Robert Fisk: The premier who thought Hitler was a 'Joan of Arc'

Wartime diaries

Share
Related Topics

The date: 10 February 1937. The city: Ottawa. The man: William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, soon to be the trusted wartime friend and confidant of Winston Churchill.

That frozen day in the Canadian capital, King recorded in his diary a friendly encounter with an old man on Wilbrod Street, a Jewish Russian immigrant called Cohen who had divided his possessions – a furniture and clothing business on Rideau and Banks Streets – among his three sons and daughter. He was now in retirement. As another former Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, said of the Cohens, "a true Canadian success story".

Mulroney described to a Jewish meeting in Toronto last month how his illustrious predecessor "listened to Mr Cohen thoughtfully, treated him kindly" and then recorded the encounter in his diary. And this, dear reader, is what the odious King wrote: "The only unfortunate part of the whole story is that the Jews having acquired foothold of (sic) Sandy Hill, it will not be long before this part of Ottawa will become more or less possessed by them. I should not be surprised if, some time later, Laurier House (the prime minister's residence) was left as about the only residence not occupied by Jews in this part of the city."

Mulroney's devastating critique – it gets much worse – was published in last Monday's edition of Canada's ever more lunatic National Post, a paper which reads more and more like a right-wing Israeli settlers' house magazine in its defamatory attacks on the dead Turks of last week's aid convoy to Gaza and in its grovelling support for Israel's indisciplined army. Many Jews in the 1930s – even those who survived the Holocaust while still living in Nazi Germany – opposed the Zionist project for Palestine on the grounds that this would deprive the Arabs of their land, the one and a half million Palestinians now living in the prison of Gaza are part of the tragedy they foresaw. I do not know if Mr Cohen shared their views. It doesn't matter.

What is important is that Mackenzie King – "one of the most delightful men I have ever met" in the words of Churchill's rash son Randolph – set off, a few months after his encounter with Mr Cohen, to meet Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany. And here are the reflections of Canada's prime minister on the Führer who will launch the Second World War scarcely two years later.

"He (Hitler) smiled very pleasantly and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man. His face is much more prepossessing than his pictures would give the impression of. It is not that of a fiery overstrained nature but of a calm, passive man deeply and thoughtfully in earnest ... His eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicates keen perception and profound sympathy. Calm, composed and one could see how particularly humble folk would have come to have profound love for the man. As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc..."

This is not just OUCH! This is "Jesus, Joseph and Mary!" Several times over. Next day, our Canadian hero was off to see Nazi foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath. "He admitted that they (the Nazis) had taken some pretty rough steps in cleaning up the situation ... He said to me that I would have loathed living in Berlin with the Jews, and the way in which they had increased their numbers in the city, and were taking possession of its more important part ... Many of them were very coarse and vulgar and assertive ... I left him (von Neurath) feeling that I had met a man whose confidence I would continue to enjoy through the rest of my days ... He is, if there ever was one, a genuinely kind, good man."

Little surprise, then, that when a passenger ship called St Louis – packed with 700 Jews fleeing Europe, their faces alight with hope before the cameras as it approached Canada on 17 June 1939 – Mackenzie King's government refused it entry. Canadians protested. So did journalists. And if you look today at photographs of the ship, you'll see children, husbands and wives with faces of smiling relief. They were safe. But they were not. They were sent back to the gas chambers.

There's no doubt why the National Post carried Mulroney's terrible story last week: to smother our condemnation of Israel's latest brutality. As usual, we who speak out against the ruthlessness of Israel's army – as, of course, we do against the Arabs – are anti-Semites. Remember the Holocaust. Remember Our Guilt. But it was Rick Salutin of the Toronto Globe and Mail who got it right this week. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that Israel's leaders have grown mindlessly, habitually dependent on asserting their own victimisation. This was often effective, based largely on sympathies rooted in revulsion of the Holocaust and the story of Western anti-Semitism. But this has gradually changed, due partly to the arrival of generations who, as it were, knew not Hitler, and aren't inclined to feel even indirectly guilty for him. The shift became evident during the 2008 Gaza invasion ... Yet Israel's leaders still automatically assume the victim position ... Societies that lose their internal dissent and self-criticism have a sad and scary record, especially when combined with a sense of victimisation."

I was on a Turkish television show this week and two of the other speakers were Jews from Israel. But both were outraged at the actions of their own government. And I wonder, as I write this, whether the doomed Jews on the St Louis might not agree with us, rather than the cruel regime that has laid claim to their souls. As for Mackenzie King... Well, he knew how to turn a boat away.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness