John Keegan, the famous British military historian, has written a new book based on his Barbara Frum Lectures presented in Toronto last spring. Entitled The Battle For History: ReFighting World War Two, it introduces readers to some of the historical controversies that enliven university classrooms. The book is very thin, both in length and substance, and it ignores Canada, but the idea behind it is excellent. In this new series of articles for Legion Magazine I will offer some insight into the battle for WW II history, emphasizing issues of concern to Canadians without ignoring the larger picture.We need to begin with an understanding of why historians, journalists and ordinary citizens often disagree about the past. The problem starts with confusion over the meaning of the word history. We use it to signify three very different things: The actual events that took place, the surviving memories and written evidence about those events, and the attempts of historians to construct a narrative account of some part of the story.

A moment’s reflection will remind us that the past cannot be studied directly. There is no laboratory where we can recreate events to verify our ideas. We are stuck with interpreting the available evidence. Only some evidence survives and in the case of WW II history, the experiences and knowledge of millions of participants is lost to us forever. Much written evidence is available but there are large gaps in the record. Bernard Montgomery, probably for security reasons, destroyed his files on Dieppe. Guy Simonds left few significant personal papers and his divisional commanders were equally circumspect. Admiral L.M. Murray’s papers in the National Archives reveal little about the only Canadian to command a theatre of operations.

In contrast, former prime minister Mackenzie King left far too much, including a lot about his fantasies. The Eisenhower and Churchill papers also fill libraries and you could argue that the vast collections of routine records of military units support the view that the war was fought with reports and memos, as much as bombs and bullets. In other words, while we know that a lot of evidence is missing, the amount available is so enormous that no one can claim to have considered all of it unless he or she studies a very limited topic.

Understanding the challenge facing historians may provoke some sympathy, but the reality is most controversies are created by people who disagree about the present and seek to use the past as ammunition in political or ideological battles. Historians claim to agree the past should be studied for its own sake and on its own terms, but few are able to resist imposing their own agenda. Readers need to be aware of this and historians and journalists could help by making their ideas more explicit.

My own agenda is easily identified. Having just returned from our sixth trip to Normandy and Northwest Europe, my wife and I remain in awe of the achievements of the Canadian and Allied forces. This time we introduced a group of students from across Canada to the battlefields. The study tour, sponsored by the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation, began on the night of June 5 at the memorial to 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. The following day we walked Juno beach at low tide and joined in a simple ceremony organized by local villagers. The next night we stood together in the memorial garden at the Abbaye d’Ardenne and listened as Hamilton Southam, a veteran of the Italian campaign, read out the names of the young Canadians murdered there by the 12th SS Panzer Division 51 years ago. We placed flowers on the memorial and spoke the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

We were all deeply moved by these and similar events. The students who were seeing these places for the first time were profoundly touched by the vast war cemeteries. They walked the rows, identifying names of relatives and family friends, and pausing before inscriptions that described the sense of loss. These were the graves of young men of their own age and emotions ran high.

All across France and Belgium we see plaques offering thanks to the Canadian liberators. The word “liberation” is used over and over again in speeches and on memorials and our discussions got better as we understood the significance of the battles for those who were freed from Nazi tyranny. In the fields north of Falaise we came to the cross marking the place where the British Columbia and Algonquin regiments suffered grievous losses in August 1944. The Canadian flag, which had flown so bravely on previous visits, had disappeared, but the memorial with its simple inscription–To Those Who Fell–provoked a renewed discussion of the strategy and tactics employed in the battle to close the gap. No one offered easy judgments or proposed simplistic solutions to the problems of overcoming a desperate enemy.

Two days later we were in Dieppe to examine the failed raid of 1942 and celebrate the liberation of 1944. Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment fought on July 1, 1916, and Vimy were next. Both memorials are among the most visited places in northern France and both tell a story that is a vital part of our heritage.

