Nellie McClung caused World War Two. Yes, the McClung after whom Victoria’s Cedar Hill library is reverently named. Lest we forget.
Maybe that’s not obvious. Let me back up, and talk first about nature, history and proof.
People often use nature to prove points. Whatever their points are. Is cut-throat competition “natural”? Show fish eating each other. However, interspecies cooperation is essential for some trees and fungi. “Natural” sexuality? Pick your species to demonstrate virtually anything.
I recently read someone seriously arguing Victoria’s practice of dumping sewage directly into the ocean is laudable because it’s natural; don’t whales use oceans as toilets? Gee, why not use seagulls as the example, then? If they do it, shouldn’t all Victorians defecate on other people’s rooftops?
Such infantile arguments are equally common when we use history to prove points. Like nature, human cultural history is vast and diverse, and doesn’t often reasonably reduce to single, definitive exemplars. Nevertheless, one feeble memory of one event is all some people need to establish “the” definitive proof of something. Meanwhile, more complex truths are lost.
We’ll find no better example of selective remembering than, ironically, on “Remembrance” Day.
On November 11, commemorative events will abound, our schoolchildren will be inundated with lectures, and media will blow tributary trumpets. But most orations will mainly focus on a few particular dates, people and events of WWII, thereby whittling Canada’s misshapen history into a finely-honed proof supporting Our Noble Roles in Necessary Killings. The entire exercise will supremely illustrate how international wars are at heart community movements seeded at the personal level. Seeded, that is, in lousy memories. (Yes, we’re getting to Nellie.)
Consider: The common summary of WWII runs from 1939 to 1945. The dictator Hitler led the Germans to massacre millions and attack other countries, then was defeated by allied armies.
Some orators start in the mid-1930s, additionally noting how other countries didn’t build up militaries, didn’t threaten consequences, and negotiated peace agreements with Hitler despite his duplicity.
Through this, the simplest possible “proof” emerges: Fighting wars is sometimes necessary to stop genocidal fascists and save countless lives. Indeed, pacifist-thinking made WWII much deadlier than it otherwise would have been, and arguably even caused it.
What happens, though, when we extend the timeline to, say, 1933? If Hitler hadn’t gained dictatorial powers, would WWII have happened? Well, Hitler used an apparent terrorist attack on the German parliament to begin suspending rights and seizing control. Evidently, WWII was caused by people allowing their government to erode civil rights in the name of anti-terrorism initiatives.
Hold on, let’s go back to 1919. Hawks outmuscled doves and, instead of compromising, the allies imposed crushing conditions on WWI’s losers. This plunged Germany into economic chaos and social unrest that predictably led to fascism and expansionism. WWII was clearly caused by people who wouldn’t peacefully conciliate with their enemies.
That’s merely expanding the timeline. Now let’s augment the events in our purview and see what it all proves.
Germany had already publicly passed legislation persecuting Jews and opened concentration camps by 1933. In 1936, we all had fun together at the Olympics (except those Jews and other people in the well-known concentration camps, I guess.) In 1938, an international conference was convened to deal with the sudden increase in terrified Jews desperately fleeing Germany. Canada and the U.S. were amongst 31 of 32 countries that refused to accept them. (The U.S. even famously sent a ship of Jewish refugees back in 1939.)
In 1941, two years after fighting began, the U.S. was still declaring “neutrality“, and GM, Ford, IBM and North American oil companies were equipping and fuelling German armed forces. (See also U.S. National Archives, CorpWatch and here.)
Not coincidentally, from the 1890s to 1930s, the North American-birthed eugenics movement “dedicated to the enrichment of the human species by regulating heredity” included some of our scientists, titans of industry, politicians, media and journal editors, leaders of churches and professional medical and psychiatric associations, and public health officials. Some prominent feminists, like Nellie McClung and Helen MacMurchy, were eugenicists. McClung helped usher in Alberta’s and BC’s forced sterilization laws for “defectives” and the “simple-minded”. Initially focused on the mentally ill, eugenics expanded to attack the “disease” of “racial deterioration” springing from the loins of vagrants, criminals, blacks and immigrants–including Jews.
America’s Rockefeller Institute founded and heavily funded German gene-science institutions. Their influence was particularly profound on one young disciple, Adolf Hitler. He called one American eugenics book his “bible”, and exuded in Mein Kampf that these “modern medical discoveries” would guide forging the Aryan Nation. Nobel Prize-winning Rockefeller Institute physician Alexis Carrel provided methodical instructions, writing from America in his 1935 bestseller that the genetically inferior “should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasic institutions supplied with proper gases“.
So what does all this prove?
Respected pillars of Canadian and American society promoted and fuelled genocidal fascism, and caused WWII.
Why isn’t this part of what we remind ourselves on Remembrance Day?
Of course, there’s more. Maximally stretching timelines and expanding purviews, we see humans have constantly fabricated good reasons to slaughter each other, yet have made no overall reduction in the suffering, fascism or war in the world. But really, history can rarely be reduced to simple summaries, and that’s the real point I’m trying to prove. Cultural developments are vast, complex webs of interactions. Like species in ecosystems, we’re all involved and implicated in everything. Above any limited timeline or superficial analysis, it’s this complexity which we most need to recognize, respect and learn from.
If everyone merely continues to teach children that certain wars clearly demonstrate “our” righteousness, many more will die because of that mistake.
Author’s note: I also wish to credit the terrific book, Mad in America–Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill by Robert Whitaker, for providing insightful discussion and many primary sources about the U.S. and German eugenics movement.