What’s In a Name? Berlin to Kitchener
Those who live in, or have the chance
to visit, Kitchener, Ontario will be very familiar with the area’s rich German culture and heritage.
The original settlers of the region were of an agrarian, pacificist Mennonite background. By the
eve of the First World War, Berlin, Ontario -- dubbed “the German Capital of Canada” -- boasted
myriad German-language societies, German language instruction in schools, and a German-language
newspaper. As the Great War continued, the loyalty of German-Canadians became more and more
suspect. In August 1914, the bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm, proudly displayed in Victoria
Park, was removed and thrown into the lake. Open mistrust of enemy aliens in the city led to
the suspension of German-language instruction in schools.
In 1916, the Berlin Board of Trade made a
suggestion that polarized the citizens of the city. The Board of Trade argued that the name Berlin
hurt business and gave the impression that its citizens were sympathizers of the enemy cause in
Europe. It was suggested that the act of changing the name of the city would be a tangible symbol
of its citizens’ patriotism and would boost the city’s profile across the Dominion. Many Berliners
supported maintaining the name of the city, as it reflected a proud tradition of growth
and prosperity for German, and non-German, Canadians alike. Those citizens who supported the
status quo were immediately perceived, by those who wanted change, as being unpatriotic and
sympathizers with the enemy. Violence, riots and intimidation, often instigated by
imperialistic members of the 118th Battalion, were not uncommon in the months leading up to
the May 1916 referendum on the issue.
A majority of Berliners did chose to opt for
a new name and by early summer the search for a new city moniker was on.
A special committee was set-up by the city council with the express purpose to suggest
possible names. On September 1, 1916, the name of Kitchener was officially adopted after the late
Horatio Kitchener was appointed Secretary for
War by the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, at the beginning of the Great War. His image,
beckoning recruits with an outward stare and finger pointed, was immortalized on Alfred Leete’s
dramatic poster “Britons Want You!” Kitchener had drowned earlier in 1916, when the ship he was
travelling on hit a mine near the Orkney Islands. It would be next to impossible for citizens of
the new Kitchener to be considered unpatriotic.
Nonetheless, some Canadians did not readily
adopt the new name for Berlin. The Post Office had to issue memoranda, reminding
correspondents that there was no city in Ontario named Berlin. The issue was so contentious that
several Canadian municipalities petitioned the Dominion Government to force those who did
not comply to use the name Kitchener. Although ludicrous to modern eyes, the whole issue of a name
for Berlin highlights the effects that fear, hatred and nationalism can have upon a society in
the face of war.
National Archives of Canada
MG 30 C 54