by Bruce Cherney
While Canadians may be celebrating the Year of the Veteran, most are probably unaware that the seeds of world conflict that ended 60 years ago were planted on September 30, 1938, with the signing of a piece of paper in which our nation played no part.
The march to war may have started when Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, but it was the Munich agreement which gave Hitler the impetus he desired to strive for domination of Eastern Europe.
When Prime Minister Mackenzie King considered the ramifications of 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 had 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!”
Of course, the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, was one of the great tragedies of world history and one of its great betrayals. 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.”
Even King, sided with Chamberlain. In a telegram to the British prime minister, he 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 Munich agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia (now separated into the Czech and Slovak republics) to Germany. At this, Hitler said to the cheers of the world that, “This is the last territorial claim I shall make in Europe.”
With the exception of Winston Churchill, few recognized that Hitler had any 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 a shocking thing that Canada is confronted twenty years after the end of the last war, with this inescapable responsibility, but 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. The United States, the greatest industrialized nation on the earth, had never been a member despite it being part of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points for a peaceable and democratic post-war following the First World War. Congress refused to endorse American membership in the League.
Despite the musings of Churchill and Dafoe, the world was inadequately prepared for the advent of 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. But, it suited his purposes. 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. In the beginning, Hitler was not disappointed by his assessment of the strong desire by the other European powers to avoid war at all costs. His assessment seemed to have been proven when German troops seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 10, 1939, and the whole world stood by.
Another object of disbelief for France and Britain was the signing of the Russo-German pact on August 23, 1939, which freed Hitler to undertake his aim of territorial expansion for “lebensrum,” living space for the German people in the East. Duped by Hitler like the other world powers, Soviet leader Stalin would in a couple of years also come to understand how the Nazi dictator regarded treaties as merely worthless pieces of paper when his country was invaded by Germany in 1941.
Meanwhile at home, King may have wanted to side with Britain as loyal Dominion in the event of war, but domestic politics were not so cut and dry. In a nation of divided interests, King was a supreme tactician able to juggle his way through the nuances of Canadian politics.
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. In fact, during the crisis of 1922 when war between Britain and Turkey seemed eminent, 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, just 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,” and “that we might be in any way acting at the instance of Britain.
“How desperately stupid some Englishmen are in appreciating any attitude other than our own,” he added.
King had to promise Canadians, especially Quebecers, that the nation would make its own choice. To do otherwise would be political suicide. For Quebec, the promise of choice also had to be reinforced by an announcement that there would not be conscription — compulsory enlistment — if war came. The reason was simple: to avoid a replay of the Conscription Crisis of 1917 during the First World War when rioting broke out in Quebec City streets. Conscription during the First World War was also unpopular with farmers and labourers in the rest of Canada.
In addition, King considered conscription as unnecessary in 1939 since he had only thought of Canadian participation in an overseas conflict in limited terms. He had no real intention of immediately sending over troops to fight on European soil in a repeat of 1914-1918.
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 as had been the case with Czechoslovakia.
In this instance, his calculations were wrong. 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 the Parliament after Britain’s and France’s declarations to resolve Canada’s participation in the conflict.
In the House of Commons, the only dissenting voices for Canada’s entry in the war came from J.S. Woodsworth, the Winnipeg North MP and leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — forerunner of the New Democratic Party — who was a committed pacifist, as well as two Quebec MPs, including Maxine Raymond, who said: “The French-Canadian of Quebec is attached to the soil he tills and recognizes only the obligation to defend his own soil.”
Woodsworth believed that Canada should remain neutral “regardless of who the belligerents may be.” Despite Woodsworth’s vote, he was recognized by fellow MPs for his unwavering resolve for peace which were rooted in his strong Christian beliefs. Still, the rest of his CCF caucus voted for war.
“From the few isolationists in the House of Commons there came the faintest calls of ‘nay,’” wrote the Globe and Mail on September 11, 1939, “but the spirit of the members was in the full-throated waves of ‘ayes,’ which adopted the address in reply to the Speech from the Throne and the Government’s war policy.”
When Lord Tweedsmuir, the British governor-general of Canada, signed the proclamation on September 10, the nation was officially at war.
Canada Declares War! announced the Globe and Mail in a banner headline. Dominion Committed to Stand with Britain in Fight Against Hitler, the newspaper added to emphasize the point.
“Perhaps the most notable feature of the week,” wrote Robert P. Post in a special cable to the New York Post, “in which colony after colony and allied nation states in quick succession sent word that it is with Britain, has been the way in which the four Dominions have joined the cause ...
“It is perhaps the greatest test in which the Commonwealth of British Nations has been subjected since the statutes of Westminster cut Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia loose as independent nations, bound to the United Kingdom only by their allegiance to a common King.”
Historians have questioned the actual independence of the Dominions. It is correct in saying that King had already decided Canada would go to war prior to Britain’s declaration against Germany. His intent was that the Canadian Parliament merely rubber stamp his decision to give the impression of independence at home and abroad.
“... 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 may have went to war for the sake of Britain, but it was woefully unprepared. Since the end of the “War to End all Wars” in 1918, Canada had kept only a small, ill-equipped armed force. Its army’s permanent strength was just over 4,200 officers and men, no armoured fighting machines, no modern artillery, machine guns, etc.; its navy fewer than 2,000 officers and men and a few destroyers; and its air force numbered just over 3,000 officers and men as well as 270 most obsolete aircraft (Dictionary of Canadian Military History, David J. Bercuson and J.L. Granatstein).
Whatever contribution it was to make to the war effort, Canada would have to build from scratch.
By the end of September, 58,300 Canadians joined the army and thousands of others signed up for the navy and air force.
Just as in the First World War, the sudden rush to volunteer left the politicians to revise their plans. King had wanted to limit Canada’s overseas role, but thousands of Canadians felt otherwise and war policy began to change.
King had proposed to Britain that Canada’s commitment be to train aircrews and pilots in the safe skies above Canada, but events were overtaking his plans.
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.