Chapter 6. The War Years, 1914–45

6.9 The Road to WWII

Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, it is easy to misunderstand how it looked at the time.

In 1914 there were a handful of liberal democracies around the globe and there were many states in which hereditary monarchs and oligarchical systems of government dominated. In the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles a whole cadre of new democracies appeared, including the Weimar Republic in Germany. Sun Yat-sen’s revolution had toppled the Emperor in China. There was a brand new League of Nations, created with the intent of institutionalizing global communication and the perpetuation of peace. What’s more, modernity was becoming more widespread as a social and cultural movement, as well as an art movement. Consumerism was on the rise, suburbs were appearing on the edges of cities across the western world, and “planning” was becoming something of a phenomenon, extending from new urban areas through whole economies. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that took the place of the Czarist regime in Russia held out the possibility of a post-capitalist society. Technological change, much of it stimulated by the Great War itself, seemed to be accelerating. Styles of dress changed dramatically. Deference to religious authority was in sharp decline across Western Europe and the Americas as secularism was more widely and more deeply spread. In short, the interwar era seemed to have potential.

That was the situation in the mid- to late-1920s. By the mid-1930s the promise of a world of peaceable democracies was receding. Indeed, democracy was in retreat. Nations were rearming. Organized religion was terrified by anticlericalism and was backing counter-revolutions across Latin America. Monarchists were digging in their heels and throwing in their lot with anti-democratic fascists. The Soviet Union under Stalin and the Nazis under Hitler were both calling for global domination — and if two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, then one of these two movements was going to have to yield. Modernism generally, was under attack in Germany, Italy, Spain, and even in North America as “degenerate.” Racism was on the rise. The Spanish Civil War was a kind of dress rehearsal for the conflict to come but it signalled something else: the fall of democracy. As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote,

Political liberalism was in full retreat in the Age of Catastrophe…. Taking the world as a whole, there had been perhaps 35 or more constitutional and elected governments in 1920. Until 1938 there were perhaps 17 such states, in 1944 perhaps 12 out of the global total of 64.[1]

One of those democracies, one of those increasingly rare holdouts against the tide of absolutism and despotism, was Canada.

Canada between the Wars

All was not freedoms and liberties. Canadians were largely fearful of the outside world and inclined to restrict the rights of anyone outside the charmed circle of white, Christian, male adulthood. Women’s rights were expanding, it’s true, but they were still something of an untested novelty in the 1930s. And they were rising from a very low baseline. Voting rights might have been won but property, welfare, and workplace rights continued to reflect the patriarchal values at the heart of Canadian society.

The situation of Canadians of colour was considerably worse and to be a woman of colour in Canada was, quite simply, double jeopardy. Asian Canadians faced restrictions in terms of their place of residence, the schools they could attend, and the professions they could join, not to mention the day-to-day humiliations of both pointed and casual racism. African-Canadians might have greater access to democratic privileges but their educational opportunities severely circumscribed, and the overall quality of life and public services in neighbourhoods like Africville on the edge of Halifax was poor. Aboriginal Canadians, too, faced impoverished conditions both on and off the reserve. Some could vote but their collective numbers were so small as to make them powerless as a constituency. The remoteness of many First Nations communities meant that they were effectively invisible to the larger Canadian polity. The Jewish community — found across the country but heavily concentrated in the largest centres and especially Montreal — faced anti-Semitic discrimination in many forms. Racism — coupled with a strong eugenics movement — was, for all intents and purposes, part of Canada’s mainstream culture.

The limits on freedom of speech and freedom to meet had been tested repeatedly in the Depression. Unions were being smashed; civic, provincial, and national police forces showed little compunction when it came to riding horses into a crowd and swinging billy clubs and whips. The communist movement had been outlawed and mostly driven underground while fascist parties were generally winked at; police surveillance of unions was commonplace. A decade of high unemployment and economic disaster had been largely unalleviated by the Liberals and the Conservatives, and neither party appeared to care very much.

Having said that, the three levels of democracy in Canada — civic, provincial, and federal — meant that elections were relatively common tests of the public will. The Canadian press remained free (notwithstanding state attacks on the newspapers of the hard left). British parliamentary traditions remained strong and loyalty to Britain (complemented by continued post-Great War enmity for the Germans) ensured that Canada’s position on the eve of war would be less complicated than that of the United States.

On the Brink

As relations worsened between Nazi Germany and Britain, France, and the USSR in the late 1930s, Canadians became increasingly alert to the possibility of war. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 marked the beginning of turmoil along the Pacific Rim and stimulated tensions within the Asian-Canadian community that would last until China’s liberation in 1945. Italy’s attack on Ethiopia (aka: Abyssinia) followed in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 between the Republic (supported by the Soviet Union) and the Nationalists under General Francisco Franco (backed by fascist regimes in Italy and Germany). All of these conflicts were testing grounds for expansionist countries building martial cultures around charismatic leaders and intense nationalistic feeling.

Moreover, these invasions and contests introduced elements of total war that had not been as apparent in the Great War. Civilian casualties, for example, were not a by-product of war but an intentional objective. This was seen in every instance of the pre-WWII conflicts, including gas attacks on Abyssinian villages, the destruction of the town of Guernica by the Luftwaffe (German Airforce), and most spectacularly, the Japanese “Rape of Nanking” and the Empire’s application of a scorched earth policy across northern China.

Diplomatic efforts to reverse this tide failed repeatedly and embarrassingly. British and French politicians blundered through attempts at appeasement of, first, Italy then Germany. The Soviet Union, for its part, used the Nazi obsession with Russian power to their advantage in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of March 1939, which effectively carved up Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries between the USSR and Germany. As a non-aggression pact, it bought the USSR two years to prepare for conflict with Germany and allowed the Nazi Wehrmacht to focus its energies on Western Europe.

Key Points

  • By 1939 the number of liberal democracies was in steep decline. Canada was one of few remaining.
  • Despite Canada’s record as a liberal democracy, the rights of as much as half its adult population were limited.
  • Two of the authoritarian regimes of the interwar years explicitly and openly made plans to spread their systems across the globe.
  • International conflicts in the 1930s paved the way for a world war conducted against civilian targets as often as military adversaries.

  1. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1996), 112.


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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