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Mackenzie King’s forgotten visit to Nazi Germany

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William Lyon Mackenzie King after his meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1937. (Library and Archives Canada PA-119008)

June 26, 1937, a Saturday: A Paris-to-Berlin overnight train approaches the German border; the weather is fair and clouds dot the twilight summer sky. In a railcar hastily added to the train that morning specifically to accommodate him, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King tugs on the sleeve of one of his long-suffering secretaries, Edward Pickering, to point out one particular billowy mass. The secretary is “amazed,” as King wrote the next day in his diary, by a “cloud formation which was exactly that of a seated lion … facing towards Germany.”

It is an undeniable portent, a symbol of “security” and “strength” that confirmed that the prime minister’s current mission – a four-day visit to preach peace to a government seemingly bent on expansion at any cost – was the cornerstone of a divine plan to vanquish the metaphorical and considerably more menacing clouds then gathering over Europe: those of war.

On June 27, his first morning in Berlin, King’s gaze was drawn to a pair of stone lions flanking the steps of a museum; later that day he entered the Berlin zoo through the Loewentor (Lion Gate) with its twin sculpted lions “glorious in power and majesty.” He then encountered the authentic specimens roaring in their cages and a “little lion carried by a keeper which I patted twice on the head – it all seemed significant,” he wrote that night in his diary.

Opening his Bible that same evening, King chanced upon Acts 27 (given the date, no mere coincidence for the numerologist prime minister), wherein the Apostle Paul, on board a ship buffeted by a violent Mediterranean storm, is visited by an angel. The heavenly messenger assures Paul that although he must “be brought before Caesar,” God would ensure his safety and that of his shipmates. Just two days from being brought before German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, King was buoyed by the scriptural lesson, writing: “Could any words be plainer than those! or their meaning or significance clearer. God grant I may be used to serve His holy will.”

Sadly, King’s benign reading of feline symbology would come to epitomize the spectacularly ill-informed image of Hitler and Nazism that he would bring back to Canada and broadcast to the world. As a result of interviews with top officials, information gleaned from guided tours of various Nazi departments and initiatives, and, not insignificantly, his own and nimble intermediation, the prime minister concluded that war was highly unlikely. The men he communed with – including Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolph Hess, Hermann Goering, and the Fuhrer himself – had assured him of Nazi Germany’s irenic intentions, and King found their pledges sincere. Indeed, King judged his hosts honourable men and reliable international partners with whom he anticipated productive diplomatic relations, even enduring personal friendships.

Reluctant warrior: King inspects a guard of honour. (Library and Archives Canada PA-152440)

The true threat to peace, the prime minister concluded, came from those who would condemn and isolate the Nazi regime and seek to thwart what were in truth only limited and justifiable German territorial and diplomatic readjustments. King sailed for home believing that he had found the path to Hitler’s heart, that he had helped the Fuhrer to embrace the life-affirming aspects of the Nazi agenda and shun any actions that would threaten the magnificent transformation of Germany the prime minister had witnessed during his visit.

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 or held onto salutary views of the Fuhrer and his movement, in the face of outrage after outrage, more stubbornly or ingenuously.

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Andrew Nagorski’s history of Americans who visited or lived in Germany during Hitler’s ascent and rule found that “many were superficial in their observations, some were deliberately blind, and a few became Nazi apologists. But most of the Americans came to understand what was happening around them, even if they often found it hard to grasp the full implications” as they sought to make sense of “a society undergoing a horrific transformation in the name of a demented ideology … The best of them, listening closely to the drumbeat of German militarism, recognized the looming danger.”

Unlike Mackenzie King, many of Nagorski’s subjects had more than four days in Germany to reach their verdicts. By 1937, however, these and other foreign visitors to the Third Reich had broadcasted far and wide their increasingly dystopian alarms in a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles and bestselling books.

Humanity was on edge for good reason – the Nazis, eyewitnesses had repeatedly warned the world, seemed primed to plunge civilization into the abyss.

King was no stranger to these dark appraisals, but his own survey of Hitler’s Germany led him to dismiss these dire warnings and to confidently submit a rather different set of prognostications for international affairs. This raises an important though ultimately enigmatic question: did the prime minister’s misapprehensions matter to the wider course of events?

What we can say for certain is that his tone-deaf estimations of, and communications with, Nazi apparatchiks did absolutely nothing to alter Hitler’s suspicion that Western leadership was naive and pliable; indeed, King’s conversations may well have enhanced the Fuhrer’s impression that the British in particular would continue to fold in the face of the increasingly outrageous international gambles dictated by his mania for more German lebensraum (living space).

