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

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

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick
 

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence