Its an anniversary often fraught with visions of terror and memories of a world plunged into darkness for the approximately 120,000 surviving veterans of the Second World War. The September 11, 1939, headline in the Winnipeg Free Press proclaimed, Canada Officially Enters War Against Nazi Germany. On September 10, the House of Commons had voted nearly unanimously — only four dissenters — to joining Britain and France in opposition to the regime headed by Adolf Hitler, the embodiment of evil.
Decades after the outbreak of the Second World War on September 1, 1939, historians are still debating its causes and outcomes. But what is most evident is that there would have been no war without the advent of Hitler and the emergence of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy bent upon aggrandizement through aggression toward others.
In Russia, which bore the brunt of Nazi aggression after 1941 until the joint Anglo-American-Canadian D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the war is seen from a different viewpoint than considered in the West. In fact, Russia claims no responsibility for the outbreak of the war, despite having signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany which allowed Hitler to invade Poland. In return for Stalin’s assurances of support, the Soviet Union shared with Nazi Germany in the division of the hapless country’s territory.
Two years ago, Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski reminded Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that the Soviet Union had “stabbed Poland in the back” when it invaded the country on September 17, 1939, to claim territory under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Putin’s only reply was that the August 23, 1939, pact was one mistake among many, likening it to the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Britain and France bullied Czechoslovakia to cede some of the country’s territory — the Sudetenland — to Germany.
The hindsight of history shows that appeasement was a grave error that emboldened Hitler and intensified his dream of territorial expansion. It is known that Hitler considered French Premier Edouard Daladier and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain laughable fools for believing the Munich agreement was the beginning of “peace in our time,” as claimed by Chamberlain, or that the agreement signalled an end to Nazi expansion in Europe.
Some did disagree with Chamberlain and Daladier, but they were in the minority. For many, the massive bloodletting of the First World War remained an horrific memory which led a larger group to consider peace at any cost a valuable commodity.
Among the early dissenters was Winnipeg Free Press editor John W. Dafoe (an inductee into the WinnipegREALTORS-established Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame), who recognized the rising threat posed by Hitler and sent reporter Grant Dexter across the Atlantic to cover the “gathering storm.”
“Dafoe had smelled the coming advent of a European war,” wrote George Ferguson, a pupil under the renowned editor, “and before the war broke out, he had sent Dexter to cover it as early as 1936. When Dexter got there, he discovered that Dafoe’s sense of timing had been just right, and he found himself with a ring-side seat at the rapidly unfolding drama.”
Dafoe came to hate Hitler and Chamberlain, as well as the “confused” men and women who didn’t think clearly and merely sought peace at any price.
When the Munich agreement was signed in 1938, Dafoe wrote his most famous editorial under the heading, What’s the Cheering For? It was a strong criticism of the policy of appeasement which allowed Hitler’s bloodless expansion in Europe. “Austria yesterday,” he wrote, “Czechoslovakia today; what of tomorrow and the day after.”
Free Press journalist James Gray wrote that the editorial solicited an “explosive” response by the newspaper’s readership. “The switchboard was flooded with calls from irate readers eager to denounce the editor as a war-monger.”
But, Dafoe was right — there was no stopping Hitler without drawing a line that he could not cross without being punished. In the end, that line became Poland.
Others joined Dafoe in his attacks on the Munich agreement, including Winston Churchill, who was then just one of a small number of voices against appeasing Hitler in the British House of Commons.
“You can’t have appeasement with dictators like Hitler and Mussolini,” said Sir George Paish, a former advisor of the chancellor of the exchequer in Britain, during a speech at the Fort Garry Hotel, reported in a front page article published in the November 29, 1938, Free Press. “In critical times like these, policies need to be determined not by dictators but the peoples, so that the responsibilities of what happens may be shared by many. I almost pity the leaders of the nations, including Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Daladier, premier of France, for pursuing policies that must increase the distress of their peoples.”
Of the Munich agreement, he said, “It’s not appeasement, it’s a policy of giving way to the aggressor.”
Writing a report from London on October 1, 1938, Dexter said, jubilation filled English streets at the news of the agreement. But he added the somber warning, “... it is possible that a day that dawned as a day of rejoicing may be remembered as a day of national humiliation ... Hitler now takes possession of the smaller area piecemeal (and) peacefully, but there is nothing to prevent the complete subjugation of Czechs within a year or less.”
Even Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King wholeheartedly welcomed appeasement, but he also warned in a meeting with Hitler that if Germany turned her mind from constructive to destructive efforts against the United Kingdom, all the Dominions — Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa — would come to Britain’s aid.
The time for appeasement ended with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, although it would be another two days before Britain declared war on September 3, while Canada officially entered the war seven days later.
“Freedom and individual liberty throughout the world are threatened,” Selkirk, Manitoba, MP J.T. Johnson told the House in the prelude to the vote.
At a cost of 60-million lives — half of them civilians — the fight for freedom was “six years that changed the world,” the consequences of which we still live with today.