Ottawa Authors against hate, racism, Islamophobia

Lauren Roulston • Apr 23, 2024

Barbara Leimsner’s Quitting the Master Race and Monia Mazigh’s Gendered Islamophobia: My Journey with a Scar(f).

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is expressing concern over the dramatic rise in Islamophobia in Canada since Oct. 7, 2023. “When hate manifests in our communities, it is a threat to public safety, democracy, and human rights. Hate divides us and turns us against each other,” they write. 

Officials across the country have sounded the alarm over this increase, something Muslims are facing everyday. Monia Mazigh is an Ottawa-based author, and she writes about the harassment she’s experienced as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in Gendered Islamophobia: My Journey with a Scar(f)

Tonight, she’ll speak on a panel about confronting hate with fellow author Barbara Leimsner and moderator Kevin Skerrett.

Leimsner, also in Ottawa, writes in her book Quitting the Master Race about growing up with a Nazi-sympathizing father, his hateful indoctrination, and unlearning those early stages in her life.

Together, Mazigh and Leimsner will discuss difficult topics like keeping hope in the face of rising hate in the world, how people become indoctrinated, and how the grips of hate can be broken.

CHUO was able to discuss some of these topics with Leimsner after her book launch at the Ottawa Public Library in the fall.

Here’s that conversation lightly edited for clarity:

Lauren Roulston: On Saturday you had this book launch for your new book, this memoir, Quitting the Master Race, can you tell me a little bit about it?

Barbara Leimsner: Yes, so the book launch was the official kickoff for this book and I think it was a great success because I was able to fill the room, I got lots of good feedback from the people who were there about how they were receiving the book and so on. Yeah, it was a very successful event.

It was interesting the disparate groups that came out, including everything from people concerned about the rise of the far-right to people who had lived through the second world war. Possibly some people of German ancestry and so on, it was very interesting.

We had a question and answer session that raised a lot of really good questions.

LR: And what were some of those significant questions?

BL: Well, people wanted to know, for example, was my father a holocaust denier? That was one question. Also, what was the nature of the German community in Canada in the 1950s? Were there significant pockets of fascists? That was pretty interesting, questions about how to oppose the far-right today, the balance between compassion for my father and anger in the book.

Did I achieve that balance, how did I achieve it? That kind of thing.

LR: And I’m sure you’ve got a lot of answers sprinkled in the book as well, so I would like it if you could tell me a little bit about it and that journey that you went through to kind of free yourself from the hate that you encountered as a child.

BL: Alright, well, let’s start talking about my immigrant story. This book is about me as a kid, I came to Canada with my parents when I was just about four years old.

And of course, immediately, my father having been so inculcated and indoctrinated with horrific fascist ideology when he was in the military and also before the war even began, started to share those same views with my sister and I. They were racist views, they were ultranationalist views, there were certainly notions about our own superiority as “pure blooded German people.”

At first, I craved my father’s approval as a little kid, I didn’t really know any better. It’s a bit horrifying to think that, you know, young kids are very impressionable and easily led, especially when they look up to their parents.

So I was no exception. It took several years going to school, of course. Hearing what other parents were saying or not saying forced these ideas that I’d grown up with to jar in my head, with what I was learning at school, and also I think key is the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was starting to become in full-throttle.

That was critical because my teachers and everyone else supported the struggle for equality for African-Americans. I was generally sympathetic, and so on, and yet my father’s racist ideas said “oh, Black people, they’re at the bottom of the heap,” and also that the races shouldn’t mix.

So white people and Black people shouldn’t mix, because of course that had been Hitler’s notion, Aryans and Jews, Aryans and Black people, and so on.

These ideas started to jar in my head, I wasn’t necessarily preoccupied with them, so it wasn’t until I got to university, I would say, and started to really see… well first of all I was learning completely different things in my classes and I had roommates from all over the world and friends from all over the world.

And I, at some point concluded, which I write about in the book that my father was, and I say, completely full of shit.

So I also was myself, caught up and became an activist in 60s in the student movement which was happening on the campuses here in Canada. Early 70s when I got to Carleton, there was still a big wave of progressive movements, there was women’s movements, all kinds of things you could do and counter and be involved in.

So I was in there like a dirty shirt, heh. And I was really drawn to left-wing activism, which I think made all the difference.

LR: And so, during that Q&A period you mentioned, people asked you about, is it hard? You want to sympathize for your father but he’s got these awful Nazi-sympathizing views, you confront this painful history and refuse to leave out the hard stuff. You wrote that “amnesia is too convenient,” so what was it like for you to personally confront your family’s past like this?

BL: I won’t say that it wasn’t very very difficult. Even when I started writing the book and I wasn’t  necessarily clear exactly, where I was going with these stories. I really harboured a big knot of shame in my own body.

Shame about that past, my father’s views, and also guilt, too to some extent. I think that’s not uncommon for my generation, the post-war generation. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to go public and tell this story.

I had started writing it in 2016, after taking a course at Carleton in the continuous education program, called “Remembering my Father,” and that was the year that Donald Trump got elected.

If you recall in 2017, there was a Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in Virginia where violent fascist, neo-Nazis, Ku-Klux Klan members, Proud Boys, Heritage Front Folks and so on, were coming together, including from Canada.

They were coming together and waving torches and chanting all of rubbish, like, “Jews will not replace us!” And Donald Trump, the white nationalist in the White House was saying that they were “fine people,” just fine people.

You know, I think it was then that I thought, wow, can this happen again? Is it possible that we’re going to see a resurgence of this kind of, neo-fascist movements and populist movements and I was horrified and it created a sense of urgency for me.

I thought, you know, if I have any doubts that my family’s story matters or telling the story matters, I need to just push ahead and get this book done and get it out there, because I think it does matter. Even though it’s one family’s story, and it’s an author probing into the past and looking at parents and how they became indoctrinated, ordinary people.

