I've been in the grip of Philip Kerr's "Berlin Noir" trilogy for the past few weeks. For those not familiar with his Bernie Gunther crime novels, they're set in pre- and post-war Germany, kind of like siccing Mike Hammer among the Nazis.
This prompted me to read a slim volume I picked it up at a book sale some months back. It's called "King's War," by journalist Brian Nolan, and the opening chapter chronicles the adventures of Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving prime minister, in the same Nazi Germany.
While King certainly doesn't stand as tall as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill nor Josef Stalin among leaders of the era, he could boast one thing they could not. King actually met Adolf Hitler face to face, and for more than just a quick grip and greet.
King's tête-à-tête with the Fuhrer is well-known to Canadian history buffs, but it's perhaps a revelation, perhaps a shocking one, to those who are not. King's meeting with Hitler, and his entire approach to politics, especially politics in a world sliding toward war, gets a fresh and deep look in a book out just this month by historian Allan Levine titled "William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny."
As the title suggests, King felt he was the instrument of otherworldly forces, in keeping with his extraordinarily bizarre private life. As one reviewer of Levine's book noted: "Canadians knew King was a little odd, but had no idea of the true flakiness of their prime minister's life. No one today who hasn't delved into King's massive diaries, which he kept for 57 years, can really appreciate how unutterably peculiar he was.
"If voters of the day had known, it's hard to imagine King would ever have served a single mandate as prime minister, never mind 22 years."
King would regularly attend séances around the "little table" at his gloomy house on Laurier Street in central Ottawa or at Kingsmere, his sprawling lakeside retreat, whose lawns were littered with "ruins" he had built from demolished churches.
A bachelor who had been wracked with guilt for frequenting prostitutes in his youth, King communicated beyond the grave with both his beloved mother and cherished Irish terrier Pat — he had three, all named Pat.
Historians agree King did not inspire warmth or personal loyalty from his colleagues or Canadians, in general, but they also concede, despite his kooky spiritualism, he was a brilliant political operator who rallied the country through the Depression and led it through the agony of a war to purge the world of Hitler and his Axis cohorts.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned encounter on June 29, 1937, between a Hitler at the height of his power over a mighty Germany and this bland little prime minister of a faraway country, so in awe of the prosperity of the Reich.
Hitler, in formal dress and white tie, laid on full honors for his visitor, who had travelled alone to Germany after having attended the coronation of George VI (of "The King's Speech" fame). They were supposed to meet for a half-hour but ended up talking, through an interpreter, for 75 minutes.
King, trying some small talk, told Hitler that he was born in the Ontario city of Berlin (which was changed to Kitchener in 1916 in the midst of the First World War.)
The two leaders, so similar in many of their personal proclivities, discussed the situation in Europe, with King making it clear, that in the event of war, Canada would rally to the side of Britain.
As Levine writes, King left the meeting "feeling contented, satisfied and optimistic that war still might be averted.
King's insight into Hitler is difficult to swallow today. Yet there is no denying the fact that in 1937 Hitler was hailed as a charismatic, if dangerous, visionary, somewhat as Mackenzie King portrayed him.
Just how maniacally dangerous Hitler was, King and the world were about to find out.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.