Bismarck, Berlin & Swastika – Towns That Changed Their Name in Wartime (and Others That Didn’t)

All things Germanic were taboo during the World Wars. (Image source: German Federal Archive)

All things Germanic were taboo during the World Wars. (Image source: German Federal Archive)

Residents of Swastika, Ontario had no love for the Nazis, but they still refused to change the name of their town during World War Two.

Residents of Swastika, Ontario had no love for the Nazis, but they still refused to change the name of their town during World War Two.

SIX HOURS NORTH OF TORONTO, Canada lies a remote community with a most unfortunate name: Swastika.

The municipality, which has a population of fewer than 1,000, was founded in 1908 by prospectors who worked the nearby Swastika Gold Mine. The town was established a decade and a half before the Nazi party even formed and a full quarter century before nearly anyone outside of Germany had heard the name Adolf Hitler. The miners likely chose the swastika as a name for the same reason the Fuhrer appropriated the now notorious hooked cross for Germany’s national socialist party: it was considered by ancient Celts, Hindus and Buddhists to be lucky. The prospectors probably figured the name would bring their efforts good fortune.

Thirty-one years later when Canada entered World War Two, pressure was exerted on the inhabitants of the town to change Swastika to something else. The idea of a community in the British Commonwealth being named for an emblem that had become so indelibly linked with the enemy was intolerable. In fact, after 1940 provincial authorities went so far as to order the people of Swastika to come up with another appellation for the town, ideally something more in keeping with the war effort. The government suggested Winston, in honour of Britain’s Prime Minister Churchill. Yet the townsfolk resisted, arguing that they chose the name Swastika long before there were Nazis and they weren’t about to change it on account of some goose-stepping fascists half a world away. When officials from the province’s transportation ministry erected official signposts on area highways declaring the town’s more palatable designation of Winston, residents promptly replaced the markers with their own that read “Welcome to Swastika”. Eventually, the government allowed the town to keep its troubling name. Since the war, several have attempted to retitle the town; but residents continue to defend the name out of a sense of tradition.

Not surprisingly, Swastika was just one of several towns throughout the English speaking world that during the world wars were called upon to change their German-sounding names to something less objectionable. Many succumbed to the torrent of popular anti-German sentiment and were only too happy to change their towns’ names; others did so only grudgingly. Consider the following:

First World War anti-German propaganda. (Image source: WikiCommons)

First World War anti-German propaganda. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Ich Bin Ein Berliner?
With the outbreak of the First World War, a number of towns that were named for the German capital were hurriedly rechristened. The town of Genevra, California was originally named Berlin. But after the sinking of the Lusitania and America’s subsequent entry into the First World War, anti-German hysteria gripped the nation and residents of the community gladly renamed it. Similarly, Berlin, Iowa became Lincoln, while Berlin, Michigan would be called Marne after the site of the famous 1914 battle. The town of Kitchener, Ontario is named for the famed British field marshal Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener. But the city of 200,000, which is located about 100 miles west of Toronto, was originally settled by German immigrants to Canada in the mid-19th Century. Decades later when Canada entered the Great War, citizens from the surrounding Wellington County mounted a campaign to bully Berlin’s largely pacifist Mennonite population into changing the town’s name to something more palatable. A rigged referendum in May of 1916 gave regional officials a free hand to dub the town Kitchener, after the revered late British lord. Patriotic mobs also stormed Berlin’s town square and ripped down a historic bust of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I for good measure. The city has remained Kitchener ever since.

Too Many Germantowns
Several American communities that shared the name Germantown were also renamed during the First World War. Schroeder, Texas was called Germantown until 1918. A Germantown in Nebraska became Garland, while one in Indiana was retitled in honour the American general Pershing. Authorities in Germantown, Tennessee reverted to the Indian name Nashoba. However, townsfolk went back to Germantown following the Armistice. Interestingly, Germantown, Pennsylvania retained its name, likely out of respect for the famous Revolutionary War battle of 1777 in which American patriots defeated a combined force of British redcoats and (yes even) Hessian mercenaries from what would later be Germany.

Down Under
This Great War-era practice of renaming German-sounding towns wasn’t just a North American phenomenon. More than 90 communities throughout Australia changed their names during the First World War amid widespread hostility to all things Teutonic. Three different towns with the name Bismarck were changed along with one small city named Berlin. Nine other locales with the word “German” somewhere in the name were also retitled. For example: Germantown, German Gardens or German Mountain were all given more English or Australian sounding names. Even settlements named for cities such as Hamburg or Heidelberg weren’t safe, nor were locations that sounded even vaguely Germanic. Consider places like Neudorf, Cape Bauer and Gottlieb’s Well. All of those names had to go. Kaiserstuhl became Mount Kitchener and the towns of Rhine River North and South became Somme and Marne respectively, named after the battles on the Western Front. Similarly, another settlement with Rhine in its name became Cambrai.

Other Revisions
It was more than just geographic locations that were re-designated. Much like how Congress’ own cafeteria renamed French fries to freedom fries in 2003 out of a sense of outrage over Paris’ opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, during the First World War, Americans began referring to sauerkraut as liberty cabbage. Similarly, German shepherd dogs became Alsatians in both the America and the U.K. (a name that wasn’t changed back in Britain until the 1970s). In the United States, dachshund dogs were often called liberty pups instead of their original German sounding name. Not even card games were safe. In 1917, the town of Syracuse, New York passed a resolution urging residents to refrain from playing pinochle because of its suspected Germanic origins. Even royalty was swept up in the fervour. King George V, a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was compelled to change the British royal family name to Windsor from the historic but German name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

For the most part, the anti-German sentiment that drove attitudes like these in the First World War did not become as widespread in the 1940s. This was in part because of a belief during World War Two that the real enemy was the Nazis party rather than the whole of the German people. How else would Americans be able to put their trust in a president with a Dutch/Germanic sounding name like Roosevelt or a supreme Allied commander named Eisenhower? Anti-Japanese sentiment on the other hand was extreme. While there were few Japanese-sounding town names in North America to change, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and 27,000 Canadians of Japanese descent were stripped of their rights and interned during the war, as were 12,000 in Australia.

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6 comments for “Bismarck, Berlin & Swastika – Towns That Changed Their Name in Wartime (and Others That Didn’t)

  1. 10 December, 2012 at 7:19 am

    I live in Milwaukee, at onetime one of the most German cities in America. It changed dramatically in WW1. Frankfurters became hot dogs and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, a name that did not stick. Oddly, I’m unaware if place names changed as we still have a Germantown and New New Berlin nearby. Interesting post as usual.

    • 10 December, 2012 at 8:07 am

      Thanks for that. Not sure why some towns would have changed names and others not. I wanted to keep the post short so I didn’t mention all of the major cities that dropped German-sounding street names as well. There was a lot of that too.

      • 10 December, 2012 at 3:00 pm

        Yeah, we still have a Teutonia Ave. in Milwaukee.

  2. 10 December, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Another “interesting stuff” blog post, sir! Interestingly, even today, you will find the swastika mark denoting the location of a Buddhist temple – even on Google Maps. Luckily, this “hysteria” has tapered off some since the end of WWII. We have Bagdad, CA still unchallenged!

  3. 9 August, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Kitchener, Ontario, is also named after the originator of the Concentrtion Camp during the Boer War, when the boors fought the Boers.

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