Saturday, 13 June 2015

We Sat Right across from Hitler

An Introduction

Like my grandmother Mabel Rodger, my great aunt Mary Elizabeth Rodger (Bessie) became a teacher and went on an Overseas Education League teachers' tour organized and conducted by Major Frederick Ney.

My grandmother went over in 1922, shortly after this movement's beginning. She was shown the 'Centre of the Empire', Paris, Rheims and the 'battlefields of France' from the Great War, 1914-1918.

Bessie went over in 1938. She travelled more into Europe itself, as the title hints.

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My knowledge of Major Frederick Ney has been enhanced by two papers:

1. Mapping the Serious and the Dangerous: Film and the National Council of Education 1920-1939; Charles R Acland; 1995;
"... The NCE was a significant force; it was a powerful lobby, initiator of cultural activities, and producer of cultural criticism. The NCE was imperialist in orientation, and took as one of its goals the improvement of popular taste. Its members encouraged the regulation of recreation and modes of popular pleasure so that leisure time served the nation. This educationalist agenda led them to promote documentary film and to write about the dangers of popular cinema ..."
"Major Fred J. Ney, executive secretary of the National Council of Education (NCE), prepared a film and lecture for the NCE fourth triennial conference on "Education and Leisure" (1929) portraying the '... manner in which the morals of young Canadians are being assailed by a flood of foreign magazines depicting immorality, violence, vice and crime.' "

2. "First Unto God and then to the Queen": Frederick Ney's Empire/Commonwealth Youth Movement from the Inter-war Period to the 1960s; Jialin Christina Wu; 2014;

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While in Europe, my 34 year old great aunt replied to her nephew's persistent letter-writing efforts with letters and postcards. My father was 11 years old at that point. In researching some Geneva PQ history in my father's files, I found one of her accounts to my father particularly surprising and interesting.

The 'security pattern' to hide the message carried within the hotel air-mail paper envelope was a photo of the hotel itself. It was intended to visually 'bleed' through the front of the envelope to promote the hotel, and so was printed in reverse on the envelope interior. In turn, I have reversed the image to show you the hotel and the historical era, above.

In my father's files are also preserved Bessie's trip account letters to her Aunt Alice Gall - her mother's sister. No mention of Hitler is made in this correspondence.

While researching this trip, I was particularly fortunate to have a chance contact with my cousin, Robertson Dow, who kindly provided me with our great aunt Bessie's diary of her experiences.

Bessie's letters to my father and Aunt Alice Gall provide interesting hi-lites of her experiences in continental Europe for those particular readers. In contrast, Bessie's diary (covering the period June 25 to July 26, 1938) is more methodical as it records the tour's itinerary and her observations of people, institutions, cities, cultures and countries. Some of these had already changed since Hitler's rise, some would be scarred forever, others would be destroyed. 

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Eight full months prior to Bessie's trip to Munich, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson) had visited Hitler at his Bavarian mountain retreat. This was done against the wishes and advice of the British government.

from: Hitler; Ian Kershaw; 1998; Penguin Books.

By the time of the Windsors' visit, Hitler had appointed himself head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces. He had told his military commanders to be ready for war as early as 1938. Those who had expressed concerns about the armed forces' readiness for this course of action at that early a date were replaced.

In July 1938, Major Ney took Canadian and other Empire school teachers, including Bessie, for a tour of that Europe and that Germany. Did Major Ney have a particular view about what was happening in Europe? One of the papers recounts the following developments with Major Ney's film education organization, which occurred midway through the Great Depression in Canada ...

from: Mapping the Serious and the Dangerous ... 
"While 1934-35 saw the NCE's most extensive involvement in film, other activities were causing significant disruption. The council's increasingly public support for fascism, as seen in its invitations for Italy Week, was drawing criticism from many. Some prominent politicians felt they had to withdraw, among them Prime Minister RB Bennett, for fear of being tainted by scandal. Vincent Massey, a past president of the NCE, resigned, writing to Ney, 'I don't think I need tell you that I have always had a very sincere belief in the National Council and the work it set out to do; but of late, although the criticisms levelled against it are often unjust, sometimes I confess I cannot help sympathising with them.' "

If Great War veterans and witnesses such as Major Ney and the Duke of Windsor 'did not get it' .. could Mary Elizabeth Rodger from Geneva, Quebec foresee what was to going to happen to Europe?

