Escape Hatch by Gerhard P. Bassler

[dropcap]Undoubtedly[/dropcap], Newfoundland & Labrador has had a colourful history, from fishing to a strategic WWII port to today’s tourism business. However, a little-known slice of Newfoundland & Labrador (NL) history (outside of the province, that is) is that of Premier Joey Smallwood’s attempt to diversify NL’s industrial base outside of fishing and logging by attracting post-WWII German industries and German immigrants to Canada’s newest province. Smallwood’s plan was an “escape hatch” for German industries fearing what Soviet Russia may have in store, by coming to Canada. Many took Mr Smallwood up on his offer and Gerhard P. Bassler has written an account with the “general, non-academic readership in mind.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6580B1″ class=”” size=””] Gerhard P. Bassler has written an informative account of Smallwood’s New Industries with the “general, non-academic readership in mind.”[/perfectpullquote]

Escape Hatch (subtitled Newfoundland’s Quest for German Industry and Immigration 1950-1970) is divided into three distinct parts:

  • Part 1: Develop or Perish: Immigration and Industrial Development in Post-Confederation Newfoundland
  • Part 2: From Cement to Chocolate: The New Industries
  • Part 3: “We built half the city here”: The social and economic integration of German-speaking immigrants

Part 1 gives the background, the businessmen and the development of Smallwood’s plan for getting Newfoundland’s economy jump-started with the “New Industries”. Part 2 goes into some depth about the various industries that came to Newfoundland, the Germans behind them and how each business fared once it was started (it didn’t all go so well, but it wasn’t a total failure either). Part 3 is composed of various interviews the author and his conducted with German immigrants who still resided in NL in 1983-1985, the results of which are quite revealing as to the Newfoundland environs in the 50’s as well as the populace’s acceptance of these newcomers (and former enemies, not so long ago) and how they handled the position they found themselves in once they arrived in NL:

“I think I’ll die!” was one wife’s reaction when her husband told her about Newfoundland being “nothing but rocks, frozen rain from the skies and a god-forsaken land.”

Others spoke of how they appreciated the peacefulness and openness of their adopted land, away from the regimented and heavily populated areas of Germany. For such ones, Mr Bassler writes:

“Newfoundland offered a true escape hatch to political freedom from the Iron Curtain”.

Unquestionably, Escape Hatch is an informative and generally engaging read. The interviews are entirely fascinating to read, especially given the challenging period of time the immigrants arrived in: telephones were rare (and barely functioned) the “Newfie Bullet” (railway) was unreliable and there were few, if any paved roads. There was a scarcity of stores to shop in and it was remarkably difficult to get any products brought over from Europe. The ups and downs of the various industries make for an enjoyable read too. Some failed sooner than others and some still exist today, albeit in a form very different from the original. Mr Bassler certainly knows his subject (this is not his first book regarding the New Industries) and this comes through in the telling of this memorable part of Joey Smallwood’s vision to put Newfoundland on the economic map in the post-WWII era.

Addendum: October, 2017

Flanker has now released Gerhard Bassler’s companion volume to Escape Hatch, Develop or Perish:

Develop or Perish is an illustrated companion to Escape Hatch by Gerhard P. Bassler. Most of the pictures in this book were offered for publication by the more than 100 immigrants and Newfoundlanders interviewed about Newfoundland’s New Industries of the 1950s and 1960s. The immigrant interviewees included German, Austrian, and Latvian workers and managers, as well as some of their wives and adult children. Premier J.R. Smallwood had recruited them from Germany, along with 15 of the 17 industries that employed them, to industrialize Newfoundland after it had joined Canada in 1949. Along with additional images from archives and newspapers, these photos provide a unique pictorial record of the New Industries story.

“A hefty, insightful picture guide to an under-researched and -studied development period and social policy in provincial history.”– The Telegram

Escape Hatch and Develop or Perish by Gerhard P. Bassler
Flanker Press

James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.