Many Montrealers are unaware that the notorious Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop once resided in their city. Convicted at Nuremberg for his role in the Holocaust, Ribbentrop was executed on October 16, 1946.
In his memoirs, Ribbentrop describes his arrival in Canada down the St. Lawrence on a “fine autumn day” in 1910 to Montreal, where he was “cordially received” by “Canadian friends.” These friends may have been the family of Katharine Hamilton Ewing, a girl that author Michael Bloch claims Joachim and his brother Lothar had met in Switzerland.
Katharine, born on December 1, 1893, was by all accounts exceptionally beautiful. The Ewings were a prominent Irish-Canadian family, whose patriarch Samuel Hamilton Ewing (born 1834) presided over the family firm Samuel Hamilton Ewing and Sons until his death in 1923.
In addition to the importation and manufacture of spices, teas, and coffees, S.H. Ewing and Sons also had an interest in the Molson’s Bank, a prominent Canadian financial institution until it was absorbed by the Bank of Montreal in the twenties. Ewing was the vice president.
Ribbentrop began working for the Molson’s Bank on the corner of Stanley and Ste. Catherine in Montreal on October 4, 1910. The 1911 Canadian census records Joachim Ribbentrop as an occupant of 103 Stanley, boarding at the home of John and Christina Reid.
Ribbentrop fulfilled his bank apprenticeship and was promoted from junior to clerk. Fellow employee Walter Boucher later recorded his memories of Ribbentrop in the Canadian Paper Money Journal: “Von Ribbentrop was a young man of outstanding ability. He was so anxious to learn the Canadian banking system that he used to stay until the last man left the office at night. He spoke immaculate English, and gained the confidence of all with whom he came into contact.”
Records show that Ribbentrop resigned from the Molson’s Bank on May 28, 1912, citing “ill health” and his unsuitability for “inside work.” Prone to the dreaded tuberculosis that had claimed his mother in 1902, and that would later claim his brother Lothar, Ribbentrop may have felt that vigorous physical labour would provide him with both fresh air and the opportunity to strengthen his constitution.
After leaving the bank, Ribbentrop returned to a sight he had witnessed during his initial voyage down the St. Lawrence almost two years earlier: the remains of the Quebec Bridge. In the summer of 1912, he joined the firm of J.T. and M.P. Davis, an engineering company that the government had commissioned to design the bridge’s substructure – concrete piers on the north and south shores. James Thomas Davis was one of the wealthiest men in Montreal and his home, which now houses McGill’s School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, was a lavish mansion on Drummond Street constructed in 1909 by the esteemed Maxwell brothers. James Davis’s second oldest son Harry eventually married Katharine Hamilton Ewing.
Ribbentrop was often invited to dine at the Davis home. Davis descendant Diana Treco told me that her mother Gertrude, born in 1900, was quite “taken by him.” As she writes: “She often spoke to me of von Ribbentrop, how dashing and polite he was during a period when he lived at 308 Drummond Street.” She kept original letters that were sent by “Rib” to Gertrude, whom he nicknamed Tommy because she was something of a tomboy, after he had fled Canada in 1914 to fight for the Germans in Russia. The following is an example:
Naumburg-Saale 28 April 1916
My dear little Tommy,
I sent you a letter about 6 weeks ago in answer to your letter of the 18. Jan. but it came back, because it was too long. So I will only write a short letter to-day.
I was awfully glad to hear from you and that you are all well! – I never knew Harry + K. had a boy. How is your mother? You don’t write anything about her. – You tell me Tommy that you have changed such a lot. Now do send me a picture, will you? I would love to have it. That you are studying so hard is wonderful of you. Also piano? – I guess I have changed in many ways too, but in one way I have not changed, little Tommy!
I will send you a picture some time soon. When will I see you again? Heaven knows, Tommy!
– I shall not write anything about the war, you must not to me eather [sic], all right? –
You must write to me over Dr. Schäuble, Arosa Switzerland from now on, as Lothar is in Germany now for some time.
I am quite well again myself. I am exercising my left arm a lot, which is still weak from a wound. The bullet caught the nerve. However it is better and it doesn’t prevent me from riding etc. – I will stop now, because long letters take such ages to get to you. –
Give my love to your mother and all your family and write soon!
P.S. Don’t forget to send your pictures
Am expecting to go to the mountains for some weeks to recover before returning to the front.
This letter from Joachim von Ribbentrop to Gertrude Davis, number M2009.32.2, can be found in the McCord Museum.
After working for the Trans-Continental Railway and as a journalist in New York City, Ribbentrop settled in Ottawa in 1913, a city where he became a prominent figure on the social scene. When war broke out, he returned to Germany.
In October of 1914, Beck’s Weekly, a Montreal publication, reported that he had been detained as a spy. In his memoirs, Ribbentrop rejects the spying allegations as a “fairy tale.” However, Chief Justice Sir Charles Fitzpatrick certainly had suspicions about his family “friend” in Ottawa. Having noticed Ribbentrop’s appointment as ambassador to England in 1936, Fitzpatrick dispatched a note to former prime minister Robert Borden, in which he recalled the time when his house guest Ribbentrop betrayed his trust: “May I draw your attention to the enclosed. The German Ambassador mentioned in this clipping lived in my house at Ottawa for almost a month in the Spring of 1914, when I discovered he played the part of a spy.” Following Ribbentrop’s departure Fitzpatrick “could get no further trace of him.” Fitzpatrick’s note confirms the Ottawa rumour that Ribbentrop would feign sickness at parties, retreat to his host’s study to “recuperate,” and view private documents. Perhaps he was overly curious. Historian Guido Knopp has found no evidence in German archives to indicate that he had been employed as a spy.
Having learnt valuable lessons in social climbing during his time in Canada, Ribbentrop settled in Berlin after World War I and became a successful liquor salesman. After meeting Adolf Hitler in 1932, he made the fateful decision to join the Nazi Party. Following World War I, Canadians in Montreal and Ottawa were shocked to discover that their one-time friend had become complicit in mass murder.
Robert Lawson holds a Ph.D. in German and has taught at Memorial University.