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100 years after a proud and loyal community was bullied into changing its name, John Allemang finds signs of a Germanic revival.

Waterloo Historical Society Collection, Grace Schmidt Room, Kitchener Public Library

One hundred years ago, a thriving Canadian city disappeared from the map.

As of Sept. 1, 1916, the southwestern Ontario community of Berlin ceased to be. On a grim day in the middle of a war fought to assert Canada's best values, bullies and xenophobes won a battle for control of our national identity. A city of 19,000 people rooted in its century-old Germanic heritage was forced to deny its own existence, succumbing to the acts of intimidation and accusations of disloyalty perpetrated by small-minded patriots who resisted the truth that Canada could be other than anglo.

The historical reality of Berlin was wiped away from memory, and the city we call Kitchener came into being. This wasn't just a simple, innocent adjustment of municipal nomenclature like York turning into Toronto or Bytown becoming Ottawa. It was a contrived and calculated switch that served the propaganda needs of Canada's imperialist leaders: A subversive reference to the capital of the hated Hun could be annihilated from the pristine Ontario landscape and replaced with a tribute to Britain's recently deceased Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

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A century later, when it is not all that clear that Canadians have much appetite for remembering the finer details of the so-called Great War, a name-change on an Ontario map may seem like little more than a colonial-era fait accompli. Internecine hatred on the home front just doesn't fit the well-meaning version of Canada's war that history's image-builders have manufactured – all those belated feel-good stories of a courageous young nation coming of age and forging its independence through the sweat and sacrifice of Vimy.

But in a country of immigrants and refugees where arguments about loyalty are noisier and more venomous than ever, it's worth remembering that these fights over national identity have been fought before – and lost by those who wrongly believed their Canada to be an open and tolerant and welcoming place.

That's certainly what Canada's Berlin was meant to be in the beginning. Long before this country came into official existence, the Berlin area was a haven for immigrants escaping the ancient enmities and disruptive compulsions of narrow-minded nationalism. The earliest settlers in the late 1700s were German-speaking Swiss Mennonites, a pacifist and much-persecuted Christian group who moved north from Pennsylvania seeking cheaper farmland, religious tolerance under the generally hands-off British rulers and peaceful relief from the intrusive government control they'd experienced in the wake of the American Revolution.

The crossroads that marked the centre of their agrarian settlements was named Berlin in 1833 – with no inkling of how this oblique reference to a Prussian city would be heard amid the hatreds of 1916. Germany didn't become a united country until 1871, well after German-speakers fleeing Europe's endless conflicts and prolonged economic uncertainty were welcomed into an industrializing Ontario town where they could flourish in their native language and put their artisan skills to use.

Berlin was definitely a place apart – an urban enclave in English Canada where German was the first language and Germanic traditions in religion, culture and rib-sticking cuisine could flourish. German pride abounded, based on the shared values of hard work, entrepreneurship, determination and frugality that Berliners believed were an essential part of their heritage but were just as much the basic necessities of any tight-knit and ambitious immigrant community.

The important thing to know about this German Ontario city was that it never realized its name could be a threat – that Berliners could be considered anything but loyal.

"Their identity was entirely Canadian and local," says Ken McLaughlin, professor emeritus of history at the University of Waterloo. "We assume now that they were a German community, but the vast majority of people living in Berlin came from families who were here before Confederation. They were in no way a part of the strong German nationalistic mood that begins after Otto von Bismarck unites Germany in 1871. So this community never shared in the development of that militaristic German identity."

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Few Berliners would have foreseen Germany as Canada's enemy, or thought their loyalty to the Crown could ever be questioned. Britain's (and Canada's) Royal Family was thoroughly Teutonic, after all, so much so that a year after Berlin's forced submission, King George V was similarly compelled to change his family's name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the politically correct Windsor. In that genetically entangled way of Europe's 19th-century dynasties, Kaiser Wilhelm I was closely related to Queen Victoria – his son married her daughter, producing Kaiser Wilhem II, Germany's leader in the First World War – and their commemorative busts kept each other company in Berlin's ornamental Victoria Park. When royal visitors and the successive British nobles who served as Canada's governor-general visited Berlin, they invariably spoke German and, like rock stars doing a shout-out to the locals, lavished praise on the city's devotion to its hard-working Germanic heritage.

In return, community leaders in Berlin made it clear they were loyal British subjects. A few years before the war, at a self-congratulatory celebration of Made in Berlin products (furniture, leather goods, footwear, shirts, buttons, sausages, etc.), the Union Jack dominated the proceedings and one of the improbable highlights was a tribute to "our hero" Admiral Horatio Nelson and his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, a scene that only has meaning where the sense of Britishness is overwhelming.

