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Film maker Andrew Wall

 
PAPER NAZIS DOCUMENTARY EXAMINES 1930s ANTI-SEMITISM IN WINNIPEG

By Sharon Chisvin, June 23, 2010

Nostalgia for youthful summers spent at Victoria Beach has led local film maker Andrew Wall to make a fascinating documentary about an unpleasant and largely forgotten chapter in Winnipeg history. Wall’s film, The Paper Nazis, explores the rise and ultimate failure of two extremist groups in Winnipeg in the 1930s, the Nazi movement and the Canadian Nationalist Party. The film, being made at Farpoint Films where Wall is a director/editor, will be available on MTS Winnipeg on Demand in the fall, and will also enjoy a more formal launch at a date to be announced. 

It was while researching the history of Victoria Beach for a short film that Wall confirmed a rumour that he had always heard – that the resort area had overtly discriminated against Jews in the first half of the 20th century.

“There were a few ugly rumours I had heard about and I thought I could investigate it,” he recalls. “What I thought was just myth led me to stumbling upon the fact that fascists and Nazis were in Winnipeg during the 30s. It sparked me into investigating further.”

In the course of this investigation, Wall pieced together the events and attitudes that led to the emergence of these groups, the general response they received from Winnipeg citizenry, and the reasons why they ultimately failed. He interviewed local academics and historians about the period in question, and also spoke with a few individuals who remembered the era, among them former MLA Saul Cherniack.

Specifically, Wall learned that Canadian Nationalist Party founder William Whittaker propagated virulent anti-communist and anti-Jewish rhetoric while his Party members gleefully marched up and down Winnipeg’s streets in Nazi storm trooper style uniforms. He learned also that by the late 30s, Winnipeg-based German diplomats had managed to establish a significant local Nazi movement in the city and disseminated Nazi propaganda at rallies attended by thousands of citizens, many of them from the local German community.

On a personal level, among the most disturbing information that Wall uncovered was evidence that some Mennonites had been involved in these movements. This included his great grandfather who, Wall was surprised to learn, was a shareholder for a few years in the Deutsche Zeitung für Canada pro-Nazi newspaper published in Winnipeg by fellow Mennonite Hermann H. Neufeld.

Wall’s great grandfather had lost everything when he fled persecution in the Soviet Union and, Wall surmises, that like many other Mennonites and Eastern European immigrants he may have been briefly attracted to Nazism’s anti-communist message.

“By no means was the Mennonite community a bunch of Nazis,” Wall says. “It was a small part of the Mennonite community, specifically the ones who had fled Stalin, that were drawn to these two extremist groups.”

While Wall does not shy away from discussing Mennonite involvement in his documentary, he emphasizes that his film focuses mainly on the issue of entrenched anti-Semitism. He poses two main questions in the film, he explains. The first is how could such blatantly anti-Semitic groups operate so openly in Winnipeg and in Canada, and the second is why has this piece of history been so little discussed and so readily forgotten. 

“It seems that those who were involved as well as the people who were victimized didn't want it remembered,” Wall says. Also, he adds, in addition to the fact that the story is embarrassing for revealing such an ugly truth about Canadian society, it also was ultimately eclipsed by the larger story of the Second World War.

Given the scale, the impact and the human cost of the Second World War, this is understandable. Nonetheless, as Wall insists, “there is a danger in forgetting the darker chapters in our community and nation’s history.”

“Many of the anti-Semitic and racial ideas that were core to Nazi ideology were right here in Canada to a lesser degree,” he says. Victoria Beach, where he spent many idyllic summers, is a good example of that.

 
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