Aug. 18, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD
A new online petition wants an Ontario town council to change a street name honouring a Second World War sailor who sank his own warship to save more than 1,000 lives.
The problem, for Ajax, Ont. resident Adam Wiseman is that “Langsdorff Drive” is named for the commander of a Nazi battleship.
Wiseman argues that even if Capt. Hans Langsdorff, commander of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, deserves his reputation as a “good Nazi,” it’s still wrong for Canada to honour someone who fought for the Third Reich.
“Hans Langsdorff was definitely a Nazi,” Wiseman said in an interview. “As far as Nazis go, he was probably more moral than the SS people working in the camps, but he was still absolutely a Nazi fighting for Hitler.”
Langsdorff was a career naval officer. In 1939, in command of the Admiral Graf Spee, he was sent to the South Atlantic Ocean, where his crew sank nine Allied ships carrying desperately-needed supplies to Britain. In those attacks, Langsdorff allowed merchant seamen to abandon their ships before turning his guns on them.
In December 1939, Graf Spee was trapped off South America by three British warships, including HMS Ajax. Following the Battle of the River Plate, Graf Spee limped into Uruguay’s Montevideo harbour for repairs.
Ordered to leave Uruguay within 72 hours or face imprisonment, and knowing a superior British force was waiting for him, Langsdorff blew his ship up rather than risk the loss of his almost 1,100 crew members.
Three days later, in a hotel in Buenos Aires, Langsdorff wrapped himself in Graf Spee’s battle flag and shot himself in the head.
In 1941, far away from the battles in the Atlantic, a new town was founded in Ontario, east of Oshawa. It was the site of the largest munitions plant in the British Commonwealth and named for HMS Ajax. As the town grew, many of its streets were named for the ships and sailors of River Plate battle in South America.
In 2007, one of those streets was named for Langsdorff in honour of his efforts to spare Allied merchant seamen and his own crew. Another street was named for the Graf Spee in 2017.
There’s been some progress: Meeting late last month, council voted 6-1 to change the name of Graf Spee Lane, a street in a new subdivision construction. The city is planning an open house to hear from the street’s “affected residents.”
The lane has further meaning for the region’s Jews because of its close proximity to St. Paul’s United Church, where Ajax’s only synagogue, B’nai Shalom v’Tikvah, has been holding its services for the last 20 years.
“I can’t think of a poorer location,” Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier told DurhamRegion.com.
As for Langsdorff, his reputation isn’t enough to justify even a small Canadian monument to a Nazi, Wiseman argued.
“It’s not black and white. Was he an evil person? I don’t know, but he was certainly loyal to the Nazi cause,” Wiseman said. “You can name a street after the Battle of the River Plate, you can name it after sailors who fought in it on the Allied side, but certainly you don’t celebrate the Nazi captain of the Nazi warship.”
Aside from the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Wiseman said his effort is driven by the memory of his grandparents, Charles Wittenberg and Eve Wittenberg, who fought with the French Resistance and lost most of their families in Nazi death camps.
“I’ve always felt a little obligation around that,” Wiseman added. “I carry around a Sharpie and if I find someone has drawn a swastika someplace I turn it into a little house with a window. It’s a little homage to my heritage and something that comes up every couple of months out here.”
Wiseman said the campaign grew out of some passionate social media arguments.
“I realized when you argue on Facebook, nothing happens. It’s kind of like screaming at the wind,” he said. “I thought I should do something. I’m not an activist by any means…but I thought I should at least give the opportunity if enough people think the way I do make some real change.”
In addition to gathering petition signatures, Wiseman has also reached out to local Jewish organizations for support, including to B’nai Shalom v’Tikvah.
Ron King, president of the 26-year-old, 40-family Reform congregation, said the board has written to Collier and the town council asking for the name change.
King welcomed last month’s council decision to rename Graf Spee Lane.
“We’re hopeful that given that action by council that a precedent has been set,” he said.
While waiting for a reply from the town, King said his congregation is reaching out to Jewish organizations, hoping for support.
One group opposing the name change is the HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association in Britain.
In an e-mail exchange, association president Malcolm Collis said members of his group, along with the mayor of Ajax, Langsdorff’s daughter, and the president of the Graf Spee Association, met in Uruguay and Argentina last December to pay respects at the graves of the battle’s victims.
“The theme was very much one of reconciliation,” he wrote. “While the Association has not been formally approached by the Town, we are aware that there may be plans to rename Langsdorff Drive; the street naming policy is purely a matter for the Town. Should we be invited to express a view then we shall consider our response which will no doubt follow the theme of our trip to South America.”
Ajax’s communication department added in an e-mail that while there is no current movement to change the street name, officials are always open to input.
“At the time that Ajax Council was considering this dedication, consultation took place that included the River Plate Veterans Association – the group representing veterans that fought in the battle – who gave their endorsement for the naming to proceed,” the email said.
“At this time, we are not undergoing any review of the Langsdorff Drive street name. However, we continue to receive and consider feedback from residents. The immediate focus and attention to renaming Graf Spee Lane is an example of this commitment.”
The Ajax controversy mirrors another 100 kilometres west on Highway 401.
In Puslinch Township, south of Guelph, some residents are still waging a lonely effort to convince councillors to change the name of Swastika Trail.
The most recent effort to get the road’s name changed started in April 2017 and ended in June 2018, when an Ontario court refused to review a council decision to keep the name.
Randy Guzar, the resident leading the fight, wrote in an opinion piece for Huffington Post last week he is “tired of the dirty looks I receive when I show the pharmacist my ID. I hate hearing the awkward jokes when I give the bank teller my address. Some companies refuse to deliver packages to my house. When I tell strangers where I live, I am asked if I am a white supremacist.”
Maintaining the name, he adds, is “an insult to all Canadian Armed Forces members who fought against the hatred and genocide of Nazi Germany. I should know – my father was one of them. To our family, the name is a distressing reminder of what he endured. It hits even closer to home for my neighbour, who sees it as a daily reminder of his father’s death during the Holocaust.”
In a statement on Aug. 17, B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said, “There is no place for streets honouring Nazi combatants in Canada. While Hans Langsdorff was attacking Allied shipping in the South Atlantic, his comrades were murdering Jews and Poles en masse in occupied Poland. These were inseparable components of the overall Nazi war effort.”
B’nai Brith, citing a history of the Battle of the Atlantic, recalled Langsdoff’s suicide note: “I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Führer.”