At the same time, King’s glad tidings to newly appointed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain following the visit – that the alleged threat from Hitler’s Germany was a chimera conjured by a toxic mix of jingoism, fear, and misinformation – were precisely what his British opposite did not need to hear.

Would a more responsible set of observations from King, communicated clearly to all involved, have made an iota of difference? We will never know. But it is nigh impossible to find the good in King’s initiative, one that was, it must be acknowledged, undertaken with the most commendable objective of averting a Second World War.

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Mackenzie King was right to go to Berlin in 1937. The dangers of affording the Nazis increased international legitimacy were far outweighed by the dangers of a continental war, and any effort to stave off such a conflict through dialogue should be applauded. To both Goering and Hitler, King offered warnings that Canadians would likely rise to any threats to British territory or interests; that these warnings were somewhat ambiguous and probably not very consequential says more about the prerogatives of Canada’s parliamentary democracy and the nation’s relative powerlessness than the prime minister’s woolliness or diplomatic ineffectiveness.

King sought to moderate Nazi officials’ evident hostility towards London’s continued efforts at dialogue, and cannot be faulted for failing to appreciate that by the time of his visit Reich leaders had closed the door on any further attempts to work constructively with Britain.

King tours the Allgemeine Elektricitaets-Gesellschaft grounds. (Library and Archives Canada PA-1190103)

But King got far more wrong than right. He was artless about assurances offered by Nazi officials who were already notorious as serial deceivers of the world community, and about the obvious preparations for battle discerned by other observers of the National Socialist youth and work camps. He was troublingly indifferent to the state persecution of Jews and other “undesirables,” to the worldwide uproar over a Nazi Olympics, and to the blatant violations of international treaties and laws meant to check aggression. He wandered German soil in seemingly full-blown amnesia to outrages between 1933 and 1937 that had shocked the world and that he himself had previously castigated in his diary: abuse of minorities, Hitler- and race-worship, murderous purges of party and government, brazen remilitarization of the Rhineland.

Instead, he departed Germany in July 1937 believing he had glimpsed the future in the Nazis’ paternalistic, transparently doctrinaire, Aryans-only labour-betterment schemes, and praising Hitler as a beacon for humanity. No one fought harder at the Imperial Conference against the idea of collective and punitive responses to Germany’s international criminality; King was convinced that a dictatorship that had demonstrated continuous and abundant disdain for world opinion and the anxieties of its neighbours could simply be talked out of further transgressions. Afforded the rare chance to sit down with Adolf Hitler, he offered little of diplomatic substance, no strategies for de-escalating the mounting hostility or working through the myriad points of friction other than an appeal to international bonhomie.

King told Hitler that Chamberlain was pliable, and Chamberlain that Hitler could be trusted. He cleaved to a preposterously inflated belief in his destiny and his ability to shepherd global relations towards harmony.

To blame King for failing to usher in that harmony would be just as preposterous, a similar exaggeration of the prime minister’s capacity to alter the march of events. Moreover, King was not the only one to counsel the governments of Britain and Germany along these lines. Yet a scholar and public servant who had dedicated his career to ideas completely at odds with the cult of militarism, death, and tyranny he witnessed in 1937 should have done better.

Others in his position certainly had. After touring Germany in 1936, American reporter Howard K. Smith claimed that the typical visitor progressed through four stages in their opinion of Nazism: first, admiration for the order, cleanliness, and prosperity; second, recognition of the alarming quantity of “uniforms and guns” that signalled preparation for war; third, realization that “young humans, millions of them, were being trained … to kill as a reflex … to smash, crush, destroy, wreck”; and finally, “a strange, stark terror” that the world did not grasp the exigent threat from a regime that “screamed defiance at my [democratic] world from the housetops. One had to be deaf not to hear it.”

Some visitors, Smith allowed, never progressed beyond stage one; these, he declared rather uncharitably, possessed “the profundity of a tea-saucer.” It took the prime minister an awfully long time to graduate from stage one.

By contrast, Col. H.G.D. Crerar, who would become Canada’s “leading field commander” in the Second World War, heard Nazism’s defiant screams loud and clear. The colonel saw plainly on a visit to Germany just before King’s what National Socialism meant and where it was headed, and predicted with precision when the world could expect the war of words to escalate into war proper.

