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How Did Kitchener Change its Name from Berlin?

The Backstory

In the early nineteenth century, German speaking Mennonites from Pennsylvania migrated north. Some settled in the area that would go on to become Cambridge, some went further up to Waterloo, some went to the surrounding areas, and some settled in the land that would go on to become Kitchener.

One of the key figures in this time was a religious fellow by the name of Benjamin Eby: he built a log structure that served as a meeting place, and then a school, and then a Mennonite church (indeed, the first Mennonite church in western Upper Canada [Ontario]). For all his efforts, the settlement was initially called ‘Ebytown.’
 
More and more settlers came to the Region – more of the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ (somewhat of a misnomer; it’s really Pennsylvania Deutsch, or the German word for German), but also many immigrants from German-speaking Europe, particularly Germany and Switzerland. So strong was the German presence here that, in 1833, Ebytown was renamed Berlin (at the time, capital of Prussia, and present-day capital of, and largest city in, Germany). You can read more about Benjamin Eby and the early settlers in our article on the First Mennonite Church and Cemetery.
 
As for the meaning of the name Berlin itself, it’s not fully known, perhaps stemming from a Slavic word for ‘swamp’ (foreshadowing: we’ll be exploring the rather swampy origin story of Uptown Waterloo soon). Owing to the Ber in Berlin bearing a similarity to the German word for bear (Bär), it’s common for images of bears to represent the city (similar to another ursine German capital: Bern, Switzerland). That’s the pure and simple truth, laid bare.
 

 
Berlin beat out nearby Galt to become the County Seat of Waterloo County, then it attained ‘town’ status in 1854, and then it attained ‘city’ status in 1912. It was a bustling place, distinctly German in character, and with a thriving economy (highlights included flourishing local industry, the German Canadian newspaper, a brewery, and even [if you can believe it] a pump maker). Alas, Berlin would only enjoy its hard-earned city status for a few years: on July 28th. 1914, World War I broke out.
 

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The Name Change

As noted, Berlin still had a considerable German character at the turn of the twentieth century. But in part because it had become such an important industrial centre (aided by the Grand Trunk Railway connecting it to Toronto and other hubs), and in part due to the overall demographic profile of Canada, an increasing number of British-descended citizens came to call Berlin home. More and more Berlin residents here had British, rather than German, heritage.
 
Furthermore, immigration from Germany had slowed down considerably towards the end of the nineteenth century, meaning even the residents with German heritage living here were second or third generation, and increasingly identified as Canadian (and by extension, in favour of Britain in the war).
 
With the First World War pitting Britain and Canada alike against Germany, there arose a mixture of distrust and animosity between the German-identifying and British-identifying residents of Berlin, Ontario, and this ended up having violent consequences. More on that shortly, though: first, a referendum!
 
The resentment simmered, and a clamour arose to change the very German name of Berlin to something a little (or a lot) less German. So the city held a referendum. Who doesn’t love a referendum? Well, apparently the citizens of Berlin in 1916. Less than 1/5th of eligible voters weighed in on the decision to change Berlin’s name. They voted ‘Yes’ (but you already knew that). The next step was choosing a new name, and that was an adventure in and of itself.
 

 

A Berlin By Any Other Name

What you see above is the official ballot. But before we explore these a little closer, just where did the name Kitchener come from? It came from Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a.k.a. Lord Kitchener, a.k.a. the Earl Kitchener, a.k.a. Lord Kitchener of Khartoum.
 
Lord Kitchener had long been a prominent British military man, having served in multiple continents (including his notorious stint as Chief of Staff during the Boer War, in which he implemented concentration camps). He was already popular among the public, but he likely received a substantial voting bump by dying en-route to Russia, by the Orkney Islands, mere weeks before the vote took place.
 
The final ballot put up to vote contained six options: Kitchener (of course), but also Brock, Corona, Adanac, Keowana, and Benton. Bafflingly, that’s the short list. Because in spite of a war raging in Europe, and the city only having a population at the time of around 16,000 at the time (and that’s including babies), the committee formed to narrow down the options for a new name had to sift through over 30,000 suggestions. 30,000 possible names. As you might expect, there were some gems.
 
