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Ireland Through European Eyes

Western Europe, The EEC and Ireland 1945 -1973
O'Driscoll, Keogh and aan de Wiel (eds)
Cork University Press


By late 1938, the German minister Eduard Hempel feared that a 'countermovement' was developing in many Irish circles against Berlin. The Irish press displayed rising concerns about the totalitarianism of Nazism as the 1930s progressed and unsurprisingly suspected the trustworthiness of Hitler in international affairs. Hempel detected a strong Irish disapproval of the Nazi regime, particularly after Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938), the Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic pogrom that killed at least 100 German Jews and destroyed virtually all the synagogues in Germany and many Jewish businesses, even among those circles previously favourable to Nazi Germany. By then Nazi Germany's strategic calculations and perceptions had changed as Britain failed to fulfil Hitler's desire for an overall Anglo-German strategic agreement so Ireland could be a key strategic player in the event of a war. However, Berlin generally assumed that it would side with Britain in a conflict ques­tioning the feasibility of de Valera's stated commitment to neutrality 'in time of war'. It took a determined last-minute effort by Hempel in the summer of 1939 to convince Berlin that de Valera was determined to maintain a neutral path. He only persuaded his sceptical superiors that this was the case four weeks shy of the invasion of Poland.

In January 1939 the launch of an IRA bombing campaign (S-Plan) against Britain illustrated the possibility of exploiting Irish anti-partitionism to create an alliance of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and the IRA against Britain. Following earlier failed and poorly planned efforts, the Abwehr launched a belated initiative to work with the IRA in 1939. But they failed to establish sufficient trust, a common strategy or a reliable means of secure communication. The IRA was in a weak position following the ideological divisions that had plagued it in the mid-1930s. The Irish authorities applied draconian 'Emergency' legislation after its enactment in September 1939 against all suspected subversives, resulting in the rapid dismemberment of the IRA as an effective organisation by 1941 at the latest.

The most precarious period for neutrality lay in the possibility of German intervention as part of a wider operation to invade Britain (Operation Sealion), or a British pre-emptive military intervention to fore­stall such a forecasted German action, in the summer and autumn of 1940. How serious Hitler was about an invasion of Ireland based on the German operational study 'Fall Griin' (or Plan Green) is hotly disputed, but recent work considers it was a deception to divert British armed forces from the real target of the invasion — mainland Britain. In any case the success of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the Battle of Britain and Hitler's shifting strategic goals and calculations in the early autumn of 1940 assured that this most dangerous period for Irish neutrality passed.

The lack of effective German intelligence activities in Ireland in the pre­war years, combined with the poor quality of German agents dispatched, a lack of coordination between interested German organisations and an unsophisticated understanding of de Valera's Ireland, or the enigmatic Irish relationship with Britain, resulted in a farcical German espionage record in Ireland. As a result of these factors, and determined Irish counter-espionage efforts in secret cooperation with British intelligence, German espionage in Ireland was a history of failure as far as can be determined. Of the twelve German agents sent to Ireland between August 1939 and December 1943, the Irish authorities detained and interned eleven within days, if not hours, of landing in the country, with the notable and worrying exception of Dr Hermann Gortz. However, the latter failed to fulfil his mission during his eighteen months on the run and built no links with the IRA.

The Irish government maintained dogmatic and unbending neu­trality publicly, but this belied a large degree of pragmatic, but covert, flexibility and cooperation with Britain, and later the United States, par­ticularly in the intelligence and counter-intelligence domains. Some of this growing Anglo-Irish covert cooperation became known to or was suspected by Hempel. Nevertheless he ensured that Berlin largely respected neutrality by arguing that neutrality was beneficial to Germany and that it should not be jeopardised by foolhardy espionage, sabotage or subversive activities. He maintained an overtly rigid respect for Irish military neutrality, although infrequently he was associated, but not conclusively so, with German intelligence activities and maintained some public interaction with one or two high-profile members or former members of the republican movement, such as Sean MacBride. Nevertheless, his generally correct diplomatic behaviour and his pro-neutral inclinations were important: they prevented the construction of an ironclad case for his and the German legation's expulsion for 'unneu­tral activities', which would have endangered the entire edifice of Irish neutrality. Nazi authorities did not consider Ireland to be economically neutral - it was Britain's economic dependant and an important food and labour reservoir for wartime Britain. Berlin calculated that Britain could easily have occupied Ireland if Irish bases were a strategic necessity or if Ireland seriously undermined the British war effort in any material way. Maintaining Irish neutrality would heighten Britain's strategic difficulties.


