Review: A German-Canadian in Nazi Germany

Margaret E. Derry, ed. Liberty is Dead. A Canadian in Germany, 1938. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-55458-053-8.
At around 9:00 am at the best hotel in Innsbruck, Austria, Franklin Wellington Wegenast, standing among peasant and city families decked out in their Sunday best, came within a few feet of Adolf Hitler. “He comes, simply, like any other guest, on his way to the train. They crowd around him and shake hands. I could have done so,” he noted in his diary on 6 April 1938, but he does not write why he did not. It is the closest Wegenast, a third generation German Canadian traveling in Europe in the spring and summer of 1938, came to the Nazi leadership. Yet, he came even closer to the German and Austrian Nazi mentality of the time over the following weeks, as he visited countless villages, towns, and cities in Germany, spoke with distant cousins, and listened to strangers whom he gave rides in his car. Throughout, he agonized over their inability to understand each other’s world views.
These diary entries are part of a fascinating historical document: Wegenast’s diary and some of the correspondence with German acquaintances that he met during his European trip. His early entries display an almost amused curiosity of the Nazi phenomenon, but from the beginning, he also identified characteristics of the people he observed, met, and talked to that he found unsettling. Increasingly, as he made his way through Germany, he became frustrated that these nice, friendly people in their beautiful, clean towns were unable to realize that their view of the world was utterly anti-democratic and would lead the world into another war. Peter Nafziger was one of them. Although most of this Mennonite family lived in Luxembourg and were anti-Nazi, Peter, who lived on the old family farm in Germany, “is a Nazi,” as Wegenast noted. “He started with the usual line of what did one think of Germany in the Ausland. I told him some. He came right back with the Jewish press theory. It was the Jews poisoning public opinion in other countries against Germany. I suppose it is natural enough, but what can you do with such people?” (71).
At times, Wegenast made sweeping statements about the “Heinies” – a word he used to express a “contemptuous familiarity. But that is not all. It implies a pity that verges on tenderness. The poor devils! They don’t know what it is all about” (83). Mocking the “Heil Hitler” salutes, he wrote: “I suppose these Germans cultivate a hide that can bear this sort of thing. For one of us it would be a terrible humiliation to go through this ‘Heil Hitler.’ I think perhaps the main consideration is that we are different. These people lick-spittled in the time of the Kaiser, and they have cultivated no particular inhibitions since. And in another five or ten years they may heil someone or something else” (72).
At the same time, he fell in love with the countryside and its people. In the Ahr Valley, he wrote: “This is so beautiful that it hurts. . . I have stopped in the street to try to take in the pleasure of it – the warm sunshine, the pear and apple blossoms, the songs of the birds, strange yet familiar, the nice looking people, the particularly nice-looking girls – blond for the most part, but possible for any drawing room though they may be of the peasant class” (72-73). But when he crossed the border to France, he breathed a sigh of relief.
After Wegenast’s death in 1942, the diary – in a state of disarray – was forgotten until Margaret Derry took to editing it. In her biography, Derry elaborates how his status as a German Canadian and a loyal subject of Britain shaped his views. Trained in music and law, he knew about French architecture, Mennonite culture, religious history, and he spoke both German and French. Assuming that he read Canadian newspapers like the Globe (Globe and Mail after 1936) and the London Times, he knew in general about the events unfolding in Europe in the 1930s. Derry skillfully places the diary in the larger context of contemporary writing in newspapers, by diplomats, and in private journals by individuals such as Victor Klemperer.
The diary itself makes up half of the book. It is complemented by an exchange of letters with a young German whom Wegenast had met in France and initially mistaken to be opposed to Nazism but who turned out to be a staunch defender of Nazi ideology. Next to Derry’s contextual essays, a short bibliography, and a thorough index are also included. This is a well-edited volume that gives historians a rare insight into everyday life in prewar Nazi Germany as well as into the views held by well-informed Canadians at the time. The book is suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses.
Alexander Freund, The University of Winnipeg


