Berlin to Kitchener name change

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The referendum ballot for the name change from Berlin

The city of Kitchener, Ontario voted in May 1916 to change the name of the city from its original name, Berlin, primarily because of some anti-German sentiment during the First World War. 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 First World War created conflict among the citizens of Waterloo County. Not only were residents divided by ethnicity – German and British – but longstanding civic rivalries between Berlin (now Kitchener) and Galt (now Cambridge) increased the tension. The vote passed by only a slim margin.[1]

By late June, the final shortlist of new names were: Adanac, Brock, Benton, Corona, Keowana and Kitchener. Kitchener was a late addition to the shortlist of possible names, as it was added shortly after the death of Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a prominent figure in the British Empire's war effort, who had died June 5, 1916.[2]

While more than 15,000 people lived in the city at the time, 346 people voted for the name "Kitchener" on June 28, 1916, from approximately 5,000 eligible voters.[1] The city was officially renamed "Kitchener" on September 1, 1916.[3][2]

The Joseph Schneider Haus was built by one of the early settlers in Berlin, Ontario and still stands


Prior to the War of 1812, the township of Waterloo was predominantly settled by German speaking Mennonites from Pennsylvania.[4] German-speaking immigrants from Europe began arriving in Waterloo County during the 1820s, bringing with them their language, religion and cultural traditions. Berlin and Waterloo County soon became recognized throughout Canada for their Germanic heritage. These German immigrants became Berlin's industrial and political leaders, and created a German-Canadian society unlike any other found in Canada at the time. They established German public schools and German language churches. In a speech given by the Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, while visiting Berlin in May 1914, said: "It is of great interest to me that many of the citizens of Berlin are of German descent. I well know the admirable qualities – the thoroughness, the tenacity, and the loyalty of the great Teutonic Race, to which I am so closely related. I am sure that these inherited qualities will go far in the making of good Canadians and loyal citizens of the British Empire".[5]

The 1871 Canadian Census reveals that 73% of Berlin's 2,743 residents were of German ethnic origin and almost 30% had been born in Germany. Berlin at this time was a bilingual town with German being the dominant language spoken. More than one visitor commented on the necessity of speaking German in Berlin. These German-Canadians had strong ties to Europe, and on May 2, 1871 held a Friedensfest or peace festival to celebrate the victory of Germany over France in the Franco-Prussian War. More than 10,000 – mainly German – people attended the celebration. This was one of the earliest German festivals for which Waterloo County became known – Saengerfest, Kirmes, and Oktoberfest would soon follow.[5] Frequently unknown to some Kitchenerites now is that their German names actually came from Alsace-Lorraine in Eastern France which was ceded to Germany in 1871. It switched again in both world wars but has been part of France since 1945. Some roots of nearby Maryhill, Ontario, for example, lie in Soufflenheim and other parts of Alsace, France.[6][7]

Immigration from continental Germany slowed in the 1880s and 1890s. First and second-generation descendants now comprised most of the local German population, and while they were proud of their German roots, most considered themselves loyal British subjects. The 1911 Census indicates that of the 15,196 residents in Berlin, about 70% were identified as ethnic German but only 8.3% had been born in Germany. By the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Berlin and Waterloo County were still considered to be predominantly German by people across Canada. This would prove to have a profound impact on local citizens during the war years.[5]

An advertisement in the Berlin Record opposing the suggested renaming of the city

The fact that many 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 in August 1914 (the main lake in the park), and then vanished forever on February 15, 1916, after the 118th Battalion broke into the Concordia club, taking the statue with them.[3]

History professor Mark Humphries summarized the situation as:

Before the war, most people in Ontario probably didn't give the German community a second thought. But it's important to remember that Canada was a society in transition – the country had absorbed massive numbers of immigrants between 1896 and the First World War, proportionately more than at any other time in our history. So there were these latent fears about foreigners ... It becomes very easy to stoke these racist, nativist fires and convince people there really is a threat. War propaganda is top-down driven, but it's effective because it re-enforces tendencies that already exist.[8]

