Tag Archives: WWII

Retracing the Steps of Mackenzie King in Nazi-Era Berlin

Mackenzie King reviewing participants in the women’s and men’s tennis events at the German All-German Sports Competitions, 27 July 1937. Front row, left to right: Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front, Prime Minister King, King’s personal secretary Edward Pickering, and Hans von Tschammer und Osten, Reich Sports Leader.

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.

Lest We Forget: UTP Titles for Remembering War History

Tomorrow, University of Toronto Press will join Canada in thanking all who have served our country. We feel that it is important learn about our history so that we can properly honour the sacrifices made for us and so we can learn from the past. To that end, we would like to invite you to take a look at the following books.

Winegard_FirstWorldOilWarThe First World Oil War

By Timothy C. Winegard

Oil is the source of wealth and economic opportunity. Oil is also the root source of global conflict, toxicity and economic disparity. When did oil become such a powerful commodity—during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the First World War.

In his groundbreaking book, The First World Oil War, Timothy C. Winegard argues that beginning with the First World War, oil became the preeminent commodity to safeguard national security and promote domestic prosperity. For the first time in history, territory was specifically conquered to possess oil fields and resources; vital cogs in the continuation of the industrialized warfare of the twentieth century.

This original and pioneering study analyzes the evolution of oil as a catalyst for both war and diplomacy, and connects the events of the First World War to contemporary petroleum geo-politics and international aggression.

Celinscak_DistancefromBelsenHeapDistance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp

By Mark Celinscak

The Allied soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 were faced with scenes of horror and privation. With breathtaking thoroughness, Distance from the Belsen Heap documents what they saw and how they came to terms with those images over the course of the next seventy years. On the basis of research in more than seventy archives in four countries, Mark Celinscak analyses how these military personnel struggled with the intense experience of the camp; how they attempted to describe what they had seen, heard, and felt to those back home; and how their lives were transformed by that experience. He also brings to light the previously unacknowledged presence of hundreds of Canadians among the camp’s liberators, including noted painter Alex Colville.

Distance from the Belsen Heap examines the experiences of hundreds of British and Canadian eyewitnesses to atrocity, including war artists, photographers, medical personnel, and chaplains. A study of the complicated encounter between these Allied soldiers and the horrors of the Holocaust, Distance from the Belsen Heap is a testament to their experience.

Marrus_LessonsoftheHolocaustLessons of the Holocaust

By Michael R. Marrus

Although difficult to imagine, sixty years ago the Holocaust had practically no visibility in examinations of the Second World War. Yet today it is understood to be not only one of the defining moments of the twentieth century but also a touchstone in a quest for directions on how to avoid such catastrophes.

In Lessons of the Holocaust, the distinguished historian Michael R. Marrus challenges the notion that there are definitive lessons to be deduced from the destruction of European Jewry. Instead, drawing on decades of studying, writing about, and teaching the Holocaust, he shows how its “lessons” are constantly challenged, debated, altered, and reinterpreted.

A succinct, stimulating analysis by a world-renowned historian, Lessons of the Holocaust is the perfect guide for the general reader to the historical and moral controversies which infuse the interpretation of the Holocaust and its significance.

 

covers3Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian and American History and Memory

By Robert Teigrob

Canada and the United States: we think of one as a peaceable kingdom, the other as a warrior nation. But do our expectations about each country’s attitudes to war and peace match the realities?

In Living with War, Robert Teigrob examines how war is experienced and remembered on both sides of the 49th parallel. Surveying popular and scholarly histories, films and literature, public memorials, and museum exhibits in both countries, he comes to some startling conclusions. Americans may seem more patriotic, even jingoistic, but they are also more willing to debate the pros and cons of their military actions. Canadians, though more diffident in their public displays of patriotism, are more willing than their southern neighbors to accept the official narrative that depicts just wars fought in the service of a righteous cause.

A provocative book that complements critiques of contemporary Canadian militarism such as Warrior Nation, Living with War offers an intriguing look at the relationship with the military past on both sides of the border.

For those local to Toronto, please find information about the Remembrance Day Ceremony at Queen’s Park here