Bye-bye Berlin: Wheels for name change set in motion 100 years ago
One hundred years ago, the city now known as Kitchener was a very different place.
Automobiles were rarely glimpsed on the streets. Future prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was in the midst of a hiatus from politics. And the main topic of conversation at every dinner table was the First World War, which Canada had been part of for two years.
The war was sparking nationalistic tensions across Canada. Nowhere did those tensions have a greater effect then in Berlin, Ontario.
At the time, Berlin was a city of 15,000 people. Local history experts say British descendants and German descendants had co-existed peacefully, until their ancestral homes found themselves on opposite sides of the war.
Talk of changing the city’s name started with the city’s business community, says Tom Reitz, manager/curator at the Waterloo Region Museum – in some cases with business leaders of German descent.
“It was causing economic hardship. They were having trouble selling their goods,” he said.
“They recognized that there were people across Canada who saw the use of the name Berlin … as being unpatriotic.”
While the idea may have come from business leaders, it was spurred on by the military community.
Karen Ball-Pyatt, a local history librarian at the Kitchener Public Library, says some people reported feeling “uncomfortable, maybe a bit intimidated” by soldiers who made it clear where their loyalties were.
In turn, that led some Berlin residents to question if parts of the province without such strong German heritage saw things the same way.
“There were uneasy feelings about Berlin, and how we should be presenting ourselves to the rest of the province,” Ball-Pyatt said.
On May 19, 1916, about 3,000 people took part in a referendum on whether Berlin should change its name. By a narrow margin, voters decided that it stood.
From there, talk turned to what the city should be called instead of Berlin.
Suggestions flooded in from across the nation, but few drew any strong support locally.
Another name was added to the mix in early June, when Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s ship hit a German mine, killing hundreds of people.
The admiral’s death quickly made his name the “sentimental favourite” in the city, Reitz said.
A vote took place at the end of June, with the city officially being renamed Kitchener in September.
The museum is marking the anniversary of the name change with “City on Edge,” an exhibit opening June 24.
It will look at life in Berlin and other parts of what is now Waterloo Region during the time of the First World War, including the debate over changing the city’s name.
“We’re dealing with political issues, emotional issues – things that are hard to explain,” Reitz said.
Meanwhile, 100 years after it was nixed, the Berlin name is enjoying a bit of a minor renaissance in Kitchener.
Two businesses prominently featuring the name have opened in recent months: The Berlin restaurant and the Berlin Bicycle Café.
Andrea Hennige, the restaurant manager at The Berlin, says the name was chosen with an eye toward the area’s history.
“It’s a nod to the people who settled the area, who probably laid the bricks in this building,” she said in an interview.