Mackenzie King believed Adolf Hitler “truly loves his fellow men.” And yet in policy, the Prime Minister was a supreme realist — writes Patrice Dutil
King in Berlin: In the end, a supreme realist.
Roy MacLaren, Mackenzie King in the Age of Dictators (McGill-Queens University Press, 2019) 318 pp.
Robert Teigrob, Four Days in Hitler’s Germany: Mackenzie King’s Mission to Avert a Second World War (University of Toronto Press, 2019) 292 pp.
IN LATE OCTOBER 1934, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Leader of the Official Opposition, was just delighted to find himself at dinner at the swanky Cercle de l’Union Interalliée in Paris, down the street from the French President’s Palais de l’Élysée. He was with old Liberal friends, the guests of Gabriel Hanotaux, a leading intellectual-political figure of the Third Republic and a longtime friend of Canada — he negotiated the trade treaty with Canada in 1892 with Sir Charles Tupper.
Between courses, Hanotaux raised the issue of Hitler and Nazi rule in Germany. Canada had a special role to play, he argued, in leading England in the right direction. Canada had to work with the United Kingdom to ensure that Germany not again be tempted by geographic conquest. The French grandee reminded his guests that it was King’s refusal to get involved in the Chanak (Turkey) crisis in 1922 that swayed public opinion against Britain’s intervention. King’s policy, according to Hanotaux, had been wise in convincing Britain to de-escalate. “Canada can compel England to do certain things,” he insisted.
Britain was on everyone’s mind because the campaigns for and against the “Peace Ballot” initiative — an unprecedented five-question referendum on British foreign policy — were dividing the country. The supporters of the peace ballot wanted Britain to take its cues from the League of Nations. Others wanted Britain to reduce its ties and act alone in protecting its interests.
King was worried about what was happening in Germany like everyone else, but Hanotaux’s message impressed him. He knew the threat: A few weeks after Hitler had clearly consolidated power in March 1933, King absorbed a church sermon because it struck “the right point of view as to Christian attitude … at present time — a protest against Hitler’s action.” As Christmas neared that year, King heard another sermon on what was happening in Nazi Germany: “the worship of the Germanic race instead of the true God.” Again, he saw dark clouds gathering. He went home needing to communicate “by the little table with the loved ones in the Great Beyond.”
A few months before meeting Hanotaux in Paris, King had predicted that Hitler “will meet his end by means similar to those he has employed.” Everything reminded him vividly of the events of the summer of 1914 — precisely twenty years before — “with the difference that internal revolution is now the essence of it…Europe will hardly escape without serious bloodshed — The dictatorships will have to go. People cannot submit to them indefinitely,” he thought to himself.
Hanotaux’s flattery in October 1934 went directly to King’s head. For King, who at age sixty was still looking for the purpose of his life after a packed thirty-year career serving as deputy minister, minister, and prime minister, the coincidences of the previous days seem to indicate what his future held: “God grant I may be worthy and equal to the demands of the need of the hour.” It was King’s mission to apply his insights and experience to global affairs and, given the chance, save mankind (again!).
Five months later, in March 1935, Hitler announced that Germany was renouncing the terms of the Versailles Treaty and initiating a remilitarization. King crossed the floor of the House of Commons to talk to R.B. Bennett about the situation in Europe. “I don’t mind telling you exactly how things are,” replied the Prime Minister. He told King that England was in a weaker position than she had been at any time especially now that Germany was rearming at an alarming rate. King asked how Germany could rebuild what was obviously a war machine so quickly. Bennett then told King that “younger Germans were filled with the idea of saving their country in war. They were substituting race for religion and mother [… and] the young people believed the highest honour that could come to any man was to meet his death on foreign soil to extend the boundaries of his own land. The whole country had reverted to a belief in force.” According to what King wrote in his diary, both men agreed that the next war would turn on bacterial weapons and “air fighting.”
IN TWO NATIONAL polls of historians and political scientists (in 1997 and 2016) King ranked first among Canadian Prime Ministers (and second in a third poll in 2011). It was not always like that. After he resigned in 1948 and died in 1950 people were in a hurry to bury him politically. The revelations after his death that he habitually tried to reach ghosts made a public mockery of him and his reputation absorbed blow after blow as each new tranche of his private journal was revealed. If his reputation was reversed it was because historians of the 1970s and 80s, led singularly by J. L. Granatstein, recast him convincingly as a politician who had managed exceptionally, leaving the country for the better.
