Today's discussion:

Nazis, Parliament, and the problem with forgetting our past

Forgetfulness of the past is more likely to produce conflict than remembering it is. Reimagining history as a Disney-like conflict between good and evil is more likely to lead you into error than facing up to it with all its unhappiness and failures. In this connection, defenders of a rules-based order, liberal democracy, and Western values need to remember that all such things are ultimately rooted in place and time.

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I was a teacher of history. I tried to impress upon the students that history was not dry bones but if we forgot our past, we would not be able to create a better future. It seems those who support the so called populists forget what the populists of the past did to millions of people. They exterminated anyone who opposed them, artists, scientists, educators, and others they used as scapegoats for the ills of the people, Jews, LGBTQ+ anyone who was not of their tribe. They whipped up the fear of the people and turned it into anger and the anger became violence. We are not far from that again and in some cases closer than we think.
It behooves political leaders of all stripes to search for better ways to solve problems. It is beyond time to stop the baiting and offering red meat to supporters. It is time to look to real Canadian values of tolerance and listening and engage in real dialogue. Perhaps this debacle with the invited guest to Parliament will be the catalyst for change. I hope the new speaker enforces rules and calls members of parliament to task when they wander into comments meant for sound bites and disparage their opposition. If we don’t learn from this, I have great fear for where we are going.

2nd October 2023 at 9:14 am
Michael F

What a load of absolute partisan horseshit. My father was pulled out of school and marched off to defend the homeland in 1945 as a terrified 18 year old kid. Does that make him a Nazi sympathizer or collaborator? There were millions of people in Europe who were simply just trying to survive a war.

Seventy years later he still broke down into tears and sobs when he recounted things he witnessed in the very limited time he spent in the navy guarding a dock in a small Danish town before the allies liberated it. He could have just as easily been forcibly drafted into the SS, it was a sheer stroke of good fortune he ended up there.

Only Germans were allowed into the regular army, foreign volunteers had to volunteer for the SS as it was a para-military organization. There were Nazi sympathizers all over Europe that volunteered in the thousands. There was an entire division created with Dutch volunteers, although it never was larger than a brigade in size. Did that automatically make them all Nazis? These were bleak times, some may have volunteered for many reasons, some were true believers.

Did any of the partisan media try to report Hunka’s experience with any background or nuance? How did he immigrant to Canada if he was actually implicated in any war crimes? Or was he more like the case of my own family?

2nd October 2023 at 8:44 am
Rob Tyrrell

To your point, my post is guilty of treating being a Nazi as an on/off switch. In Europe at the time there were many Nazi adjacent people for an endless number of reasons other than genuine support for the heinous ideology, regime, and its goals, some reasons practical, some banal, and some even a necessity for individual survival. Regardless of the nuance and context of this person’s experience and decisions, he was obviously a terrible choice to be honored in the Canadian parliament.

Is the error to include him evidence for a recent, collective, and dangerous forgetting of our past?

2nd October 2023 at 9:30 am
Michael F

I can’t make a judgment about this man because I don’t know his whole story. Had he solely been a rebel fighting communists he would be regaled in the west as a hero fighting for liberty amd freedom. Add in the complexities of WW2 and it becomes less black and white. The speaker should have obviously known better to invite this man to the chamber. Is it a national calamity? No.

2nd October 2023 at 9:38 am
Luke Smith

I think there’s a ton of nuance, as you’ve pointed out. The calamitous effects, though, are how this incident has handed a propaganda victory to Putin, harmed Ukraine, and embarrassed us internationally.

Canada as a whole “obviously should have known better” about a lot of things lately, and yet we keep stumbling on even these and proving how unserious we have become and how little we can be trusted.

2nd October 2023 at 10:56 am
Michael Bonner

Insisting that there is nuance to Hunka’s personal history proves my point. But, bearing in mind any real or potential nuance, I still believe that the Speaker could have found many other, more appropriate people to honour.

2nd October 2023 at 3:50 pm
Michael F

I don’t recall seeing a piece by you denouncing Poilievre for posing for a photo with the ‘Straight Pride’ bigot or skipping all Pride events. Let’s not forget that the Nazis sent people from marginalized communities to the camps as well. Or is outrage reserved for only select groups?