Like my parents, they were not high-up Nazi officials, they were just ordinary folks like your neighbour and they became indoctrinated and bought on to a horrendous ideology. And we see this now in the States and in Canada here, where large numbers, millions of people believe that an election was stolen. Conspiracy theories, lies, Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., on and on.

There’s a notion of a great white race being replaced by deliberately flooding Mexicans across the border and immigrants into the country and refugees and so on. These are lies and they’re becoming more mainstream. And that’s exactly what happened in the 1930s when preposterous notions, antisemitic notions and so on, entered the mainstream.

LR: Wow, so this book comes at an important time, in your years and years of activism you’re finding that today there’s a very significant resurgence of right-wing extremism?

BL: Yes, I think so, and we don’t have to look far. Here in Ottawa, for example, we had the convoy which was led – not everyone in it was by any stretch far-right or fascist or anything like that – at the same time, the people who organized it certainly were. They had definite links to far-right groups and ultranationalist groups and so on.

It also showed how groups like them can use a crisis like the pandemic to mobilize large numbers of fearful angry people into the streets in a reactionary way, and that’s what we saw with the convoy.

So similarly, I participated this summer in two protests when the far-right came to picket at Broad street school, and they also picketed at the National Art Centre to prevent parent with their children from going in to hear drag queens story hour, which has been happening here inn town for 10 years.

So seeing those emboldened, far-right, in-your-face kind of actors here in Ottawa, it tells us that no country is immune. Including here in our own city, from the pernicious effects of people who will take advantage of the fear and insecurity and anger that a lot of people feel, and project them to the right.

LR: So, this polarization that’s going on, this emboldened hate, people look back at the Holocaust, to the 30s where you say these kinds of sentiments were happening, and people like to say “never again.” But after your research and analysis how can we prevent hate like this from really spreading?

BL: Yes, I think that’s a really good question, and it’s actually the key question, to some extent.

I think first of all, people do need to get informed and realize that when they are getting lies, online lies about all kinds of issues, including for example that trans people are groomers and pedophiles or some such nonsense, that people really get informed and look behind the scenes at what really is happening.

So that’s the first thing, but the second thing really is, and what I really stress in my book, is that for ordinary people – you know most people are not the extreme far-right that we’re seeing right now. But, for ordinary people really, the key thing is to see and to experience large community mobilization whenever these kind of far-right actors show their faces and march in cities or hold events and so on.

I think they need to be opposed at every turn. And also, that means people organizing through their unions if they’re working in a unionized workplace, through workplaces and community associations, through universities, and actually making sure that there’s a broad based community anti-fascist response.

What we saw in the 1930s and what enabled Hitler was the passive bystanders, the people who weren’t big high-ups in the Nazi party, but many people did support the Nazis, there’s no question about it.

But there were also large numbers of people who stood by and let the fascists run their course. It also has to be said that once Hitler got into power, this is in the history books, but that the first people who were in the concentration camps were the anti-fascist opponents of the regime who were numerous.

So, leaders of other political parties, democratic parties, social democratic parties, communist parties and so on. Those were the people who were the first people who were locked up in the camps because Hitler believed in exterminating his so-called enemies.

Many of them perished, and it became much more difficult to mount resistance, even though there was still low-level resistance, once that party got into power.

And so, that’s a lesson from history, too. We have to just prevent them from ever taking the reins.

LR: And that, to me, it connects to this quote that you have, an excerpt from your book, where you’re writing about your dad, you’re figuring about his complacency and sympathy for Nazi ideology, and you write that “he was a product of his times, but he was not a passive victim.” Can you speak a little bit more on that complacency as being linked with violence?

BL: Mhm, my research really helped me explain how my dad, growing up where he did in that particular region in Northern Moravia in the former Czechoslovakia, how people in that region became ultranationalist and ended up supporting Hitler, even more so than some people in West Germany proper did.

So, yes, I came to understand the propaganda that he was exposed to, what it was like to be a soldier for seven years in Hitler’s army of annihilation, which was brutal. So, yes I could understand this.

But my father always had choices. Everybody does. I said in the introduction to the book, I’m not trying to exonerate my father. There was no reconciliation between my love for my father, you know, my German papa, and the authoritarian views that he held, those two things cannot be reconciled.

He was, yes, a victim of his times, but he was also an actor in history, as we all are. We all are actors in history and so it wasn’t like people got swept away into a big wave and none of them made choices, they all had to make choices every day about supporting the regime or not, passive resistance.

I think that’s important. I tried to portray him and I think I succeeded eventually, with some humanity, re-discovered the humanity that he had with some compassion. But that’s different from exonerating him from holding those abhorrent ideas.

LR: And I think the reviews can attest to that, I was looking through and you’re earning major praise for thoughtful honesty, what were some of your fears and hopes when you were writing it, though?

BL: There were definitely lots, I would say one of the fears would be that maybe some people would misunderstand writing a book like this as an attempt to exonerate the parent or exonerate the ideas but I think it’s very clearly an antifascist book, I hope no one could mistake that.

I’m hoping that the book finds a broader readership, that it reaches people who both concerned about the rise of the far-right today and those who have some experience with that history and maybe had parents or grandparents in the war and want to discuss the lessons that have come from that history that may have been lost to a newer generation.

So it’s really about having discussions, and I’m hoping to generate conversations. At the same time, I’m also hoping to mobilize people to some extent. To convince people that standing by and watching, because it doesn’t affect me right now, is not an option if we want to preserve the liberal democracy that we live in.

It can be easily lost and without people standing up, it will be lost. 

LR: Well Barbara, thank you for taking the time with me today.

BL: Thank you, Lauren, I appreciate it.