Patrick Mannion reviews Gerhard Bassler’s Develop or Perish

Gerhard P. Bassler. Develop or Perish: A Pictorial Record of J.R. Smallwood’s New Industries (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2017).

 By Patrick Mannion


Gerhard P. Bassler. Develop or Perish: A Pictorial Record of J.R. Smallwood’s New Industries (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2017).

Develop or Perish is a captivating pictorial account of Premier Joseph R. Smallwood’s “New Industries Program,” as well as the lives of the German and Latvian immigrants who settled in Newfoundland during this period of economic diversification in the 1950s and 60s. The book is a companion to Gerhard Bassler’s Escape Hatch: Newfoundland’s Quest for German Industry and Immigration, 1950-1970, also published by Flanker Press earlier this year (and reviewed by me for Acadiensis: Many of Bassler’s subjects, interviewed over the course of the 1980s, submitted photographs of both their professional and domestic lives, and Develop or Perish provides an opportunity to re-produce hundreds of these images that could not be included in Escape Hatch.

Following Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada in 1949, the province was faced with an unprecedented outmigration crisis as young men and women abandoned the cod fishery and outport communities in search of better wages on the mainland. Addressing this situation, Smallwood stated: “We must develop or perish. We must develop or people will go in thousands to other parts of Canada. We must create new jobs or our young men especially will go off to other places to get the jobs they can’t get here” (2). “Develop or perish” emerged as a slogan for the New Industries Program – a policy of rapid economic diversification and industrialization that took place through the 1950s. Following a recommendation from C.D. Howe, federal Minister for Defence and Production, Smallwood appointed former Latvian Finance Minister Alfred Valdmanis to oversee the Program. Thanks largely to Valdmanis’ business connections, much of the investment, leadership, technical expertise, machinery, and labour required to establish these new industries came from Latvia, Austria, and, especially, Germany. Seventeen new industries were established across Newfoundland and Labrador, most owned and operated by Europeans. The overwhelming majority of these companies had failed by the late-1960s, and the Program is generally considered a failure.

The organization of Develop or Perish parallels that of Escape Hatch. There are three sections. The first focuses on some of the key individuals involved in setting up the new industries: Smallwood; Valdmanis; Latvian cement and gypsum entrepreneurs Friedrich Kreysner and Ernest Leja; consulting engineer Max Braun-Wogau; and Hubertus Hertz, director of the manufacturing firm Benno Schilde. The richest material here are the photographs that detail Smallwood’s tours of West Germany in 1950 and 1951. The images show Smallwood and his entourage visiting German industrial facilities, meeting prominent factory owners, and the lavish welcome by Mühlenbau- und Industrie-Aktiengesellschaft (MIAG) owner Johannes Lerch. At his opulent castle in the Alpine village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Lerch “wooed Smallwood and wined and dined his party like royalty” (17). Relationships forged during these tours were essential in the establishment of German industries in Newfoundland. Lerch’s MIAG, for example, oversaw the establishment of one of the most ambitious new industries, Canadian Machinery and Industry Construction Limited, a machinery plant at Octagon Pond, near St. John’s, while they also built the North Star Cement plant in Corner Brook.

Part Two details the construction, work culture, and social lives of each individual company and their employees. What is particularly striking here is the scale of some of the operations. For example, in a series of images demonstrating the construction of the North Star Cement plant, we see the installation of an immense rotary kiln. It had been constructed by MIAG in Germany and transferred in pieces from Europe to Newfoundland’s west coast, where it was reassembled and installed in the newly-built factory. The photographs in this section also document the employees, both Europeans and Newfoundlanders, who worked in these industries, adding considerable depth to our understanding of the Program. Bassler includes various excerpts from local newspapers advertising the new industries’ products, suggesting how quickly they fit into the social and economic fabric of mid-twentieth century Newfoundland.

Perhaps the most fascinating images are in Part Three. Here, Bassler includes photographs of the personal and family lives of the newcomers. A key argument in Escape Hatch is that while the new industries failed, many of the skilled workers continued to live in the province, adding to the ethnic diversity of the community and playing a key role in improving and modernizing local infrastructure in the late-1950s and 60s. The pictures in this section complement this argument. The men and women detailed here were more than just workers. They ate and drank together, celebrated national holidays, built homes, and raised families. Some of the photographs exemplify the heart wrenching, often brutally difficult process of immigration, from final meals with friends and relatives in Germany, to transatlantic passages by sea or air, to the construction of houses and the planting of gardens in Newfoundland. These are engrossing life narratives – human stories that transcend the rise and fall of the new industries.

In the introduction, Bassler states that Develop or Perish includes sufficient context to stand alone and be read without reference to Escape Hatch. While the images are thoroughly captioned and annotated, the two publications unquestionably work best together. The photographic history adds a critical vibrancy that is absent in Escape Hatch, yet Develop or Perish suffers without the detail and context that are established in the monograph. Together, the two books provide a formidable contribution to our understanding of Newfoundland’s mid-twentieth century economic, social, and ethnic history.

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. His book, A Land of Dreams: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Irish in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine, 1880-1923, will be published in 2018 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.


About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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