The two new books reviewed here fundamentally disagree with any idea that King was a political hero. Both Robert Teigrob and Roy MacLaren are singularly unimpressed by King. They depict him as a narrowminded racist, with no flair for politics or policy—particularly his foreign policy during the 1930s, and urge their readers to reconsider his record. Their books happen to coincide with the work of two British journalists, Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War (Bodley Head, 2019) and Adrian Phillips’s Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: Neville Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, & Britain’s Plight of Appeasement 1937-1939 (Pegasus Books, 2019), both of which take a harsh view of appeasement, but are much more understanding of the duress under which politicians found themselves in the late 1930s. For all of them, Britain, France (and Canada) probably should have declared war on Germany sometime before the Munich agreement of September 1938. It is, frankly, the easiest thing to say.
Roy MacLaren, who begins his account by dismissing the importance of the Chanak crisis, is a former Liberal politician. After spending fifteen years in the department of External Affairs, he worked in the private sector then turned to politics. He was elected in a Toronto riding in 1979 and was named Minister of State for Finance by P.E. Trudeau in 1983. John Turner made him Minister of National Revenue in June 1984, just before he was defeated. He returned to the House of Commons nine years later and was made Minister of International Trade by Jean Chrétien. In 1996, he was appointed High Commissioner for Canada in the United Kingdom and served for three years. He has written many good books, mostly covering aspects of Canadians abroad, be it on the battlefields or diplomatic salons.
MacLaren’s outlook on King draws insights from his own many experiences. In his early career as a young foreign affairs officer, he surely heard the complaints regarding Canada’s confused and confusing policies during the 1930s and he repeats them here, jousting with what he considers the wrongheadedness of the isolationist Oscar D. Skelton, the Under Secretary (Deputy Minister) of External Affairs. Just as he would have wanted in the late 1950s, he wants to see Mackenzie King deploying a “single, dynamic foreign policy” (p. 5) in the 1930s and instead sees only a weak man pandering to dictators, pursuing an “erratic” policy (p. 6).
MacLaren is unrelenting: King was a weak friend of Britain (Chanak was only the beginning), a traitor to the League of Nations in that he refused a muscular response to Japan for its invasion of China and to Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). MacLaren sniffs at King, when, upon meeting the Duce on Sept. 26, 1928, he reported that Mussolini “was … a truly remarkable man of force, of genius, fine purpose, a great patriot” (p. 64). Most people thought that way at that time.
More galling, for MacLaren, was the weakness shown towards Hitler as he absorbed the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Writing of King’s four days in Berlin in late June 1937, MacLaren highlights the positive impressions Hitler left as “an intense nationalist, resentful of the wrongs against Germany, but not a reckless or resentful man who would heedlessly provoke a war with Britain.” King told his diary that Hitler “is really one who truly loves his fellow men” (p. 177).
There is little doubt that King succumbed to Hitler as a fellow mystic. Hitler had reassured him that there would be no war and presented himself as “a calm, passive man, deeply and thoughtfully in earnest.” In Hitler, King saw the traits of Joan of Arc, “a man of deep sincerity and a genuine patriot” (p. 179). King, MacLaren says both at the beginning and at the end of his book, was a small man, unsuited to the job, unforgivable. His policies were confusing and confused, focused exclusively on supporting “Anglo-French attempts at appeasement with the dictators” and avoiding “constitutional difficulties.” Even worse, King showed time and again that he had no heart for the victims of war (p. 7). For my part, MacLaren’s is not a convincing portrait. More fundamentally, I think MacLaren draws too sharp distinction between King’s foreign policies before and after 1939; to distinguish between a pre-1939 and a post-1939 foreign policy is artificial and misleading. C.P. Stacey’s richly documented and finely written Canada and the Age of Conflict: Volume 2: The Mackenzie King Era (1981), which captures King’s central place in foreign policy making during the entire administration, remains the reference.
ROBERT TEIGROB, A GENERATION younger than MacLaren, has a similar take on King. He sees Canada in the 1930s as “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” (p. 4). A Professor of History at Ryerson University (and a colleague whom I admire), Teigrob is the author of two books on the early years of the Cold War as well as editor of a volume of essays on Canada and the United Nations. In Four Days in Hitler’s Germany: Mackenzie King’s Mission to Avert a Second World War he produces something rare in the history of Canadian foreign relations: a focused study of one particular diplomatic event.
Mackenzie King travelled to Europe in the spring of 1937 primarily to attend the coronation of George VI and afterwards to participate in the Imperial Conference. In London, he met Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador in London. King judged him “a man I could get along quite easily,” so when Ribbentrop proposed to King that a meeting with the Führer might be possible, King indicated his interest.
