Four Days in Hitler's Germany

Mackenzie King's Mission to Avert a Second World War


Prologue: Values, Interests, and Foreign Relations

Following Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 US presidential election, heads of state the world over, many of whom had very publicly expressed alarm over the prospect of the immensely unqualified and bigoted reality television personality moving into the White House, issued pro forma official statements of congratulation. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s feel-good bromide was typical: “The relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world,” Trudeau proclaimed blithely. “Our shared values, deep cultural ties and strong integrated economies will continue to provide the basis for advancing our strong and prosperous partnership. ”

One world leader took special care not to follow script. Germany’s Angela Merkel offered salutations that, given her country’s close and often dependent relationship with the United States since the end of the Second World War, were remarkable for their implicit censure and explicit conditionality. “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said in her congratulation-cum-lecture, adding: “I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values. ”

The German chancellor had good reason to proffer this lesson in civics and diplomacy. Her nation, more than any other in the modern era, has become cognizant of the perils of governance unmoored from the principles of human dignity, and of the international community’s responsibility to stand firm against states that flout those principles. In the catastrophe wrought by Nazism the world learnt hard lessons about the outcome of doing business as usual with governments whose conduct towards their neighbours and their own citizens was an affront to the ideals of tolerance, equality, and the rule of law. Today, what happens within states is no longer considered irrelevant to the wider world or off-limits to foreign criticism or intercession. Morality now has a role in the calculus of diplomacy, even if values are frequently overshadowed by strategic and economic interests. The global war instigated by fascism ushered in a revolution in international relations and governance – one that begat the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and later, such notions as universal legal jurisdiction and the responsibility to protect – that we are to this day still struggling to come to terms with.

Although the Second World War thus marks a watershed, it is possible to overemphasize how diplomacy prior to 1939 differed from that which followed. As early as 1933, some states, organizations, and individuals took a strong stand against the problem of Adolf Hitler based on apprehensions over his regime’s stunning repression of internal “enemies” and deliberate inflammation, even before the shooting started, of the international order. Boycotts, sanctions, condemnations, and anti-fascist alliances were debated, invoked, revoked, and reissued. Leftists, anti-racist and human rights’ groups, religious bodies, labour unions, artists, and intellectuals constructed popular fronts against fascism at home and abroad, and some of their number travelled to Spain to fight the fascists head on. Certain governments tried to isolate themselves from right-wing dictatorships, or to quarantine those dictatorships from the rest of the world. Others sought to rally the international community to a collective defence against fascist aggression. Still others strove to placate the belligerent dictators who seemed to be pulling the world towards war, believing these leaders’ grievances to be valid or hoping their aims were limited. Many states tried several approaches in turn, and even simultaneously. International relations operated in a state of profound confusion and profound flux.

In casting about for a suitable strategy for dealing with fascist governments, Canada was no different. As the Depression decade ground on, however, the nation emerged as arguably the most consistent apologist among the Western democracies for the policy of appeasement and for the Third Reich itself, insisting to the British Commonwealth and League of Nations that fear of German aggression was overblown. At a time when the United States and Britain were reducing their commercial interactions with Hitler’s regime, the Canadian government was completing an agreement to increase trade with Germany and permitting significant expansion of that nation’s consular service in Canada. This did not render Canada primarily or even particularly answerable for the failure of appeasement; the nation was too remote, too small, too young to be of much influence. However, coupled with the fact that the country was the least willing among the Western democracies to accept Jewish refugees fleeing fascist persecution, interwar Canada exhibits highly unflattering patterns of intolerance at home and a tolerance of intolerance abroad.

The individual most responsible for these domestic and international decisions was William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served as prime minister from 1921 to 1930 and again from 1935 to 1948, and assigned himself the file of secretary of state for external affairs for all but his last two years as prime minister. This is not to imply that King was an inherently malevolent man. The prime minister sought peace above all, and pursued a diplomatic strategy he was confident would achieve that goal. And much of the time, he was simply speaking for Canada and reflecting the dominant view of its people; the successes and failures of his interwar diplomacy thus belong to the citizens of his country as a whole. That said, the shortest route to understanding how the Canadian state came to adopt its attitudes and strategies towards the crisis bred by fascism is through Prime Minister King, shaper and servant of Canadian opinion and policy. And the episode that most clearly reveals these attitudes and their origins, manifestations, and consequences is the four days King spent in Berlin in the summer of 1937 as a guest of the Nazis.   That visit left the Canadian prime minister enthusing over the regime’s transformation of Germany and confident that, in no small part because of his own intercession, Europe was destined for a just and lasting peace.

In recounting King’s diplomatic initiative, this study raises questions about the proper response to governments that flout international law, the rights of those within and beyond their borders, and the peace and stability of the globe. Under which circumstances should democracies engage with, shun, reprimand, or seek to transform unlawful, authoritarian regimes? Are foreign nations whose interests are intertwined with the economic well-being of a country like Canada exempt from our criticism, regardless of their indifference or threat to human rights and international justice and peace? Should morality factor into decisions regarding diplomatic relations and international trade, even if this threatens prosperity? How can multi-ethnic states best align their commitments to the global community with efforts to maintain domestic harmony? What are our responsibilities to those seeking refuge from the violence, persecution, and anarchy wrought by state and non-state aggression? Should answers to these questions be fashioned in isolation or in dialogue with like-minded states?

