Winston Churchill and the Man from Berlin, Ontario

Winston Churchill and the Man from Berlin, Ontario

Posted on September 19 by admin
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“This is the most crucial moment in all the world’s history,” William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary during the escalating days of World War II.

When Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, it marked a turning point in Canadian history, and a major test of King’s ability to lead Canada to greater independence. King had held high hopes that Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement would spare Europe and its allies the pain of another World War. But when it became clear that appeasement had failed, and war was inevitable, King’s foremost concerns became preserving the British Empire, and asserting Canada’s role on the world stage, autonomous from Britain but bound to it by common allegiance.

As shrewd a politician as King was, this was no easy task. And to make matters dicier, his British counterpart in wartime was none other than Winston Churchill, a man whose legendary force of character cast a long shadow over King’s hopes to distinguish himself and his country. Terry Reardon has a forthcoming book, Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King: So Similar, So Different, recounting the dramatic collision, whose impact is still being felt, of these two men and their nations at the crossroads of WWII.

Although they were drawn together by history, the pair could hardly have been more different. King, who grew up in Berlin, Ontario before that city changed its name to Kitchener, had a well earned reputation as a bookish, moderate leader, capable of brilliant political balancing acts but with no great gift for commanding the public stage. Churchill, on the other hand, could almost be summed up as King’s exact opposite — a war hero, orator, and bulldog of a statesman. The two men, swept up in the struggle to defend Britain’s place in Europe, Canada’s place in the Empire, and the global balance of power, made an odd couple.

Still, King’s diaries (which he never intended to be made public) reveal a sincere and growing admiration for Churchill. And the British Prime Minister, for his part, also opened up about his respect for Canada’s — and King’s — role as a mediator between Britain and the United States. “Canada,” Churchill proclaimed in a London speech, “is the linchpin of the English-speaking world.” It’s amazing how Churchill’s insight about Canada remains true even today, and how critical the wartime relations were in defining the role Canada still plays.

Thinking about all this makes me wonder what future historians will make of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, another war stirring up controversy about Canada’s independence. One persistent theme throughout the conflict has been the delicate and secretive relationship between the Prime Minister and the White House. Are old anxieties about Canada’s position next to other world leaders playing out differently this time?

Since Stephen Harper’s personal diaries are probably not going to surface in print anytime soon, we are especially fortunate to have expert accounts from journalists like Macleans’ Michael Petrou, whose book Is This Your First War? is also coming out shortly. But while eyewitnesses like Petrou write “the first draft of history,” it often takes years for the public to hear even a part of what happened behind the scenes. The fact that we are still learning what happened between King and Churchill in the pivotal moments of WWII makes me wonder how much of Canada’s recent history has yet to come to light.