The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer, by David Blake Knox, New Island, 309 pp, €15.95, ISBN: 978-1848407343
Who was Thomas Niedermayer? Those of a certain age may dimly remember that he was a foreign industrialist who at some stage became a victim of the Troubles. But few would be able to say exactly when or exactly how, while he is also perhaps likely to be confused with the Dutch businessman Tiede Herrema, who was kidnapped by the IRA in 1975 but later freed and who is still alive aged ninety-eight. Thomas Niedermayer was not so lucky.
Niedermayer was born into a working class family in 1928 in the beautiful city of Bamberg in Bavarian Franconia. After leaving school he worked as an aircraft mechanic in Friedrichshafen and Karlsruhe. He was sixteen when the war ended. He retrained as a toolmaker and was a foreman at eighteen. In 1952 he married Ingeborg Tranowski, a German from East Prussia of Polish or Slavic ethnic origin. In the following year he took an initial step on the management ladder when he became assistant to the company director of an electronics firm. In 1955, aged just twenty-seven, he entered higher management at the Nuremberg headquarters of Grundig, then one of the major names in consumer electronics in Europe and in 1961 he moved with his family to be general manager of that company’s new plant in Belfast, the first it had established outside Germany.
Twelve years later, in 1973, Niedermayer was abducted one December night from his home in West Belfast. Though there is evidence that the authorities immediately suspected he had been kidnapped for ransom by the IRA, that trail went cold almost immediately. Niedermayer had disappeared, or, in a term we were later to become familiar with, been disappeared. The IRA denied that it had had anything to do with the incident and carefully briefed selected journalists to this effect. The journalists seemed to believe their Republican sources, or at any rate thought the story was worth printing. Simultaneously, British black propaganda units were, for their own reasons, busy planting the idea that Protestant paramilitaries might have been involved. Rumours began to emerge that there might have been reasons other than a ransom demand for the disappearance – the couple’s relationship was stormy, it was said, due to Ingeborg Niedermayer’s alcoholism, or in other versions that of her husband. He had been having affairs with workers in his factory; he had been mixed up in shady deals with Protestant paramilitaries. It seemed that almost anything could be rumoured, and published without too much in the way of proof, in spite of the distressing effect these stories must surely have had on his wife and two daughters.
In March 1980, Niedermayer’s bound and gagged body was found buried face down in Colin Glen park in southwest Belfast. The police who uncovered it, after a long search, were “acting on information received”. In 1981 two IRA members who had been involved in the kidnapping and/or detention, Eugene McManus and John Bradley, were found guilty of, respectively, withholding evidence and membership of the IRA, and manslaughter, and sentenced to five years and twenty years prison. Others who were involved could not be charged, while the main organiser of the kidnapping, Brian Keenan, a former shop steward at the Grundig factory who had had a very antagonistic relationship with Niedermayer, had been sentenced in 1980 at the Old Bailey to eighteen years in prison in connection with a series of bombings and murders in Britain.
Why was Thomas Niedermayer killed? Well one answer, an easy answer if not a fully satisfying one, is that it was an accident. It was not meant to happen – although if one thinks about it all kidnappings carry with them the threat that the person seized may be killed: that’s the whole point of them. But the IRA did not want to kill Thomas Niedermayer. What they wanted was to exchange him for the transfer to a jail in Northern Ireland of their star prisoners the sisters Dolours and Marian Price, who were serving long sentences in connection with their part in the London bombings of March 1973.
That prospective deal was never done as the IRA lost its bargaining chip when Thomas Niedermayer died after an attempt to escape from the house where he was being held just a few days after he was seized. Again, let’s be as clear as we can be about the circumstances here: Niedermayer’s body showed signs of quite severe head injuries; and from the evidence of John Bradley it would seem that those injuries, which may have proved fatal, were delivered after he had been brought back by four men to the bedroom in which he was being held – as he was being “subdued”. But we don’t know for sure whether he was beaten to death with a pistol butt, whether he suffocated by having his face shoved into a pillow, or if he had a heart attack. Brian Keenan’s verdict on what happened was that it was “a fuck-up”, one of a few, one might say, in the course of the Provisionals’ long campaign.
There is certainly not enough that is known with absolute certainty about the circumstances of Thomas Niedermayer’s death, or enough that is of compelling interest about his previous life and career to make a book from this matter alone. But what the appalling events, and their long-term effects on the rest of the Niedermayer family, do provide is an instance of one personal tragedy affecting a man who was tangential to the quarrel going on in Northern Ireland – he was neither British nor Irish, neither unionist nor nationalist, neither Catholic nor Protestant (at least in the Irish meaning of those terms).
