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Rare photos from ‘If Day’ — the time Winnipeg staged a full-scale Nazi invasion of itself

Rare photos from ‘If Day’  — the time Winnipeg staged a full-scale Nazi invasion of itself
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This week marks the anniversary of “If Day,” the famous 1942 event in which Winnipeggers staged a full-scale Nazi invasion of their city.

It was all a publicity stunt to raise money for war bonds. Plenty of North American cities would stage miniature “invasions” throughout the war, but the people of wartime Winnipeg took the task very, very seriously.

Below, rare photos from one of the most unsettling mass demonstrations ever carried out by a Canadian city.

If Day kicked off on Feb. 19, 1942 with a mock battle involving more than 3,500 Canadian troops and reservists, making it the largest military mobilization yet seen in the province. Even actual prairie wars, such as the 1885 North-West Rebellion, hadn’t been nearly this elaborate. The ultimate result was that, to average Winnipeggers, If Day would have looked remarkably similar to how European civilians experienced real-life Nazi takeovers: Smoke and sounds of gunfire in the city’s outskirts, the sight of routed forces retreating and, finally, lines of enemy troops marching into the downtown. Parts of the city were even subject to blackouts as a protection against air raids. Meanwhile, local radio stations broadcast updates from the fighting until, just after the 9:30 a.m. surrender, radios began echoing with German orders. In the above photo, Canadian forces are seen in the opening stages of the city’s doomed defence.

 

The “Nazis” were all volunteers from the Young Men’s Section of the Board of Trade, and were dressed in uniforms shipped over “from Hollywood.” The Canadian Armed Forces then armed them with rifles and armoured personnel carriers, which they used to conduct a victory parade down Portage Avenue, which was swiftly renamed Adolfhitlerstrasse. Here, a Nazi patrol has stopped a transit bus, and troops are searching riders and demanding their identification papers. News accounts asserted that this wasn’t just polite questioning, they were “rough” searches. It’s scenes like these that set If Day apart from any other similar stunt in Canadian history. This wasn’t just a few swastika flags being marched through downtown; civilians were quite literally being harassed and verbally abused by fake Nazis.

 

The first action of the invading Nazi troops was to immediately arrest the Manitoba premier (pictured above), his cabinet and senior city officials. Most press photographs from If Day consist of glum-faced Manitoba leadership being led to uncertain fates. “Premier Bracken and his ministers offered full cooperation to the army of occupation,” read a notice issued by the invaders. One detail overlooked by the planners of If Day was that the light Nazi uniforms they had acquired were not at all suited to the conditions of Winnipeg in February. As a result, National Socialist oppression had to be dealt out to Manitobans by young men on the brink of hypothermia. Incidentally, this was at the precise time that actual Nazis were discovering the exact same problem on the Russian front. Confident that the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union would be wrapped up in a matter of weeks, Nazi leadership had neglected to provide their troops with winter uniforms.

 

This is a mock notice circulated to Winnipeggers telling them to surrender their firearms. Winnipeg was renamed Himmlerstadt after Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and one of the principle architects of the Holocaust. After local authorities had been jailed, the Nazi invaders then turned to suppression of civic life. Churches were shuttered, schools were censored and a book burning was staged outside the city’s Carnegie Library. The mock invasion appears to have been planned with the assistance of Arthur Klieforth, a U.S. consular official who was stationed in Germany until well after the conquest of western Europe. In an interview with the Winnipeg Tribune, Klieforth said that occupied Manitoba would soon be slipping into starvation and cold, with citizens forced to surrender their furs and grain to the Wehrmacht. Manitoba, like much of the prairies, had a substantial German population and many people in Germany could count a Winnipeg address in their past. According to Klieforth, these one-time visitors would all be shipped back to Canada to serve as Manitoba’s new Nazi masters.

 

After hoisting the Nazi flag over Lower Fort Garry, the city’s historic heart, the invading Nazis conducted an official inspection before fanning out to consolidate their hold on the city. Only three years before If Day, Winnipeg had hosted an honest-to-goodness real Nazi rally. In January 1939, only a few months before Canada would be drawn in to the Second World War, five hundred Winnipeggers gathered for a party hosted by the local German consulate. There were speeches, Nazi salutes, the singing of Nazi songs by Mennonite choirs, all of it framed by swastika flags and portraits of Adolf Hitler. Hating Nazis was a much more controversial topic in 1942 than it is now. The stated purpose of the stunt was to raise money for war bonds, but it was also strongly motivated by the need to convince Canadians that Nazism truly was an ideology worth fighting. If the $65 million in province-wide war bond sales was any indication (roughly one billion dollars in 2019 terms), Manitobans took the hint.

 

Soldiers pull down the Union Jack in order to hoist the Nazi swastika. In hindsight, a Nazi seizure of Canada seems a bit overwrought. Even in their wildest ambitions Nazi Germany had no direct designs on North America, and a cross-ocean invasion of the continent was all but impossible. By sheer coincidence, however, If Day ended up coinciding with an actual Axis attack on one of Canada’s Commonwealth allies. On February 19, 242 Japanese aircraft staged a bombing raid on Darwin, Australia, sparking invasion fears throughout Australia. Also on If Day, two Winnipeg families received word that their boys, Albert Pryor and James Condie, had been killed when their Canadian corvette was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. Canada was firmly on the losing side of the Second World War in 1942, and millions would still have to die before it was brought to an end. This would include many of those caught up in If Day, with the University of Manitoba alone losing 225 alumni before the German surrender.

 

This is the front page of Das Winnipegger Lugenblatt of a mock newspaper published on If Day by the Winnipeg Tribune. Roughly translating to “The Winnipeg Lie Newspaper,” it’s packed with German propaganda. “Everywhere the forces of the great and valiant Nazi army are bringing the New Order to the Provinz of the Greater Germany,” read a glowing editorial. Only at the rear of Das Winnipegger Lugenblatt does the paper get serious with a series of editorials by local expats outlining what the Nazis had done to their home countries: Starvation in Greece, deadly bombings in Holland, looting in Belgium and the closure of Czech universities. One of the most compelling came from Magnus Talgoy, editor of the Norwegian Weekly News. Norway was one of the European countries most similar to Canada with its vast icy landscapes and strong democratic traditions. Talgoy framed Norwegians as having an almost naïve faith in the value of truth and honesty. After Norway was conquered with relative ease by German forces in 1940, Talgoy wrote that one of their most immediate losses was “faith in the goodness of men.”

 

By the end of If Day, squads of jack-booted Nazis had taken to harassing the local populace. A Winnipeg Tribune newsboy was accosted and his papers slapped out of his hand. Here, Nazi officers stomp into a Winnipeg restaurant to arrogantly harass the staff and force out existing diners. Ironically, If Day would end up showing a relatively sanitized version of what Nazis actually did to captured cities. The year 1942 would end up being the single deadliest year of the Holocaust, with Nazi death squads using mass shootings to obliterate whole communities in Ukraine, Poland and other captured territory in Eastern Europe. Chillingly, many of those cities would occupy landscapes remarkably similar to southern Manitoba. For Winnipeggers on If Day, Nazi domination was martial law and arbitrary arrests. Nobody seemed to know that actual Nazis would have liquidated the city’s substantial Jewish population and begun executing anyone with the slightest subversive leanings.

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