In Adagem, Belgium, we were met by two men who have dedicated time and a great deal of money to building a new liberation museum. Gilbert van Landschoot told us his father, a member of the Belgian resistance, had escaped arrest and certain death because of the swift arrival of 4th Cdn. Armoured Div. His Canadian Memorial Museum is a personal tribute to the liberators. We had expected a modest collection of artifacts in a village shop, but we found a large, new building of stone with enormous oak beams. Curator Alex Martens has set the Canadian contribution firmly in the context of the origins of the war, the defeat of 1940 and the occupation and resistance. The last rooms are devoted to the Canadian battles for the liberation of the region. Most of the visitors will be Belgian and Dutch schoolchildren, but surely many Canadians will want to see this extraordinary offering of thanks.

At the site of the Breskens pocket we were joined by a young Dutch historian who described the horrors of the occupation and the relief of liberation. We began our study of the struggle to clear the Scheldt estuary while standing on the large German pillbox that anchored their defence of the Leopold Canal. It was not difficult to think our way back into the minds of those who planned the battle or those who fought it. But how could we imagine what it was like to storm across a canal under heavy fire. How did they do it, we asked? Where does such courage come from? Discipline and training play a part, but in the end the basic motivation was not to let your comrades down.

On our way to the site of 9th Brigade’s amphibious landing on the northeast coast of the Breskens pocket we paused at Milestone One of the Liberation March that takes place here every Nov. 1. Thousands of Dutch and Belgian Citizens including many schoolchildren, set out from Hoofdplaat to trace 3rd Cdn. Div.’s route to Knocke-Heist on the Belgian coast. The walk is 32 kilometres and not everyone goes the whole way but Canadians who doubt the value of our contribution to the Allied cause would not have to travel far before they began to understand that liberation is more than just a word.

Seeing the battlefields with these young men and women reinforced pride in being a Canadian and humility in the face of such courage and sacrifice. As an historian my bias is the desire to understand and celebrate the achievements of our veterans. This means emphasizing the profound moral purpose that motivated participation in the war and documenting the significance of the Canadian contribution to victory. This does not mean avoiding controversial issues or ignoring mistakes, but it does require writing about the past without constantly judging events with the benefit of hindsight.

In the summer of 1918 the Allied coalition launched a series of attacks upon the German army that culminated in its defeat and surrender. The Cdn. Corps played a major role in these battles beginning with the Amiens offensive on Aug. 8. At the Paris Peace Conference the victorious powers imposed terms on the vanquished foe forcing Germany to acknowledge war guilt, pay reparations, limit its armed forces and surrender some territory. There was nothing unusual or new in the Versailles Treaty. It was much less severe than the one the Germans had imposed on the Soviets the previous year and very much in the tradition of previous European treaties. Throughout the 1920s the terms of the settlement were constantly modified, always in favour of Germany.

Unfortunately, the postwar generation quickly lost sight of the purpose of Versailles which was to restrain Germany’s military power. American and British historians developed a revisionist interpretation of the causes of the war that minimized Germany’s responsibility. They criticized Versailles as an unjust treaty and helped to reinforce the view that Germany, not the countries its armies had destroyed, was the primary victim of the war.

This revisionist view provided a rationale for the policy of appeasement that came to dominate British diplomacy in the 1930s. France, with its conscript army, was seen as the main obstacle to permanent peace and when Germany began to arm itself again the majority view in the West was sympathetic. Indeed, if Germany had been controlled by a normal nationalist leader committed to restoring Germany’s pride and power there would have been little opposition in the West. Hitler and his National socialists were far from normal and by the mid-1930s many people were beginning to understand this. The majority still wished to avoid confrontation, hoping Hitler did not really believe in the paranoid racial fantasies described in his autobiography My Struggle.