In 1916, a movement began to change the name of the city. Two groups formed in Berlin in 1916 – those in support of the name change and those opposed to it. The British League was in favour of changing the name Berlin and included city Councillors and members of the Berlin Board of Trade. Many manufacturers also supported the name change as they claimed it was difficult to sell goods labelled "Made in Berlin" during the war. Soldiers from the 118th Battalion championed the British League as a matter of patriotism. The Citizens' League was organized to promote the best interests of the community. This committee also included manufacturers and city Councillors but they felt that the name change was being pushed through for purely financial reasons. Members of the Citizens' League were highly critical of the methods used to bring about the name change.[5]

May 1916 referendum[edit]

A referendum was held in May 1916.[3]

On May 19, 1916 only 892 citizens out of about 5,000 eligible voters cast their votes. W. H. Breithaupt the following day lamented in a letter, "We had a citizens vote yesterday on the question of changing the name of our city, a name it has had for nearly a hundred years, and I regret to say that those who want to change won by a small majority. No new name is as yet selected.[9] A special committee was set-up by the city council with the express purpose to suggest possible names.

The "List of Suggestions of Names" recommended by the committee to city council.

A nationwide contest to choose a new name for the city was launched in May 1916. A $300 prize was offered for a new name. Names like "Bercana" (a mash-up of "Berlin" and "Canada") and "Hydro City", a nod to the city's connection to hydro-electric were offered.[2] Some of the proposed names, such as Huronto, Dunard, Renoma (which means famous in Esperanto), Agnoleo (an obscure Italian masculine name), prompted humorous newspaper stories around the continent.[1] Editorials in several Ontario newspapers outside Berlin were critical of the unusual names; one newspaper asserted that it seemed like someone had chosen letters from a hat at random. In the face of scrutiny, a committee of 99 people was created to come up with a shortlist to create the final 6 names that appeared on the ballot.[2]

Just weeks after the vote to change the name of the city from Berlin, on June 5, 1916, British war leader Lord Kitchener was killed when his battleship hit a German mine and sank off the coast of Scotland. Kitchener had been popular among the general public, but was a controversial military figure, due to his creation of deadly concentration camps during the Boer War. Kitchener's name was placed on the final list, leaving Brock, Kitchener, Adanac (Canada spelled backwards), Benton, Corona, Keowana as the city's choices.[1]

The vote to choose a new name was held on June 28, 1916. "Kitchener" received a total of 346 votes, and it was declared the winner.[1]

On September 1, 1916, the name of Kitchener was officially adopted.[3]

Berlin was not the only place in Canada to change its name during the First World War. In Saskatchewan, Kaiser became Peebles, Carlstadt was changed to Alderson, Alberta and Berlin Street in Calgary was renamed 2nd Avenue.[5] 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.[citation needed]

Kitchener is one of the few names that persisted beyond the period of anti-German sentiment. When the city was building its new city hall early in the 1990s, a small movement to change the city's name back to Berlin was unsuccessful.

Anti-German sentiment[edit]

A memorandum by the postmaster in Kitchener (top) requesting cessation of the use of "Berlin" in addressed letters, and a January 1917 petition from Kingston City Council to Robert Borden (bottom) objecting to the continued delivery of letters addressed using "Berlin".

There was a great deal of anti-German sentiment, not limited to local ruffians. Anti-German sentiment was widespread in the local 118th Battalion, for instance. Clashes between local citizens and soldiers in the 118th Battalion increased in early 1916.[5] There was a belief that the intimidation would not end after the name was changed.[3] Four incidents in particular increased tensions in the city.

