetually under revision and renewal, a testament to both the destruction and political dismemberment wrought by Hitler’s war, and to a deeply-engaged and increasingly diverse population’s struggle to properly represent and confront the past. This struggle has many outcomes: the demolition of what Germans call “historically burdened buildings,” the preservation of others as historic sites, the repurposing of still others toward more life-affirmative ends, and seemingly on every block, a memorial to the events and people that make up Berlin’s tumultuous history.
Walking the city a few years ago sparked a couple of ideas that became the genesis of my new book, Four Days in Hitler’s Germany: Mackenzie King’s Mission to Avert a Second World War. I recalled a picture from my high school history textbook showing a very jovial Prime Minister Mackenzie King touring a Berlin factory complex in 1937 – the same one I was now passing – escorted by top Nazi officials. I was struck by the contrast between modern Germans’ evident willingness to own up to the mistakes of the past and, on this count, the comparative reticence among Canadians to do the same. For in that same textbook (and as I was to learn, in many other historical accounts), King’s visit was portrayed as a stern warning to the Hitler regime that any Nazi aggression would stimulate a powerful and unified response from the Western powers. I knew this to be something of an oversimplification – King was in fact one of the globe’s foremost advocates of appeasement, and had enthusiastically shepherded a trade agreement with Germany through Parliament just before his visit – but the more I dug into the records, the more stunning the prime minister’s interactions with Nazi officials became. I came to the conclusion that the 1937 visit deserved a sustained, critical analysis.
Roaming Berlin also led me to wonder how future generations of Canadians will judge our relationships with today’s global community. We see intense debates in the House of Commons and the media over how to balance our economic interests with our stated commitment to human rights and international laws and norms: how to square principles with profit-making in the proposed sale of weapons to authoritarian regimes; whether to “constructively engage” or shun potential trading partners that flout the rule of law (and for that matter, how to respond to some of our own companies’ controversial activities abroad – in the mining sector, for instance). Canada and the world wrestled with similar issues in the 1930s, and the recent ascent of regimes and political movements built on ethnic nationalism, militarism, and regressive attitudes toward the multinational international order painstakingly constructed since 1945 gives the story of King’s visit to Germany a decidedly contemporary aura.
Robert Teigrob is a professor in the Department of History at Ryerson University and the author of Four Days in Hitler’s Germany.