Hitler's Early Critics: Canadian Resistance at the Winnipeg Free Press

By Young, Robert J. | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Hitler's Early Critics: Canadian Resistance at the Winnipeg Free Press


Young, Robert J., Queen's Quarterly


IN 1938 the Winnipeg Free Press served as a lightning rod tar tensions within the local community.(1) And contrary to the adage, the paper was struck on two occasions. The most heralded instance came in late September when its editor-in-chief, John W. Dafoe, slammed the recently contrived Munich agreement among Germany, Italy, France, and Britain. That accord had announced the dismemberment of a democratically elected Czechoslovak state, but in return promised to take Europe away from the brink of another world war. Dafoe denounced both the act and the promise. In a famous editorial entitled "What's The Cheering For?" he savaged the attempt to appease Germany's dictator, alleging that the Western powers had been duped and that world peace was even more endangered. Winnipegers did not like what they read. In great numbers they complained to the editorial office, charging Dafoe and his confederates with war mongering. As James Gray subsequently put it, most "could not have cared less what was happening in Europe." Canada was "a nation of sleepwalkers."(2)

But that was not the first time the paper had incurred public wrath in 1938. Five months earlier, the Free Press had provoked another city quarter. The reason? One Sunday at the end of April it had flown the swastika flag in tribute to Germany's national day. Despite a tradition of flying foreign flags on such occasions, and despite its proven anti-Nazi record, the paper's phone lines had been tied up with calls from irate readers who objected to seeing the Nazi flag flying above Carlton Street. For its part, the editorial office defended its action by drawing a sharp distinction between respect for Germany and respect for Adolf Hitler's five-year-old regime.

No argument enjoyed firmer ground, for this Sifton-owned, Dafoe-run paper had been quick to discern the myriad evils of German National Socialism. It is this chapter of the paper's history which is less well known: the early years, before 1938, when the fuhrer's appetite was less apparent, even before 1935, when his conciliatory postures had been more common. It is a worthy history, better than that of most North American newspapers. And what makes it worthy are the people: Dafoe, in a class by himself,(3) his "alter ego" George Ferguson, then T. B. Roberton, J. B. McGeachy, Kennethe Haig, James Gray, Cora Hind, and that superb cartoonist Arch Dale. In an age that had contracted full-blown isolationism and, accordingly, was tempted by remedies like appeasement, here on the prairies was a ward of resisters. Among them, there were few illusions about the nature of Hitler's menacing regime.

The truth is that there was little they liked about the regime that took power late in January 1933. Within two weeks of that event T. B. Roberton had identified in Hitler "an iron-lunged, irrational patriot" with no clear program or policies. The latter were clearer within another two weeks, when Arch Dale depicted a blade cutting through a newspaper bearing the headline "Free Speech in Germany." Whatever its significant popular support, this was to be a repressive regime, intolerant of domestic criticism and independent thought. Before the end of March, an editorial had recorded the demise of an autonomous Reichstag and the installation of a dictatorship "as absolute as it is possible to imagine"; and by June Hitler was seen as "the most powerful and sinister enigma in the world today."

Little escaped the attention of Dafoe and the writers of the editorial page. That autumn they addressed the charade of Germany's general elections, elections which offered "no choice of candidates" and in which voters would be "herded into the polls by the storm troopers." Arch Dale said it otherwise, in a cartoon which had a menacing, two-gunned Hitler watching a nervous voter pass by posters instructing: "You'd Better Vote for Hitler" and "Hitler Expects Your Vote."

Part of the formula for instant repression was a muzzled press, a condition Free Press writers were just as quick to address. …

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