I have had several conversations recently about Irish neutrality during WWII.  I am curious about the opinion of The Wild Geese community.  

In case you are not familiar with this piece of history:  Ireland, under Taoiseach Éamon de Valera maintained neutrality throughout WWII.  In discussions behind the scenes, representatives of the Irish government made statements indicating tacit support of both sides of the conflict. 50,000 Irish citizens volunteered to fight as part of the British armed forces.  However, there was also sympathy towards Germany, with Fine Gael founder Eoin O'Duffy facilitating links between the IRA and the Nazis, and de Valera famously signing the book of condolence at Hitler's death.  It was revealed in a 1970 biography that de Valera refused a British offer to end the partition of Ireland in exchange for Irish support of the Allies.

 Secretary of the Department of External Affairs Joe Walshe, 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 ... no government has the right to court certain destruction for its people; they have to take the only chance of survival and stay out."

So, what do you say: Was Irish neutrality in WWII principled, pragmatic, or cowardly?   Did "Dev" miss a chance to unite Ireland, and come out on the morally "right side" of history?

Reference for Walshe quotation: Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1868-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland. p. 371

Tags: Germany, Hitler, WWII, Walshe, deValera, neutrality, war

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"My opinion is that, based on the knowledge they had when they made these decisions (and that is the only fair way to judge historical decisions), remaining neutral was perfectly understandable."

Disclaimer before I make this analogy: I do not wish to get into modern American politics, just given for the sake of illustration ...

I wonder if that same criterion is used when it comes to American politicians who voted for the war in Iraq in 2001.  We all know what was supposed to be found in Iraq that never was.  But the intelligence given to them at the time indicated otherwise.  I just wonder how many folks extend the same courtesy to the American leaders who were wrong about Iraq (which was a whole lot of them ... on both sides of the aisle).  In one case, doing something despite not knowing everything and going to war turned out to be right.  In the other case, doing something despite not knowing everything and going to war turned out to be wrong (overall).  

It's a fair point, and I'm inclined to agree.  I'm just not sure how consistent we are in applying it.  That's all.

Unfortunately some of the "intelligence" we got about Iraq was not wrong by mistake, however. Some of it was intentionally wrong. The story about Saddam buying yellow cake uranium in Africa was a based on an obviously forged document, and the administration knew it. The story about Saddam buying alimuminum tubes that could "only be used to manufacture a centrifuge" was known to be untrue. The story about mobile chemical labs told by Cheney's buddy Chalabi and with a member of Chalabi's family testifying to having worked in one, was a complete fabrication, something no one will ever convince me Cheney didn't know. It wasn't just "bad" intelligence, it was fabricated "intelligence" designed to bring about an invasion. Going too far in this discussion would side track the original one, however.

However, by the time de Velera signed the condolence book, it was well known that Hitler had started a world war that left so much of Europe in rubble.  Don't you think THAT is something that is very telling?  Not what the government did when they DIDN'T know....but what they did when the knew.....?

This is definetly reading History backwards and at that some key facts were missed:

  1. Let us not forget that America was "neutral on Hitler" until we were attacked at Pearl Harbour and the Germans then declared War on the US in support of Imperial Japan.  Prior to that declaration of war there was significant US sentiment to ONLY fight against Imperial Japan who attacked us and remain neutral to Germany.
  2. One also has to releazie that to be or not to be neutral also has a pragmatic dimension.  If one takes a side they are expected to be an active participant.  What exactly was Ireland, one of the poorest countries in the world,  supposed to fight with?  I believe at that time the Irish Airforce had a few aging Glouster Gladiator Biplanes
  3. The offer by Churchill to end the partition in exchange for the ports and little binding language.  Given than the whole partition problem was created by England's refusal to support the "Government of Ireland" bill which had constitutionally passed  (a crisis where Churchill himself was a key player) one would certainly have doubts on what and when would be delivered in exchange for making Ireland part of the front lines (Again it was not just a matter of  letting Britain use those ports, the Luftwaffe would have started bombing those Irish ports as soon as the first Royal Navy ship docked) 
  4. For a neutral there are many documented cases of Ireland being a bit more than partial to the allied cause.  The Irish Government sent the Dublin Fire Brigade to help assist British Belfast when it was blitzed.  There are more than a few accounts of Allied airmen who crasheed in Ireland being allowed to cross the border back into Northern Ireland with a wink and a nod that German pilots didn't get.

