Gerhard P. Bassler. Escape Hatch: Newfoundland’s Quest for German Industry and Immigration, 1950-1970. (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2017)
By Patrick Mannion
In Escape Hatch, Gerhard Bassler (Professor Emeritus of history, Memorial University of Newfoundland) provides a nuanced, transnational analysis of Newfoundland Premier Joseph R. Smallwood’s New Industries Program of the early-1950s. Following Confederation with Canada in 1949, the economy of rural Newfoundland remained almost entirely dependent on the cod fishery, where wages were far less than those available to labourers in mainland Canada. The new province was therefore faced with the threat of a mass rural exodus to the west. To combat this, Smallwood’s administration devised a policy of unprecedented economic diversification and industrialization which became known as the New Industries Program. Owing to circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the expertise and personal connections of Smallwood’s Director of Economic Development, former Latvian finance minister Alfred A. Valdmanis, much of the investment, leadership, equipment, and skilled labour involved in the New Industries Program came from Germany. Fifteen European-run, land-based manufacturing enterprises were established, producing a diverse range of goods – from rubber boots and fine leather purses to car batteries. Although there were some exceptions, the New Industries Program is generally considered a failure. Few of the companies ever turned a profit, and most had ceased to exist by the 1960s.
The product of decades of research, Bassler’s book provides a superbly-detailed examination of Smallwood’s New Industries Program. Ongoing economic problems in Central Europe, coupled with an intense fear of expanding communism, made North America an attractive option for German industrialists. Desperate for industry and investment, Newfoundland offered them generous terms before other provinces or states were willing to court German business; an “escape hatch” from the postwar situation. Contrary to the claims of some post-Confederation historians, the failure of the New Industries Program owed as much to an absence of infrastructure in rural Newfoundland (a lack of “usable roads, an efficient railway, a regular postal service, dial phones, and cheap, sufficient electrical power”) than to poor management and corruption (226-227). Furthermore, Bassler argues that the Program brought tangible, long-term benefits to Newfoundland. Close to a thousand immigrants arrived from Germany, Austria, and Latvia; mostly skilled workers. Many remained in the province and played a key role in improving and modernizing local infrastructure in the later 1950s and 1960s. Rather than a dismal, corrupt failure, the New Industries Program “marked an important watershed in Newfoundland’s transition from a pre-industrial, fishing-oriented, and monocultural former British dominion towards a modern, urbanized, and multicultural Canadian province” (229).
Escape Hatch is divided into three sections. The first examines the overall contexts, both in Newfoundland and Europe, in which the Program emerged. Bassler is particularly adept at reconstructing the individual and business networks that led to the expansion of German enterprises into Newfoundland. The second part examines seventeen of these “New Industries” individually, chronicling their establishment, rise, and, in most cases, fall. The detail here is formidable, highlighting the diverse challenges that the new businesses faced and the variable factors that led to their demise. This part of the monograph, though, works best as a reference source rather than an integrated narrative.
The final section is the book’s strongest. Based upon interviews conducted in the mid-1980s with over a hundred European immigrants, Bassler examines an understudied but fascinating period in Newfoundland’s immigration and ethnic history. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century settlement has received considerable and sustained attention from historians and historical geographers. Earlier works by Gordon Handcock, John Mannion, and Rosemary Ommer on migration from the English West Country, southeast Ireland, and Scotland, respectively, are complemented by more recent studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Euro-Indigenous relations, settler colonialism, and intergenerational ethnicity. The more diverse mid-twentieth century immigration, however, has been virtually untouched by scholars. Bassler provides a key contribution to an emerging subfield by investigating the everyday economic, social, and cultural challenges faced by Newfoundland’s German-speaking immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s. He examines their reasons for leaving Europe, the acute culture shock that they experienced upon arriving in Newfoundland, the establishment of ethnic communities (“little Germanys,” epitomized by the founding of a Lutheran congregation in St. John’s in 1956) and their gradual integration into the broader community. Although a significant proportion of the newcomers either returned home or moved on to mainland North America within a few years, those who remained reflected with pride on their positive contributions to the province’s infrastructure and economy. As one German immigrant poignantly stated: “we built half the city here” (224).
Overall, Escape Hatch provides fascinating new insights into Newfoundland’s post-Confederation political, economic, and social history. Its transatlantic approach and innovative methodology make this an important source for any student of Newfoundland and Labrador’s turbulent mid-twentieth century.
Patrick Mannion is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Boston College. His research focuses on intergenerational Irish ethnicity and diasporic nationalism in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Atlantic Canada and New England.