It is ironic that the best contemporary historians view these events very differently. In the 1960s, Fritz Fischer, a German historian, began to challenge WW I revisionism. He argued–convincingly–that Germany had sought war in 1914 and pursued war aims designed to bring most of Europe under German control. France and Britain fought a defensive war to prevent German domination. So the Great War had not been a meaningless blood-bath. The fighting had continued for four years because the alternative was a German victory with peace terms that would have made Versailles seem mild. This was exactly what Canadian veterans thought the war was about and it is why there was broad support for restraining Germany at Versailles.

Historians are much less divided over the issues of the late 1930s after Hitler was firmly in power. Few serious scholars question Hitler’s determination to conquer Europe. He may not have had the precise timetable that Winston Churchill warned about, but he was determined to annex Austria, crush Czechoslovakia and destroy the French army before turning to his main goal of gaining “living space” for his Thousand-Year Reich in the heartland of Russia and the Ukraine.

Canadian élites, like those in other democratic countries, were blinded by the prevailing view of the causes of WW I and the injustice of the peace. When Hitler sent his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, violating both Versailles and the postwar Treaty of Locarno, the West went along with the notion that Hitler was only entering his own backyard. Belgium’s subsequent declaration of neutrality was shrugged off even though it jeopardized the survival of France. When Hitler engineered the annexation of Austria, outflanking the defences of democratic Czechoslovakia, the West remained inert.

Everyone knew Hitler’s Germany was a pretty nasty place. There was plenty of prejudice and some very real restrictions on civil liberties of Jews, blacks and orientals in Canada and other countries, but the vicious and systematic anti-Semitism of the Nuremburg Laws was another matter entirely. So was the glorification of power and the militarization of German society. But as long as Hitler focused on Germany no one considered intervention and few thought that any increase in expenditure to prepare our armed forces was necessary.

Most Canadian historians believe this attitude persisted right up to the declaration of war. Relying on the views of French Canadian nationalists, a few left wing politicians and anti-British intellectuals, our history books insist we went to war “because Britain went to war. Not for democracy, not to stop Hitler, not to save Poland.”

This view was attractive to a postwar generation trying to promote decolonization of Canada by attacking the British connection, but it tells us little about English-Canadian opinion in the 1930s. The evidence from newspapers, church conferences, volunteer organizations and ordinary citizens presents a very different picture. In English-speaking Canada, where almost 75 per cent of the population was of British ancestry (523,000 of Toronto’s 667,000 people were of British background in 1941) close links with the mother country were natural and inevitable. But this closeness did not mean blind loyalty to the policies of British politicians.

Most Canadians came to understand that Hitler threatened France, Britain and the security of the entire Western world in the context of his threats to Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement, which sacrificed that country’s fortified zone when the Sudetanland was transferred to the Nazis, was welcomed by Canadians as a reprieve from a war they were reluctantly ready to fight. One month later Nazi terror in the Kristalnacht–the night of broken glass–against Germany’s Jews prompted protests across the country. In Toronto tens of thousands filled Maple Leaf Gardens to overflowing as civic and religious leaders condemned Nazi racism and urged the federal government to admit Jewish refugees.

The final straw was Hitler’s occupation of Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. English-speaking Canadians were part of that “underground explosion of public opinion” that forced governments in Britain, France and Canada to abandon appeasement and begin preparations for a war that Hitler was determined to start. French-speaking Canadians were much less ready to go to war, but opposition was muted in the face of the intense reaction in the rest of the country.

One week after the British declared war, in fulfilment of the promise to Poland, Canada’s Parliament assembled to decide on Canada’s role. The debate began with a speech by H.S. Hamilton, a veteran of WW I, who expressed the views of the overwhelming majority of English-speaking Canadians. Hitler, he reminded the members, threatened everything Canadians believed in. “This war,” he insisted, “is Canada’s war. The effective defence of Canada consists in the utilization of the organized and united power and strength of this Dominion however, wherever and whenever it can best be used to defeat Germany’s armed forces and to destroy the philosophy on which they are based.”

Hamilton sat down to thunderous applause. Canada was at war and for all the right reasons.


  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on September 1st 1995.