The US was not neutral.  We were making and shipping weapons and vehicles and raw materials to Britain to help Churchill very early.  Roosevelt wanted to go, but the American people wanted isolation until they were attacked.  And you are so right about the fire brigades.  I am an American, but I even knew about that.  The PEOPLE weren't necessarily neutral.  It was the government, and that is just the opposite of the Americans.

I also recall that many of the German and Italian internees were released to help with the harvest each year, and not a few went on to meet and marry Irish women, with the couples remaining in Ireland for the rest of their presumably happily married lives.

That was pretty common practice (at least for Italians) in Britain at least.   With Italy surrendering and Germany then occupying Italy they were deemed low risk. Explains a lot of Italian names adorning Ice Cream parlours and Fish and Chip shops in Britain even to this day.

On Point (4) I have read a couple of accounts of a blind eye turned to allied prisoners (but all internees seemed to enjoy a great deal of freedom), but here is an interesting example of an American who flew with the RAF Eagle Squadron before America entered the war and who was interned after his Spitfire crashed in Ireland while trying to return to his base (in Derry). 

"On 13 December 1941 (Bud Wolfe) walked straight out of (the internment) camp and after a meal in a hotel, which he did not pay for, he headed into nearby Dublin and caught the train the next day to Belfast. Within hours he was back at RAF Eglinton where he had taken off two weeks earlier in his defective Spitfire.

He could not have expected what was to happen next. The British government decided that, in this dark hour, it would be unwise to upset a neutral nation.  The decision was made to send Wolfe back to The Curragh and internment"

Eamon de Valera was right. Ireland would have suffered immeasurably and England would never have kept its part of the deal. The hell with England.

DeValera's decision must be seen both through the prism of history and through his own, personal experiences.  What we now see as the intrinsic evil of Hitler and the Nazi philosophy, was not evident (except to occupants of concentration camps, and to a few others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Konrad Adenauer, the Valkyrie conspirators, and the Bavarian Royal family), until after V-E Day (8 May 1945).  For most of the period most of Europe was either seduced, or bullied, by a resurgent Germany - nor did a German defeat become even probably, eventually likely until sometime in 1943.  As difficult as the "Emergency" was for Ireland, it seemed preferable to inviting Luftwaffe air raids, U-Boat activity, etc. (note the bombing of Dublin, "accidentally," after DeV sent the Dublin Fire Brigade to Belfast, the first time the Luftwaffe bombed Ireland - he sent a message, which Hitler answered, in spades).  DeV's other problem as a "Republican" in a state where the most important domestic political question was neither left-right, nor policy, but "which side" one was on "in the (Irish) Civil War," was how to justify entering into an alliance with Ireland's only, and persistent, enemy since the 12th century, while that enemy still occupied part of Ireland against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people.  [A German victory in The Great War might have been better for Ireland than the cold shoulder of the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.]      

The event of 1916, the Easter Rising, represents not only a failure in communication, but a failure in trust (based, sadly (referring only to modern history here), on a solid record of broken promises on the subject of Home Rule, going back to the subversion of the Irish Parliament in Dublin in 1800, five years after recognizing its right to exist in perpetuity; the disgraceful treatment of O'Connell, the absolutely non-violent Home Ruler - O'Connell had witnessed, first hand, as a university student in Paris the horrifying excesses of the French Revolution and was determined that Ireland would not suffer a similar fate; English policy during the Great Hunger (which assumed the same psychological significance for the Irish of the 19th Century as the Holocaust would for the Jews of the 20th and 21st centuries); the failure to apply the principle of subsidiarity - the "Canadian solution" – Dominion status, with subsidiary Provinces; Randolph Churchill's playing of the Orange Card in English politics combined with the treatment of Parnell; the suspension of Home Rule - passed Commons in 1912 - for the duration of the Great War little over a month before it would have been implemented, by Act of Parliament).  What might have satisfied all but the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) would have been this opportunity for the Irish to be as free to be Irish in Ireland as they were to be so in New York, or in Canada, - where the Canadians, of all kinds, are also free to be Canadian (in any number of languages) - with no damage to the Empire. 

