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From The Green Island

Fergal Lenehan

Die deutsch-irischen Beziehungen während der Weimarer Republik, 1918-1933: Politik – Wirtschaft – Kultur, by Christopher Sterzenbach, LIT, 512 pp, €49.90, ISBN 978-3825814700

The contemporary German impression of the Weimar Republic, the first democratic German republic, which lasted from 1918 to 1933, is probably best captured by the term the Goldenen Zwanziger or the “Golden Twenties”. This conjures up images of cultural experimentation and vibrancy marked, for example, by the Bauhaus movement, Expressionism in art, film and literature and a vivacious cabaret scene, especially in Berlin. The period of the Golden Twenties only, of course, really lasted from 1924 to 1929 and the Weimar era was book- ended by both substantial economic difficulties and massive political instability and unrest. Indeed, from a modern perspective, the era is probably especially “golden” because of its proximity to the impending “darkness” of the National Socialist period, from 1933 to 1945.

Another fledgling state, if not quite a full republic, was also marked during this period by extensive economic difficulties, bitter political instability and outright civil war. I mean, of course, the Irish Free State. A new book by a young German historian, Christopher Sterzenbach, (in English, German-Irish relations during the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933: Politics – Economics ‑ Culture), examines interconnections between Germany and Ireland during this period. While it is, of course, probably a substantial advantage to be a native English speaker in the contemporary world (as English, undoubtedly, can be seen as the “world language”), it can also encourage a certain lethargy with regard to the undoubtedly difficult process of language-learning. A wider consequence of this “Anglocentric provincialism” is that books such as Sterzenbach’s, which could potentially add to our knowledge of the history of Ireland and its relationship to the outside world, are inevitably largely ignored in Ireland, where, indeed, they would otherwise find their most interested audience.

Sterzenbach’s book is largely (but not only) a history of bilateral diplomacy (and attempted diplomacy) and draws on very extensive research from numerous archives in Germany, Ireland and Britain. It paints a very interesting ‑ if at times perhaps unoriginal ‑ picture of German-Irish relations during the period. Indeed, for large tracts of the work Sterzenbach appears to be simply uncritically rewriting earlier German-language accounts of German-Irish relations found in the works by Joachim Fischer, Joachim Lerchenmueller and Hans-Dieter Kluge, which have also, of course, been largely ignored in Ireland.1

Mervyn O’Driscoll’s 2004 publication Ireland, Germany and the Nazis – Politics and Diplomacy: 1919-1939, covers very similar terrain to Sterzenbach. O’Driscoll, however, does not appear to have had the necessary linguistic skill to engage properly with the already existing German-language literature on the subject. The blurb on the cover of his book states that it is “based on extensive research in Irish, British and German archives”. The book, however, focuses to a very large extent ‑ if not quite solely ‑ on archives relating to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. The book’s jacket also states that it is “the first detailed study of Irish-German relations during the tumultuous years between the World Wars”. It is, perhaps, the first book to specifically examine diplomatic (and attempted diplomatic) relations over this wider period, but before 2004 there were already a number of German-language works that, if not dedicated solely to diplomatic history, investigated Irish-German relations between the World Wars.

Both Sterzenbach and O’Driscoll’s publications are based largely around a small number of key personalities at diplomatic level. These include the early Irish envoys (and their assistants) in Berlin from 1921 to 1924. These were John Chartres, Charles Bewley, Cornelius Duane and Nancy Wyse Power (whom Sterzenbach continually calls Nancy Powers); later Irish diplomats Daniel Binchy (1929-1932), chargé d’affaires Leopold McCauley (1932-1933) and again the rather infamous Charles Bewley (1933-1939), who appears to have developed an extensive personal sympathy for national socialism during his spell in Berlin, as well as German representatives in the Free State/Éire, Georg von Dehn-Schmidt (1923-1934) and Eduard Hempel (1934-1945). The narrowness of O’Driscoll’s approach, based largely on detailed reports by Irish envoys and diplomats sent back to the Department of Foreign Affairs, is evident, for example, in his assessment of the time spent in Berlin by academic Daniel Binchy. O’Driscoll argues that Binchy, who in the early 1920s had acquired a doctorate at the University of Munich, “gained access to many of the key political, social and economic actors in the late Weimar Republic during the limited period before his premature retirement from the Irish foreign service in 1932”. Sterzenbach, whose analysis also takes into account sources from the German foreign office, rather than just Binchy’s written reports to Dublin and detailing of his own work, convincingly disproves this statement. The higher echelons of Weimar German society were beyond Binchy’s range of influence as, in the larger scheme of things, the Irish diplomatic mission remained relatively unimportant. Indeed Sterzenbach shows that, while Binchy was not necessarily an ineffective diplomat, he found a lot of his diplomatic tasks tedious and uninteresting and busied himself with public lectures on Ireland, his academic research and helping with the supervision of a small number of German doctoral students writing on Irish topics.

