The seeds of a world-wide conflict were planted on September 30, 1938, with the signing of a piece of paper in which our nation played no part. The Munich agreement gave Hitler the impetus he desired to strive for domination of Eastern Europe. When Prime Minister Mackenzie King considered the growing crisis in Europe, he had no doubt in his mind that Canada would stand by Britain if war broke out. In 1937, he said as much to Malcolm MacDonald, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs: “... if Germany should ever turn her mind from constructive to destructive efforts against the United Kingdom, all the Dominions would come to her aid and that there would be great numbers of Canadians anxious to swim the Atlantic!”
The Munich Agreement was one of the great tragedies of world history and one of its great betrayals, although it wasn’t realized at the time. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a force of “appeasement” with Nazi Germany, stepped off an airplane on British soil waving the agreement, proclaiming that its signing was the beginning of “peace with honour. I believe for our time.” In a telegram to the British prime minister, King said, “Your achievements in the past month alone will assure you an abiding and illustrious place among the great conciliators.”
Much of the world actually breathed a collective sigh of relief with the signing of the agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia (now separated into the Czech and Slovak republics) to Germany. To the cheers of the world, Hitler said, “This is the last territorial claim I shall make in Europe.”
With the exception of Winston Churchill, few recognized that Hitler had no intention of honouring the agreement. Churchill said the agreement was not the end of fear in the world, but “only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup ...” Winnipeg Free Press editor John Wesley Dafoe echoed Churchill, issuing his own warnings about the threat posed by the Nazis. In 1938, Dafoe called for Canada to “arm swiftly, efficiently and with thoroughness, and upon the largest scale possible ... it is the price we shall have to pay for the loss of security due to the rejection, by democratic countries, of the League (of Nations) ...”
The League of Nations, the world body established after the First World War for collective security, disarmament and arbitration, had proven ineffective in stopping the drums of war as Japan invaded Manchuria, the Italians invaded Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) and the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia. In fact, Germany and Japan had both left the League in 1933, while Italy left in 1937. In the United States, the most industrialized nation on the earth, Congress refused to endorse American membership in the League.
The world was inadequately prepared for war, and that’s why British, French and even Canadian politicians were grateful for the agreement. Yet, being unprepared was just one excuse for the Munich agreement, as leaders like Chamberlain truly believed peace was possible with Hitler. Of course, Hitler described the agreement in conversations with his Nazi cronies as a worthless piece of paper. His gamble was that France and Britain, by signing the agreement, had shown a cowardice that would continue as he expanded his reach beyond the Sudetenland. His assessment seemed to have been proven when German troops seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 10, 1939, and the free world ignored it.
France and Britain responded in dibelief to the signing of the Russo-German pact on August 23, 1939. But for Soviet leader Stalin, it was far from a victory. By Nazi aggression, like the other world powers, Stalin would be forced to understand that the German dictator regarded treaties as merely worthless pieces of paper.
Meanwhile at home, King may have wanted to side with Britain as a loyal Dominion, but domestic politics were not so cut and dry. Following the Statute of Westminster of 1931, Canada and the other Dominions — Australia, New Zealand and South Africa — were free to pursue their own foreign policy. Unlike 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was not automatically at war. King had already led the groundwork for future foreign entanglements by announcing that only the Canadian Parliament could decide when the nation went to war. But days before war broke out in Europe, King, on August 25, 1939, told the German and Italian ambassadors in Ottawa that Canada was committed to peace, but would stand by Britain.
He expressed the same view to the British High Commission, but added that he and his cabinet were to direct Parliament to make the decision for war to avoid the nation appearing to be “a Colonial possession.” King had to promise Canadians, especially Quebecers, that the nation would make its own choice, as to do otherwise would be political suicide.
Meanwhile, Britain and France had made pledges to Poland as Hitler demanded the Baltic Sea port of Danzig, which would have effectively cut Poland off from the sea. When the Allies told Germany of their resolve to protect the independence of Poland, Hitler ignored them, believing it to be a hollow promise.
Two days after the Germans launched an attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. King convened a special session of Parliament after Britain’s and France’s declarations, which resulted in Canada declaring war on Germany on September 10. “... Canada went to war in September 1939 primarily for the same reason as in 1914: because Britain went to war. Not for democracy, though that was crucial,” wrote historians J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton in A Nation Forged in War: Canadians and the Second World War 1939-1945. “Not to stop Hitler, though that mattered. Not to save Poland, though that was the ostensible reason. Canada went to war only because Neville Chamberlain felt unable to break the pledges he had made to Poland in March 1939. Had he slipped free, as he tried to do, Canada would have sat by and watched the Reich devour Poland without feeling compelled to fight. Some Canadians knew that Hitler had to be fought; in 1939, however, that motive was not as powerful as the old loyalties (to Britain).”
Canada was woefully unprepared for war. Since the end of the “War to End all Wars” in 1918, Canada had kept only a small, ill-equipped armed force. Surprisingly, for such an unprepared country, by the end of the war, Canada was a major contributor to the Allied victory — over one-million men and women (42,000 died) would serve in the European and Pacific Theatres of Operations; it built thousands of planes, tanks and ships and millions of rounds of munitions; and its navy ended the war as the third largest in the world and its air force the fourth.