2nd October 2023 at 5:02 pm
Gregory Kett

You make some good and valid points. And yes, unless you were there you can only know what you hear and read. Where I do differ is in the statement “How did he immigrate to Canada if he was actually implicated in any war crimes?” Indeed – just how did that happen and also to the point, why was he not ‘found out’ then but he was now? Nonetheless, history should never be erased whether we like it or not.

2nd October 2023 at 2:19 pm
J Cowan

I agree,absolutely and your letter should be read out in full on Radio and television.

3rd October 2023 at 1:13 am

Again we see the Trudeau entourage finding a scapegoat for their mistakes and bad judgment. Surely anyone with any coherent thought hearing of a second world War veteran from the Ukraine fighting the Russians would have immediately recognized the Uniform

2nd October 2023 at 9:27 am
Rudyard Griffiths

As the former co-founder and executive director of the Dominion Institute I particularly enjoyed this passage.

“How did it ever seem like a good idea to forget our history? The clue is in that quotation from Pierre Berton above when he refers to having “fewer graves to tend.” His assumption is that a people without the burden of history will be happier and more virtuous than one that is rooted in the past. Absence of history would mean no national tragedies to mourn, nor any triumphs to vaunt over others, and therefore no conflict. People who are “stuck” in the past supposedly cause tension and strife, and they are afflicted by the memory of past violence and hereditary guilt. All old things are bad, and bad things are old. Islamic and Christian fundamentalists are accordingly called “mediaeval.” Experts often tell us these days that nostalgia is the root of fascism. And, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from 2014 onwards was denounced as an act of “19th-century” aggression”

2nd October 2023 at 7:24 am
Michael Bonner

Splendid. Thanks. I believe you were also the convenor and moderator of the debate between Ignatieff and Granatstein that I alluded to in the piece. There was once a video of it on YouTube, but I couldn’t find it this time round.

2nd October 2023 at 3:41 pm
Brian Smith

Poor old Pierre Berton is a bit of a straw man in this piece. It is undeniably true that Canada, being a much smaller country than the US, has fewer graves to tend. It cannot be true that Berton is implying that our war dead are of no significance to our country and its culture. His many books, most notably Vimy, directly refute that notion. Unfortunately, the thrust of Bonner’s argument is basically correct. Young Canadians’ knowledge of even modern world history is generally abysmal and it is fair in part to blame our schools (although having taught grade 8 Social Studies in Alberta I can point to at least some effort being made: Renaissance emerging from Medievalism through Crusades and Black Death, Age of Exploration and its effects on the Aztec and Japan. Pretty good, really). I’m rather enjoying the kerfuffle that the recognition of Hunka in Parliament has created. As usual, many are guilty of straw man arguments, and gross oversimplifications, but at least some writers are using the occasion to acknowledge how complex it all was in the mid-20th century and perhaps by extension at least some readers will recognize that things remain complicated.

2nd October 2023 at 9:28 am
Michael Bonner

Berton is not a straw man. His fictionalised account of Canadian neo-nationalism in the early 80s is just one example among many of an ahistorical attitude that arose after 1945 — an attitude which is now found everywhere throughout the West. Berton’s own works of history strike a different tone.

2nd October 2023 at 3:45 pm
Rob Tyrrell

The distillation (simplification) of history is an evitability. The shape of this history is myth (hopefully relevant fact based) but the form it takes is organic, that is, until some humans invariably attempt to shape it for various goals, of various virtue (perhaps straying into propaganda to subvert myths for power).

A thriving society needs to have shared myths, for good or ill, or it will decohere into component groups that have their myths, much more likely than not, leading to conflict. The nation-state has proven to be a pretty good model for thriving societies. Canada has proven to be a very good model for a thriving nation state, although our fortune-of-geography is not available to most other nation states.

Will the nation-state eventually give way to some larger and more powerful post-national entity? It seems likely. Our human communities have grown larger and larger with new technology and there is no reason to think that the nation-states of the last 300 years are the apex of this social evolution. Also, our global problems seem to require a more global organization to effectively address. 

In the meantime, Canada needs compelling, and hopefully fair and sober, national myths to endure as a prosperous nation-state.