What follows will be the unedited list of the 30,000 suggestions for Berlin’s new name:
 

On second thought, here are a few highlights from the 113 possibilities after thousands of impossibilities were ruled out (one can only imagine what those suggestions consisted of): Beaver; Newborn; Ontario; Ontario City (the city so nice they name it twice!); Hydro; Hydro City; Panada; Uranus; Homeland; Brief; Majesty; and Khaki (presumably there was an archaeologist sending in submissions – as is widely known, archaeologists all wear Khaki).
 
Somehow, both Ontario City and Beaver made it on to the second round (top 38 names) but they were unable to generate much enthusiasm in the committee members. Indeed, it became clear pretty early on that there were two frontrunners: Kitchener (obviously) and Brock.
 
In the end, Kitchener barely beat out Brock with 346 votes versus 335. Adanac earned an ignominious third place finish with a mere 23 votes. So that’s that: Berlin was now Kitchener. Before drawing this article to a close, though, let’s take one last look at the social conditions that precipitated this change.
 
To give a sense of the hysteria gripping some members of society at the time, here’s one example that came after the name change. An irate city council in Kingston (hundreds of kilometers east) actually wrote a petition to Prime Minister Robert Borden demanding that the government “cancel the proclamation of the Postmaster-General wherein he allows letters to be transmitted through the mails with the name of Berlin…” Changing the name wasn’t enough; Kingston’s city council didn’t even want the name being written on envelopes any more! Many a birthday card were lost that year, presumably.
 

 
Even more alarmingly, there were numerous incidents of outright violence directed toward German residents and institutions in the city. There were riots, German social clubs were ransacked (including the Concordia Singing Society), and in one notorious incident, a certain bust was… busted?
 

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Bye Sir Kaiser

If you go on a stroll though lovely Victoria Park today, you can still see the sternly resplendent statue of Queen Victoria standing tall and proud. There also used to be a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I (the grandfather of Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Germany during WWI). However, at the outbreak of the war, a local band of ruffians hoisted Kaiser Wilhelm I’s bust from its stand and heaved it into the lake.
 
Remember the Concordia Signing Society that was raided during the war? Well, they had actually rescued poor Kaiser Wilhelm I’s busted bust from the lake, and were keeping it safely in the confines of their club. When they were ransacked, though, vandals absconded with the bust, and it’s never been seen since.
 
It’s difficult to imagine living through something as earth-shattering as the Great War, but nevertheless it’s strange to consider the degree of hostility expressed by some members of the city toward others. The underlying irony is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm I (whose bust was stolen) and Queen Victoria (whose statue still stands) were both grandparents of Kaiser Wilhelm II!
 

 

Berlin: Out; Kitchener: In

Berlin was an appropriate name, given Kitchener’s German origins in the early nineteenth century. But the people (or those who voted) decided a new name would better represent the city going forward. Nevertheless, the German heritage lives on. One need only regard a map of Kitchener-Waterloo to see references to the Region’s German roots: from German street names to the five major German Heritage clubs (Alpine, Transylvania, Schwaben, Concordia, and Hubertushaus), it’s still very much intertwined in the fabric of the city.
 
And of course, Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest is arguably the Region’s most widely known, regularly occurring major event (it’s the largest Oktoberfest outside of Munich!). Not to mention the annual Christkindl Market
 
With a rapidly growing population, abundant opportunities in education (two universities and a college within Kitchener-Waterloo’s city limits), a diverse economy (particularly strong in the tech industry), and in many ways one of the best locations in southern Ontario (close enough to get to Toronto, but far enough to be distinct from the GTA), Kitchener has grown from a relatively small German settlement to a place people from all around the world (and Canada) are proud to call home.
 
So let’s embrace both the German heritage and the increasing diversity that’s come to define Kitchener-Waterloo. And please, let’s not toss any more statues into Victoria Park’s lovely little lake.
 
Written by Will Kummer

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