Escape Hatch tells the story of seventeen manufacturing industries that German industrialists established in Newfoundland in the early 1950s. This study, which is the fourth book in Gerhard Bassler's extensive project on German connections to Newfoundland, explores the operational history of each industry, including the social and political impact of the approximately 1,000 German newcomers that followed as industrial associates. Deeply researched and well written, it relies on over 100 oral history interviews, newspapers, and archival collections to vividly reconstruct a chapter in the post-Second World War narrative of German migration to Newfoundland.
Bassler offers his study, which is targeted to a non-academic audience, as a challenge to the public memory that the "New Industries Program" was a failure. The German industries, which were invited by Premier J.R. Smallwood to invest in Newfoundland's post-Confederation economy with the hopes of rapidly modernizing the province in order to prevent the majority of its population from fleeing west, were horribly mismanaged and marked by corruption, according to its critics. They assert that the seventeen industries, ranging from leather goods, shoes, rubber, and cement, were effectively "foreign to the Newfoundland landscape" (x) and were inadequately developed by Smallwood, forcing undue strain on Newfoundland's already struggling economy.
Bassler confronts this popular perception. He argues that the new industries were not obtained haphazardly; instead, Premier Smallwood and his associates acted upon a "unique window of opportunity" (xii) that was afforded to them from 1950 to 1953. Threatened by the intensifying Cold War, European industrialists were scrambling to find an exit out of West Germany. Coupled with a desire to invest their products in the North American market, Newfoundland became a [End Page 844] convenient escape for the German investors. Bassler readily admits that the industries were not always Smallwood's first choices nor were they without scandal or corruption, but he challenges the assumptions that the program was a failure in its entirety.
The first part of the book examines Smallwood's European connections, the incentives he offered to draw the investors to Newfoundland, and the challenges they faced upon arrival. The second part, the lengthiest section of the study, contains individual chapters on each of the seventeen industries. Mostly of interest to local historians, the chapters trace the industries' performance over the course of each of their varying lifespans; some of the companies lasted a mere five years, while others were in operation upwards of forty years. Finally, the third part of the book presents a discussion on the adjustment and integration of the German immigrants that arrived as skilled workers with the industries. Introducing an important theme in his analysis, Bassler purports that not only did the Germans bring their vocational expertise to Newfoundland, but their contributions to the arts, education, and construction were also pivotal in "helping to usher in a modern, urban, and multicultural society" (229). Bassler claims that, although they were essential to Newfoundland's development from the mid-1950s onwards, the integration of the European immigrants could be never fully achieved. Their "Germanness" set them apart from the locals and prevented them from completely assimilating into the cultural life of Newfoundland. Bassler effectively demonstrates how these immigrants, cast as hardworking outsiders, made their mark on Newfoundland society. The analysis of their impact is a significant component of the New Industries Program that has previously gone unexamined in the literature.
By connecting Smallwood's determination to attain industries for Newfoundland with the European industrialists' drive to exit West Germany at the height of the Cold War, Bassler attempts to bring a transnational approach to the history of the New Industries Program. Yet the global perspective could have been strengthened by providing a more in-depth exploration of West Germany's postwar economic conditions, particularly the impact of the Cold War on German industry. It is unclear what exactly the anxieties were that drove the German entrepreneurs to invest in Newfoundland. As well, relying primarily on the testimony of the European immigrants to...