Teigrob’s engaging study is peppered with insights on King, on the intricacies of the visit, and on pre-war and post-war Berlin, as he includes glances at how Germany has sought to remember the war through commemorative sites. Teigrob captures all sorts of telling detail. Even Gabriel Hanotaux makes an appearance in 1937 (the only one, in either book) when he tells King that his visit to Hitler “was the most fortunate thing which could happen at this time.” King reflected in his diary that “no one could do as much good in Europe today as I could by going to Germany” (p.71).
Teigrob then follows King as he checks into the fancy Adlon Hotel in Berlin, refusing the British ambassador’s hospitality in order to show that Canada’s foreign policy was independent. For Teigrob, who easily unleashes bolts of killer phrasing, the gesture was “in true King fashion, a muscular affirmation of the right to fecklessness” (p. 54). Teigrob very usefully parallels King’s visit to Germany with an almost simultaneous one by H.D.G. “Harry” Crerar, the Canadian Army’s Director of Military Operations and Intelligence. Crerar wrote a memorandum on his visit, a cold assessment of how Hitler was preparing for war. Teigrob writes that by the early summer of 1937, “the amount of daylight between the two men on the German question was enough to blind” but the evidence does not support, in my view, such a grand statement. Crerar’s mission had its own specific, technical objectives and he came away from his visit with a vivid impression of the likely size of the Air Ministry staff and that the Anschluss with Austria was in the works. He concluded what everybody knew: Germany was preparing for war.
King’s visit lasted four long days. The first was devoted to attending a Sport-Day in the Olympic Grounds — the same stage as the Olympic games of 1936. The second day was focused on a visit to a Labour Service Camp, then to the Labour Front. The centrepiece was the third day, Tuesday, June 29, when King met Hitler, Rudolf Hess and Hermann Göring. King ended his visit on the fourth day with a lunch with Baron von Neurath, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“King was right to go to Berlin in 1937,” Teigrob concedes (p. 232), but it was a failed mission nevertheless, with King looking “like a dupe.” Readers won’t be surprised that King urged Hitler a few months later “to help your own and other countries along the path of peace and progress,” and wished “that you will think not only of the good you can do for your own country, but … the good that you can do for the entire world. You will, I know, accept this letter in the spirit in which it is written — an expression of the faith I have in the purpose you have at heart, and of the friendship with yourself which you have been so kind as to permit me to share.” Two seasons later, King sent congratulations to Chamberlain for the Munich accord of September 1938.
Was King a hopeless idealist? A sheep in sheep’s clothing, to borrow the fine Churchillian phrase, as he is presented in these two works? I see him as a realist, a man who clearly saw in Hitler the incarnation of evil but who, like all Western government leaders, simply could not bring himself to think that any man, or any nation, would bring the world to the brink of war again. If Canada had lost over sixty thousand men, Germany had lost over two million. War was unthinkable, insanity. Yet Germany seemed to pin its hopes on one man. King considered it his duty to judge if Hitler was, in fact, insane enough to trigger war. Perhaps that key factor, the Führer, might be amenable to a conversion, King thought. As a realist, he saw the world in the bleakest terms: war was likely inevitable, but he had to do everything in his power to avoid it. King hoped that he could have the same positive effect on Hitler he had had on prostitutes in 1890s Toronto. (In fact he had no known impact on either.)
His realism extended to the League of Nations. He saw it as a useful place to debate, but certainly not a place that could commit Canada to any obligations. In that, he was with Americans, the French, and the British who voted in the “Peace Ballot” in 1935, and with most Canadians. The real threat to global peace was Communism, and King received assurances from both Mussolini and Hitler that Communism was their enemy also. The plight of German Jews was a domestic affair, as far as he was concerned. Canada should not be giving moral lessons to foreign governments on how to treat their citizens.
MacLaren and Teigrob too easily set aside the context of the economically depressed 1930s, the isolationist mood of the Canadian public and the personal rage King felt towards Hitler. Teigrob does, in fairness, acknowledge in his epilogue that King did say to Hitler and Goring that “Canadians would likely rise to any threats to British territory or interests” (p. 232). King meant it: As Munich was signed in 1938, King told his cabinet that he was ready to go to war, much to the despair of the arch-isolationist Skelton. It was the cabinet who convinced King to tone it down.
