Hitler’s vision of a strong Germany
demands the re-establishment of its military
power. He reintroduces conscription in 1934
and starts rebuilding the fleet. In March
1935, the existence of a reconstructed air
force, the Luftwaffe, is made public.
The League of Nations, from which Germany
has withdrawn, condemns these re-armament
activities but to no avail. As a measure
of retaliation, Germany is forced to ratify
the Anglo-German Agreement, which sets the
maximum capacity of the German fleet at
35% of that of the British Imperial Fleet.
Great Britain embarks on its own re-armament
programme. In Europe, the arms race is on.
The United States, however, fall back on
their isolationist position and adopt the
Neutrality Act in 1935.
officials of the Nazi and Fascist
Parties, circa 1936-1940. On the
front row, left to right: Herman
Göring, Benito Mussolini,
Rudolph Hess, and Adolph Hitler.
Weekend / National Archives of
Events are moving fast. Benito Mussolini,
il Duce, using as a pretext a border incident
between the Italian colony of Somalia and
Ethiopia, sets his troops against that country
in October 1935. The Emperor of Ethiopia,
Haile Selassie, appeals to the League
of Nations for assistance against the
invading forces. On a proposal from the
Canadian Representative, Walter A. Riddell,
the League of Nations votes an embargo on
products essential to Italy’s war
effort: oil, coal, steel and iron. France
and Great Britain choose, however, to strike
a separate agreement with Italy and do not
support the embargo. In Canada, Riddell
loses the support of his government as Liberal
Mackenzie King replaces Conservative
R. B. Bennett as Prime Minister after the
October 1935 elections. The sanctions have
no impact and during the summer of 1936
Italy conquers Ethiopia. The League of Nations,
faced with its first international conflict,
has failed to find a solution and to ensure
On March 7, 1936, German troops occupy
Rhineland, the demilitarized sector along
the Rhine bordering on France and Belgium.
This violates not only the Treaty of Versailles,
but also the 1925 Treaty of Locarno that
finalized a joint agreement on Germany’s
western border. France hesitates before
the German threat. Great Britain recommends
caution and appeals to the League of Nations.
Uneasy Belgium proclaims its neutrality.
During the summer of 1936, civil war breaks
out in Spain. A left-wing coalition, the
Popular Front, democratically elected in
February 1936, is in power, but the Nationalist
forces under General Francisco Franco, backed
by the Army and the Church, oppose the reforms
planned by the Popular Front Republicans.
An armed uprising erupts on July 17, 1936.
Within a month the country is split in two.
Franco’s Nationalists can count on
the support of Italian troops, as well as
of German aircraft and equipment. The Soviet
Union provides troops and arms to the Republican
side, who in its stand against fascism also
receives help from international brigades
The Spanish Civil War has been called a
general rehearsal for WWII. Opposite ideologies,
communism and fascism, are in open conflict
and the country is used as a testing ground
for the latest military material. Only the
Western democracies are missing from the
picture. The US Administration refuses to
supply the Popular Front with weapons, while
France and Great Britain choose to remain
neutral. In Canada, the Mackenzie King government
will not help a communist regime, even a
democratically elected one, and prefers
supporting Great Britain’s conciliation
policy. Although Canadians are prohibited
from taking part in a foreign armed conflict
without their government’s authorization,
some 1,300 volunteers enlist in the Mackenzie-Papineau
Battalion and fly to the rescue of Spanish
Soldier of the
in a Trench, Spain, c. 1937-38.
Archives of Canada, C-067469
Canadians and their elected representatives
were well aware of what was happening in
Europe. In February 1937, the Minister of
National Defence, Ian A. Mackenzie, asks
the Commons for an increase to the defence
budget. Opinions are diverging. Some support
territorial defence and would even be favourable
to assisting Great Britain in case of a
European conflict. Others oppose such an
involvement in European affairs, or believe
that the arms race cannot but lead to another
world war, as in 1914. Eventually, in 1937,
the defence budget was increased by a modest
amount, from 30 to 36,2 million dollars.
What role should Canada play if England
goes to war? The question was on everybody’s
mind, but the King government refuses to
make a commitment, the PM’s official
position being that it will be the Parliament’s
responsibility to make the appropriate decision.
Indeed, the Statute
of Westminster has granted full
powers to Canada with regard to its foreign
policy and the Dominion is no longer under
the obligation to support Great Britain
in a war. That newly-found autonomy has
never before been put to a test of such
In May 1937, King is in London to attend
the Imperial Conference and the Coronation
of King George VI. Always cautious in his
public statements, he reveals in a private
conversation with British Prime Minister
Chamberlain, and Foreign Office
Secretary Anthony Eden that he will indeed
support Great Britain if war breaks out.
At Buckingham Palace, he also meets German
Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, who invites
him to a meeting with Hitler. After consulting
with Chamberlain and Eden, the Canadian
PM accepts the invitation and goes to Berlin
on June 28, 1937. He has talks with General
Hermann Göring, Foreign Affairs Minister
Konstantin von Neurath and, the following
day, with Hitler for more than one hour.
Adopting the polite, moderate, and conciliatory
tone of a gentleman, King tells Hitler that
in case of conflict all British dominions
would rush to England’s assistance.
The meeting takes place in a very friendly
atmosphere and King cannot imagine what
unspeakable plans of military conquest and
ethnic cleansing lurk behind his host’s
apparently sincere demeanour.
Minister W.L. Mackenzie King receiving
Nazi salute, Berlin, June 1937.
Archives of Canada, PA-119013.
When I was formally
shown into the room which Herr Hitler
received me, he quietly and pleasantly
said he was pleased to see me in Germany…
W.L. Mackenzie King’s Diary,
June 29, 1937.