So, as Yeats would later write, "England may have kept faith, after all," but the suspension of Home Rule (when it would have been strategically wiser to have Ireland as a partner in the conflict), convinced many romantic 19th century cultural nationalists. like the Irish Volunteers (inspired by the Irish Volunteers of 1782, and formed to defend an act of Parliament - namely Home Rule), like Pearse (a poet who ran a school and edited a newspaper), and Sinn Féin (which was still looking for a Dual-Monarchy on the Austro-Hungarian model) that there could be no trust there, and made them fair game for conversion to militant Irish Revolutionary Republicanism by the conspiratorial élite of the IRB.  That is that the government in London had a record of keeping promises no better with the Irish than the (post George Washington) government in Washington had with the indigenous "Indian" nations of North America.  The last un-broken American Indian treaty (between President George Washington and the Seneca Chief, Cornplanter) which was to last, in the words of the Treaty, "as long as the grass shall grow," was violated in 1964 (such dishonor was sufficient reason to vote against LBJ - whatever other good he might have done). 

[See, "Bitter Tears" an album of relevant song, including this issue, by Johnny Cash.] 

The result has been to compound the tragedy.  And Winston Churchill, whatever good he may have done in his life, did nothing to correct the harm done to Ireland by his father, but only exacerbated it by doing more to bring on the Irish Civil War than anyone else, and never correcting his course since (see the public debate between Churchill and de Valera at the end of the Second World War).  [See also, Holy War in Belfast by Andrew Boyd.]

They may be neighbors, but England and Ireland might as well be in different worlds, or in parallel universes.  The English may perceive from time to time, that they have an "Irish Problem."  However, they fail to realize that Ireland has a persistent English problem.

But just as there could be no going back for the Founding Fathers of the United States after 4th July 1776, so, at least psychologically, there could be no going back (at least not overtly) for Irish politicians after:

1) the blood sacrifice of 1916 (including the Robert Emmet-like trials and martyrdoms of its leaders), see also 1916 by Morgan Llywelyn, "Easter Week" by Joyce Kilmer and "Easter 1916" by William Butler Yeats;

[In the interest of United States entry into the Great War, the rest of the captured "rebels" were interned in a prison camp in Wales called Frongoch - which, in effect became a university for the study of revolution for Ireland.  The subsequent release of the volunteers back to civil life in Ireland - again with an eye on American politics - followed by the introduction of Conscription into Ireland, convinced many young Irishmen that they would rather die in Ireland, fighting for Ireland, than on the Western Front, fighting for Ireland's oppressor, resulting in a great growth in volunteering for the IRA - the Irish Republican Army.]

2) the overwhelming vote for Sinn Féin Abstentionist candidates in the 14 December 1918 General Election (on the heels of Wilson's Fourteen Points, on which basis the Central Powers agreed to the Armistice, 11 November 1918 - including national self-determination); and,

3) the Declaration of Independence by the popularly elected First Dáil Éireann on 21 December 1919 (and the subsequent ("Black and Tan") war in defense of that Irish Republic).   Not only was the Irish Republic the expression of the democratic will of the people, but also, both the Sinn Féin TDEs, and the IRA, had sworn a sacred oath of allegiance to defended it, and they had taken lives in its defense.    

[See also, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley", winner of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.]