One of the most interesting and original aspects of Sterzenbach’s publication is his discussion of the German media’s depiction of the Anglo-Irish War, (O’Driscoll uses German newspaper sources to an absolute minimum, except when German media discussions of Ireland are mentioned in the Berlin reports to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs). Sterzenbach argues that while mainstream Weimar German public discourse was often carefully Anglophile – in an often repentant, timorous post-Versailles fashion – Irish affairs, knowledge of which was generally gained via British sources, were often used by German journalists, at least in the early 1920s, as a means to attack Britain in both subtle and unsubtle ways.

While general incomprehension seems to dominate the German media’s representation of the Irish Civil War period, Sterzenbach emphasises the varying approaches of different sections of the German media in their depiction of the Anglo-Irish War. Thus liberal organs such as the Vossische Zeitung and the Frankfurter Zeitung, generally backed Irish self-determination in a Home Rule-oriented fashion that explicitly supported the politics of Lloyd George. They later expressed disgust at the activities of the Black and Tans (knowledge of which was gleaned from self-critical debates in the House of Commons). The communist newspaper Rote Fahne portrayed Sinn Féin’s involvement in the Anglo-Irish War as part of a workers’ movement for social rights in which the German bourgeoisie was complicit by its passive support of “English militarism”. The national socialist Völkischer Beobachter praised the “Irish ethnic struggle” against Britain and its “Jewish-dominated financial circles”, also constantly drawing comparisons between Ireland’s supposed subservient position in relation to Britain, and that of post-Versailles Germany. Ireland and the Anglo-Irish War were therefore interpreted in ways that served respective German political orientations.

The approach of the Germania newspaper, linked to the Catholic Zentrum (Centre Party), is also interesting and perhaps surprising. The party traditionally paid close attention to Irish matters and even developed links with Sinn Féin from 1914 onwards. When discussing Ireland, the newspaper’s journalists often made reference to the historical repression of Catholics, as well as drawing attention to Irish links with southern Germany, for example the medieval monasteries in Würzburg and Constance. Their approach to the Irish situation was thus surprisingly moderate, and indeed closer to that of the German liberal press than to the more extreme organs of either right or left. Germania saw the 1919-1921 conflict as a civil war, with the main obstacle to a solution in Ireland being the intransigence of unionism. It called for a dominion solution, even drawing a comparison between Ireland and Iceland (which had recently acquired autonomy but was still nominally ruled by the Danish king).

The relative moderation of the Centre Party’s approach disappointed the Dáil’s representatives, Nancy Power and John Chartres, who viewed it as a natural ally, and who soon came to the conclusion that Irish nationalist sentiment found most resonance among ethnically obsessed right-wing, anti-republican (in the Weimar sense) and national conservative German circles. Sterzenbach suggests, interestingly, that one of the more unofficial Irish representatives in Germany, the Irish-American gunrunner John T Ryan, may have come into direct contact with Hitler in May 1923, according to a letter written by him when he was running guns for the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Hitler was, at this time, apparently known to have pro-Irish sympathies and to be, of course, heavily involved in ex-military, far-right circles that would have had easy access to arms.