Post-war Irish humanitarianism

De Valera's execution of a strict public policy of formal diplomatic neu­trality differentiated Ireland from Britain. Dublin's pointed resistance to Allied requests to deport German legation staff, interned military personnel and spies without receiving adequate assurances regarding their safety and treatment by the Allies at the end of the war, served to reinforce Ireland's exceptionality in the English-speaking world and the British Common­wealth. It may have provided some basis for thinking that Ireland was predisposed to offer greater understanding to post-war Germany than other western European states. Dublin eventually deported German spies and diplomats from 1947 onwards when the Allies considered them unimpor­tant distractions in the new Cold War context. De Valera's imprudent and infamous visit to the private residence of Hempel to offer condolences on the death of Hitler in May 1945 in line with his slavish interpretation of diplomatic protocol granted apparent credence to Allied propaganda that Ireland was pro-Nazi. Cumulatively this created an impression that Ireland was pro-German, but the prime motivation of de Valera and others involved in the framing and implementation of Irish foreign policy was to fortify Irish independence by strict observance of international law as they saw it rather than making common cause with Nazism or even post-war Germany. Germans and non-Germans none the less gained a strong super­ficial image of Ireland as a friend of Germany.

Generous Irish humanitarian assistance to defeated Germany along with the other devastated countries of post-war Europe fed this perception. It contrasted with the lack of sympathy of many peoples who reflexively equated German nationality with Nazism. In the aftermath of the war, the Allies, particularly the United States, resisted granting much relief to their former adversary, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. In contrast, in the summer of 1945, the Irish government voted £3 million for post-war relief to all of western Europe. Irish charities responded immediately, realising that a humanitarian disaster was unfolding in Germany, and the scale of voluntary donations was astonishing. Irish donations to Germany were the highest per capita for any country in terms of post-war relief. For instance, during December 1947 alone, in the midst of a subsistence crisis in cities in Germany, the Irish people donated nearly two million dollars' worth of food and clothing. Unsurprisingly, Irish generosity drew many expressions of gratitude from German individuals and bodies. With the outbreak of the Cold War, a desire to halt the spread of Communism and save Europe's Christian civilisation motivated Irish charity. During the 1950s the new West German state and its people was fulsome in its praise and made many tokens of appreciation to the Irish people. Most notably, on 28 January 1956, the FRG minister unveiled a sculptured fountain in St Stephen's Green, Dublin, as an expression of German gratitude. The memory of Irish relief remained in the German official consciousness and ensured at least a hearing for, and sympathy towards, Ireland in West German diplomatic and political sectors.

However, the intentions of Ireland's Save the German Children Society (SGCS) generated controversy. Founded in October 1945 with the purpose of saving 'as many German children as possible from death by starvation this winter . . . irrespective of class, creed or polities', its rep­utation was besmirched by the atavistic nationalist and anti-British comments of at least two members attending its inaugural meeting. One stated that he supported the society 'on the grounds of pro-German feel­ings and hatred of Britain'. This generated an unseemly debate about the motives of society. Dan Breen, TD (Teachta Dala, member of the Irish parliament), was also treasurer of the society. He was a celebrated gunman of the War of Independence, an inveterate anti-British Irish nationalist who displayed pro-German sympathies during the Second World War. Gortz, the former German spy, became secretary of the society in 1947. Such associations undermined the society and relegated it to playing a supporting role to other more high-profile organisations. The Irish and British authorities, the Red Cross and other established voluntary organisations distanced themselves and the society was not for­mally involved in the arrangements for the arrival of the first group of German children in Ireland on 27 July 1946. However, the society grad­ually improved its relations, in practice, with the Irish Red Cross in the interests of the children and assisted in the placement of children with Irish families. The Catholic Caritas organisation chose the children pre­dominantly from the Ruhr area, which had been intensely bombed by the Allies. German classes were provided for the children in Dublin and led to the foundation of St Kilda's, a school for German children in the capital…