The sorry state of politics in Dublin is perhaps the best argument for reunification.  All Ireland needs, desperately, the leadership that would follow from the educated classes in the "North" dedicating their energies and talents to Ireland.  De Valera, did his best to find a middle ground with the 1937 Éire Constitution, within the Commonwealth.  DeValera also personally negotiated with Chamberlain the removal of British military and naval facilities from at least the 26 Counties of Éire, controlled by the Dublin government (the 1937 Constitution claimed sovereignty over "the entire island of Ireland, its islands and territorial seas" - talk about no longer being Politically Correct!).  During the Second World War Churchill would cry crocodile tears over his inability to use those Irish bases, but, perhaps in part over sensitivity to Irish-American public opinion, did not dare to invade the 26-Counties, to secure their use (of course, once the Germans invaded Russia, and then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor - followed by Hitler declaring war on the United States, he could relax and get a good night's sleep).

But, DeValera also remembered that it was that same Winston Churchill who had convinced Michael Collins to abrogate the power-sharing arrangement between Sinn Féin and Cumann na nGaedheal; and it was the same Winston Churchill who stood up in Westminster four days before the scheduled convening of the elected Third Dáil Éireann demanding that the Free State remove the Republican Executive from the Four Courts, or His Majesty's government would do it.  In what should be recognized as a coup d'état by the Free Staters, the provisional government of the Irish Free State had it army attack the Four Courts, thus beginning the civil war (rather than wait a mere additional 48 hours for the Third Dáil Éireann to convene and elect a new Irish government).  [See Brian O'Higgins, TDE, description in the Wolfe Tone Annual.]

While we might all agree that the re-unification of Ireland, under an Irish government, remains a desirable end (and had it happened in the 1940s, a lot of tragedy might have been averted - which point would be even better made had reunification been accomplished, as promised, in the 1920s), nor do we know all the details of the alleged WWII offer - what we do know is that there were no more crystal balls in Leinster House then than now.  

Little wonder that DeV felt that he could trust Churchill no more than he could trust Hitler, and, instead, chose to walk a tightrope of neutrality, swaying with the breeze, between London and Berlin.  [In the meantime, German internees were treated with kindness, and often getting week-end passes to visit Dublin; Allied internees, after a few weeks rest, and once fit for duty, were allowed to "escape" down to the occupied North, and only the hard core Republicans were strictly confined in the Curragh concentration camp, lest they somehow upset the diplomatic apple cart.]  If nothing else, DeValera was a survivor, and wanted HIS Irish state to survive as well.

Would England have kept faith, after all?  There is nothing in the historical record to suggest it.  

        

Yeah DeValera will no doubt go on to be the whipping boy of the revisionists for years to come. But his neutrality was completely justified on these grounds:

1.) Ireland was a small poor nation with virtually no real powers of self-defense apart from guerrilla warfare, which while they were capable at that, it would have been far worse than what was seen in the Black and Tan days.

2.) Speaking of those days....a number of the older officers serving in the British Army at the time, had served in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence. So it would have been a very difficult situation for DeValera to justify for say, a General Percival to return to Cork to fight Nazi invaders as part of an allied team when most of the Irish soldiers that would been recruited in Cork would have no doubt shot Percival on sight. There's just no way this kind of still existing bad blood could have been accommodated in any practical way. I mean look how hostile General Patton was to the British. How much worse would it have been with former IRA men or their sons?

3.) The Blue shirts. We forget today that Fascism was popular because it was seen at the time as a societal anti-dote for Communism and Socialism. We also forget today how highly the Irish Civil War was split along those same socio-economic lines which later settled themselves along those later ideological doctrines. So in reality, given the later historical events, you could argue that the Free State Army was the first "Proto-Fascist" army in Europe fighting the first "Red" army, in Europe, the IRA. Not strictly true I know, but still, given the clear evolution of that from 1923 to 1939 and the history of splits and schisms in Irish armies, DeValera was faced with the prospect that if he openly opposed Hitler, some of his own men might rebel in the name of fighting Godless communism.

What is strangest to me about the Revisionists in Ireland is that while DeValera is always viewed as the horrible oppressive enemy, Collins is always viewed as the enlightened visionary. We tend to forget that when Collins died he was acting officially as the British "Military Governor General of Ireland" which translates in today's language as "military dictator". Exactly like Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. For all his faults you certainly can't say the same of DeValera.

Thanks to you all for the viewpoints!   My knowledge of Eire history is in the "other way" , 18th century back.  I now have several oints I can persue!

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