Such questions, rarely posed prior to the rise of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, have become part of the modern diplomatic calculus, but how seriously do we take them? Why was Merkel’s carefully qualified congratulation so unusual among international leaders? In an age when democracy and the liberal international order are facing some of their gravest challenges since the 1930s, when autocratic populists are again stoking ethnic and national rivalries in order to build support for regressive domestic and international schemes, these are not hypothetical dilemmas. Many well-meaning people from the interwar era took approaches that inadvertently strengthened the forces of violence and hatred, and we ignore their example at our peril.

It is easy, of course, to look back and denounce the errors in judgement of previous generations, to assert that we would not have fallen prey to the same biases, hubris, and faulty judgement when confronted by something as ominous as Nazism. To study history with equanimity, however, is to recognize that some of the choices we make today will be looked upon with mortification by later generations required to live with the outcomes of those choices. While it is surely impossible to get everything right as we navigate the labyrinth of foreign relations, the story of Canada’s response to Hitler’s Germany suggests that certain habits of mind are essential to crafting a constructive response to the wider world: humility regarding our own suppositions; careful scrutiny of the preponderance of evidence, one focused on the deeds, not merely the words, of foreign actors; a willingness to look beyond parochial interests and tackle pressing issues in collaboration with others; a keen sensitivity towards the most vulnerable, informed by an unwavering defence of human rights and equality. The liberal order that was constructed with such care and urgency following history’s most ruinous war surely warrants the taking of such pains.

In retracing the footsteps of Prime Minister King’s visit to Germany, this book also gives space to two parallel storylines. The first involves a survey of the changes to the built environment wrought by the conflict King and others worked so strenuously to avoid. The Berlin toured by King in 1937 was almost wholly annihilated during the war, turning the task of reconstructing his visit into a grim excavation of an urban landscape brutalized by repressive ideologies, aerial assaults, political dismemberment, and walled and militarized borders.

Such an excavation serves as testament to the consequences of a war of aggression inaugurated by a state so reprehensible that its enemies would accept nothing less than its unconditional surrender – and would then occupy and divide, imposing separate and ideologically opposed governments and a hated border that Germans would wait forty-five years to erase. Importantly, to chronicle the annihilation and reconstruction of Berlin is to illustrate and interrogate the Allied decision to deploy area (that is, indiscriminate) bombing against cities inhabited mostly by non-combatants – the majority of them children, women, and the elderly – a tactic whose contribution to the defeat of Nazism remains hotly debated. Allied raids pounded Berlin alone with roughly seventy thousand tons of bombs that killed thirty-five thousand of its inhabitants and led 40 per cent of remaining residents to flee. The work to restore the city’s infrastructure, housing, economy, and health standards to pre-war levels would go on for decades, during which time hunger, disease, and exposure claimed further victims. Would we countenance the deployment of area bombing in wars conducted in our name today? Should the international community do more to prevent warring factions from targeting civilians – sadly, a tactic that has not gone out of fashion in the conflicts of the twenty-first century? To answer these questions, we must be wide-eyed and frank about the consequences of past assaults on urban civilians and spaces.

The second parallel story traces the highly commendable efforts of Berliners, and Germans as a whole, to acknowledge and confront the past through commemorative sites preserved and created throughout the post-war era, a project of remembrance that continues to the present. As we follow King’s path through Berlin and its surrounding environs, we will encounter remnants of and memorials to the region’s complicated and conflict-ridden past, evidence of a degree of willingness to own up to history that is unparalleled among modern nation-states. None of the questions raised about what and how to commemorate have come with easy answers, and the forthright debates undertaken by post-war Germans provide something of a guide for other peoples – like Canadians – who have come to realize that they, too, have a responsibility to reconcile past wrongs they had previously attempted to deny or rationalize away. Only through a collective commitment to this process will we demonstrate, to reprise Chancellor Merkel, a true allegiance to the rule of law and the dignity of all humankind.

Table des matières

List of Illustrations

Crerar's Map of Berlin, 1937

Prologue: Values, Interests, and Foreign Relations

1. Of Lions and Lyons
2. Arrival
3. Beholding the Nazi Miracle
4. Shrugging Off the British Yoke
5. The Holy Errand
6. Sympathy for the Devil
7. Haunted Berlin
8. Arbeit Macht Frei
9. Whither the Jews?
10. The Uses and Abuses of Mackenzie King
11. Canada Makes Headlines!
12. Atavistic Beasts: Der Dicke and His Bison
13. Baiting Godwin’s Law
14. The Interview
15. Savouring the Triumph, with an Assist from Verdi
16. Taking Leave
17. Home
18. Failure of a Mission, or The War That Harry Crerar Foretold
19. Aftermath

Epilogue: Perspectives


La description

Four Days in Hitler’s Germany is a clearly written and engaging story that 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. Mackenzie King was certainly not alone in misreading the omens in the 1930s, but it would be difficult to find a democratic leader who missed the mark by a wider margin.


"Brimming with rigorous, original research and startling detail. "

- Peter Black

"[Four Days in Hitler’s Germany] is focused on providing relevant context for, and description of, the brief meetings that Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King had with Hitler and a number of his associates in late June 1937, particularly as revealed in King’s now famous Diaries. The book is much more than that, however, for the author gives us valuable side excursions into the architectural history of Berlin, the uses and abuses of heritage commemoration in the 1930s and after the war, the nature of the new ecological thought in Germany, and the social and racial values in Canada which helped shape much of King’s outlook."

- Graham A. MacDonald

"This book is a valuable addition to the small subfield of Canadian international history, in which there is sadly little debate (in part because the pickings are so slim). […] Four Days in Hitler’s Germany should prompt some important reappraisals of Canada’s longest serving prime minister but also of Canadian history during this period, one where Nazism was not yet widely reviled."

- Asa McKercher, Royal Military College of Canada