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These diary entries are part of a fascinating historical document: Wegenast’s diary and some of the correspondence with German acquaintances that he met during his European trip.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