In all this was Mackenzie King pursuing a reckless, erratic foreign policy? Again, he showed himself a realist: he pursued his country’s foreign policy in light of its needs, not to fulfill the wishes of an inchoate, nonresponsible “international community.” There was no way he was going to commit Canada’s foreign policy or army to defend Abyssinia or China. King was hardly the only notable to visit Hitler (he was preceded by Lloyd George), and when he did, King did pointedly remark that if any part of the British Empire were threatened by any act of aggression, Canadians “would join to protect the freedom which we were determined should not be imperilled.” He reminded Hitler of what had happened only a few years before: “I said that the Canadian spirit was best exemplified by what had taken place in the Great War… it was this sense of freedom and security which we enjoyed under British institutions which was the real cement of the Empire and which none of us would wish to see threatened.” King’s visit was followed by many more from British leaders in pursuit of peace.
In short King was not stupid about what has happening in Europe. Following the election of 1935, he ordered the military to produce a report of Canada’s defence preparedness. The 1936 report clearly showed that war between Japan and the USA was possible and that “the chances of a major European war developing into a world war are definitely great.” Government spending on defence — which had averaged around $17.8M under R.B. Bennett, was increased to $23M in 1936, a 35% increase constituting 4.3% of total expenditures. In 1937, King added another $10M, and $3M more in 1938, 6.3% of total spending.
It was ludicrously little, in hindsight, but King had doubled spending on defence in under three years. Canada was not ready for a fight, and did not want to get into one. The amounts spent in 1938 were equal to 10% of what Canada spent militarily in 1918: $439M. Canada was ill-equipped for a new global conflict, but that did not stop it from declaring war against Germany in September 1939. King was enough of a realist to deny the Hitler government the right to buy the island of Anticosti from the Consolidated Paper Corporation in the spring of 1938.
KING'S REALISM EXTENDED to his fragile political situation: he was a political rabbit, always living in fear of losing his election. He lost his seat in 1911 in the hard-fought “Reciprocity and Naval Question” election and had seen his party again defeated on the issue of conscription in 1917. The devastation he read on Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s face following both elections haunted him to his dying day. In 1921, the Liberals took almost 41% of the popular vote, but not enough to secure a majority. He managed to govern without much effort, but realpolitik dictated that his government depended on the seats in Quebec (65 out of 65, and 70% of the vote) and on the support of the pacifist Progressives of Western Canada. The election in 1925 was hardly better. The Liberals lost, taking less than 40% of the vote (the Conservatives took 46.5%, including a remarkable 38% of the vote in Quebec).
Reelected in 1926 with a majority, King’s government was crushed by the Bennett Conservatives in 1930. It was only the intractable problems of the Depression that allowed him to return to power in 1935, with commanding majorities in all provinces save Alberta. King can be forgiven for being extra cautious about his electoral chances. Lucky as he was, he knew his popularity, including on that Liberal rock that was Quebec, always hung from a thread.
Let’s stop blaming Quebec for appeasement. Most people in North America (let’s not forget that the American public and Congress refused to join the League of Nations) still had fresh memories of the atrocities of war and were pacifist. The Left was especially so. When Hitler suddenly occupied the Rhineland in March 1936, Nellie McClung (she, the saintly) declared that Hitler was rightly pursuing Germany’s rights. Old Progressives and CCFers like J.S. Woodsworth, Frank Underhill, and Frank Scott applauded any government attempt to appease Germany.
King was clear-eyed when Canada declared war on the Nazis. He had known for six years that war was likely, but had hoped it could be averted. He was not an outlier: he was in perfect harmony with his world contemporaries — apart from Winston Churchill. That King and his government were re-elected in 1940 with a crushing majority only served to demonstrate that his foreign policy, so easily mocked with partial readings of his diaries, was probably the best that any politician could have been achieved.
Robert Teigrob vividly ends his work with King returning to Germany in the summer of 1946, following the Paris Peace Conference, to take stock of Berlin. He returned to the places he had seen in 1937, inspected the bunker where Hitler and much of his entourage committed suicide, pulled some souvenirs from the walls, and then travelled to Nuremberg where he saw Göring, Ribbentrop, Neurath, and Hess in their jail cells. Peering through the bars, the feckless ghost-whisperer had the last laugh.
Patrice Dutil has a Ph.D. from York University and is a professor in the Department of Politics at Ryerson University. He is the author of Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier and Borden and co-author of Embattled Nation: Canada’s Wartime Election of 1917. He wrote L’Affaire Dundas in Toronto: Falling for a Hoax and The Imbecile Attack on Egerton Ryerson, among other articles in other editions of The Dorchester Review.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Dorchester Review, Volume 9, Number 2, Autumn-Winter 2019, pp. 3 - 8.