Berlin to Kitchener name change
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Through the latter half of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th, the City of Berlin, Ontario, Canada, was a bustling industrial centre celebrating its German heritage. However, when World War I started, that heritage became the focus of considerable enmity from non-German residents within the city and throughout Waterloo County.
The fact that most of the original settlers of Berlin were not directly German but were Mennonites from Pennsylvania did not help, as their refusal to join the war effort (because of their pacifism) only increased tensions. The slow pace of recruitment for the local 118 Battalion led to suspicions of disloyalty. A bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, set up in Victoria Park long before the war, was thrown into Victoria Lake (the main lake in the park), and then vanished forever, possibly melted down to produce guns.
In 1916, a movement began to change the name of the city. It did not have the support of the wider community. A contest was held to choose a new name and the results were ridiculed. When news hit that Britain's Minister of War, Lord Kitchener, was killed in action off the Orkney Islands, his name was put forward as a possible replacement, and the whole matter was put up to referendum.
The referendum itself did not give Berlin residents the option of maintaining the status quo, and anybody who spoke up against this process was viewed with suspicion. According to an article from the National Archives of Canada, "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."
Unable to oppose the change, the community stayed home. Only 892 people bothered to vote (Berlin's population at the time was over 15,000) and of those, just 346 were enough to change the name of the city to that of Kitchener. Following the referendum, a petition of 2,000 names was sent to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario to try to stop the process, but they were turned down.
The name change of the City of Berlin to the City of Kitchener was mirrored by similar anti-German name changes in Canada and the United States, from liberty steaks to liberty cabbage. Kitchener is one of the few names that stuck during that period of anti-German sentiment, however. When the city was building its new city hall early in the 1990s, there was a small movement to change the city's name back to Berlin, but most felt that too much history had passed, and that it was time to move on.
A similar trend existed in Australia, where dozens of "German sounding" towns had their names changed. The town of Genevra, California, whose original name was Berlin, got its present name under the same circumstances; however, at other locations in the US, more than twenty towns called " Berlin" or " New Berlin" retained their names through both World Wars.
There is a local conspiracy theory in Kitchener that states the 118th Battalion is still around, making behind-the-scenes decisions in City Hall that affect the day-to-day lives of area residents.
- Geoffrey Hayes, "From Berlin to the Trek of the Conestoga: A Revisionist Approach to Waterloo County's German Identity," Ontario History, Nov 1999, Vol. 91 Issue 2, pg 137.
- Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener (a summary of Berlin's history and more details on the forced name change)
- National Archive of Canada entry
- Other Proposed Names for Berlin, Ontario
- An Editorial Comparing the Name Change to Freedom Fries