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The Nazi from Swastika, Ont.: How Canada’s most unusually named town spawned a notorious Hitler fangirl

National Post logo National Post 4/02/2017 Tristin Hopper
BOOK-17-Hitler: Unity Mitford with Adolf Hitler. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth Unity Mitford with Adolf Hitler.

The 500 or so people of Swastika, Ont., are well aware that their town’s name has negative connotations. 

But for 80 years they’ve resisted a name change on one simple principle: They thought of their name before Hitler, and they’ve never had anything to do with Nazis.

“You don’t write off history just because one person uses something wrong,” town historian Carolyn O’Neil told the National Post in 2008.

The lack of Nazis is mostly true.

Because Ontario’s oddly named community indirectly spawned at least one Nazi — and one of the most notorious.

British socialite Unity Valkyrie Mitford was a rabid anti-Semite, an obsessive hanger-on of Adolf Hitler and even the rumoured mother of his love child.

Had Britain fallen to German forces, she might well have become a key figure in whatever puppet government the Nazis installed in London.

And in 1913, Mitford was conceived in Swastika.

“I am always with you however far away you may be. You are always next to me. I will never forget you,” wrote Adolf Hitler on Mitford’s presentation copy of Mein Kampf.

The young Englishwoman had treated the book like a kind of high school yearbook. Right next to Hitler’s mushy note lay the signatures from such other top Nazis as propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler.

As one of the U.K.’s most vocal and prominent supporters of Nazi Germany during the 1930s, Mitford was constantly seen at Hitler’s side and became known as his so-called “British girl.”

Quickly considered a traitor in her own country, Mitford’s surviving papers contain obsessive writings like “make sure that I go to heaven and sit there with the Fuhrer for ever and ever.”

unity_mitford-1: Undated photo of Unity Mitford at a Nazi German rally. © Wikimedia Commons Undated photo of Unity Mitford at a Nazi German rally. As one six daughters of the minor aristocrat David Freeman-Mitford, Unity was not the only one with a weakness for extremism.

Her sister Diana, another fascist, married Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. Jessica Mitford, meanwhile, became an active Communist.

From the book The Mitfords: letters between six sisters.

Mitford’s association with Hitler had started rather improbably. As a teenager infatuated with Nazism, she had moved to Germany in the early 1930s and embarked on a quest to meet the Fuhrer in person.

Her strategy was to stake out Hitler’s favourite Munich haunt, Osteria Bavaria. After months of not-so-subtly gazing at the German leader from a reserved table, she was finally waved over.

The encounter was “the most wonderful and beautiful day of my life,” Mitford would later write. And purportedly, one of Mitford’s conversational icebreakers with the Nazi leader had been to describe her links to a town called Swastika.

Founded in 1906, the town had sprouted up near Northern Ontario’s first major mineral find. The name came from what was then known as an inoffensive good luck symbol.

Canadians of the era, for instance, could catch a hockey game featuring the Windsor Swastikas or B.C.’s Fernie Swastikas.

David Freeman-Mitford had purchased a claim in the Swastika area as part of a bid to top up his flagging income with a Canadian gold mine or two.

Coming to Ontario in 1912 (where he apparently just missed booking passage on the Titanic), the aristocrat endured Ontario mosquitoes while his wife Sydney kept house at their small frontier mining shack.

Although Freeman-Mitford’s later years would be spent in the easy life of an English landowner and member of the House of Lords, during his time in Canada he was just another hardscrabble prospector.

“He and Sydney were at their closest in the shack at Swastika through the winter in that inhospitable climate,” wrote Mary S. Lovell, in The Sisters : The Saga of the Mitford Family. “It was there that Sydney conceived their fifth child.”

By the count of biographer Michaela Karl, Unity Mitford met with Hitler 140 times between 1935 and 1940. Although there is no evidence of the two having a sexual relationship, Unity was considered a rival by Hitler mistress Eva Braun.

And in 2007 there was speculation that Britain may be home to a 67-year-old Hitler love child secretly delivered by Unity.

Unity’s Nazism extended beyond a superficial love of power and ceremony.

Hitler installed her in a Munich apartment seized from its Jewish owners. She spoke openly to friends in support of violence against Jews. And, most appalling for fellow Britons, she became an English-speaking mouthpiece for the Third Reich’s anti-Semitic propaganda.

”We think with joy of the day when we shall be able to say with might and authority: England for the English! Out with the Jews!” she wrote in a 1935 letter to the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer. 

Like many anglophiles within the Nazi leadership, Mitford had hoped that the U.K. would soon be overtaken by a fascist revolution, where it could then become an ally in Hitler’s plans for genocidal domination of Europe.

Instead, when the two countries went to war in September 1939, a stunned Mitford wandered into a Munich park and shot herself.

She was the first of dozens in Hitler’s inner circle who would take a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. But with one major difference: Mitford missed.

She survived the attempt with severe brain damage and Hitler quickly shuttled her back to England by way of Switzerland. Unity ultimately died of meningitis in 1948.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, it seemed a no-brainer that the days of Swastika, Ont., were numbered.

When the First World War broke out only a few months after the Mitfords’ fateful night in Swastika, Canada had gone on a name-changing spree. Berlin, Ont., became Kitchener. Kaiser, Sask., became Peebles. Some places even toned down the use of the word “hamburger.”

So with Canadians once again lining up at recruiting stations it seemed obvious that a town bearing the very logo of Canada’s new enemy would suffer an identity crisis.

As then-Ontario premier Mitchell Hepburn had called the swastika, their town bore the symbol of “ everything ruthless and dictatorial.”

Several men from Swastika would not survive the coming war against fascism. But when Ontario officials swept north with new signs for the mining town, Swastikaites angrily tore them down.

The proposed new name? Winston, named for then British Prime Minister (and cousin of Unity Mitford by marriage) Winston Churchill.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Winston … but we weren’t given a choice. It was done very dictatorially,” Swastika resident Carolyn O’Neil said in 2008.

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