September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. In the midst of the 1930s and Great Depression, political tensions in Europe grew strong enough for Canadians to feel the tremors. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had been in power in Germany since 1933 and European powers, still recovering from the devastation of the Great War only two decades earlier, were willing to do whatever they could to avoid the outbreak of another war. The murmurings of impending conflict in Europe heard by the ears of St. Catharines’ youth?
The 1939 addition of the St. Catharines Collegiate Institute’s Collegiensis Vox, which was published before the outbreak of the Second World War, reveals that St. Catharines high school students were very much aware of the threat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and used their yearbook magazine to voice their opinions on world politics and the possibility of war and conflict.
One outlet for students was literature. The Vox featured student pieces of poetry, short essays, and short fiction works. In the 1939 edition, student John Mantley, published two works about the current world affairs. His poem entitled “War Clouds” is a powerful piece about “once again” experiencing the horrors of war. His second piece “Education in a Totalitarian State” discusses the totalitarian desire to crush individualism, arguing that though there were flaws in the education system in Canada, it was a “utopia” compared to that in totalitarian states.
Senior Boy’s Oratorical Champion, Frank Keenan, won his title for his speech “In Defence of Mr. Chamberlain”. Following the signing of 1938 Munich Agreement between Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain received criticism for giving into Hitler’s demand of cession of the Sudetenland (part of then Czechoslavakia) to Germany. Chamberlain also signed a document with Hitler that he believed would solidify Anglo-German peace. As the title of his speech suggests, Keenan defended Chamberlain’s actions claiming: “His own country was not prepared to enter a death struggle. Mr. Chamberlain could not have acted in any other manner than he did.” Keenan’s speech reflected similar anxiety-induced debates that were being had in newspapers, on radios, around dining room tables and other spaces of conversation in St. Catharines, Canada and beyond. St. Catharines’ youth were not ignorant to world affairs and what the impact could be.
The 1939 Vox was published before the declaration of World War II, but it seems clear that students had considerable anxieties about the current state of world politics. Indeed, only a few short months later Canadians were heading back to Europe to fight in yet another world war where approximately 1.2 million Canadians and Newfoundlanders served, nearly 45,000 Canadians were killed, and 54,000 wounded.
Amanda Balyk was the summer 2019 Programming Assistant at the St. Catharines Museum and is currently completing her MA in History at Brock University. Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.