One of the most important Irish-German projects of the 1920s was the building of the hydroelectric power station at Ardnacrusha, Co Clare. The German firm Siemens-Schuckert won the contract for its construction and the building of the plant itself was graphically documented by the government-commissioned paintings of Seán Keating. Diarmuid Ferriter, in The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, describes the project as a “far-sighted and innovative move” that was also the Free State government’s “most significant gesture in the direction of industrialisation”. The circumstances surrounding the procuring of the building contract, Irish-German relations at the site and the portrayal of the German workers in the Irish media have already been extensively dealt with.2

Sterzenbach furthers our understanding of the Shannon scheme by focusing on its depiction in the German media and within internal Siemens literature. While the project was of great financial risk to the Siemens-Schuckert firm, the company’s board still decided to take it on as potential monetary losses could, they felt, be offset by the securing of further projects after successful completion of such a large and prestigious contract abroad. This did indeed prove to be the case. The progress of building the plant was followed by several German newspapers, which invariably described it as a great success for German industry and technology, which was helping in the modernisation of a primitive, faraway land.

Indeed, as Sterzenbach suggests, the German media’s depiction of the project was marked by two stereotypes of Ireland, still prevalent today: Ireland as the grüne Insel or “green island” – marked by wild and luscious nature – and Ireland as the traditional Armenhaus Europas or “poor house of Europe” – an economically retarded, intrinsically poor and pre-modern island at the edge of Europe. After the Lisbon No vote of 2008, Ireland was not infrequently depicted in the German media as the rather ungrateful former “poor house of Europe” that had just bitten the hand that had been feeding it, helping to raise it out of the gutter, since 1973. Sterzenbach shows how in the 1920s German media depiction of the Shannon scheme and in internal Siemens literature, these images of the Irish “other” were juxtaposed with the German “self”, which was marked by technical knowledge, industrial ingenuity and cutting edge scientific intelligence.

Sterzenbach begins his publication with two diplomatic statements, from West German president Karl Carstens upon a visit to Ireland in 1980 and Daniel Binchy upon arrival in Berlin as the representative of the Irish Free State in 1929, both of which he deems to be characteristic of the generally held impression of German-Irish relations. Carstens spoke of a long and extensive Irish-German friendship dating back to medieval times and the Hiberno-Scottish Christian mission in the south of Germany, represented by such figures as St Killian and what in German are usually called the Schottenklöster (Scottish monasteries). Binchy, in an interview with a German newspaper, spoke also of Ireland’s history of friendly relations with Germany and of a long tradition of cultural interconnections. Sterzenbach is of the opinion that such sentiments derive from certain commentators who have painted the Irish-German relationship as uncomplicated and without conflict. Rather, he argues, the already mentioned religious and cultural aspects seen as the foundation for relations show no continuity and are simply an artificial construct arising from Anglophobic German propaganda during the First World War, when Irish-German links were overemphasised in an attempt to stop the flow of Irish men entering the British army and to influence Irish-American opinion regarding the war.

While Sterzenbach is right in stating that Irish-German relations have always been complex and multifaceted, this argument is not new (see again Fischer, 2000). It is also misguided to concentrate on what is, essentially, diplomatic rhetoric that focuses on positively interpreted historical connections in order to establish a foundation for a constructive contemporary and future trans-state relationship. Indeed, in the Irish context one could probably quite easily conjure up a historically based “friendship” with several major European nations based on intermittent religious and cultural contact, such as with Spain (“Milesians”, Irish colleges, early seventeenth century Irish-Spanish alliance), France (Hiberno-Scottish missionaries, Huguenots in Ireland, Wild Geese) or Italy (St Columbanus, Irish colleges again, Marconi). Such links are not particularly unusual, nor is it unusual for diplomats to seek to accentuate the historically positive while also strategically neglecting darker chapters when necessary (their role is diplomatic, after all). An historical narrative does not have to have an obvious pattern of continuity to achieve validity; any narrative of the past is to a certain degree a construct. The past is, of course, a tremendously complex, culturally entangled affair that is usually lacking in any obvious pattern until one is suggested or imposed upon it by human beings. It is there to be “utilised” by various people and for various reasons, often not benign. Any narrative of the past, therefore, whether a historical monograph, a myth of origin or diplomatic rhetoric is necessarily and obviously an interpretation, heavily influenced by the present: past events that are helpful in relation to present purposes are concentrated on, while many others are excluded.