Crerar furnished the hard and plain evidence that King could not or would not perceive, and that any objective observer should have found troubling: prodigious regimentation, propaganda, and thought control; seething hatred for internal and external enemies; vast resources allocated to armaments and military infrastructure; coercion to compel private corporations to fund that armaments program; a shackled press; foreign policy by blackmail; imminent absorption of Austria; Nazi-Soviet rapprochement; a blind readiness to follow the Fuhrer wherever he leads; a palpable tension about where the Fuhrer might lead. Crerar ended his report by doubting whether his trip had been of much use, so obvious and unoriginal were his observations to those paying attention.

Mackenzie King’s sunny appraisal of National Socialism was not the consequence of any intrinsic penchant for offering the benefit of a doubt. As his diary makes clear, it didn’t take Hitler’s mystical powers of seduction to make King an enthusiastic champion of the National Socialism experiment. He offered nothing but praise in his detailed and private record of his Berlin initiative, from the first day to the last.

The Fuhrer’s demeanour, “smooth skin,” and “liquid eyes” simply reinforced King’s fascination with the policies and the movement he described repeatedly as a model for all other countries. King’s affirmative public comments about his encounter with German fascism and its commandant were not sugar-coated diplomatic niceties meant to gloss over more unsympathetic private impressions, and he continued to cling to vestiges of his catastrophic delusions even after the Luftwaffe began dropping bombs on Warsaw.

While Chamberlain viewed appeasement as the best hand he could play in difficult circumstances, King saw it as the best option, period. No other head of state from the democratic west endorsed the policy more unreservedly, or spoke more highly of Adolf Hitler. King’s visit in and of itself, undertaken in an age wracked by fear and uncertainty and lacking many of the modern mechanisms and institutions aimed at preventing war and mass violations of human rights, could have been defended by a leader who made it plain that talk did not amount to legitimization or endorsement, and that talk would include a forthright disavowal of the policies liberal democracies claimed to abhor. But the Canadian prime minister failed to voice any such qualifications.

King’s ability to champion Nazism arose from a complex constellation of factors, ranging from his overwhelming fears of leftist revolution and another world war to his support for improved labour conditions, from his love of elites and weakness for flattery to his own anti-Semitism. He was intoxicated by the undeniable gravity of his mission, a gravity amplified ad absurdum by the fantasy that he held the fate of the world in his hands.

In crafting his approach to the troubles in Europe, King seemed to put less stock in the material evidence before him than on the false assurances of chronic fraudsters, along with cues from blankets, clouds, imaginary friends, and a host of other hallucinatory signs and wonders. These attitudes and approaches produced a mission by a Canadian prime minister that could hardly have been less illuminating or fruitful.

Following the war King had hoped to personally avert, his 1937 mission to Berlin was largely forgotten. Given the global attention paid to King’s trip at the time, the virtual absence of the visit in the historical record is puzzling.

Why the silence? Canadians have a habit of claiming that those outside the country – particularly from Britain and the United States, the nationals whose esteem they secretly crave most – habitually underplay Canada’s influence on world affairs. In this instance, they are partially correct. A Churchill or Roosevelt in Berlin would clearly gain notice in the record.

But those leaders would doubtless have exerted more influence than King over the subsequent course of events – if not with German leaders, then at the very least with members of the international coalition that would come to coalesce in opposition to Nazi expansion. King’s trip did nothing to alter the plot, save perhaps boosting Hitler’s confidence that Chamberlain would respond as he did to pending German provocations, and providing succour to those in Britain who considered the threat from Nazism overblown.

For decades, the visit was habitually ignored in even the most comprehensive postwar Canadian works on the King era, while the few writers who attempted to come to terms with what would appear to be a tacit legitimation of the repugnant regime did so briskly, before moving on to recount the grit and determination of Canada’s war effort. And the story they told of the prime minister in Germany was generally the same: King’s mission was a well-intentioned and bluntly delivered, though ultimately futile.

That certainly sounds commendable, but this reassuring tale hardly captures the authentic gist of King’s initiative. In this instance, national insecurity rears its head again. As King botched the most important issues and came off looking like a dupe, few analysts were inclined to turn their gaze towards the fiasco or to afford it the cold scrutiny it deserved.

In truth, Canada’s first significant foray into international peacemaking was at best an embarrassing waste of time, and at worst, additional fuel for the conflagration ahead. The Mackenzie King crowned Canada’s greatest prime minister by historians, the judicious statesman and political sage, never made it to Berlin.

 


Excerpted from
Four Days in Hitler’s Germany: Mackenzie King’s Mission to Avert a Second World War by Robert Teigrob. Published by University of Toronto Press.

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