Is the sad and shameless error of honoring a Nazi in our national parliament a symptom of our fading historical memory and fading myths of who we are? Or is it simply a hyper-partisan oversight while trying to capitalize on a sudden political opportunity?

Regardless, it seems to me that our myths of Canada are weakening, not evolving, and as such, Canada as-we-know-it is vulnerable.

2nd October 2023 at 8:05 am

The old soldier as introduced to the house of commons. every mp applauded him, without question, or thought. Have we elected that many whitless uneducated to govern our country???? This shallow talent pool is a threat to our country.

2nd October 2023 at 1:10 pm
Rob Tyrrell

Isn’t reasonable for almost every single MP, regardless of party, to trust that a person invited by the Speaker of the House to be honored deserves that honor?

In your imagined non-witless scenario, what should one or more MPs have done in the moment? A quick search on their smart phone? Interrupt the proceedings with whatever hint of the possible truth they might have found? Live broadcast their initial findings via social media?
What of those in the gallery, the public and journalists? Are they just as “witless”?

Society works on trust. Trust is based on context. Yes, it is entirely reasonable for MPs to stand and applaud in their formal chamber for whom they thought was someone with a past worthy of brief honor in light of President Zelensky’s visit.

This should be an embarrassing lesson to the House of Commons, and the country at large. The person primarily accountable resigned. Unfortunately, too many people, foreign and domestic, are eagerly and disingenuously engaged in making it more than it is.

2nd October 2023 at 3:09 pm
Gordon Divitt

Clearly Hunka should not have been lauded in the way he was and it’s clear that any halfway intelligent background check would have sent up enough red flags to make it problematic to tender an invitation even if there was no compelling evidence as to his criminal activities during WW2. Picking out the good guys in Poland and The Ukraine during the Nazi and Russian occupation with the back and fro off alliances and both country’s historical antipathy towards Jews probably means there’s more than enough dirt to be shared by citizens of both countries.

One of the, in my estimation, more difficult chapters in Canada’s history was its refusal to accept Jewish refugees while apparently having welcomed Germans with somewhat open arms and it’s definitely time to air all the (presumably) dirty laundry

2nd October 2023 at 4:54 pm
P. Tomlin

This started out an interesting discussion piece, but I stopped reading it after this statement: “We had an example on 22 September, when the Liberals invited to Parliament a man who had fought for a Nazi military unit during WW2.” Please stop politicizing this story and spreading disinformation! The guest in Parliament was invited by the Speaker, whose role as a nonpartisan adjudicator in the House of Commons is independent of the government. History is important, and an important part of that history is understanding how the Canadian Parliamentary system works. In this forum in particular, I should think facts would be of utmost importance.

2nd October 2023 at 4:43 pm
Graham W S Scott

This is an excellent example . There are too many others. The distortion of the Sir John A relationship with indigenous peoples, the controversy over Dundas Street, the objections to Lord Cornwallis and the image of pioneers as evil colonists when they were mostly in today’s terms refugees. ALL THESE DECISIONS WERE TAKEN WITHOUT PROPER HISTORICAL INPUT!
All deserve at least the honour of informed debate prior to judgement!

2nd October 2023 at 7:10 pm
Gregory Kett

George Santayana said something like ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ And yet, we seem hell-bent on ignoring, if not completely forgetting, anything that is more than a week or two ‘old’. So when it comes to the atrocities of the Nazis during WWII – and whether Mr. Hunka was a willing partner with the SS or just caught up in it all – we should not forget that he WAS involved. Being 97 should never be his ‘get out of jail free’ card. We’re not likely to ever know what the S of the H (Mr. Rota) knew or didn’t know before the ‘House’ gave Hunka that standing ovation and whether anyone else in the PM’s office or the PM himself knew anything but we do know that a bit of remembering or researching the past would have saved Mr. Rota’s job and the country a lot of embarrassment. As Canadians, we should do all we can to ensure we don’t forget the past and that we do learn from it.

2nd October 2023 at 2:13 pm
jim Cowan

Who was it pointed out that he was a Nazi ?

3rd October 2023 at 1:30 am
J Cowan

I can’t but think that this was set up by someone to damage the PM.

3rd October 2023 at 1:07 am