There is evidence to suggest that German interest in the Hiberno-Scottish missionaries and in the general idea of a German-Irish “friendship” cannot simply be seen as a construct of the First World War but has a greater longevity. It is found, for example, among nineteenth century “Ireland experts”, more often than not historians, who though usually viewing the island as an integral part of Britain, provide it with credit for the establishment of “Central European civilisation” through the actions of its medieval monks.3.We can even discern differences of interpretation between nineteenth century Catholic and Protestant historians: the former emphasised the missionaries’ compliance with central Catholic teachings, while the latter highlighted their distance from Rome, thus depicting them as precursors to the Reformation. The story of the monasteries was also popularised in Victor von Scheffels’s 1855 novel Ekkehard, and in Johann Heinrich Ebrard’s Bilihild (1875). In the 1840s Thomas Davis and the Young Ireland movement felt a certain affinity with the revolutionary nationalist Young German movement which sought the unification of the splintered German states. Davis was also influenced by the language-oriented romantic-national philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder and translations of German nationalist poems appeared in the Young Ireland Nation newspaper. Could this not also be conceived as the starting point, at least from an Irish (nationalist) perspective, of an obviously sporadic narrative or idea of a German-Irish friendship, albeit based on common, if probably rather ambivalent, pre-state nationalist sentiment?

Sterzenbach’s book retains the subtitle “Politics – Economics ‑ Culture” but his approach to cultural linkages is minimal and disproportionate, dealing solely with Germans who engaged with Irish culture. His main interest is in a small number of – undoubtedly very influential – German Celtic Studies academics and here he often merely paraphrases other writers who have undertaken research on the topic. German Gaelic scholars of the first half of the twentieth century were famously parodied in Flann O’Brien’s An Béal Bocht, which tells of an academic who receives a doctorate in Berlin for his recordings of what he believes to be a rare dialect, but which is in fact the noise of a squealing pig.

Kuno Meyer is probably the best known and most influential German Gaelic scholar from this period. The philologist Meyer became the first director of the School of Irish Learning in Dublin in the early twentieth century; he was the founding editor of the influential Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie (Journal of Celtic Philology) and was made a freeman of both Cork and Dublin before 1914. While Meyer was undoubtedly “liberationist” in the Irish context, he and many German Gaelic scholars, retained links to militarily and politically national-conservative circles that were often stridently Anglophobic (and pro-Irish), as well as being simultaneously annexationist in relation to Germany’s “eastern front”4. Julius Pokorny, who took the Chair of Celtic Studies in Berlin after Kuno Meyer in 1920, wrote a number of blatantly Anglophobic, pro-Irish propaganda articles for German publications during the First World War, such as for the propagandist Irische Blätter (Irish Pages, 1917-1918) magazine.5

German scholars greatly influenced the study of Gaelic culture in Ireland, with many of the early twentieth century generation of Irish academics studying under German professors in, especially, Berlin and Bonn. The interest of German academics in Ireland and in Gaelic culture was also valued by early Irish governments, who are likely to have seen it as providing an international academic validation of the importance of ancient Gaelic civilisation, a point well made by both Sterzenbach and O’Driscoll. This can be seen from the work of Rudolf Thurneysen, the Basel-born Professor of Comparative Philology in Bonn (who did not engage in anti-English propaganda during the war or maintain connections with the nationalist right). The publication of Thurneysen’s Irische Helden-und Königssagen bis zum 17. Jahrhundert (Irish Heroic and Royal Sagas until the Seventeenth Century) was financed in 1921 by the Language Department of the first Dáil, at a time in the early Weimar Republic when paper was scarce and expensive. Thurneysen’s publisher, Max Niemeyer, received £200, the equivalent of 50,000 Reich Marks at the time (and this was at a time when the Dáil was also funding the Anglo-Irish War). The Free State government was also involved in the financing of Julius Pokorny’s Die älteste Lyrik der grünen Insel (The Oldest Poetry of the Green Island) in 1923.

Pokorny’s research was not just linguistic but engaged with ancient Irish history and ethnology. He frequently came up with outlandish theories of race ‑ not unusual at the time ‑ even postulating a connection between the “Arctic peoples” and the Irish. Sterzenbach emphasises that Pokorny’s racial theories and interpretations clearly and obviously reflect an anti-Semitic and German-national viewpoint. All the more ironic then that he was later suspended from his academic position by the Nazis in 1935 when it was discovered that his maternal grandfather was “non-Aryan”. De Valera instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs that Charles Bewley, the Irish diplomat in Berlin, should make “unofficial representations” on Pokorny’s behalf, while “an official demarche would be out of place”. A representation did not help him and he remained suspended from his position, harbouring suspicions that Bewley, who was quite a thorough anti-Semite and an enthusiast for national socialism, had not been the most helpful of advocates.