And then Berlin, Ont., became the enemy. It's hard to think of a modern comparison that would fit their dilemma when war broke out – imagine an entire city of Westernized third- and fourth-generation Iraqi-Canadians suddenly targeted as Islamic State sympathizers. But in 1914, this wasn't just an issue of mean-spirited ideological finger-pointing. The declaration of war marked the beginning of vicious, violent antagonism on an international scale, and Berliners became collateral damage through a simple seismic shift of global alliances. The vaunted Made in Berlin brand was transformed into a liability, and the city's citizens were suddenly reviled by the propaganda machine as if they were collaborators with the baby-killing Huns.

"Before the war, most people in Ontario probably didn't give the German community a second thought," says Mark Humphries, professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University. "But it's important to remember that Canada was a society in transition – the country had absorbed massive numbers of immigrants between 1896 and the First World War, proportionately more than at any other time in our history. So there were these latent fears about foreigners who don't speak English and people who aren't white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It becomes very easy to stoke these racist, nativist fires and convince people there really is a threat. War propaganda is top-down driven, but it's effective because it re-enforces tendencies that already exist."

A local German-language newspaper consoled Berlin's citizens in the war's first days: "Be silent, bear this difficult time with dignity, and show that you are true Germans grateful to the country that accommodated you."

If only. They were Germans and Canadians and British subjects, as well as being ordinary working people caught up in the business of being proud Berliners, whatever that now meant. But such human intricacies were no match for war's simplistic us-and-them dichotomy. It proved impossible to wait out the conflict with dignity when the true-blue patriots went on the attack. An undisciplined force of soldiers based in Berlin acted like an occupying army, egged on by anglo politicians who saw an opportunity to displace the local German elite, easily forgiven by their own military leaders who regarded the nauseating sounds of German as sufficient grounds for provocation. The 118th Battalion insulted local men as cowards and traitors, used heavy-handed recruiting tactics that amounted to assault and confinement, vandalized German stores and shops, ransacked Berlin's ethnic clubs and beat up a Lutheran minister who voiced his objections to the war. And in a calculated insult that made the city's heritage simply disappear, they stole the iconic bust of Kaiser Wilhelm – it has never been found, and an empty column in Victoria Park now testifies to its loss.

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Such acts of nullification are all about power. History, as you know it, no longer exists. There is nothing you can do and no one will help you. We are above the law and you are beneath it. Such were the new rules of loud-mouthed patriotism, which remain all too familiar.

Berlin's leaders were in a quandary. A movement was building across the country to boycott the Made in Berlin brand. What had previously defined the small city's outsized success was now seen as its fatal flaw. Rational people knew there was no connection between the 1833 naming of an Ontario crossroads and an imperial conflict in the 20th century, but these were not rational times. The prejudice against the name Berlin was justification enough for the city's worried power-brokers, and the proposal for a name-change took hold.

A referendum was held on May 19, 1916, amid the widespread threats and intimidation that had become a part of daily life, on whether the city's name should be replaced. With 3,057 ballots cast, it passed by only 81 votes. At this point, the patriotic exercise in rewriting history turns oddly comic and slightly pathetic. Because so much local heritage had been rendered invisible by the blind prejudice of war, the committee tasked with finding a new name had to look far afield, and the strain of their search was all too clear. Among the worst proposals on the hilarious long-list: Hydro, Homeland, Khaki, Imperial City, Amity, Industria, Cosmos, Dawn, Emblem, Newborn, Paragon, Majesty, Cameo, Uranus, Imperator, Colonia, Mechano and Confidence.

A short list was somehow pulled together. The best the selectors could come up with was Adanac, Benton, Brock, Corona, Keowana – and Kitchener! In the middle of the process to expunge Berlin's name, the Empire's leading warlord (familiar from his mustachioed, finger-pointing recruiting poster) had perished along with 650 other passengers after his ship hit a German mine near Scotland's rugged Orkney Islands.

When the votes were counted on June 28, Kitchener won the day, narrowly defeating Brock but garnering only 346 votes out of 729 unspoilt ballots. Some 5,000 people (exclusively male ratepayers) were eligible to vote, but many Berliners stayed home, seeing no reason to collaborate in an act of self-denial, and others had their rights challenged at the polls.

From the perspective of 2016, Kitchener was a poor choice: The late Field Marshal would now be condemned as a murderous proponent of British imperialism, particularly for his role in establishing concentration camps during the Boer War and killing thousands of displaced civilians through starvation and neglect.