What David Blake Knox does in this compelling book is to situate the Niedermayer episode in the context of “the Troubles” and in particular in the context of the IRA campaign, which lasted from 1969 to (roughly) 1996.
If I might be excused here a digression for a short anecdote. In summer 1972 exploratory peace talks between the British and the IRA had taken place. They had subsequently broken down, but the Provisionals obviously felt that if a little more pressure could be applied they might restart – and be taken seriously. In July of that year, after Operation Motorman put an end to “Free Derry”, many IRA members left the city via the back of Creggan Estate and then over the border –just two miles away – and into Donegal, where they laid up for the duration. A friend of mine was driving around this time from Buncrana in Donegal back into Derry when he noticed a man he knew hitching at the side of the road. He gave him a lift and was engaged in conversation concerning “events”. The passenger, who did most of the talking, was excited, and optimistic. Things were moving – behind the scenes; the Brits didn’t have the stomach for the fight and were in reality a lot more prepared to cut a deal than they were letting on. As he was dropped off near where he was staying, he offered a parting comment to his driver: “Do you know, ******, I think we could have a United Ireland by Christmas.” The passenger’s name was Martin McGuinness.
1972 had indeed been designated by the IRA as “the year of victory”; it was certainly the year with the greatest number of deaths – 476 ‑ but there was no victory. Twenty-four years, and 2,700 deaths, later, Sinn Féin signed up to an international agreement recognising that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and would remain so until a majority of the people both of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. This has more of the smell of a defeat than a victory (for the IRA, that is; for others it was a blessed release) but of course it was dressed up as something else as Republicans educated their supporters to celebrate not a triumphant IRA but an “undefeated” one: undefeated in this context meaning, apparently, not extinguished.
David Blake Knox’s book is a combination of the story of one particular victim of the Troubles and an account of the political/military background to the conflict over two and a half decades. I say one particular victim, but actually that’s not strictly true. Ten years after her husband’s burial Ingeborg Niedermayer booked into a Co Wicklow hotel. A few days later she took her own life by walking into the sea. Subsequently their two daughters, Gabrielle and Renate, also committed suicide, as later did Gabrielle’s husband, Robin.
It is likely that not every reader will agree in every aspect with Blake Knox’s historical/political analysis of the Troubles. Republicans will of course disagree vehemently, but there may be things here too that will give pause to those brought up on an official Dublin government/SDLP version of events. I was myself a little surprised to see Brian Faulkner, whom we Northern Catholics always imagined as having a permanent sneer fixed to his lips, treated a little more kindly than the sainted John Hume.
Blake Knox’s treatment of unionist political history might also be unfamiliar reading for many. In his account, Terence O’Neill is convicted not just of being ineffectual but of being upper class. And much the same goes for his successor (and cousin) James Chichester-Clark. Faulkner, on the other hand, while “not connected with the liberal faction within unionism”, is praised for his vigour, his family background in manufacturing and his interest in economic development and employment creation. The modern history of unionism tends to be seen in a slightly different light by Northern Catholics. Blake Knox quotes Henry Patterson to the effect that the Stormont government (that is, unionism) was “immobilised by fear of schism”. But in fact there was plenty of struggle, and indeed schism, from the later 1960s on. What this looked like from the other side was a succession of events in which a leader who was holding out, however timidly or reluctantly, an olive branch to the minority community was denied the support of his party and eventually destabilised or removed by more extreme elements in that party or elsewhere (O’Neill/Chichester-Clark by Faulkner; then Faulkner himself by Craig and West; later Trimble by the DUP, the process now, it would seem at a [perhaps temporary] halt as the [absolutely] No Surrender grouping Traditional Unionist Voice seems wholly incapable of shaking the DUP). This is not to say, as Republicans and their sympathisers maintain, that Northern Ireland was “unreformable”; just that reforming it (including winning acknowledgment in a way acceptable to enough members of the [Northern] majority of what came to be known as the Irish dimension) was going to be a perhaps long work in progress.
Blake Knox is also quite severe on Westminster politicians: on Edward Heath for thinking Europe somehow more important than Ulster, and on his home secretary, Reggie Maudling, who, on entering the plane that would take him back to London after his first visit to Belfast, is reported to have said: “For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!” This is certainly very rude, but one would be surprised if Blake Knox has not occasionally heard similar assessments of his home place during his long residence in Dublin. Indeed two senior Irish civil servants, reminiscing on their service with the Maryfield secretariat in Belfast in the mid-1980s spoke thirty years later (http://www.drb.ie/essays/bunker-days ) of their sense of relief each time they returned at the weekend to civilisation.