Sterzenbach’s approach to German-Irish cultural interconnections in the Weimar period remains rather narrow and focuses only on a handful of, admittedly very influential, German Celtic Studies academics. Joachim Fischer’s Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890-1939 (The Irish Image of Germany) examines the same period and offers a more nuanced, cultural studies-oriented approach that deals very thoroughly with the Irish side of Irish-German interconnections. It is also very much more than just a study of the Irish image of Germany. While it does deal extensively with that image in both English and Irish language media, it also examines common German-Irish events, such as the first east to west transatlantic flight in the 1920s by James Fitzmaurice, Hermann Köhl and Baron Günther von Hünefeld, German influence on Irish classical music, the teaching of German in Irish secondary schools and universities, German literature translated into Irish and English, German films shown in Irish cinemas, German plays produced in Irish theatres;, the influence of German thinking (largely authoritarian) upon Irish writers and the depiction of Germany by diverse authors including Canon Sheehan, Katherine Tynan, Liam de Róiste and the later Irish Times editor Robert Smyllie.

Sterzenbach’s monograph undoubtedly has some faults – at 450 pages it is overlong and could have done with better editing. The author, moreover, for large tracts merely paraphrases other works uncritically. However, it still has much to offer and provides some new insights into the German-Irish relationship during the Weimar period. It is to be presumed, nevertheless, that it will be largely ignored in Ireland due to the language in which it is written, which is indeed a shame.

  1. Joachim Fischer,Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890-1939, (The Irish Image of Germany 1890-1939), Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 2000, Joachim Lerchenmueller, Keltischer Sprengstoff – Eine wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Studie über die deutsche Keltologie von 1900 bis 1945 (Celtic Explosives – A History of the Discipline of German Celtic Studies from 1900 to 1945), Tübingen: Max Niemayer Verlag, 1997 and Hans-Dieter Kluge, Irland in der deutschen Geschichtswissenschaft, Politik und Propaganda vor 1914 und im Ersten Weltkrieg (Ireland in German Historical Writing, Politics and Propaganda before 1914 and during the First World War), Frankfurt am Main, Bern, New York: Peter Lang, 1985.
  2. Joachim Fischer,Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890-1939, p 238-263.
  3. This paragraph is based on: Joachim Fischer, “ “Märchen aus Irlands Gauen” – Irisches und dessen Vermittlung im Kaiserreich” (Communicating Irishness in the Kaiser Reich), in: Florian Krobb and Sabine Strümper-Krobb (ed.),Literaturvermittlung um 1900, Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2001, p 23-44, Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890-1939, p 24-25 and Hans-Dieter Kluge, Irland in der deutschen Geschichtswissenschaft, Politik und Propaganda vor 1914 und im Ersten Weltkrieg.
  4. This is convincingly argued by Joachim Lerchenmueller inKeltischer Sprengstoff – Eine wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Studie über die deutsche Keltologie von 1900 bis 1945. Pól Ó Dochartaigh, on the other hand, argues that German Gaelic scholars who engaged in German propaganda in relation to Ireland were not motivated by Anglophobic or German national conservative inclinations but rather wanted to “reverse some of the predominant English stereotypes of the Irish in the 19th and early 20th century” by describing how a “beautiful Irish civilization had been destroyed by centuries of English occupation”. See: Julius Pokorny, 1887-1970 – Germans, Celts and Nationalism, Dublin, Portland: Four Courts Press, 2004, p 43.
  5. See Kluge, p 195-196 and Martin Rockel, “Zur Geschichte der Berliner Keltologie bis 1945” (The History of Berlin Celtic Studies until 1945), in:Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Heft 2, 1984, p 197-201.

Fergal Lenehan is originally from Ballinasloe; he received a PhD from the University of Leipzig in 2009 and recently co-edited the cultural studies volume Language and the Moulding of Space.



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