Manitoba German and German Manitobans: Questions of Language and Identity

Manitoba is home to many heritage speakers of German with origins in Europe, North America, and South America. Because the German-speaking communities in Manitoba are integral to the identity of this province, it is imperative to understand the role of German in Manitoba. With our project, we are primarily interested in the maintenance of Low German in the province. Therefore, we will explore the current use of the dialect and study some of the influences leading to language transfer between German and English.
In addition to these linguistic questions, we are also curious about identity and language. In Manitoba, religion and lifestyle often act as motivation for language preservation. While the Hutterite Colonies function themselves as a method of language preservation, there are no such systematic preservation systems for Mennonites. In our previous research, we found that while Low German is spoken in many Mennonite families, the knowledge of most of the younger generation is restricted to single vocabulary words, even though they strongly identify with the language. We have observed that Low German is still very much desired as a form of communication in Manitoba, and want to explore in our new research the use of German in the province and look at the extent of maintenance of the language.
With this project we hope to form a clearer picture of the German used in Manitoba today, from the changes in the language over time to the reasons for not systematically passing linguistic knowledge from one generation to the next.
Elisabeth Gsell-Dentsoras and Kristin Lovrien-Meuwese (

Comparing Germans in Ontario and Buenos Aires

My name is Benjamin Bryce and I will begin the fifth year of my PhD at York University in September 2012. My interest in researching German immigration to Canada first began while I spent a bit over a year teaching English in Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein between my BA and MA in 2005-2006. My MA thesis, which I wrote while on a York exchange in Berlin in 2007-2008, was on a topic in German-Canadian history and was generously supported by the Spletzer Family Foundation MA scholarship. For three months in the summer of 2011, I carried out research for my PhD in Berlin and Leipzig as well.
My dissertation explores the divergent constructions of German ethnicity in Canada and Argentina and the ways this influenced tangible activities related to education, childhood, social welfare, and religion. Entitled “Reproducing Ethnicity: German Schools, Philanthropy, and Religion in Ontario and Buenos Aires, 1880-1930,” it weaves together local, provincial, national, and international perspectives on the interaction between families, communities, and the state. It uses German speakers as a case study to offer new arguments about how ethnic minorities contested nationalist projects and carved an ethnic space into several public domains in Ontario and Buenos Aires. Schooling, charities, and religion provide windows into the ideas of language and nation that Canadian and Argentine politicians, bureaucrats, and educators espoused and the alternative visions that German-speaking teachers, female fundraisers, and clergymen propounded. The comparative approach situates immigration to Canada in its global context by juxtaposing this country with Argentina, which was second only to the United States in attracting European immigrants between 1870 and 1945. The research is funded in part by a Spletzer Family Foundation German-Canadian Studies Research Scholarship (PhD).
Ben Bryce, York University

Ich Drücke Dir die Finger / I’m Crossing my Thumbs for You

Ich Drücke Dir die Finger / I’m Crossing my Thumbs for You: Understanding of German Idioms by German-Speaking Residents of Kitchener-Waterloo
Idioms are a linguistic form that appear frequently in bilingual communication and play a special role: different from other forms of “mistakes” that occur, using a nonstandard version of an idiom instead of the dictionary version often causes laughter and sometimes a discussion about the meaning and the origin of the idiom. The “meaning,” linguistically referred to as the semantics, of idioms in a situation of cultural contact is the focus of my Master thesis. For the thesis project, I will conduct a study with long-term residents of Kitchener-Waterloo and locate the findings within the theoretical framework of cognitive semantics and bilingualism. Particularly, but not exclusively, I will refer to the works of George Lakoff, Raymond W. Gibbs, Michael Clyne, and François Grosjean. My research question is how the use of English as a major communication language influences German-speaking immigrants’ understanding of German idioms. The study, which includes a questionnaire and interviews, will test the hypothesis that there is a change in the understanding of idioms and assumes a significant semantic shift from the “original” idiom, as listed in the dictionary, to the meaning the participants consider as the right one: hypothetically closer to the English equivalent. The community of Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario provides an extraordinary environment for the proposed study, as German language and heritage are apparent both in everyday life and in the academic context.
Hannah Oestreich, M.A Candidate
University of Waterloo / Universität Mannheim