Irish neutrality

This article by Ben Macintyre was published in The Times (London) on May 10, 2013

On May 2,1945, the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera visited the German Embassy in Dublin to offer his personal condolences over the death of Adolf Hitler, who had committed suicide in the Führerbunker two day earlier.

For De Valera this was a demonstration of the Republic of Ireland’s continued neutrality in the war that had ravaged Europe for six years and an expression of its determination to pursue an independent foreign policy. Signing the condolence book for Hitler was a matter of diplomatic protocol; to do otherwise, said De Valera, would have been “an act of unpardonable discourtesy”.

The gesture provoked fury in Britain, most particularly on the part of Winston Churchill, whose anger at Ireland’s neutral stance boiled over in his subsequent victory speech, in which he said that Britain had shown great restraint by not invading Ireland during the war: “We never laid a violent hand on them, which at times would have been quite easy and quite natural.”

Dublin’s wartime neutrality remains a traumatic and contradictory chapter in Irish history, a source of pride to some, but embarrassment to others. This week Ireland righted one of the worst injustices of that time by granting a formal amnesty and apology to the 5,000 Irish soldiers who deserted to join British forces fighting the Axis powers and were treated shamefully when they returned home.

The Irish citizens who chose to fight Hitler, some 60,000 in number, did so to “protect decency and democracy” in the words of Ireland’s Defence Minister. But if these men were really heroes, that raises the uncomfortable question of whether the Irish state’s decision not to take sides in a war of good against evil was, at the very least, an abdication of moral responsibility.

In 1939 most Irish citizens backed De Valera’s policy of neutrality. The Irish Free State was barely 20 years old with bitter memories of civil war still fresh; it was militarily weak and determined to protect its new-won sovereignty. Neutrality was a statement of national self-determination, proof that Ireland could and would pursue a foreign policy independent of Britain. As the novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote in a 1940 report to the British Government: “The assertion of her neutrality is Eire’s first free self-assertion… Eire (and I think rightly) sees her neutrality as positive, not merely negative.”

Moreover, Irish neutrality was not exactly neutral — British airmen who crashed in Ireland were repatriated whereas Germans were interned; MI5 and Irish Intelligence co-operated closely and the Irish Government let Allied aircraft pass through a narrow strip of Irish airspace.

Ireland’s neutral stance may have helped to bind the country together, cementing a sense of national identity, but at a high moral cost. Too often neutrality encouraged indifference to the evils of Nazism. Amid tight censorship, both sides in the conflict were presented as morally equivalent when they manifestly were not. Even Charlie Chaplin’s anti-Nazi film The Great Dictator was banned from Irish cinemas. Ireland did not open its doors to Jews fleeing persecution and some dismissed the horror of the Holocaust as mere British propaganda.

Churchill was enraged by Ireland’s refusal to allow the Royal Navy to use Irish ports, putting the Atlantic convoys at even greater risk from the U-boat wolf packs. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he sent a pleading telegram to De Valera, urging him to side with the Allies: “Now is your chance. Now or never.”

De Valera chose never. He stuck to his guns, or lack of them, firmly believing that the future of his young nation depended on staying out of the fight. But the Nazi occupations of the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark had clearly revealed how much Hitler respected the neutrality of small independent countries. If Britain had fallen, Ireland would undoubtedly have been next to see the Panzers rolling in, giving the Nazis unrestricted access to the Atlantic. The guarantor of Ireland’s liberty was not neutrality but Britain’s determination to stand up to Hitler.

The war left Ireland with a paradoxical legacy: pride that the country had survived with its independence intact, coupled with a queasy unease over its failure to take up arms against the greatest evil of the 20th century. Those who had left the Irish Army to fight in British uniforms were treated appallingly, blacklisted and barred from military pensions. The contribution of thousands more Irishmen who volunteered was quietly ignored.

Ireland is finally coming to terms with its ambiguous wartime history. In a landmark speech last year, Alan Shatter, the Irish Defence Minister, acknowledged the country’s failure to oppose Nazi genocide: “We should no longer be in denial that, in the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy.”

The Irish Government believed that its tiny army would make no difference, that by contributing to the fight it would shape neither the war nor the peace and that taking sides would be an invitation to be swallowed up by the great powers: As Joe Walshe, the Secretary of the Irish Department of External Affairs, put it in 1941: “Small nations like Ireland do not and cannot assume a role as defenders of just causes except [their] own… Existence of our own people comes before all other considerations.”

But it is often the small voices that echo loudest when raised in a just cause precisely because they are vulnerable and have most to lose.

Irish neutrality in 1939 was a logical decision by a fledgeling state, understandably cautious of embroilment in a world war and deeply suspicious of British motives. By 1943, with the tide of war turning, neutrality was less defensible since the military threat to Ireland was now negligible. Other formerly neutral countries had modified their positions, isolating the Axis powers. By 1945, with the full horror of Nazism exposed and Germany on the verge of defeat, neutrality was inexcusable.

It was in this context that De Valera presented his condolences on Hitler’s death. He did it to demonstrate consistency, to prove that Irish independence would endure, and to avoid the split in his own party that would have resulted from abandoning neutrality. It was a point of principle, protocol and politics, and a terrible mistake. Even after the war De Valera did not publicly endorse the justice of the Allied cause.

Pardoning and praising the Irishmen who fought Hitler is an important symbolic gesture; erasing De Valera’s name from Hitler’s book of condolences would be another.

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