A: It was totally different, alien. All kinds of dark psychotic. And people, I don’t know whether people round this table would say it, but every time the aircraft crossed the border on the way back … a release of breath.
B: I actually still feel that way, and I travel North a lot.
(When I came across this anecdote a few years ago I couldn’t at first put my finger on what it reminded me of. Ah yes, the bould Reggie. It is true perhaps what they say: no one understands us.)
We may choose to demur at some of the implications of Blake Knox’s reading of the political history of the Troubles, at some of the shading of events. But it will do us no harm to listen to them and take them into account. It is no harm either to be reminded of things that may have slipped from our collective memory, of the era of “sneaking regarders” for example when a fair measure of sympathy for “the boys” could be found in parties other than Sinn Féin, of a time when extradition represented a huge political problem for Dublin, when Co Louth was a safe haven and Dundalk pubs full of resting – and usually rather boastful ‑ Provos, when a man arrested by gardaí while trying to cross the border with 250 lbs of explosive and several thousand rounds of ammunition in his car was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Dublin. Six months. (That was Martin McGuinness again.)
We are now of course all glad (or most of us) that it is over. To whom should we be grateful? Well certainly to John Hume and David Trimble, and to the negotiators of Dublin and London. During the long and painful unfolding of “the peace process” there were many who doubted if it would ever amount to anything; indeed many saw it as just another Republican stratagem, from the same shelf as the “ballot paper and Armalite” tactic. Conor Cruise O’Brien was the most vociferous in promoting this analysis and the most stubborn in sticking to it after a lot of evidence had piled up in the other direction. But others were sceptical too (it has of course been suggested that Gerry Adams was contemporaneously engaged in telling IRA volunteers precisely the same thing – to be patient, as the “process” was merely a trick). However it was not a trick but a recognition of reality and a reorientation of Republican action from the military to the political sphere. John Hume, it seems, was right and the others (including for a long time myself) wrong.
And should we thank Adams and his allies? Should we be grateful? Blake Knox offers us the following powerful analogy: the Republican movement is like a man who it is known used to beat his wife but has stopped. One doesn’t feel one should thank him, or even compliment him, for this. And yet on the other hand one doesn’t want him to take the hump because he is being disrespected and start doing it again. This I find a largely persuasive if slightly queasy simile. And, given that peace (the absence of killings) is a lot more important than our feelings or our perceived “dignity”, it is, I think, wise for us to accept Sinn Féin as a political player – in Michael Longley’s words, to “kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son”.
David Blake Knox concludes his book with a brief consideration of the question of how we should deal with the past – if it is indeed entirely past. The American writer David Rieff has argued that it is sometimes necessary to forget traumatic or divisive incidents from a country’s history, particularly when these are used to stoke resentment and nationalist or sectarian hatred, over generations, or even centuries. There’s something in this of course, but not too much. What Rieff is talking about is a process that is closer to misremembering, or at best remembering without the necessary rigour, without context, remembering without taking the trouble to venture out of your own community and trying to get inside the thoughts ‑ and fears ‑ of another one.
The current Republican account of the Troubles – its representation as a bitter but sadly necessary struggle where all sides suffered but which was necessary to deliver justice ‑ is one notable attempt to have us misremember, and the greatest single virtue of David Blake Knox’s book is how vigorously and single-mindedly it combats this reading. What was achieved after 3,500 deaths that couldn’t have been achieved without them ‑ and perhaps earlier? The Belfast Agreement has, famously, been described as Sunningdale for slow learners: unionists, including some quite extreme and unyielding unionists, eventually learned that power would have to be shared inside Northern Ireland while republicans learned that violence would never get them what they wanted. But perhaps to a certain degree there was a third slow learner involved, in the shape of constitutional nationalism, which with the Agreement came to accept for the first time that Northern Irish Protestants could neither be bombed, nor cajoled, nor bamboozled, against their will into a united Ireland.
A last word: academics tend very often to regard the Northern Ireland conflict from a cost-benefit perspective, perhaps because this where the emerging historiographical battle seems to lie. There is, however, another way of looking at it. We can attempt to balance perceived political gains against lives lost and lives wasted. One interesting statistic quoted in the book is that more people have died by suicide since the end of the Troubles than died violently during them.
But, independent of any calculations, are we prepared to accept, should we ever be prepared to accept – here I’m again quoting Henry Patterson – “the essential moral vanity of those who arrogate to themselves the right to take life in the name of a people, nation or community”? David Blake Knox’s rigorous and compelling historical study amply demonstrates why we should not.
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.