Berlin, on the other hand, would be a very attractive option in 2016. There is a small Berlin revival going on in Kitchener – witness the opening of The Berlin restaurant by Jonathan Gushue and Ryan Lloyd-Craig, a century after the Great War made the name anathema, in a once-neglected downtown neighbourhood that has fast become a high-tech hub. The surviving brick-and-beam factories from the glory days of the city that delighted in calling itself Busy Berlin are now coveted by start-up entrepreneurs who feel a kindred connection with the work ethic of the old Germanic manufacturers (and perhaps share their taste for sauerkraut, spaetzle and heavily smoked summer sausage).

Michael Litt, chief executive officer of the Vidyard software company and a descendant of German immigrants, was forbidden from spending time in Kitchener's decaying downtown as a child in the 1990s. So it delights him that his work has helped restore some of urban Berlin's lost lustre.

"It's kind of cool," he says, "that 100 years ago Berlin was a booming city of pure industry and now, after going through this huge trough of decline, it's rising back to its former glory. It feels like we're going through the next industrial revolution – boots and shirts and shoes in 1916, now technology."

But if Kitchener is beginning to reclaim a lost Berlin identity, the tighter connection with history remains elusive. Too much has changed in the century since 1916 and too much has been forgotten – often deliberately by the old Berliners themselves, who saw the wisdom of letting even the bitterest bygones be bygones after efforts to undo the name-change met with fierce resistance.

Charges of disloyalty persisted, and white-on-white racism against German-Canadians continued even after the war, when German immigration was forbidden. Kitchener's council tried to reopen the name-change issue in December, 1919, but the region's war veterans would have none of it. Supporters of the vote were attacked. The offices of a pro-Berlin newspaper were trashed. The city's mayor was beaten up.

Faced with this perpetual guilt-by-blood, the ex-Berliners craftily renovated their image. Instead of continuing to assert the mainstream, entrepreneurial Germanness that had made their city great, they reconnected with tales of the gentler Mennonite settlers to devise a new founding myth for Kitchener – it became a city created and sustained by the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, a pioneer people who bravely trekked north through myriad dangers in their Conestoga wagons to open up the Ontario heartland. Best of all, there was no need to reference the wars of Europe at all – this became a New World epic quest, freed from the shackles of a more complicated past.

There was just enough truth in this romanticized account to make it believable, but what was conveniently omitted amounted to a complete denial of urban Berlin's true history. Kitchener was turned into a sentimental adjunct of Mennonite country, where authenticity and purity were rural and peaceful and forever unaffected by the modernizing ways of an imperfect world. It was as if the Great War had never happened.

"It's a pragmatic way of moving on," says Geoffrey Hayes, professor of history at the University of Waterloo. "On the one hand, there is a great deal of forgetfulness. But then, most enduringly, you get this marvellously imagined community – a kind of German that is most acceptable."

And then somehow, a generation later, in the wake of a mass migration of German-speaking people displaced by the boundary shifts and animosities of the Second World War, Oktoberfest was added to the mix – lederhosen and dancing and too much beer and accordion music all revealing the happy, welcoming, tourist-friendly side of a Germanic people immune to history's dark side. Don't even try to connect tankards of lager and oom-pah-pah music to the old Mennonite traditions – divorced from the awkwardness of war and politics, the all-pleasing Kitchener narrative has completely lost coherence at this point.

But still, in the end, it works. Maybe this constant push and pull, these forays into harmless alternative identities, are all a part of a city's greater larger history. Playing on the Oktoberfest connection, the tech sector in Kitchener now hosts an annual Techtoberfest – which, with its aura of sausage-and-sauerkraut gemütlichkeit, sounds a lot more inviting than the usual bland convention-centre meet-up.

Connecting with your roots is important to the tech world's creative class – perhaps because they inhabit a future-facing mental landscape where it's all too easy to come unmoored. In Kitchener's renovated brick-and-beam buildings, says Michael Litt, the idea of Berlin has developed a powerful appeal.

"There's a hearkening back and a renaissance that's starting to happen," he says. "Berlin and Germany to the next generation, people born in the 1990s, aren't tied to the terrible things that happened long ago. Berlin has become a destination to visit, and for the younger generation it's a cool, hip name for something interesting."

But Mr. Litt knows the older, deeper story. He lives in an vintage house next to Victoria Park, where the old antagonisms remain palpable. When he walks his dog at night, he can stand beside the column that once held the Kaiser's bust and immediately reconnect with an easily forgotten past.

"It was like a war, a social war," he says. "And it happened here, in this safe place."

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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