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Bessie died when I was ten and I only have a couple of distinct memories of her. I remember her being quite a rational and direct person, but nice. For example, at one point she introduced me to the idea that even after school and sleep, I still had many hours available to me - we added them up together - we all have the same 24 hours in a day, but it depends how we choose to use them.

Except for his composition of her obituary, and following-up aspects of her estate with the school board - both at the request of her brother - my father's file about her is particularly thin.

The following photo of her professional colleagues was in the file, along with a few notes added by my father. She can be seen in the centre of the centre row - 'Miss Rodger'.

In our family albums is this photo of me with Bessie Rodger
at our Lachine apartment, twenty years after her travels in Europe.

In the following postings, I'll try to explain what was happening all around her as Bessie toured with her group. Again, this tour was arranged and often conducted personally by Major Ney.

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As an example:

On the day before she saw Hitler, Bessie woke up in Nuremberg ...

from: Speer, The Final Verdict; Joachim Fest; 1999; Harcourt Books.
The Nazi facilities at Nuremberg seen by Bessie.

By 1927, Hitler had decreed that the annual general meeting of the Nazi party would be held at Nuremberg "forever" as the ancient city with its preserved buildings was a "symbol of the first Reich of the Germans". The annual general meeting was not a forum where party members passed resolutions about policy - rather, it was a quasi-religious experience during which the individual was subsumed into the German Reich which was personified by Hitler.

The purpose-built Nazi theme-park on six square miles of land (which had previously been known as Luitpoldhain and had served as a large Nuremberg park with a Great War memorial which was added later) was to be greatly expanded by a young architect, Albert Speer - he was about a year younger than Bessie. The entire complex was set for completion by the autumn of 1945. Major features were completed before then. Speer used up to 150 anti-aircraft searchlights to produce a 'dome of light' effect seen above. Much of the Nazis' grandiose, 'brutalist' architecture was also created under Speer's supervision.

Speer got his start producing rallies in April 1933 when he joked to a Party official that the plan for a Nazi May Day rally in Berlin reminded him of a 'village rifle club event'. The Party official told Speer to go ahead with the improvements he suggested. Hitler and Goebbels liked his work on that project.

Speer and Hitler eventually became each other's protégés. If he had not narrowly missed a career in the visual arts in Vienna ... and if he had not succeeded at being a European dictator ... Hitler discovered through his work with Speer that his true professional calling was to become an architect.

Two postcards from my collection, Nuremberg, circa 1900-1910.
The old town of Nuremberg seen by Bessie.

The green domes in the top postcard are those of the Great Synagogue of Nuremberg. It was expropriated at the behest of the Nazis and then demolished, beginning on August 10, 1938 - a month after Bessie's visit to the old city.

Because of its significance to the Nazis, RAF Bomber Command made many efforts to bomb Nuremberg with little success. In the process, it suffered great losses in the form of bomber aircraft and their crews - many of whom were Canadian. 

Finally, on the night of January 2-3 1945; 514 Lancaster and 7 Mosquito bombers hit the target. "The castle, the Rathaus [town hall], almost all the churches and about 2000 preserved medieval houses went up in flames." Almost 2000 people were killed. 
from: The Bomber Command War Diaries, 1939-1945; Martin Middlebrook; 1985, Viking.

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In a single daily diary entry, Bessie recorded seeing these large physical artifacts which would no longer exist after the passage of a few years. Not all of her entries precede such a clear and dramatic change, but many do.

Regarding her late-day arrival in Munich, she wrote:

"Went for a walk, but too much traffic. There was a celebration of some kind in the city."

It was a celebration of "German Art". Munich had been the location of Hitler's failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and the 'martyrs' of that era were venerated by the Nazis. Munich was the site of the Great German Art Exhibition and also the Degenerate Art Exhibition. In the end, the latter was better attended by German visitors: 400,000 versus three million. 

The next post will look at Bessie's record of her experiences in Munich. You would be correct in concluding that Major Ney's group was not shown the Degenerate Art Exhibition.