  1. Rev. Tappert: On March 5, 1916, Reverend C. Reinhold Tappert was dragged from his home and beaten by a group of soldiers from the 118th Battalion. Tappert, an American, was the pastor at Berlin's St. Matthew's Lutheran Church. His numerous pro-German remarks – "I am not ashamed to confess that I love the land of my fathers – Germany" – caused a great uproar in the city. Two soldiers, Sergeant Major Granville Blood and Private Schaefer – received suspended sentences for the assault. Tappert resigned from St. Matthew's and returned to the United States. During the first few months of the war, services and activities at Lutheran churches in Waterloo County continued as they always had. However, as anti-German sentiment increased throughout Waterloo County, many of the churches decided to stop holding services in German.
  2. The Concordia Raid: The Condordia Singing Society was founded as a choral group in 1873 by German immigrants. The group was instrumental in organizing the Sangerfests or singing festivals for which Waterloo County had become famous in the late 1800s. In May 1915, members of the Concordia Club unanimously decided to close their doors for the duration of WWI. Stored in their hall was the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I which had been retrieved after being thrown in the lake at Victoria Park in August, 1914. On the evening of February 15, 1916, members of the 118th Battalion broke into the club, stole the bust and smashed many of the club's possessions. Furniture, German flags, sheet music and pictures were all destroyed in a large bonfire on the street. On February 16, 1916, members of the 118th stole the medallions from the base of the Peace Monument in Victoria Park, where the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I had previously been.
  3. Waterloo's Acadian Club: During the summer of 1916, the 118th soldiers were at it again. After a recruiting rally held in Waterloo's town square, about 30 members of the battalion broke into the Acadian Club on King Street in Waterloo. The Acadian was a social club for single and married men of German background. Once again, the club's possessions were damaged or destroyed. Club president, Norman Zick, seemed particularly shocked – by July 1916 roughly half of the club's members had already enlisted, many in the 118th. He also stated that the Club, since the beginning of the war has been very patriotic, always welcoming soldiers in their midst, and never giving cause for offense to anyone. Both raids on these local German clubs were investigated by military authorities. The clubs asked for damages – around $300 in each case – to be paid by the army. The court found that the Concordia club had not been closed as claimed and that conditions were allowed to prevail in Berlin that loyal British citizens found impossible to tolerate. It concluded that since both soldiers and civilians were equally responsible for damages, members of the 118th who participated in the raid would not be charged. The Acadian club did not receive much better news. The court found that the 118th soldiers were responsible for the damage but that the battalion should not pay in case further ill-feeling might be engendered. The bill for the damages was ultimately sent to the Department of Justice who replied that the claim could not be entertained. Similar claims in Calgary, Winnipeg and others were also not entertained, as the Minister of Justice viewed that there was no legal responsibility on the part of the Crown.
  4. The final incident occurred during the newly named Kitchener municipal election held on January 1, 1917. The majority of the newly elected council had been opposed to the city's name change and rumours spread that they would try to change "Kitchener" back to "Berlin". Soldiers from the 118th were in the city on Christmas leave during the election and did not take kindly to the rumour of reverting to the name Berlin. A riot broke out, led by Sergeant Major Blood. The Berlin News Record newspaper office was broken into and damaged. Two aldermen-elect – Nicholas Asmussen and H.M. Bowman – were beaten up. Members of the battalion were allegedly hunting for the new mayor, David Gross, throughout the city. Around 100 men from the 122nd Battalion stationed in Galt quickly arrived and stopped the riot. They escorted the 118th soldiers to the train station and remained on guard in Kitchener for the next few days as calm eventually returned.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e "June 28, 1916: Exactly 346 people voted for Berlin to be renamed Kitchener". 2016-06-27. Retrieved 2017-01-29.
  2. ^ a b c d "Kitchener mayor notes 100th year of name change". CBC News. 1 September 2016. Retrieved 2017-01-29.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Archived: Canada and the First World War". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on 2016-06-30. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  4. ^ Hayes, Geoffery (1999). "From Berlin to the Trek of the Conestoga: A Revisionist Approach to Waterloo County's German Identity" (PDF). Ontario History. 91 (2). Retrieved 25 July 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "City on Edge: Berlin Becomes Kitchener in 1916" Exhibit at Waterloo Region Museum, on display 2016.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Allemang, John (26 August 2016). "One hundred years after disappearing, Berlin (Ontario) shows signs of revival". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 19 March 2019. The declaration of war marked the beginning of vicious, violent antagonism on an international scale, and Berliners became collateral damage through a simple seismic shift of global alliances.
  9. ^ Hadden, Ian (2011-08-23). "Ian Hadden's Family History: The Town of Berlin Becomes Kitchener". Retrieved 2017-01-29.

Further reading[edit]