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De Valera's Diplomatic Neutrality

Brian Girvin explains the tensions between the Irish government and many of the Irish people in their attitudes to the war against Nazism.

In late 1941 the Irish Taoiseach Eamon de Valera remarked, ‘I wish there was some way of knowing who will win the war. It would make decisions much easier’. Yet on May 2nd, 1945, de Valera paid a visit to Dr Eduard Hempel, the German minister in Ireland, to offer his condolences on the death of Hitler. The visit outraged opinion across the world and has puzzled historians ever since. For critics it was a snub to democratic Europe; for apologists it was an act of statesmanship, reflecting the successful defence of Ireland’s neutrality during the war.

Recent research shows that this was not a spontaneous decision nor was it a blunder. Shortly afterwards, de Valera wrote to Robert Brennan, the Irish Minister to the United States, asserting ‘I acted correctly, and, I feel certain wisely’. Some members of the diplomatic service attempted to dissuade him from the visit, but his political colleagues Frank Aiken and Sean T. O’Kelly supported de Valera’s decision. The government also approved the President’s decision to send his condolences to Hempel the following day. This action outraged David Gray, the American Minister in Ireland, as no representative of the President visited the American legation after the death of President Roosevelt.

Hempel remained in Ireland after the war ended and de Valera resisted Allied demands for the return of arrested German agents. In a letter written to de Valera on October 5th, 1946, asking him to intervene on behalf of German officials sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials, Hempel expressed concern at the impact the executions would have on German opinion and asked de Valera to ‘take any other appropriate measures in case you should see any possibility of a help to avert disaster’. The Taoiseach was quick to respond and officials in the Department of External Affairs prepared a brief challenging the trials. On October 8th a draft condemned the trials as illegal and an ‘instrument of the victorious Allies established to punish individuals, citizens of a defeated Axis state, Germany’. It questioned the Allies’ right to try military and political leaders for actions taken during wartime, for which there was no statute in law at the time the crimes were committed. A more detailed draft two days later dismissed the legal concept of a war criminal while comparing the Nuremberg trials to British use of the judicial system in Ireland against nationalists.

De Valera called in the UK representative Sir John Maffey, asserting that any executions would be ‘a tragic mistake’ and pressed the UK government to change its support for the sentences. The British curtly replied that the government believed the sentences were ‘imposed after prolonged deliberation and [a] scrupulously careful trial by responsible judges’. In early 1947 Robert Brennan in DC recounted his wife’s meeting with the wife of Justice Robert H. Jackson, one of the US judges at Nuremberg. When Una Brennan was asked her opinion on the trial and sentences, she refused to answer on the grounds that her reply ‘would hurt you very much’. Brennan added that this ‘of course was saying a mouthful’.

De Valera’s actions suggest a partiality towards Germany and some disdain for the Allies. Irish opinion was slow to accept the nature of the Nazi regime, while films of the concentration camps were denounced as propaganda. For many Irish nationalists there was a moral equivalence between the Allies and the Axis which justified Irish neutrality. This might be contrasted with official indifference to the plight of European Jewry, though de Valera was aware of the atrocities as early as 1943. Nor was the Irish state generous to Jewish refugees after the war.

The 80,000 Irish citizens who volunteered to fight for Britain during the war experienced this indifference. The Volunteers Project based at University College Cork has interviewed veterans on their experiences. Most considered they were fighting for the defence of Ireland as well as Britain and all supported Irish neutrality though some thought it could have been more sensitive to British needs. Many complained that their sacrifice was never recognized by the Irish state or people and those who returned to Ireland faced hostility from the public. The Volunteers were effectively written out of Irish history until quite recently. That this was deliberate can be seen from the government’s decision to permit US military personnel to wear their uniforms at the end of the war but refuse to extend the same right to those in the British forces. The government also banned the Remembrance Day march in November 1945, on grounds of public order, but more likely because a nationalist government feared that many people would take the opportunity to demonstrate their identification with those who had fought in the war. 

At the very time that de Valera was visiting Hempel in May 1945, two deserters from the Irish army who had joined the British forces returned to Ireland in the belief that they would not be prosecuted. In fact they were arrested, court-martialled and sentenced, and both were discharged from the Irish armed forces. Some 4,000 Irish army personnel deserted to Britain during the war, most of them long after any threat to Irish neutrality had disappeared. De Valera removed responsibility for these men from the military courts and introduced special legislation to deprive them of various rights for seven years. They were penalized because they had fought with the British forces, not because they deserted. This was denounced by the opposition as a slight on the bravery of those involved who had, as one speaker in the Dáil remarked, run away to fight not run away from a fight. 

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