The primary purpose of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s trip to London was to attend the coronation of George VI, but he managed to squeeze in a few other things while there, including a private chat with a Nazi. Specifically, he met with ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, who, writes Allan Levine, “was so impressed with King’s enlightening attitude to the League [of Nations] and world events that he invited the prime minister to Berlin for a personal meeting with Hitler.”
As a general rule, if your political views impress a Nazi who then suggests you would really hit it off with his boss the Führer, you’re probably on the wrong track. But this was 1937, appeasement was the mood of the day, and “Mackenzie King was the ultimate appeaser.” To be fair to King, fascism often presents as a slow burn, and crossed lines are much more visible in retrospect. Many people were wiling to believe that Hitler wouldn’t be so bad, and might even have a positive impact.
So, the Canadian Prime Minister headed off to Berlin. Levine describes the beginning of the meeting this way:
King had brought Norman Rogers’s biography of him as a gift for Hitler. As he presented it, he opened the book to show Hitler photographs of his childhood and drew attention to the fact that he had grown up in Berlin, Ontario. Hitler smiled warmly and leafed through the volume.
We know this because King wrote about it in his diary. In that document, King says that he told Hitler, who at this point was four years into building a nationalist dictatorship, that he admired “what I had seen of the constructive work of his regime, and said that I hoped that that work might continue.”
King also used his diary to talk about Hitler’s eyes:
He smiled very pleasantly and indeed has a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes… His skin was smooth; his face did not present lines of fatigue or wariness; his eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicate keen perception and profound sympathy.
Hitler “truly loves his fellowmen,” has a “deep emotional nature,” seems “eminently wise,” and “feels himself to be a deliverer of his people from tyranny,” King wrote.
By Levine’s summary, “the two men spoke about a wide range of topics, with the noticeable exception of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies, which King would never have dared raise lest he insult his host.” Canadians are known for their politeness after all.
More than politeness, though, Canadians were not immune to the anti-semitism that was on the rise in Germany and elsewhere. Jews in Canada also faced “widespread discrimination” at the time, writes H. Blair Neatby, and Canada’s immigration policy was “influenced by anti-Semitic views.” A couple of years later as the war began, a Canadian immigration official would utter the now infamous phrase “none is too many” when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should accept.
King also attempted to be an interpreter between England and Germany. In response to Hitler’s complaints about England, King writes: “I said to him that I thought the Germans did not some time understand the English, or the English the Germans. I thought some of us in Canada understood both of them better than they did themselves.” Canadians had experience bridging divides between different nations, he said.
As the meeting concluded after more than an hour, Hitler presented King with a personally inscribed portrait (pictured at the top of this post). King told Hitler that “I greatly appreciated all that it expressed of his friendship, and would always deeply value this gift.” He said he hoped to talk with Hitler again, and that he believed Hitler “would be remembered” for his good works, and that Hitler should “let nothing destroy that work.”
After the war, in 1946, Hitler’s Foreign Minister was put on trial for war crimes at Nuremberg. Not only had he been actively involved in Nazi invasions, he had also, the court found, been deeply involved in the Holocaust. His name was Joachim von Ribbentrop, the man who King had so impressed in London that he’d set up the meeting with Hitler. He was executed on October 16th.